Back to… The Aesthetics of Ruins (Home Page)





Italian Gardens.                                                                   



Italian gardens; love of the sun: deepest shade.



Always, there is a place for us. Just outside of the public sphere, existing (we like to believe) at a remove from the world of everyday exchange. The garden. Outside of everyday time.  A space which is set aside. Special, not by virtue of its status as event or entity, but (in the first instance) simply by its demarcation from other space. In this way space becomes place and in so doing becomes a representation of itself. Geometry, geology and geography become overlaid with affect and significance - with intensity we arrive at the sacred. Cold extension acquires a skin of warm emotion. It is this doubling which leads from literal space to the many forms of elsewhere that populate our waking dream, the figurative sense that constitutes a sense of place. The Garden.


Amalfi Gardens: the sunlit promontory retreats into the shaded bower; a blind statue stands guard over our dappled visions.


The garden frames itself, with its walls and hedges, its choice of denial or opening with respect to a wider context - an effect of self-defining self-possession which it shares with ritual. The setting-apart that is the nature of the frame shelters the hint of the outside of time - the frame of nature at once its debt to culture and a reminder of the eternal ambition buried in the sense of the natural. Magic wells. Haunted groves. Still pools that reflect a world of myth. Fountains whispering with the voices of sprites. Otherworldly avenues. Heavenly vistas. A golden-green landscape streaked with the comfortable glow of the eternal.


(Ravello in the rain): Stone green rain, cypress mist; then sun, and sun... and sea.


(More cloistered, often tightly circumscribed by walls and hedging, domestic in scale, are our personal gardens. For public gardens can never offer the same seclusion, bought at the price of personal exclusivity, as the private garden. Even more than public gardens, the private garden is a place where we can be at home with Nature. In this taming eternity itself is domesticated).


Amalfi Gardens: the figure in the stone alcove and the cliff; faces edged with moss.


Nature arrested and 'corrected' (for a while). The illusion of motion stabilised; the illusion of control. (A brake on all this un-necessary endless becoming. A limit to this fecund teeming, this verdant chaos, fruit of the sun's profligate gift and the season's relentless husbandry.) Gardens: the figure of entropy denied.


Nature as culture: culture as nature. Nature is tamed; a nature without faults (a rose without thorns; berries without briars). And culture is cured of the faults of urbanism, we escape from the detritus of city-life, the stress, dirt, disease of the town, to the country (to gardens). In the place of this ruin of civilisation we hope to find a culture fashioned from the growing stems of living nature and not delimited by brick and asphalt. The true site of virtue, cleanliness and health (spiritual and physical). The cradle of civilisation.


Bomarzo: giants stalk the half-buried ruins of a distant apocalypse; the mind inside-out.


Italian Gardens: the garden as theatre.  Parades of towering pines outline massive auditoria; the space of the Roman amphitheatre.  A wall of cypress curtains-off the outside; a parting; an opening onto a vista: a scene. Grassy clearings offer the framed stage of action, the place of dramas. The succession of rooms made from the angular hedging of bay and box is also a trail of scenes shaping a narrative. Image follows image, tableaux, tableaux. Space by space the story is told. Avenues of plain trees await the audience of the spectacle.


A garden of appetites; strange plants rear up and devour one-another; moss masks the marks of imagination's chisel.


Entry frames; rites of passage: thresholds to be crossed, entry into the garden, its analogies, its allegories. Entry frames; the passage through the garden, its stations or stages; a procession, a masque. Entry frames the destination, the place of promise, the rose bower, the garden. Entry frames the crosser of the threshold, the mask-bearer, the one who would tread upon the path of sacred experience. Entry frames. The accession to 'private' space as ritual.


A garden of domination (stone phantoms of rape and rage); a sixteenth century nervous system lies twitching on the side of the hill.


The enclosed garden; home to the courtly love tradition in whose secluded corners so many lyrics and romances are set, where they sparkle like diamonds on dark green velvet. Enclosure. The quickening light of recognition. Subjectivity mimicked. (There are echoes here of Islam's garden heaven). Such gardens are the favourite site, topic or content, of allegory (in all meanings of the word, be it medieval or baroque).  Romance also (again in the same periods) finds in this setting the perfect foil to its scenes of sword-play, adventure and war. The romance in Romance (the garden scene leading ineluctably to the omnipresent reproduction or marriage theme - or if not to the transgressive adultery theme and death; a double ritual loosening and tightening of the social bond; but always the return to family or feudal loyalty; reiteration of social rebirth through reproduction be it of people or institutions). It is in a garden free from the plague, yet infested with ghostly servants, that we find the setting of (the telling of) Boccacio's 'Decameron' with its fabliaux-like transgressions set against the transparent hierarchy of the party (with its invisible but obliging 'downstairs').  The garden here functions as the outermost frame for the stories, their theatrical and final, that is, present, frame: their frame of presentation.


