There are countless examples, also in the past, of the intimate relationship that has always bound the natural world to the female element. Paola Maresca, landscape architect and writer has for years been studying and publishing articles on this very topic, this union so often exemplified with rich symbolism.
Ever since ancient times the knowledge of plants and their properties has been attributed to women. Why’s that?
There is a sort of bond that has linked women to plants, nature and the garden right from ancient times. Women are closer, because more similar, to nature: to the moon’s cycle, to the birth and to the death of vegetation. It was therefore easy from the very beginning to regard women as also having an “intimate” knowledge of the hidden secrets of herbs, of their healing and “magical” value. While in the past women were respected for this knowledge and the associated mysteries, with the advent of Christianity and the Middle Ages, respect became fear and envy. Women were considered “witches” and possessors of an occult power. Only during the Renaissance period would some female figures emerge, mostly belonging to the upper class, who were gardening enthusiasts and themselves “creators” of parks and gardens, where they adeptly directed the work to transform them into magnificent ‘backcloths’ for parties or elegant love nests.
When was the garden conceived as rational design?
In the 1700s, especially in France, the garden gave women a new awareness: it became her salon, her separate niche removed from the canonical rules, where she was free to be herself and to receive important socialites and to converse. Obviously this was a high society lady, whose position was recognised. In this period the world was looked at in a different way, there was a return to “primordial” nature: just think of the fashion for English gardens. As the first stirrings of women’s emancipation developed – between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century – the figure of the female gardener writer came into being, who associated the ability to create parks and gardens with that of undertaking specialised literary works or of involving public opinion from newspaper pages. It was also in the twentieth century that the female creative genius produced true works of art.
What examples of gardens are there in history and mythology?
History gives us several famous examples of gardens created by women: just look at mythology and the well-known example of the hanging gardens of Babylon, which were attributed to the Assyrian Queen Semiramis. Considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, legend has it that the queen found fresh roses in the gardens every day despite the dry climate typical of the city.
After the darkest period of the Middle Ages, the so-called “Love Gardens” gained special and also symbolic interest: a nod to the literary current of “Courtly Love”. The garden became the privileged space consecrated to love and women regained full dignity and were paid compliments by the “troubadours” with rigid rules and associated symbolism. Famous in the nineteenth century was the garden of Château de Malmaison, Île-de-France, conceived by Joséphine Beauharnais who, being a botany enthusiast, had a heated greenhouse built in which she cultivated plant species coming from all over the world. Joséphine received important statesmen and intellectuals of that time in this garden. Another park worthy of note, this time Italian, was created by Elisa Bonaparte Baciocchi at her residence in Marlia: a true plant nursery into which she also introduced species freshly arrived from far-off countries. Yet another is the Petit Trianon, i.e. the copy of a bucolic village, which Queen Marie Antoinette had created in an area of the park at the Court of Versailles. The Queen gathered together the best and most refined artists of the time there.
Which “unique” gardens would you recommend at present for an unforgettable visit?
There are many fine gardens and parks to be found in Europe in particular. A good example in Italy is the “Tarot Garden” at Capalbio in Tuscany: it is an artistic park created by the Franco-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle, full of statues inspired by the figures of the tarot Major Arcana or trump cards. Also the Garden of Ninfa in Latium and the gardens of Villa Gamberaia in Florence. In France there is the garden of Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild: here you can explore no less than 9 gardens (French, Spanish, Florentine, Japanese and others) created in the same site. In Île-de-France there is a famous flower-filled garden created by Coco Chanel, which is reputed to have been the source of inspiration for the famous perfumes and the distinctive bottles.
“Giardini, donne e architetture” (Gardens, women and architecture), Paola Maresca, Angelo Pontecorboli Editore, 2005.
1 The garden designer Gertrude Jekyll.
2 Versailles, the village of Marie Antoinette.
3 Cap Ferrat park of Baroness Rothschild.
4 Settignano, Florence, Villa Gamberaia.
5 Coco Chanel’s villa ‘Bel respiro’ at Garches (Île de France).
6 Capalbio, Tarot Garden, The Magician.
7 Park of Malmaison, ladies-in-waiting of Joséphine Bonaparte on the lake.
8 Love Garden.
9 Ladies in garden (XVIII cent.).