The MA in Renaissance Studies which I started in 2005 was the first serious study I’d done since leaving university in 1995. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about it, yet neither did I want to do anything related to ‘literature’ or traditional ‘art’. The reason I didn’t want to do literature was because my first degree was a joint honours in English and Librarianship. This ruled out Shakespeare and other literary modules. The reason I didn’t want to do ‘art’ was pure contrariness.
I’d made a conscious decision to choose courses in which I had no grounding at all. I wanted nothing conventional. Thankfully, The University of London promotes interdisciplinary study and allows you to connect diverse subjects.
I saw that Italian Renaissance Gardens was offered as the summer term module and immediately signed up. I knew nothing about English gardens or any kind of garden, apart from the fact they are pleasant to sit in when it’s sunny and best to avoid on wet visits to Versailles. So my starting point was open minded ignorance.
Comparing Renaissance Italy and Enlightenment England served to remind me that England was a cultural backwater for most of the early modern period, until travel became wide spread. Everything began in Italy and wealthy English land owners took these fashionable ideas and made them suit the English countryside. Hence the interdisciplinary nature of the study of Garden History: to get a sense of its origins, you have to look to Italian literature, culture, botany. It was in doing this that I came upon the Medici gardens and met the man of my dreams.
The man of my dreams was Francesco I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany. He was a hopeless statesman and worse ruler, but as a science-obsessed melancholic dreamer, he was perfect. After an introduction to him in one of the course lectures, I was hooked. I also had my essay topic. My module course work focused on the Grotto Grande in the Boboli gardens. This necessitated a midweek dash to see it in the flesh, and was the first of many Italian garden visits where I’ve skipped the churches, galleries and academies in favour of curious outdoor mannerist fancies.
I brought together alchemy and natural philosophy as a way of understanding the grotto, which led to my dissertation topic. My title was ‘Pratolino and the transforming influence of natural philosophy’. The topic is PhD worthy in my view so ultimately, I probably didn’t do it justice, but I achieved something to be proud of, and it has informed much of my later work and interest and opened up a fresh way of thinking about places I’ve visited.
The IHR is delighted to announce the launch of this new course, which provides an introduction to how archival research findings on historic gardens can contribute to garden restoration, conservation and management. Taught on Tuesday mornings (11.00-13.00), Historic Gardens: Research in Action adopts a case-study approach to the exploration of these relationships through a combination of lectures, seminar-based discussions and site visits.
Researching the history of a garden or landscape is an absorbing and exciting activity that draws together documentation, maps, paintings, horticulture and other information to tell the story of the garden’s development and the people involved in its creation. The results will be a well-referenced report that describes chronological design overlays and planting and may identify the garden as of significant historic interest. This short course takes researching a garden’s history a stage further by a consideration of how these findings can contribute to a garden’s restoration, conservation and management. It also provides a practical understanding of the range of methodologies currently employed in the identification, protection and care of historic parks and gardens in the UK.
Examination of these issues is made through case studies chosen as examples of gardens restored to different historic periods and under different types of ownership and management. Visits will be made to the seventeenth-century formal gardens at Ham House (National Trust), the eighteenth-century landscape garden at Painshill Park (Painshill Park Trust), and the early twentieth-century garden of plantsman E. A. Bowles at Myddelton House (Lee Valley Regional Park Authority). Sources of evidence for restoration and plans for garden management will be studied in both classroom sessions and with expert guides during site visits.
Interested in gardens as landscapes? Take a look at the new MA Landscape and Garden History at the IHR.
The course starts this Autumn, running every Thursday (10am-5pm) with the first session on 2 October. The lecturers are all well-respected academics in their fields and include Brian Dix (archaeology), Paula Henderson (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), Sally Jeffery (Italian Renaissance and French seventeenth-century gardens), Michael Symes (eighteenth century), Rebecca Preston (interwar suburban gardens) and Brent Elliott (plant collectors and garden designers) and Barbara Simms who will be teaching American gardens and twentieth- and twenty-first century gardens.
The third term will be devoted to dissertation writing under the supervision of an appropriate academic.
Teaching will be undertaken at the Institute of Historical Research, but with practical sessions at Museums and libraries as well as visits to gardens in and around London including Chiswick House, Garden Museum, Tate Britain, British Museum, Painshill Gardens and Wisley. There will be an optional overseas visit to Italy for those that wish to take it. There will be a strong emphasis on tutor/student interaction in class. Visit http://www.history.ac.uk/study/ma-garden-history.