Italian Gardens: allegory of the human spirit; the green guide though the synaptic maze. Openings and enclosures follow upon one-another like a pulse traversing the neural network. Views cede sight to screens; vision must turn inwards. Curtains of branch and leaf part to reveal distant vistas; outward flies the inner eye. Light: dark. Witness the alternate play of open/closed spaces, of free/hindered passage; junctions on the soul's switchboard; map of the human mind. Shadows and light, shades and luminosities of green and blue, the binaries of a mental Morse; the codes of mind.


The lake gardens in spring; candles reflect in the waters; snow capped mountains float in the sky.


Sun-dappled pathways multiply the routes of play: a play of routes multiplying the paths to the sunlight and shadow of sense. Levels of self are reunited, rejoining experiences fragmented by social life (the myth of the pastoral route to the authentic self). Or it may be that disparate fragments of human experience, which have been too quickly made to cohere, rejoined into aggregates of reason, are held apart like sun and moon, past and future, or like time and its other. Light and dark. Like a chessboard, a high definition of little use for a world of infinite greys and blurred edges; a quality of clarity and distinction only available to the inner life. Thought garden. Paths of sunlight and shade as so much congealing and unravelling of the self. Dazzled and disturbed. All in the security of a protected environment. The garden as an asylum offering the freedom of the madhouse.


Cold flames in the night; magnolias light the way to the warmth of waiting windows.


Paths and lanes open onto glades and clearings. The curtain of green parts to reveal a sunlit space.  A gap in the line of trunks suggests an avenue, perhaps leading to some hidden dwelling. A garden which is larger than a simple view or a place of solitude must possess features to lure the walker along, from place to place, and from time to time. Where eyes lead the body will follow. Where the eyes lead the mind will follow also, anticipating the feet, travelling further. The flight of the mind opens into fantasy; other places, other times are traversed as the minds loses itself in the crisscross of memory and anticipation. But the mind may also stay and look on: conscious of its projection of a window onto memory (the past for the present) or its premature opening onto the unborn event (the future for the present). And on the furthermost horizon there is always the suggestion of a vision onto a featureless landscape - once the figurative phantoms of the real are removed and the bleached contours of an elsewhere without qualities becomes visible. (A grey window looking out over a negative eternity).


The lake garden's first blossoms; like snow in spring, like the moon in blue water.


Ideal space is always eternal (Nietzsche's 'all joy...' meets Plato's forms; blood on the white bones of philosophical idealism). As populated by phantasms as only the thought of the eternal can permit. It is the constitutive ambiguity of the phantasmal that gives rein to the fleeting clouds of the dream world; the reign of a metamorphosis seemingly without limit. A kaleidoscope of the conceivable. It is not the contents of this phantasmagoria but the sense of the unfetteredness of the imagination that is the source of the vertigo expressed in such spaces. As if standing still one felt oneself in flight.


Camellias; Christmas lights on a lake-side in spring.


If the sense of flight is panoptic in its views and its visions, then the garden is also womb-like in its promise of undisturbed security. Both modes of being hover just outside of time, combining the rhetorical values of outside and inside; a god's-eye view is also that of the eternal unborn infant. Views, which both perform and are symbols of unencumbered vision in the vistas they martial, join the sense of an enclosed yet-unwalled space with the infinity that lies beyond; a womb-like safe-enclosure with a limitless view. Yet both modes are finally containers of the private - sites of trysts and silent witnesses of transgression...


The raw spring sky has bled onto the Villa's gardens; red petals, green leaves, blue water behind.


The surviving (textual) fragments of classical gardens are translated; are moved from their original site. A language is also a place and a time; Latin becomes Italian.  The gardens of Horace become the Italian gardens of Petrarch. (The voice overheard moves from ode to sonnet). Out of myth and fragments are landscapes re-conjured; copies fashioned with no relation to their 'original'.  In the cosmos a new star is born. In the time it takes to move from text to place, from sign to thing, from symbol to World, space itself is reborn. The strength of the desire to create overwhelms the very object of desire (the return of the classical) desire exceeds its object and the result is the new.  (The Renaissance defined).


Azaleas and rhododendrons in bloom: a thousand tongues of flame sing to the gathered mountains.


