Wednesday, March 16, 2011

An Historical Precedent for the Polyculture Lawn

So there a friend and I were, at the Art Institute, viewing the new show of very precious works from the French Renaissance. Which I wouldn't mention in a gardening blog, except I was amusing myself by seeing how many flowers I could identify in the tapestries, illuminated books, and paintings.

How those people loved flowers and gardens! Columbines and daisies, pinks and lilies, roses and irises run riot--as backgrounds, in foregrounds, and surrounding the text in books of hours. And many of the paintings feature beautiful, neatly kept gardens, with familiar-looking rectangular beds and carefully maintained fruit trees. As a child, looking at these kinds of works, whether in a museum or as print reproductions, I would imagine magically stepping into these worlds and walking in the gardens and towns. Later I learned about the garden-as-symbol and its importance to Medieval and Renaissance culture.
The Annunciation

This day I decided, to heck with the featured saints and courtiers--if I could visit, I'd want to have some nice long chats with the gardeners, and talk with them about what they grew, their methods, tools, rotations, uses for herbs, propagation methods, and so on.

Then I stopped short in front of two paintings by Jean Hey, the Master of Moulins: The Annunciation (1490-95) and Charlemagne and the Meeting at the Golden Gate (about 1500). You will notice that in each a patch of lawn is depicted. What is difficult to tell here, but was strikingly evident when confronted with the paintings (so glorious in real life), was that the bits of lawn were full of...weeds, all lovingly painted in great detail. As though there were nothing wrong with them, and they had value. Botanically correct dandelions, plantains, clover--all kinds of broadleaf plants many modern Americans wouldn't countenance in their lawns, but that the French considered decorative in courtly and indeed holy scenes.
The Meeting at the Golden Gate

If that sort of lawn is good enough for Charlemagne, Emperor of Europe, and for Mary and Gabriel, if it's worth the time to paint for one of the great painters of the Western tradition, it ought to be good enough for us. Perhaps the 15th-16th century French, arriving today, would ask us why so many of our lawns are so boring. No visual interest. Hardly worth painting.

So that cheered me right up, and I wondered, what are other historical precedents for the polyculture lawn? When did broad-leafed plants and flowers in lawns become weeds, to be omitted from idealized landscapes?


Related Posts: 
Lawncare Resources on the Web
The Polyculture Lawn: A Primer
Once in a Lifetime: This Is Not My Beautiful Lawn

7 comments:

Ficurinia said...

Fabulous post! As someone who once aspired to be an art historian, I hear and feel your sentiment!! I wish I could return to school now solely to study plants in art. I don't know what's going on out there today, but lots of folks are posting some really thought provoking posts.

Elephant's Eye said...

With your words, I can see that little patch of green tapestry studded with gems of great value. They would have had medicinal/herbal value?

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Ficurenia, Perhaps in light of tragic and unsettling world events people become more reflective and savor what they have or think about what they value.

Plants in art are very interesting. I'd like to learn more about how depictions of plants and nature have changed as our culture has become more urban, more "man-made."

Yes, EE, I think so.

Don Plummer said...

Adrian, are you on Facebook? My current 'profile picture' is Albrecht Dűrer's "Great Piece of Turf." Enjoy:

http://a1reproductions.com/great-piece-of-turf-by-albrecht-durer.jpg

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Don,

Thanks for the link--really cool picture, and telling.

Dave Coulter said...

What the goat leaves for the painter? :)

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hi Dave. Yes, that's why the landscapes are idealized--they leave out the goats.lol.