The transitory nature of gardens certainly does not make them the most obvious subject for a museum exhibition, and indeed many would be hard put to envisage such an undertaking. Those who visit the exhibition in Hamm and, in a reduced version, in Mainz, or consult the catalogue, do so with unreserved curiosity, perhaps with recollections of a visit to Rubens’s garden in Antwerp, but for the most with little or no knowledge of the gardens of the seventeenth-century Spanish Netherlands. Those historic gardens, of which little remains today, were places of beauty, enjoyment, study and a source of food. Visitors could stroll through shady avenues, admire the elaborate flowerbeds, vegetation, statues and amazing mechanical constructions which had bird song and flute tones accompany moving figures; they could visit grottos and pavillions, flirt and play games, and discuss the wonders of nature. The catalogue, like the exhibition, is organised according to thematic groups and thus guides the visitor through, as it were, a virtual seventeenth-century garden, pointing out the very important role it played both in the lives of courtiers, bourgeoisie, humanists and the general public.
Ursula Härting conceived and staged a show which brought together simple garden implements, maps, prints, books, paintings, tapestries, sculpture and fragments of long dismantled grottos. The first, surprisingly small section, deals with once existing gardens, not all of which can be identified, in maps, drawings, the so-called ‘Albums of Croy’ with their elaborately-framed decorative views of the gardens of Charles II of Croy, Duke of Aerschot, and paintings such as Jan Brueghel’s Allegory of Spring with its view of the Palace of Mariemont in the background. Whereas here the dominating feature is the bird’s eye perspective of the extensive and elaborate lay-out of the gardens, the other sections home in on a particular aspect: the garden as a place of work as well as relaxation; formal gardens and the importance of the designs of Hans Vredeman de Vries, Pieter IV van der Borcht and others; the very different ways artists employed fruit and flowers in works of art, in mythological, allegorical and still-life scenes. Rubens’s garden is discussed both as an historical entity and in relation to his renderings of The Garden of Love, while other forms of entertainment staged in gardens are examined, together with depictions of gardens in cabinets and on virginals and spinets, Rome as a source of inspiration, be it in painted vedutes or in Lucas de Heere’s Bathseba showing an Italian Renaissance villa and garden. Finally a large section is devoted to fountains, in particular Mannekin Pis, and sculptures.
The 220 catalogue entries are preceded by eighteen essays. Following a general intoduction to the subject and an overview of the design of gardens in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the essays address many of the thematic aspects outlined above but also deal with general topics such as gardens and humanists, the cultivation of flowers, fruit and vegetables, the production of scents and the distillate, and specialist discussions on, for example, Salomon de Caus and the art of the grotto, or gardens in the paintings of the Valchenborch family. The well laid-out and laviously illustrated catalogue closes with a useful glossary of terms, an index and a short bibliography.
The proceedings of the colloquium held in Hamm in January (see above) will be published. There the focus was not just on the Spanish Netherlands but on Wallenstein’s garden in Prague with its sculptures by Adrian de Vries and on north German gardens. One of the most interestings issues was the question of the status of gardeners. Few Flemish gardeners are known by name: Jehan Holbecq, first in the service of Cardinal Granvella and then royal gardener to Philip II in Spain, Rubens’s two gardeners, Wilm and Jasper, and Jodocus Neijt, employed by Claude de Richardot in Brussels. Holbecq’s career attests to the importance placed on excellent gardeners, but it is unclear what role, if any, they played in the actual conception of garden designs. However, there are some indications that they were considered to be more than simply manual labourers. Johannes Clodius’s (1584-1660) fourteen years in Italy were supported by his patron, Duke Ernst von Holstein-Schaumburg, and involved gathering experience in the gardens of the Farnese and Capponi families.
The catalogue and (forthcoming) publication of the colloquium proceedings make an invaluable contribution to our knowledge of a very important cultural feature of the age of Rubens. It is hoped that they will provide further impetus for research into this area. It is thus more the pity that the catalogue is avaible only in German.