In the unremitting sense of the present (and its lesser companions, these ever present but perpetually faded windows, the past and future in the present), we find the source of individual versions of temporality and the Garden: the individual experience of social life and its tensions. The ever-lasting pressure of economics, the precarious balance of loyalties, and the never-ending civil wars of recognition. Concomitant is the need to escape to a 'special space'. Here the garden acts as a critique of the social world, the world of work, the world of pollution, of speed and circulation, of identities, of all the exchanges that make up social life. In exchange for another form of exchange, a slower or less reactive identity is acquired, a mask is formed out of another kind of exchange (one felt to be 'beyond exchange') felt to be beyond masks. The garden as theatre offers a stage for other forms of role play; the stage on which is performed the theatre beyond theatre. The space to be one's self.  But also escape from the constriction of interiors (houses and rooms as well as the room of the self). Even from the interiority of the self (the mask beneath the mask). Open sky; the analogous space for an open self. (The opposite is the case in Arab, Persian, or Indian gardens where it is the sun from which one must escape, and it is the shade which must shelter the unmasked self).


As summer warms the quiet shores; roses twist over the stone wall.


Freedom (insofar as separable from the assertion of individual will) has a space and a time; the garden and company. The time spent in the company of those we choose to limit ourselves for, and whose company extends our limits (or as we would like to believe today, the company of equals). Away from the town, sheltered from the prying eyes (and praying hands) of Church and State, the hedge provides cover from more than just the wind. A place for intellectual and sexual freedom, of thought, of speech, of action (and of license...). Even if the latter, as in so much of the animal kingdom, is for the pleasure of the powerful male only (or for both sexes and other males insofar as under his protection). Do the gardens of today still offer freedom in this way; relying upon the opposition of the 'private' as opposed to the 'public' place, with their genre or category differences of face, mood, and voice; of private utterance as opposed to public (and therefore responsible) utterance. Not an absence of performance (the authentic self) as opposed to an (inauthentic) public mask (the liberationist fallacy) rather kinds of performance adapted to the kindness of the audience. The kindness of strangers. Domestic rituals still are social, are for public consumption; only the public in question is different in quality as well as quantity. Ritual spans intimacy and its little epiphanies as much as the intensities of solemn public rites and festivals. Time: the piece of eternity at the heart of all ritual (the bid of repetition for justification before eternity) is conjured up in the couple and the family (and the peer group) as much as the great performances of social recognition and confirmation. Because at its heart the rhetoric of eternity (the destiny of the sacrificial gift permitting the invisible gift of destiny) resides in the self in its interrelation with others (numbers notwithstanding) and without them in its relation to itself, to the generalisability of the eternal 'now' of the present into the presence of eternity. The outside of time, religious and ideological cement without peer, and without substance, an invisible viscosity, the new clothes of every fashionable emperor - not least the self...


            ...invisible as gravity. Like the viscosity of liquids. Invisible like the water carrying the wave of reflection back across itself; a mesh of inter-relations growing every more complex. Then fading. Refreshed by new disturbances of the surface; the ritual plop of a stone in the waters of the lake. Mirroring and multiplying a wave of recognition. The ripple of reflection on the garden pond.


If we note the male and female codings of these images (the many views down passages, the openings and enclosures, the wombs and their inhabitants, the passive space and the active passage through this space in time) we also find that the feminine, in contradistinction to many linguistic forms in this same semantic register, is not,  in its implications, tagged with the negative. Yet, despite this positive aspect of the feminine as space, do not these gardens -or these discourses on gardens- nevertheless indicate a predominantly masculine vision of extension, with its thematics of the return or escape back into the feminine and the maternal as the hidden face of the sexual lure? Are these not 'masculine' representations? And what, in this context, would an alternative, or other, 'feminine', representation look like? What would another kind of garden be like?


Yet in a world of ambiguous tags and reversals, what is the gender meaning of the garden? Does the domestic feminine tame masculine Nature? Or does masculine form give order to a feminine Nature, source of the chaos of 'mutabilite', handmaid of entropy? Is not finally the pull of the maternal the privilege of all sexes; the reversibility of entrances and exits the threshold of all forms of Eros. Our landscape can now be perceived with a female eye. If the terms and visions we began with seemed the preserve of a privileged part, are not now all parts at least privileged with entry to this preserve? The Garden of the Other. The Garden of Others. A place at once inclusive (all are represented...) and yet private (in its means of consumption). The writing of the garden rejoins the variety of its consumption. In this lies its transformation into the Garden. The predominance of the positive allied with the ambiguity of the garden permits any number of appropriations or reversals to take place with unforced ease. The fantasm of freedom resides perhaps in this.


Statues and visitors; human punctuation on a grid of green right angles.


The box hedge at right-angles. Lines of perspective. Geometry as power. In the guise of knowledge it casts the grid of description and assimilation over all that lives in extension - so providing the means of the organisation and conquest of Nature.  Italian gardens and the formation of subjectivity: tool of statecraft. (As with the presence of statues, the imprint of the geometric is fraught with the aura of power).


