Sunday, December 2, 2012

Cosimo's Garden: Fit for a Prince

Cosimo d'Medici assumed control of the Florentine Republic in 1415, and started the famous Medici dynasty that would control much of Italy and influence Europe for much afterward. His immense wealth meant that he controlled all political offices in Florence - Pope Pius II said of Cosimo that "he is king in all but name."

Much like Augustus Caesar when he assumed the role of first emperor of the Roman Empire, Cosimo had to balance two images during his reign - that of the good republican, and that of the noble prince worthy of meeting with other princes and rulers on equal terms.

What is interesting for our purposes is how the garden of Cosimo in the Palazzo Medici served both to highlight Cosimo's civilian origins and princely bearing.

Cosimo d'Medici, pictured here frustrated that his son's nickname"the Gouty" had caught on.

Family gardens in Italy were traditionally very closed-off places. Boccacio's Decameron suggested that gardens were retreats from civil society,[1] and a wealthy merchant family's garden was more seen as a private place for the family to retire.

Cosimo's garden is different. Matthew Looper notes that upon entering the Palazzo Medici, Cosimo's visitors would have had easy access to the garden, and the palace itself was constructed so as to invite them into the garden.[2] This openness would serve a double-role for Cosimo, both reassuring and welcoming his guests by displaying his open civilian house and garden, and projecting great wealth and luxury for all to see.

Sometime between 1459 and 1464, Cosimo had installed in the center fountain of his garden a great bronze statue depicting the Biblical scene of the Jewish heroine, Judith, cutting off the head of the Babylonian general, Holofernes.

sculpted by Donatello

Standing above pagan scenes, and towering over the lifeless body of the heathen Holofernes, the statue of Judith sends a powerful message to its viewers. Cosimo added this inscription to the base where the statue was placed upon:

"Kingdoms fall through luxury, cities rise through virtue; behold the neck of pride severed by the hand of humility."[3]
As republican leader of the city of Florence, it is easy to see Cosimo here depicting the virtues of his native city here triumphing over adversity. Cosimo has given a view of Florence as a "city on the hill," so to speak; the virtuous republic of Florence, with the grace of God, humbles the mighty and Godless.

Now remember that this statue is placed in the very center of the garden. Why is this important? Because people in these late medieval times still widely read the large bodies of literature taking place in and concerning gardens, and this wealth of knowledge led to particular ways of approaching them.

The learned late-medieval person, or wealthy Italian, would have been familiar with many pieces of garden literature, from Hugh of St. Victor's De Fructibus Carnis et Spiritus, to de Lorris' Roman de la Rose, the Hypnerotamachia Poliphili, and even Dante's Commedia - and these works share a common theme:

"In most of these works, the narrative is some variation on what must be one of the fundamental narrative structures in the West: the penetration of a garden by a protagonist longing for something, his progress toward the centre, and finally, the climactic event that occurs in the centre of the garden that resolves the protagonists problems. Very often, the climactic transformation through the powers of a fountain located at the centre of the garden."[4]

This journey-narrative is not unlike Loyola's own Medieval Labyrinth, which takes its own journey around the entire cosmos, until it rests at the spiritual center of all things, Jerusalem, where the troubles of the pilgrim (that's you!) are discarded and hope renewed.

The center fountain had Judith's republican humilitas triumph over the imperial wickedness and excess of Holofernes' superbia.[5]
Caravaggio depicting a night that was not in the least bit superbia.
The narrative of the garden, then, was to show how Florence [under Cosimo] had been able to establish itself as a bright beacon of republicanism and democracy, and had through God's grace and intercession, survived and thrived against insurmountable odds. All things considered, not bad for a garden.

For all of Cosimo's garden's republican homey charm, aristocratic gardens were still seen as reflections of Paradise. Much like the medieval landscapes of last-week's post, gardens were seen as earthly Edens.

Naturally, the creator of such a garden would be seen in a parallel with the heavenly gardener (remember Walahfrid Strabo?). The visitor to the Palazzo Medici would come away with the notions of "Cosimo as Christ leading Florence to greatness" and "it was was only by Cosimo's wealth and elegant taste that this Paradise came into being."[6]

Very Elegant.
Add to this the fact that Cosimo made sure to do much of the work and care for the garden himself - thus, it truly was through his own power and good graces that this small Eden was brought to life.[7] Every visitor to the garden would know exactly what Cosimo wanted them to know.

This is due in part because of the active nature of gardens in the Middle Ages. Gardens acted upon the senses and left one open to passion, thought, and the divine.[8] The late-medieval person would have in his mind the many pieces of garden literature as he visited a stately place such as the Palazzo Medici family garden. Cosimo d'Medici counted on this knowledge, crafting an image of the garden that was both republican and aristocratic.


[1] Looper, M. G. "Political Messages in the Medici Palace Garden," in The Journal of Garden History. Vol. 12, iss. 4 (Utah State University). 1992. p. 257-258.
[2] Ibid. p. 257. 
[3] Ibid. p. 257.
[4] Ibid. p. 261.
[5] Ibid. p. 262.
[6] Ibid. p. 263.
[7] Ibid. p. 264.
[8] Ibid. p. 265.

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