Plato and Philosophy – Renaissance Gardens and Earthly Love


Detail from Raphael’s fresco of the School of Athens, depicting Plato

Ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Plato (ca.429 BC-347 or 348 BC) was an influential figure in ancient Greece, teaching the association between philosophy and gardens to students of his tree planted Academy at Athens. Where Plato led, successive generations of philosophers followed. The gymnasia with colonnaded palaestrae were originally designed to be shelters from the sun and rain for athletes to exercise. They would become the accepted meeting place for students to enjoy philosophical instruction, surrounded by stately avenues and shady groves of trees.

Just like Plato, later philosophers also owned gardens in which there existed some of the features that have been associated with classical gardens ever since.

Principally shrines dedicated to the ancient Greek Muses, or Goddesses they became an inspiration for the expansion of literature, science and the arts.

The Muse’s place to be often took the form of a rocky grotto or nymphaeum, which was watered plentifully by a fountain or spring. Shaded porticoes were also used for the display of sculpture.

Portico in Bologna

Porticoes also became a practical architectural addition, enabling citizens to traverse the whole of their city in the heat of the noonday sun in comfort, as well as serving a purpose on its wettest and windiest days.

Tree lined walks where sages such as Aristotle paced to and fro while teaching their pupils became places where a great deal of intellectual debate would continue for centuries.

It’s the idea behind the foundation of the tradition whereby modern cities gained ‘domains’ for radicals and politicians to stand up on soapboxes to spread their messages to the general populace.

School of Athens, larger detail of the central section of Raphael’s famous fresco in the Stanza della Segnature at The Vatican

From the 11th century philosophers contributed greatly to a gradual change in attitudes. When combined with other factors, they would contribute to the growth of humanism and what is considered as the re-birth of civilisation that happened  in Italy during the 15th and 16th centuries in the period we know now as the Renaissance.

The re-discovery and subsequent study of the ancient world meant that many ancient documents, including works of literature, philosophy, and important treatises on many and varied subjects were found, sparking great enquiry.

The uncovering of ruins of ancient buildings, as well as other great works of art and sculpture such as the fabulous statue of the Greek God Apollo, would mean that learned men in Italy set out to discover, amongst other truths, the classical approach to garden design.

Detail Apollo of the Belvedere, also called the Pythian Apollo after a copy of a bronze original, white marble after Leochares, courtesy Vatican Museums, Vatican City

They found the ideal garden had been a union of architecture and horticulture and so they looked to their own haphazard gardens, deciding to imitate the ancients, uniting house and garden in a whole composition. Gone was the separate entity, or the enclosed garden from medieval times that existed visually unrelated to its adjoining house, villa or castle.

An amazing new unity of structural elements became the great Renaissance contribution to the art of garden design. The overpowering desire to promote the study of classical antiquity spread gradually through the city states of Florence, Rome and Venice, discharging them from what they considered was the darkness of the days that had gone by into the dawning and sunlight of learning.

With the advent of printing, books became the prime source for the dissemination of classical knowledge.

Dante AlighieriBorn in Florence into a nobleman’s family, the Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) first set eyes on his lifelong love Beatrice Portinari at the age of nine. His unquenchable passion for her would affect his life’s work – The Divine Comedy, created around 1445.

This text does not just portray Dante and Beatrice rising through the nine heavens of Paradise, but also illustrates the stories of those they encounter on the way.

apollo-versailles-2It was on the summit of Parnassus, a real mountain in central Greece, that Dante first prepared to enter the circles of Paradise.

Dante invoked the Greek God Apollo to ensure he became worthy of his task. From his time forward the word Parnassus also came to mean a centre for poetry and artistic activity. (Greenwich Village was once the ‘Parnassus of the U.S.A.

The Divina Commedia provides a view of the highest culture and knowledge of its age expressed through the most exquisite poetry.

Dante and Beatrice by Henry Holiday, 1839-1927

Dante was said to have begun his poem in Latin, which was the language of scholars of the time.  However, he changed his mind and as he progressed he employed Vulgari, the common language of the people.

This was a radical new approach, one revolutionary at the time. Subsequently Dante is attributed with having established Vulgari as the language of all the Italian States.

Understanding ancient Greek and Roman mythology became so familiar to educated men and women of the early Renaissance, that it could be used as an allegorical language.

It conveyed visual meanings not always obvious to our eyes even in this a most visual age. Although he died toward the end of the medieval period Dante’s poetry remained greatly loved and read widely all over Europe and the world as it expanded, for generations.

Together with other romantic epics and great philosophical works of this time they studied avidly. Dante scholars impacted for centuries on the growth and spread of intellectual ideas and the development of gardens.

In his Eclogues, written in 37BCE Virgil had described the idyllic life and landscape of Arcadia. His place of honour in Dante’s Divine Comedy was as the poet’s guide through the fires of hell and the place of purgatory right up to the very gates of paradise itself.

A Tale from the Decameron by John Williams Waterhouse (1849-1917) painted 1916 courtesy National Museums Liverpool, England

He inspired Italian poets such as Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375) who was one of those laying the nucleus of ideas about humanism, that would so avidly taken up by others during the Renaissance in his opus the Decameron of 1348.

Joys of a Renaissance garden…

Boccacio wrote … the sight of this garden, its form and contrivance, with the fountain and the spring proceeding from it, pleased the gentles and ladies so much, that they spared not to say, if there was a paradise on earth, it could be in no other form, nor was it possible to add anything to it.

Some scholars believe that ‘without Boccaccio, the literary culmination of the Italian Renaissance would be historically incomprehensible’.

He inspired such great minds as Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72), skilled musician, painter, poet, philosopher and important architect, who became an advocate of humanism and a shining star.

His observations of the remains of ancient Roman gardens, a synthesis of designs from Persia and Arabia as well as Greece and Rome, meant that he gained practical ideas on geometry and proportion.

He also joined into the recurring debate of the ideal life; between bustling activity in town and peaceful contemplation in the countryside, between urbs and rus.

Rousham Kentian Garden

Rousham, garden by William Kent

During his age a garden became a place where family and friends could think, play music, relax and be happy and enjoy life together, attempting to live the simple life of shepherds in Arcadia, the idealised pastoral world of the Ancient Greeks.

It was all about recreating the idea of gently undulating country under the shelter of a hill where plenty of water was available and the view had pleasant prospects,

There were open places for walking, swimming and other diversions, courtyards, grass plots and porticoes (loggias) under which old men may chat together in the kindly warmth of the sun in winter and where the family man would be able to divert themselves and enjoy shade in summer

Shaded walkway in the Villa San Michelle garden

Many Renaissance architects completely embraced the concept because it was gloriously romantic, even if it was unrealistic. After all isn’t earthly love surreal?

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.