Luke Morgan, The Monster in the Garden: The Grotesque and the Gigantic in Renaissance Landscape Design

Luke Morgan, The Monster in the Garden: The Grotesque and the Gigantic in Renaissance Landscape Design (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press 2016) 256 pp. $ 65.00 Hb. . ISBN: 9780812247558

In The Monster in the Garden Luke Morgan postulates that the historical place-spaces represented by Renaissance landscapes should be understood as in Foucauldian terms as 'heterotopias' , that is, 'unstable, multisensual environments in which the visitor is enjoined and empowered to make his or her own decisions' (139). In so doing, he reframes the Renaissance garden, real or imaginary, from the generally perceived locus amoenus ('pleasant place') to something much darker, a locus horridus ('fearful place'), as reflected, for example, in tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a principal source of Renaissance garden design (3). Two gardens form an integral part of Morgan’s investigation – the Sacro Bosco in Bomarzo, and Villa d’Este in Tivoli, with a specific focus on the monstrous and the gigantic. The book has its genesis in an attempt to answer two questions, as Morgan explains: firstly, why do monsters appear in the design of sixteenth-century gardens and, secondly, how would these gardens appear in the eye of a beholder at the time (16). In Chapter One, Morgan first provides a selective 'historiographical excursus', then constructs a model of the garden as a heterotopic space; Chapter Two considers the meanings and cultural significance of the grotesque and the monstrous during the sixteenth century; Chapter Three explores the three key features identified in the previous chapter (the excessive, the deficient, and the hybrid) by means of specific examples; Chapter Four builds on the theme of duality between the locus amoenus and the locus horridus; Chapter Five provides an in-depth interpretation of the Sacro Bosco; and the Conclusion closes with an account of the 'proto-sublime' experience in the Renaissance garden.

To reframe the Renaissance garden, Morgan opens the introductory chapter with the retelling of an account of the dissection of two female conjoined twins in the Orti Oricellari gardens in Florence in 1536. Gruesome as the event may have been, it also served as 'proof' for the existence of monsters in this life, as accounted for by the humanist Benedetto Varchi, who was present at the scene (1). The monstrous, then, goes hand in hand with the underlying theme of duality, as illustrated by Morgan’s use of Ovid’s story of Hermaphroditus’s metamorphoses – the idyllic scene is a peaceful, sylvan landscape with a crystal-clear pool, which becomes the setting for Salamacis’s violent and sexually motivated attack on Hermaphroditus (5). Ovid’s poetic device, says Morgan, depends on the contrast and ambiguity between the tranquil landscape and the violent narrative, a theme often repeated in the Metamorphoses: 'An important premise of this book is that the troubling presence of the theme of violence […] of the locus amoenus in sixteenth century landscape design – the locus horridus – indicate that there are some omissions in the literature of the early modern garden. Foremost amongst these is the unexplained presence of what the Renaissance would have regarded as "monsters" in landscape design' (7). After the monster, Morgan then adds the giant as an identifier of the reframed Renaissance garden. The giant embodies nature’s two opposites, he says, the one 'amenable and creative' and the other 'forbidding and destructive' (15).

In Chapter One, 'The Legibility of Landscape: From Fascism to Foucault', Morgan devlops his model of the garden as a 'heterotopic' space. He starts by mentioning the views of the architect and writer Ugo Ojetti in1931 that the defining characteristic of the Italian Renaissance garden was the conquering of man over nature by design (20). This is in opposition to the English Romantic garden, which rather strives to imitate nature, and which by the eighteenth century had all but overtaken the Italian garden across all of Europe. For Ojetti, the English garden is emotional, irrational and female; the Italian one, intellectual and male in character (22). Morgan then uses examples such as the fictional landscape in Francesco Collona’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499) to refute Ojetti’s 'reductive' theories and settles on Foucault’s concept of heterotopic space as a model for a reframing of the Renaissance garden. Foucault first introduced the idea of heterotopias, which can be contrasted with utopias and dystopias, in 1966 in one of his earlier books, The Order of Things, where he says it is a concept which disturbs and threatens the age-old distinction between the Same and the Other, causing a destabilizing and destructive effect on our accustomed ways of thinking about and organizing the world (35). 'As contradictory spaces, gardens are capable of accommodating difference and juxtaposing polarities,' Morgan explains: monsters are rarely seen in public spaces, but they can be seen in (private) gardens, where they can 'simultaneously affirm and contest norms rather than "reconciling" differences' (46).

