This publication looks at the extent to which humanists in the golden age of Netherlandish humanism were inspired by the art, ideas and culture of the garden. The author knowledgeably analyses the relevant sources, some of which have hitherto been either misunderstood or gone unnoticed in studies on gardens and in art history. Her investigation goes beyond Mark Morford’s article on the Stoic Garden, and she shows that Netherlandish humanists perceived gardens as a means of creating a harmonious connection between the Stoa and religious concepts (Mark Morford, ‘The Stoic Garden,’ Journal of Garden History, 7.2, 1987, 151-175).
It was typical of the time in question that no great physical distinction was made between the kitchen/herbal garden as the functional aspect of the garden and flowers and shrubs as the pleasurable side. Lauterbach relates this understanding of the garden, as well as the more formal characteristics of its lay-out, with specifically humanist concepts. She rightly emphasizes that external appearances were less important than one’s inner attitude to and the correct use of gardens.
The author examines how in his Convivium religiosum Erasmus developed a manual for souls using the concrete example of an estate garden. He sought to renew Christianity, then still entrenched in the tradition of the Devotio moderna, by using the teachings of the Roman Stoa, which rejected the more rigorous old-Stoicism in favor of a way of living that adheres to moral principles yet is more sophisticated and open. Following the ancient ideal of a simple, honorable life in the country, Erasmus explained the moral implications of humility, moderate consumption and self-sufficiency using the example of garden fruits. He further addressed the concept of honorable pleasure, since the garden not only satisfies all essential needs but also refreshes and delights the senses. Seneca had already pointed in this direction when he disassociated the Epicurean garden of pleasure, so closely connected with ideas of sensual pleasures, from its association with pure hedonism.
This is the tradition that Justus Lipsius also followed, as Lauterbach persuasively shows in her discussion of the humanist’s famous passage on gardens in De Constantia, as well as other sources. Conceived during the civil war, Lipsius devised his garden philosophy as a means of strengthening the soul in times of crises: the garden is a sanctuary, a place to retreat from seemingly hopeless situations and regain one’s sense of balance.
Lauterbach places particular emphasis on the structure of the garden as a source of knowledge, which the author supports by drawing on Lipsius’s earlier description of a landscape in which he interprets man’s cultivation of nature as a realisation of the ordered and useful process of Creation. However, De Constantia recommends the garden as a place of meditation, for it is there that the ever-recurring cycle of life and death teaches us greater acceptance of our own pitiless fate (see U. Heinen, ‘Rubens’ Garten und die Gesundheit des Künstlers,’ Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch 65, 2004, 71-182).
Like Erasmus and Petrarch before him, Lipsius developed his garden philosophy out of the desire to reconcile Christian traditions, the Epicurean principle of lust and the Stoic demand for virtue. He re-interpreted the central Epicurean idea of desire stoically as measured pleasure and a moderate acceptance of luxury goods and other enjoyable things; in this way Lipsius created an ethic for everyday life that was acceptable to the patricians of his day.
The author then explores the further development of the humanist garden in the Netherlands. The poet Jan Baptist Houwaert, for example, wrote an instructive manual for girls in which he used the garden of his manor house Cleyn Venegien near Brussels as a place of both noble pleasure and humanistic learning (see also Lauterbach in: exh. cat. Gärten und Höfe der Rubenszeit, ed. by Ursula Härting, Munich, 2000). Houwaert later took the same garden as the setting for his allegorical introduction to the Stoic system of virtue he derived from Lipsius. In his Hert-spiegel, the Catholic Rederijker Hendrik Laurensz Spiegel presents the unfolding of the Stoic soul in his country garden near Amsterdam, where it is precisely its rustic simplicity that reveals its virtue.
At the end of the sixteenth century Lauterbach observes a shift in the Northern Netherlandish garden philosophy with the Stoa no longer the means of dealing with crises but a way of addressing ethically the issue of increasing affluence: thus Caspar Barlaeus and Godefridus Udemans advise those building country houses and pleasure gardens to exercise restraint.
In the literary genre ‘In Praise of Country Life’ (laus ruris) the Stoa becomes, as Lauterbach writes, ‘to a certain degree the dress which one wears in the country.’ More and more questions were being asked about the Stoic ethic of the garden, about social status and the freedom of country life as opposed to the responsibilities associated with living in cities and at courts. This contrast between the immoral life in the latter and the virtuous existence in the countryside had been addressed already by Seneca.
The Netherlandish poetic genre of ‘hofdichts’ also retained the central convictions of Christian-humanist ideals. When Jacob Cats described his own country house and garden, he extensively addressed the concept of the Christian-Stoic garden. Though Constantijn Huygens led an aristocratic life-style, he too brought together many different traditions of the humanist garden. An ironical tone is however occasionally discernable, as when he praises roses as tree manure, or describes how guests became ill after a frugal meal of homegrown fruits.
In the second half of the seventeenth century, the rational world of Descartes erased the concept of the humanist garden. Lauterbach concludes her study by drawing attention to the way in which the Netherlandish humanist garden was employed as a garden of peace in eulogies on rulers. So even if the Lipsian ethos of the garden collided with the representative and military goals of rulers, Netherlands leaders nevertheless could at least claim to find Stoic peace of mind in the garden.
The second and more extensive part of the publication systematically orders and discusses the different concepts of nature in humanist gardens. Lauterbach has successfully transformed what began as a dissertation into a significant contribution to the study of the history of the Netherlandish gardens.
Bergische Universität Wuppertal
Translated by Fiona Healy