Petrarch’s Two Gardens

Landscape and the
Image of Movement

by William Tronzo

Renaissance Quarterly


Landscape History

Renaissance Quarterly 67.4 (Winter 2014): 1308–1310

William Tronzo’s recent book, which comprises four interwoven essays rather than book chapters per se, is a volume that lends itself to being read in one sitting, given the small format, manageable length, and, most important, the associative nature of Tronzo’s argument. In perusing Petrarch’s Two Gardens, the reader must relax the need for a single sustained thread of argument and instead patiently follow each of Tronzo’s many threads, which he weaves together at the conclusion of each essay and in the epilogue. The result is absorbing and transformative, particularly for the reader steeped in more conventional art historical approaches to the subject matter, functioning in a way analogous to the very texts and images that Tronzo addresses.

Tronzo focuses on four garden settings of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, traces of which remain today in Italy and France, in particular at Palermo, the Vaucluse, Hesdin, and Rome. Trained as an art historian, Tronzo in his prologue positions himself firmly within the field of landscape studies. He notes the rich contribution of multidisciplinary work, ranging from cultural geography to performance studies, from which the field has benefited in recent decades. Particularly indebted to scholarship that has engaged questions of ritual, movement, performance, and the performative (see, for example, the Dumbarton Oaks’ landscape symposia published between 2003 and 2007), Tronzo rests his distinctive argument on the notion that a garden’s meaning is manifested in bodily movement, movement that is experiential but also deeply imaginative and creative in its action. Tronzo credits Aby Warbug with inspiring his interest in the intersections among words, images, and movement. In Petrarch’s Two Gardens Tronzo employs an array of images and texts to explicate narratives in historical landscapes now largely lost, landscapes that were the “staging ground” for dynamic, transformative events that explored new social and cultural forms. These events, some of which encompassed the community at large while others remained private and singular, generated a range of meanings from the poetic to the religious, the economic and the political.

Tronzo’s formative text for this volume is Petrarch’s famous 1352 letter, written to his friend Francesco Nelli, with its captivating description of his home in the Vaucluse. There Petrarch engaged in what Tronzo refers to as “restless movement” between his two gardens, one cultivated and the other wild. In contrast to the notion of the garden as a work of art posited by art historians such as David Coffin and Elisabeth MacDougall, Tronzo unveils the garden to be a site of dynamic exchange, of culture in process, of purposeful acts of creation. Up until the time of Petrarch the single most important garden of the Middle Ages was the Garden of Eden. Described in Genesis and imagined as a site of perfection, Eden was the foundational model for the monastic cloister — ideal, static, and unchanging. With Petrarch we find the garden animated by his daily bodily movements, which were themselves productive, generative acts. For Petrarch his production, or his work, was secular learning. Poetry, drawing, and learning acquired shape through motion in the landscape and gave shape to the landscape itself.

Tronzo uses Petrarch as a lens through which to view landscapes in four distinctly different historical and geographical contexts. In so doing he produces novel interpretations of sites, some of which are well known and others obscure even to specialized readers. In the case of the Belvedere Statue Court in Rome, for example, Tronzo questions a widely accepted interpretation of the antiquities collection as supporting an iconographic program that is political. He rightly notes that educated viewers in the sixteenth century exhibited a “high tolerance for shifting identities” among the statues of the Belvedere, destabilizing the notion of a single, unified political conceit. Tronzo offers an entirely different approach inspired by a poetic reverie on the Laocoon written by the humanist Jacopo Sadoleto (1477–1547). Tronzo argues that this poem is more akin to an act of devotion than a piece of writing on art.

In each of Tronzo’s four case studies the principle of movement remains central, even though the particularities of the creative act and generation of meaning differs — whether, for example, economic and political in the case of Hesdin or affective and devotional in the case of the Belvedere Statue Court. Throughout the volume runs the common theme of landscape as performative. In simplest terms the garden is the subject rather than the object, an active agent in the construction of meaning rather than a mere repository of myths and memories. With Petrarch’s Two Gardens Tronzo joins a generation of innovative scholars who consider landscape to be a force in the production of culture. Landscape is not just the setting for experience but, as for Petrarch, landscape plays a dynamic role in shaping that experience.