Like the tide, whose rise and fall the moon influences, the advance and retreat of sublunary ambition finds a privileged site of influence in the garden. Gardens reveal the high-tide mark of social position; aspiration and achievement, imagined as well as actual position; but also the point of the reversal of fortunes. The spinning coin reveals a veritable theatre of domination as well as the sign of its exhaustion. The hands that held the reins now begin to fail in their unswerving grip, the unnerving ride across the sky of the social no longer thrills but terrifies.  Escape and nostalgia incline towards the utopic  (aversion and the past together power-up the screens of the future).


Ruins; entropy presages order; the past catches the future; subtle work of the gods.


(And the garden as ruin. Distant echo of the fallen version of the original Garden. The ruin as manifest Fall. Like the ruin in the garden, the garden as ruin acts as a reminder of our fallen mortality only to augment the powers that enslave us by means of a redeemed future.)


(The future-in-the-present...) The sight-line into the future is in our day both a utopic furrow, a part even of all belief, and a long ditch into which technology consigns its many failures. A barrelled vision: the target-hairs themselves marking out the place of the sought end, desire spiralling into the tautology of prophecy. Double-barrelled: twin drills piercing the rock of the future, picking the lock of time; twin ends of hope and (often justified) paranoia. Two shots at the future; the future redeemed and the future shot. Two sides of same hymn sheet.


Today's ruined city of the future, the mirror image of yesterday's ruin, the city of the past.


Memory released from the hold of origins. Another vortex onto another place, found to be another here (...and the past-in-the-present).


The divided temporal role of the ruin in the garden lies in its Janus-faced ability to encompass past and future, to send its blank-eyed regard out to the further reaches of the twin poles of the temporal continuum. Past and future, sacred or secular, always with the echo of public religion, the jealous guardian of both horizons, the past and the future, especially of their furthermost limits, gateways to the eternal, realm of lost heavens, past and future (in this or in other worlds).


Pomegranate and vines prefigure a Christian heaven, in the Italian garden the scenes on the early medieval sarcophagus are at last realised: heaven on earth (until then the burial caskets of the dead were the lonely bearers of the fruit of utopia).


And what of the future and past for themselves, for their role in the present, for temporality, and not for eternity (for religion)? What of a future and past set into this side of the horizon, not those distant portals on the border of temporal sense, and certainly not those on the impossible far-side? The phantoms rearing up in that vast indescribable place are only the amplified echoes of concerns 'this side'. The dark side of temporality's event horizon.



Italian Gardens: the sky breaks on the outcrop of cedar and cypress.



The inverted evolution of the modern garden. Enlightenment thought places itself at the end of all things (where the starburst of primitive ritual was said to coalesce into the arts and into religion, which were to be governed, if not replaced, by reason and utility as the measures of all things). In the history of the garden, however, we find a movement from the calculated reproduction of the means of sustenance, the economics of herb and husbandry, to the reproduction of identities; to ritual. The utility of the useless is always a matter of identity.


Italian Gardens. A path of evolution leading through the open vistas of Renaissance Humanism, with its gentle hope of Man at the centre; a ghost-walk once trodden by classical civilisation with its farm or rural villa as site of practical, pastoral (and patriarchal) virtue. A path which then twists into the trompe l'oeil scene of the Baroque with its blurred perspectives, its pulling down of eternity from sublime deixis to present illusion, and its thought-fold of rational irrationalism, the conflict of religion and science. Ratio forfends ratio. Man is lost between God and Matter.


Mourning in the garden.


Gardens; how much of their symbolic allure is due to their capacity to form an allegory of life and death. A life-cycle managed; a universe invoked; man is to garden as god is to man (the golden section of divine proportionality). The movement of cycles is recreated in the elements of ritual; the recognition of the complicity between death and rebirth. Burial and growth; conferring death and value in equal measure.


The smouldering of the bonfire after sunset, the red spark in the cinders; at midnight, the white illumination of ash.


Night whispers: the private intimacy of shadows or the shared intimacies of ghosts, the memories of fire-light.


Myrtle by moonlight.  The radiance of ivory petals. The silver on the thorn. The garden by night (site of meditation, tryst and vigil). The night of the garden (the repose of insects, the soft wing of the owl, the drip of black blood onto the silver of hedge and lawn). And the garden of night; as constellations wheel over petrified columns of pines, movement in the shadow of the trees, the slow dance of sleepwalkers (masque of the soul's midnight).


The silence of the garden before dawn: then the first blush of fire in the air warms the cold earth and wakes the surface of the waters to light. All around, from trees and bushes;  bird song: the dawn ritual.


Morning in the garden.



In the gardens of eternity (as in the fabled gardens of the unconscious) all walk together. All are exchangeable; radical equality achieved. All are omnipresent; nothing and no-one need ever be lost. The reach of the present is extended to its furthermost limit. View without a horizon. The most all-encompassing sense of 'now' imaginable: the imagination of the all-encompassing 'now'.


The presence of eternity in the gardens of the eternal present.







                                                                                        Copyright © 2002, 2005 Peter Nesteruk