A very interesting form of garden known as hortus conclusus, is actually a walled Garden. These pleasure gardens, found in castles and fortresses were surrounded by walls and separated from the noisy, chaotic, smelly life of the castle outside their walls, and were used as places of pleasure and often of courtship. Courtly love probably flourished in them; we find references to them in the songs of the troubadors. In these songs the delights of the garden are symbols of man’s capacity to impose order on nature; an appreciation of the bounty of nature and living things; and a lightly veiled reference to sexual conquest. Boccaccio also mentions them, perhaps making fun of the idea of the garden as paradise.
The ladies of the castle could spend time surrounded by the walls in the shade of trees, among perfumed flowers and pleasing quiet except for the sound of running water. From the monastery gardens it was just a short step to linking the idea to the Biblical Song of Songs:” hortus conclusus soror mea, sponsa, hortus conclusus, fons signatus” ( giardino chiuso tu sei,sorella mia,sposa,giardino chiuso,fontana sigillata/A garden enclosed is my sister, my bride,and a sealed fountain) and thus, the garden of paradise ,Eden, has turned into a representation of Mary’s virginity. Shut out of paradise by the actions of one woman,Eve, we are allowed to get back into it through those of another woman,Mary. Like the garden her womb, her virginity, is closed, impenetrable and unviolate and has given rise to many important works of art.
What IS a garden for goodness’ sake? What exactly are we talking about? Front gardens, back gardens, rock, gravel or sensory gardens? Or perhaps kitchen gardens, show, high- or low- maintenance? Pleasure gardens, zen, wild, botanic, formal, cottage ,white, bee, natural, English, rose, historic? Gardens of Remembrance, of Eden, the garden of good and evil, flower, herb, vegetable, water, landscaped, town, public, zoological, walled ones? you probably now perceive my difficulty!
Gardens have been with us forever if we are to believe the story. That’s where we all came from; we lived in this glorious garden of Eden which man has been trying to recreate since the Fall and though it’s a pity we were obliged to leave our paradise on earth I must say I have to agree with Eve. “heaven is what I cannot reach, the apple on the tree ,provided it does hopeless hang, that heaven is to me”. And in the Islamic culture paradise gardens were made to include the sound and freshness of water and the beauty and perfume of flowers and trees; delicious fruit was always readily available for people in the garden to pick and enjoy. The spread of Islam meant that Sicily was renowned for its paradise gardens. But Italy had too another claim to horticultural fame,that of having the oldest botanic gardens.
Botanic gardens are the descendants of monasteries.These were kept for god’s greater glory but also to collect medicinal herbs and essences. At the Charterhouse of Pavia there is a formally laid out garden surround by a cloister, presumably where the monks paced to meditate, but you can also see the private garden each monk’s cell had. These monastic gardens eventually became physic gardens and the first one was created by Luca Ghini physician and botanist at the University of Pisa in 1543. Many other Italian universities followed, the garden being used for the academic study of medicinal plants while the rest of Europe followed on. The English lagged behind, the first one at the university of Oxford did not appear until 1621.
Time marches on however and with the great ages of exploration the interest moved from medicinal plants, simply showing off who had been further, explored more and got the most strange and new plants for their collections. With the Enlightenment there was a new change: gardens became more scientific. In 1735 Linnaeus published his organizational work on botany. They were becoming more “educational ” in scope, the beds often being set out to show plant classification systems. The last time I was at Cambridge University Botanic gardens there was concern about the new planting. Keep the beds in a historically valid way as they had originally been planted to illustrate plant families? Or re-arrange them according to new classification systems coming into force because of more advanced technology in classifying them? As an example, I’m sure you’ve all come across this when you go to your garden centre and the plant you have happily been calling by the same name that your mum and grandmother did, has suddenly changed its name. I remember the first time I saw my beloved Datura RENAMED Brugmansia!
So whenever you’re near to a Botanic garden, do go and visit. It should be easy because there are at least three thousand worldwide! (To be continued)
I feel like a foreigner again! Many years ago when I first came to Italy, some of my friends had moved to Piedmont and told me there was work for teachers ,so of course Piedmont is my first love, it looked so Italian out of the train windows, those Leonardesque landscapes, or so it seemed to me in my ignorance, and the Italians! It was the best time and place in the world to be a (fairly) pretty young Englishwoman! I think my first train ride was on a train taking all these noisy, tipsy men to some kind of meet-up. All had feathers in their hats and they were very free with their panini and salame, and above all their wine! I realised years later when I could stutter a little more of your language, that they were Alpini, enough said. I was also visited regularly by a very elegant young carabiniere to check I was a bona fide immigrant. Just like they do now. I didn’t like that very much because he had a pistol and being English I was only used to our Bobbies who for years went unarmed.
So to get back to my point. Why do I feel foreign after all these years? Well today was my first outing since the corona virus trouble started! I went to my usual supermarket shepherded by an apprehensive daughter and do you know, I didn’t know how to behave. I don’t have a tv and so I hadn’t heard the oft -repeated messages about distancing, touching etc. Of course my loyalty card is on my phone in ‘Stocard’, as is my shopping list in ‘Bring!’ and I open the phone by thumbprint! Then there was the problem of getting my credit card out of my purse with gloves on! I was very much a stranger in a new land once again!