Tracy L. Ehrlich
Cooper-Hewitt Museum and The New School

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Speculum 90.1 (January 2015): 304-5

Petrarch’s Two Gardens is a collection of four essays about medieval-Renaissance gardens described in early modern texts and still present in vestigial forms today in Italy and France. Drawing from the fields of art history, architecture, literary studies, and landscape studies, Tronzo analyzes four gardens—the Zisa and Cuba palaces and grounds in Palermo, Petrarch’s gardens in Vaucluse, the park at Hesdin, and the Cortile delle Statue in Rome— as what he terms “critical spaces of change” (2). He approaches each garden as a “staging of motion” (5), as the site is inherently connected to movement, challenging the conception of gardens as static spaces. By figuratively excavating and reconstructing these four sites, Tronzo presents each garden as an experimental space for simultaneously acknowledging and critiquing new cultural, political, and social movements. The prologue begins by situating the Garden of Eden as an original locus of change, the transgression of Adam and Eve marking mankind’s transition from one phase of existence to another and opening up a new world beyond the garden. Consequently, Eden itself is transformed into a static receptacle of symbols and allegory. Tronzo concludes his prologue by comparing this static Eden to the dynamism of Petrarch’s two gardens in Vaucluse. Petrarch’s gardens represent the exact opposite of Eden, since the poet’s entrance into his gardens—human agency entering, not exiting, nature—led to a new, imaginary space that would become the subject matter of his writings.

Chapter 1 brings us to Palermo, Sicily, where Tronzo describes his visit to two examples of designed landscapes from the twelfth century—the Zisa and the Cuba. Literary scholars will, perhaps, recognize these two sites as the settings of two famous pieces of literature— Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron 5.6 and Leandro Alberti’s Descrittione di tutta Italia— both mentioned in passing in the chapter. Tronzo shows how the Zisa and Cuba were an attempt by the Norman monarchy to increase their status in the eyes of the city of Palermo, thus forging a link between power and polis. Tronzo argues that these sites be viewed as performative exhortations, rather than static figurations, much as he reads the images on the ceiling of the Cappella Palatina later in the chapter.

Chapter 2 embarks from Tronzo’s close reading of a much-discussed marginal sketch by Petrarch on his copy of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis the image of a heron carrying a fish in its mouth, near a river at the foot of a hillside town, with an inscription that reads “transalpina solitudo mea iocundissima”—a reference to Petrarch’s beloved Vaucluse. Tronzo reads the landscape and inscription as symbolic of Petrarch’s “poetic presence” (81) and contextualizes the drawing within some of the poet’s greatest works (the Latin letter collection titled Familiares, the vernacular poetry of the Rerum vulgarium fragmenta, the treatise De vita solitaria). Tronzo finds that Petrarch’s relationship to the landscape is as intimate and self-referential as it is outward turning. The chapter closes with a lengthy comparative analysis between Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1338-39) in the Sala dei Nove in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena and the miniatures of the French Gothic manuscript, the Très riches heures du Duc de Berry, an early fifteenth-century calendar sequence by the Limbourg brothers. A comparison of the figures of harvesters in a detail from Good Government in Lorenzetti’s countryside and those in the Très riches heures shows that the harvester is emblematic of a well-governed state. What links the harvester to the previous discussion of Petrarch’s landscapes is the figuration of work and the concept of the landscape as a form of motion.

Chapter 3 turns to mechanical motion, where the automata and simulacra throughout the park at Hesdin in Artois are reevaluated as physically engaging to visitors rather than as objects of the gaze. While scholars have consistently used the park as yet another example of the unbridled excesses of Burgundian culture, Tronzo argues that the representation of the wool industry and weaving textiles in the Ghent Altarpiece speak to the centrality of sheep in Burgundian culture and of wool as a political currency. Thus, the altarpiece and the park become “modalities of performance” (127).

The final chapter examines the affective power of the statues in the Vatican’s Cortile delle Statue (today, the Cortile Ottagono). Designed by Bramante for Pope Julius II, the garden contained statues whose collection was based not on aesthetics, but on various political themes important to the pope. The choice of statues reflects Julius’s politics, making the juxtaposition of various, seemingly conflicting myths indicative of the different phases of the pope’s political ambitions. In his discussion of the Laocoon statue — the first acquired for the garden — Tronzo uses a poem by Jacopo Sadoleto (1477-1547) about the statue to explain the balance between art and passion that serves as the garden’s organizing principle. Like the gardens in the first three chapters, the Cortile is performative, invoking presence instead of representation.

While Petrarch’s Two Gardens will be most beneficial to scholars of landscape studies, it will also be of interest to literary scholars, since each garden or site examined has a formidable presence in early modern literature. The seventy-eight color and black-and-white images throughout this book make the subject matter accessible to readers from disciplines other than landscape studies. Literary scholars will appreciate Tronzo’s attempts to integrate literary works with his visual analyses and may be encouraged to further investigate some of his discoveries, particularly the Boccaccio and Alberti references in chapter 1. The author’s English translation of Petrarch’s vernacular poem RVF 126, “Chiare, fresche e dolci acque” in chapter 2 is commendable for its readability, grace, and poetic subtleties, but is unfortunately incomplete, potentially posing a problem to those without reading knowledge of Italian who might miss important points of his analysis.

