Text Jacopo Bedussi
According to Wikipedia, a locus amoenus is ‘usually a beautiful, shady lawn or open woodland, or a group of idyllic islands, sometimes with connotations of Eden or Elysium.” Somewhere we could call luxuriously zen, in the words of a pretentious hypothetical advertising-tourist leaflet. The other side of the coin is the much less appealing locus horridus, an “underground or elevated place, or somewhere inhabited by monsters. While recalling the description of hell, it is a place of various sensorial experiences’.
An initial approach to gardens might be the artificial equilibrium of these two extremes. A series of very human levels, probably representing different personalities. There is the need to create a space where nature is present and powerful yet tamed, rendered harmless for domestic life and there is also, just as with an art collection or a garment, the garden used for ‘conspicuous consumption’, as a public display of status, certainly economic, but mainly cultural. There are ecology and attention to the perpetuation of the local species. There is fashion. There is the dream of a happy island permeated with wellbeing.
Starting with an extreme benchmark, it is easy to understand how much gardens can reveal of the human being, recalling the story of Versailles and how much each king expressed of himself. Botanical-royal story telling. Begun by Louis XIII with a lesser project, it was Louis XIV, his successor and the Sun King, (whose enormous equestrian statue with its almost cartoon-like volumes today welcomes visitors in the open space before the palace) who, together with the architect Louis Le Vau, aimed high and initiated the grandeur and the gardens as we know them today. Bourbon hedonism. Louis XV, meanwhile, more contemplative and passionate about botany, spent his reign creating greenhouses and cultivating the plant species in this huge royal play park. Finally came Louis XVI, who in a period of decadence and discontent, put bold management strategies in place that were almost political. First his attempt to turn the garden from French to English in style, which failed due to its soil characteristics. Then the bright idea, in his eyes illuminist inspiration, of rationalizing and managing the spaces with the creation of kilometers and kilometers of fencing to mark the edges of the thickets. He came to a sticky end, as we all know. In Sofia Coppola’s film however, which tells the story of his wife Marie Antoinette, played by Kirsten Dunst, with a style that could be called generational from certain years in a pre-recession 3rd millennium, there are an attention and pleasing obsession for her relationship with the gardens as the perfect set for both Apollonian and Dionysian forces. The gardens are where she finds herself and the pureness of her childhood again, playing with children and little animals out of illustrations in a first reader. The gardens are also where she loses all sense of herself and her common sense in heroic eighteenth-century after parties that were all occasional sex, champagne and macarons.
The same period of splendor and accumulation of public debt by the Sun King is the era chosen for another film set at Versailles. By Peter Greenaway, it tells of the dark sides and overpowering encounters between the women of a rich English country family and an artist as overbearing as he was impoverished, contracted to immortalize the land owned by the illustrious bloodline: The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982). In this immense, paradisiacal garden—which recalls yet another cult film garden, in Last year in Marienbad by Alain Resnais, the metaphysical setting for a film about memory and the infinite possibilities of its plots—the characters move and create lysergic picture postcard compositions, staged and perfect. What is actually unfolding is a drama made up of murder, trickery, contracted sex and red herrings. A garden that provides the idyllic backdrop for a ménage that is sardonic, almost obscene even.
It is no botanical hundred-year war, this battle of the gardens. On the contrary, even the illuminated Italian middle bourgeoisie (in this case however born noble perhaps because they are the link between elegances) is or perhaps has been a fundamental part of this anthology.
Marella Agnelli more than others. Wife of the famous lawyer and jewel of last century’s high society. A collector, designer, and very high class socialite. No doubt about it, she was an icon, with her long swan neck, clothes by Valentino and rendezvous with Capote.
Gardens are, on a par with contemporary art, her great passion and she even dedicated a book to them, complete with photos Ho coltivato il mio giardino, (I cultivated my garden), written with her niece Marella Caracciolo Chia. It includes photos and half a century of Italian history, seen however in a minimal lateral guise through the homes of a character who was never truly accessible: Villa Frescot, Villa Bona—a sort of architecture of post-Carlo Scarpa Japanese inspiration, or perhaps simply Lost in Translation—, Villar Perosa, where Gae Aulenti designed an orange swimming pool because it was apparently the best color for reflecting the greys and greens of the surrounding mountains, and finally, Marrakech.
This former Moroccan hippie enclave was not a bizarre folly. Suffice to think of the story of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé and the Jardin Majorelle, which the couple fell in love with on their first visit in the late sixties and which they finally managed to buy in 1980. It was also the symbol of a cosmopolitan, dandy newbrow that in the twentieth century chose Marrakech as a venue for jaunts and disintermediation over all those forces still hardly tolerated in a Europe that was not quite illuminated enough. The Saint Laurent-Bergé generation was perhaps the last to be represented by this creative impulse. The Majorelle Garden is still today one of the city’s essential sights, considered a must-see by all the guides and leaflets you find in airports or riads, with its cacti and banana trees, aloe plants, streams and pools and the villa in an unnatural, hypnotic blue that today is also a much-coveted background for selfies by more than sixty thousand visitors every year. Less advertised, but meaningful of what this visionary location meant to Saint Laurent was the choice to have his ashes scattered in the rose garden. When you walk through it, this space that is not exactly immense, much smaller in fact than people make it sound, but not because of this less powerful, you feel a pleasurable sensation that might be due to the successful merging of two dimensions: domestic and divine.
Another example of a mixture of opposites (or almost) is very human and may be compared to a ride on a roller coaster or overdoing the chilli pepper. It is that pleasure we feel when we trick our brain into experiencing apparently dangerous sensations that we know are absolutely safe. It is an excitement that derives from the short circuit between terror and comfort zone. Many of the games we play as children are based on this duality. In 2015, Franco Maria Ricci, editor and designer, as well as being a top exponent of the eighteenth century Italian intelligentsia, inaugurated the biggest maze ever in Fontanellato in the province of Parma. An experiential space that works in the realm of exciting contradictions mentioned above. The project was also highly literary and cultured, the outcome of a long friendship with the writer Jorge Luis Borges. FMR was also the editor of this Argentine master of a very personal magical realism and architect of fractal narrations as complex as they were fascinating that fed upon each other and opened up his readers’ minds, taking them into a state of interpretation and analysis on the limit of lysergic. Borges’ literary mazes were here made tangible thanks to some 200,000 bamboo plants positioned to entertain visitors as they inevitably get lost. There is a lovely book by Emanuele Coccia called The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture. It isn’t about gardens; on the contrary, in just a few pages and with enviable force, it attempts to explain how much the plant world has shaped not only life on earth, but also our lives, our possibility of conceiving and perceiving the world. At a certain point, in a chapter on flowers, it says: ‘The flower is the paradigmatic form of rationality: thinking means always being committed to the sphere of appearances, not to express a hidden inner reality or to speak or say something, but to allow different beings to communicate. For no other reason that this plurality of cosmic structures of attraction that allow beings to perceive and absorb the world and the world to be entirely inside all the organisms that populate it’.
Perhaps then every garden is a diorama attempting to express a personal vision of the infinite, wonderful complexities that go to make up the world of men.