An example of the cultural influence of monsters on sixteenth century society, discussed in Chapter Two, 'The Grotesque and the Monstrous', was the accidental rediscovery of the Domus Aurea, a vast landscaped garden built by the Emperor Nero in the heart of Ancient Rome, but subsequently buried by his successors, and hence seeming like a network of underground caves to the Renaissance, so giving birth to the modern meaning of the word 'grotesque', though a misnomer, after a description of the paintings on the structure’s walls and vault: 'the fortuitous origin of the word "grotesque", if not precisely in the garden, then at least in the idea of the subterranean, or of the grotto, makes it unsurprising that the new ornamental system was soon utilized in garden decoration' (49). The idea that the monster is a natural wonder and not a 'dread omen' is especially relevant to the early modern garden, says Morgan, as nature itself was an important subject of Renaissance landscape design. Furthermore, he says, it is well-known that there are conceptual links between the garden, the Wunderkammer ('Cabinet of Curiosities'), the library and other 'collections and categorizations of natural phenomena': the perceived meraviglia (marvelousness) of an object was a key requirement for inclusion in the Wunderkammer, and Renaissance collections often contained 'strange, hybridized specimens of nature’s ludic propensity – the lusus naturae that demonstrated a ceaseless capacity for invention' (75). Renaissance ideas about hybridity and monsters are thus brought together with the Renaissance garden in a place like the Sacro Bosco, literally, a park of monsters (76).

At the same time, toward the end of the sixteenth century, classification of monsters became increasingly prevalent in medical and pseudoscientific circles – the ‘juridico-biological domain’, as Foucault calls it (8) – with the French barber surgeon Ambroise Paré’s On Monsters and Marvels (1573) being published in the same year that Pier Francesco Orsini spoke about the ‘new designs’ for his Sacro Bosco gardens (71). Leaving the invocations of beggars and demons aside, Paré’s encyclopedia reveals three categories of monsters, the topic of Chapter Three, ‘A Monstruary: The Excessive, the Deficient, and the Hybrid’. The excessive, according to Paré, is a result of ‘too great a quantity of seed’, with hermaphrodites and conjoined twins, such as those mentioned earlier, providing examples; the deficient is caused by too little ‘seed’, with dwarfs and people with missing body parts being examples; and the hybrid is the consequence of bestiality and interspecies copulation, literally serving as signs of sin (82). Morgan then discusses several instances of the excessive, with the Fountain of Nature at the Villa d’Este, which was based on cult images of Diana of Ephesus, serving as a prime example of this type (83), followed by the deficient, with the Hell Mouth in the Sacro Bosco, lacking a body altogether, also presenting an image of ingestion, as a leading image of this type (93), and harpies, such as those also found in the Sacro Bosco, as examples of the hybrid (105).

In Chapter Four, ‘Rare and Enormous Bones of Huge Animals. The Colossal Mode’, Morgan turns his eye to the colossal, with Giambologna’s Appennino, the photograph of the book’s cover, realizing the dream of Alexander the Great’s architect, ‘to carve a mountain into the shape of a man’, and representing the ‘climax of the Renaissance revival of the colossal tradition’ (118). In Chapter Five, ‘Pietra Morta, in Pietra Viva’ Morgan gives an in-depth discussion of the Sacro Bosco, where the themes of the book come together – ‘monsters, giants, the opposition of the grotesque and the “classical” […], the motif for violence, and the dramatic duality of sixteenth century landscape design are all present” (141) – just as Morgan brings everything together in the concluding chapter, ‘Toward the Sublime’, going back to Longinus’s treatise On the Sublime (c. CE 50): ‘the dramatic duality between the locus amoenus and the locus horridus in the Renaissance garden can, in this light, be seen as a “vernacular” translation of Longinus’s dialectical theory of the rhetoric' (169).

In this book, Morgan provides a convincing re-classification of the Renaissance garden as a Foucauldian heterotopic space, supported by many photographs, chiefly of the two gardens he uses as examples throughout the text. The book provides a fresh interpretative framework for any literature where a dualistic landscape of the seemingly serene, but simmeringly volatile, plays a strong role. The book also opens up spaces for further research – for example, to investigate gardens from the wider world, and to re-read the European Renaissance garden through the perspective of other theories, two of which are explicitly mentioned by Morgan (19), namely the spatial theories of Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau respectively. For the general reader, this book also provides an introduction to contemporary theoretical thought (eg Foucault), while it could also serve as an alternative travel guide for those visiting the gardens themselves.

Tielman de Villiers, University of Hertfordshire h