The title of this book is taken from the author’s reading of Petrarch’s letter (Familiares 13.8) to Francesco Nelli, where the poet describes his two small gardens in Vaucluse: one is cultivated, near a river, and suited to Bacchus; the other is shady, uncultivated, and suitable only to study and to Apollo. Petrarch’s forays into and between the two gardens and other sites around his property make the title of the book Tronzo’s central metaphor: the garden is made of a sequence of events, created by purposive action. Less about Petrarch, and more a critical study of the development of the garden as sites of change, Petrarch’s Two Gardens uses the figure of the poet to loosely and dynamically join its four separate movements.

Aileen A. Feng, University of Arizona

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Landscape History 36.2 (2015): 110–11

Tronzo’s approach encapsulates the semi-dramatic composition of an oratorio, unveiling his harmonic well-crafted arguments backed by a chorus of related ideas that evoke dramatic scenery. An exploration in four movements: “Zisa and Cuba in Palermo,” “Petrarch on the Bank of the Sorgue,” “Gold and Fleece: The Park at Hesdin,” and “The Cortile delle Statue in Rome: Collecting Fragments, Inducing Images”; enticingly opened and closed by the “Prologue” and “Epilogue.” He refers to installation, staging ground and stage set within a framework; there are many references to Virgil, who else? Tronzo is Virgil to our Dante. An understanding of the sacred is essential in this context of movement between medieval and Renaissance beliefs. One personal unexpected outcome was that these essays help define fundamental differences between the Western and Oriental responses to landscapes, especially in the context of Japanese gardens. Landscapes as a source of philosophical contemplation are a shared experience but our active, as opposed to passive, imbibition is radically different.

Apart from the vestiges of key gardens, Tronzo examines contemporary paintings, sculptures and writings that enhanced and guided the creation and enjoyment of man-made landscapes. He writes that his script “congers” up a narrative, one that he has made as boisterous as the conger but more complex. The template is the Garden of Eden where all is perfect and regular in contrast to the ever-changing sinuous landscape without. The cloister as microcosm of this paradise is well known and reaches (for me) an unexpected outcome in the final essay on the Cortile delle Statue in Rome. One criticism is the miserably small illustrations; the discussions of each are incisive and illuminating but you will need to read this book with a magnifying glass to hand or search the internet for the original.

One of the most extensive explorations of movement is undertaken in “Zisa and Cuba in Palermo,” from the outer sublime untamed hunting park, through the careful cultivation of fruit trees and fragrant plants into the architectural echoes of the ceilings within. A Norman landscape where Christian liturgy met Muslim paradise, it enlightens touristy Alhambra and the lost landscape of Rosamund’s Bower at Woodstock.

Petrarch’s two gardens are dedicated to Apollo and Bacchus, respectively; they are animated by Petrarch’s daily movements, echoed in the essay by murmuring streams, flight, and song. A journey into the Florentine hills leads you to Petrarch’s friend Boccaccio and the stories of the Decameron; here Tronzo explores an illustrated thirteenth-century copy of Pliny’s Historia Naturalis with a marginal sketch of a supersized heron with fish at the base of a calvary hill. Could this have been drawn by Boccaccio and what does it mean? Not least, movement of body and spirit from the flowing river, into the cave and scaling the heights of the hill, a landscape to tame and travel through. The macrocosm of this, experienced by countless visitors to the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, are the allegorical frescoes of Good and Bad Government. Tronzo discusses the symbolism of the scythe cutting its way through the landscape to yield sustenance which is further explored in “Limbourg Brothers Tres Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry.” The illustration on page 88 is wrongly captioned as scythes — they are flails, an equally suitable sequel. “Gold and Fleece: the Park at Hesdin” explores the textual, tactile and colourful elements of movement — the weather and the glorious woven products of the cloth industry, the former having the great advantage that the host could turn the rain off with a click of his fingers. This leads Tronzo to humour — away with Jacobean melancholy, here are gardens in which to smile, chortle and roar with laughter, possibly dancing the while. Far from tangled, the intertwining threads of Jason, Christ and Hesdin’s own wool industry are woven to offer a fascinating insight into the likely allegorical and symbolical notes that played a pleasing refrain for the burghers of Hesdin.

There is no just standing around in the final essay, “The Cortile delle Statue in Rome: Collecting Fragments, Inducing Images,” as we return into a cloistered space now filled with animated stone. Masterminded by Pope Julius II, spiritual leader of the then Christian world unafraid of taking on a military mantle — two outer images of the inner minds of the time and their resulting landscapes.

Caroline Holmes
Denham, Suffolk


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