“All modern tourists…are heirs to an animistic myth.” —Fabio Barry
Giants and monsters and grotesques, oh my! It’s a minor miracle that people don’t run screaming in fright from Renaissance gardens. Why, you might ask, are they so packed with statues that inspire dread: monsters giants, mythical creatures—hybrid and imaginary—and grotesques of every kind? The Monster in the Garden: The Grotesque and the Gigantic in Renaissance Landscape Design, by Luke Morgan (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2016) seeks to answer this question and more in an erudite synthesis of history, theory and cultural sociology.
Make no mistake. This is a serious, thoughtful and thought provoking book. It is academic (as befits its publisher), and not the typical fare for lovers of garden books. [Fair warning: those who are put off by sentences like…“The Sacro Bosco that emerges from this chapter is certainly unusual, but it is not, as has sometimes been argued, a bizarre oddity or aporeitic outlier constructed in a personal idiolect analogous perhaps to that of the Hyponerotomachia in literature,” may have a difficult time negotiating Morgan’s path to enlightenment] And yet, for those who think about why they do what they do in their gardens, and perhaps even more for those who do not; for people fascinated by the history of gardens and for all who seek meaning and substance, it is a journey worth taking.
The Renaissance, considered the link between the Middle Ages and modern times, is usually thought of as the re-ascendancy of humanism and a “man is the measure of all things” mentality. Conversely it is sometimes considered a pessimistic age full of nostalgia for classical antiquity. Both views are useful in the search for an explanation of the monstrous and grotesque.
Morgan runs down many avenues in his search for monster meaning. How gardens are received and experienced by visitors is a central theme. Whether the concept of the monster is as a natural wonder or marvel, a dread omen, or both, is an important element of the analysis.
He creates a new theory of Renaissance landscape design—that these ubiquitous monsters are not merely incidental adornment of 16th century gardens, but essential features. Giants and grotesques, he posits, are ciphers for the contemporary anxieties of the Renaissance. Morgan is fond of dichotomies. Borrowing one from Leonardo da Vinci, he examines the connection between fear and desire. The presence of these creatures in gardens inspires dread by suggesting the threatening aspect of the unknown, while at the same time creating a desire to know whether wondrous things might be found inside. Morgan argues that as early modern gardens are microcosmic representations of the world outside its walls, the ‘dark’ side of life must necessarily intrude into the idyllic.
Another duality is the interplay of nature’s kindness and cruelty. The presence of horror in a place of pleasure could be seen as a contemporaneous expression of these two sides of the natural world—and a coming to grips with its impact on the people of the day.
Morgan addresses the taming of nature in the Renaissance garden and points out that, “…the mind and will of the designer or ‘garden builder’ has a transformative effect on the elemental latency and formlessness of nature.” That nature would submit to and be improved by art is not a new idea, but that the unknown could be made knowable, dread of it tempered by making it seen, may be a new twist. Perhaps the monsters are there to remove fear. If the monsters aren’t present…they are hidden. If they are hidden, fear is heightened.
Another view Morgan visits is a twist on the definition of “sublime.” Monsters create experiences of wonder and amazement—mystical episodes of rapture—including horror and fear. Not unlike carnival rides and horror movies, this resulted in ”ecstatic helplessness in the face of the unfathomable.” In the Renaissance garden it means the creation of pleasurable fear or dread in the face of great beauty.
There are hints of yet another duality, a ‘theory of opposites.’ This is the idea that grotesque images make the beauty of the garden more complete, that horror enhances the experience of joy and happiness. Monsters and giants might be necessary to the “idyll” of the garden since “the monstrous is only monstrous in relation to a consensual but artificial norm.” Not only do the figures suggest untamed, unknowable nature and render it somewhat comprehensible, they heighten the experience of the rest of the garden. The “dramatic duality between pleasure and dread” is equally well served by this theory.
It’s not a new thought. Jacopo Bonfadio, often credited with the concept of a “third nature,” suggested in 1541 that the interaction of art and nature could produce more extraordinary effects than either on its own. By extension Morgan’s various dichotomies and dualities would have enhanced the experience of the garden by its visitors.He suggests that the grotesque and monstrous are, “…the necessary shadow of the classical, in the absence of which neither has any definition.” Gardens, he points out, are better equipped to express this duality than any other early modern artistic medium.
There is little or no contemporary history of garden reception (by visitors) or written context for the inclusion of monstrous/grotesque elements in Renaissance gardens. As a result, contemporary attitudes need to be reconstructed to assess meaning. That means peering into other cultural artifacts of the era and extrapolating meaning to the garden and its interpretation.
By necessity, therefore, the book is inconclusive about why the grotesque and gigantic, the monsters, colossi, hybrids and ruins show up in nearly all Renaissance gardens. Morgan admits to other possibilities of meaning and significance in the garden. Theories and interpretations abound. Not surprisingly, after all his analysis Morgan concludes that gardens should be seen as, “…accommodating, indeed promoting, inconsistency without resolution.” Reception, and by extension meaning, should be thought of as “…a subjective, idiosyncratic, tendentious, partial, magpie-like, fallible and biased.”
Many a modern garden contains classical statuary in imitation of the gardens of the Renaissance. Not unlike the mystery of early modern gardens what is missing, is why. In what context are they included? Is it enough that it was seen in an important garden somewhere else? Is there something innate, buried deep in the subconscious, that compels us to include symbols of fear and dread in our most private, enchanted spaces? Perhaps it is Barry’s “animistic myth” coming to the fore. Likely, as with the Renaissance garden experience, there is no definitive answer.
It is curious that no detour was taken to discuss why these elements continue to be included in gardens today, or whether our fascination with monstrous plants, topiary and even garden gnomes, is related. Furthermore, what their modern day context might be. Perhaps a “frisson of pleasurable dread,” even if unconsciously realized, is just as important today as it was 500 years ago.