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A Message from the Land of Plenty: Freedom + Form in Italian Gardens

So as it turns out, I’ve been getting into gardening lately. It’s been something that has been slowly growing in my heart for years now. I realized some of my fondest memories of all my travels have been spending time in green places. In the past few months, I have newly become even more infatuated with gardening. I was recently introduced to the English gardener, Monty Don, and his treasury of gardening programs on the BBC. I have watched several of his shows available to Netflix, I have contacted a neighbor horticulturalist, I have found master gardeners in my area, and I have printed out a lot of articles on different plants and gardening tips from the local county extension office. I am so remarkably fortunate to have so many resources at my disposal! The riches just keep on coming! I’m encouraged by the grace of every expert. They all say something of this sort, “prepare the best you can, but just get out there and do it. You will fail, but you will learn too.”

Now, I am also a part of a reading society where we discuss different various topics over the scope of human existence: liberty, education, beauty, civilization vs. culture, and so much more. At the same time, I am taking part in a local women’s bible study on the book of Galatians, chiefly speaking on the subject of freedom in Christ. Both have been so edifying.

Anyways, last week in the society, we discussed the nature of man and the topic of civilization and culture. Something struck me at my heart where God has been working in his theme of grace and truth. I was trying to explain it and well, I was searching for a metaphor to explain how I came to believe in this integration of civilization and culture in our lives. Last year, I heard Andy Crouch talk about how “institutions need artists, and artists need institutions” at Hutchmoot. I was challenged and encouraged by his talk more than I ever could have imagined. I mean what artist likes the word “institution”? So I prayed for a different way of seeing. The theme of boundaries and posterity was planted in my heart. Even deeper, this idea of grace and truth, that God had put there years before, was manifesting in a new way.

The next evening after our discussion, I happened to watched the series called “Italian Gardens,” and as Monty Don was discussing the high renaissance gardens, I suddenly had my great revelation of the perfect working metaphor. The Italian High Renaissance Garden.

“The idea of the exclusively green Renaissance Italian garden was a misunderstanding of Edwardian garden masters who took their cue from 400 year old gardens that had simply lost their flowers over the centuries,” Monty narrates in the show.

Did you catch that? The Edwardians lost the original intent of the garden. While they attempted to make gardens in the spirit of those original gardens, they completely missed the flowers. I liken this to the neoclassical marble statues. I’ve found there are many who do not know that the original Greek and Roman statues would have been painted in full color, even to the point of gaudy to our eyes. After all the years passed, all that was left was the marble, so the neoclassical artists thought the white marble was the classic way to make these sculptures. They missed the original point. These new gardens too were constructed in reverence of the past. Now, I would argue, that both the Edwardian gardens and neoclassical sculptures are very beautiful and important too. I just can’t get over the fact that the rich colors were forgotten in both.

“..marshaling nature with an elegant rhythmic formality and a surprisingly rich horticultural palette was one of the great artistic features of the Italian High Renaissance and is something that we still respond to...the Renaissance for the first time, took gardens and ordered them with harmony. Instead of fighting nature, and defending themselves against it, it welcomed it. It looked for interesting plants and created a space that was balanced, symmetrical, but filled with delight and also, incidentally, filled with flowers...” I love that he makes this point in the show. It seemed so pointedly relevant and a message for me.

This structure reminds me of civilization that keeps order and symmetry. And the beauty found within the structure reminds me of culture. These gardens would have been full of colors and flowers, but the things that survived were the strong hedges. Another reminder to me that things are not so black and white, but more of a duet of dualistic ways. The institution and the artist. Bagheera and Baloo in the Jungle ( I named my car Bagheera because I needed a little more of the truth part of my life to get me through the jungle). Law and License. Boundaries and Freedom. Truth and grace.

Without the strong structure and posterity building form of the hedges, we wouldn’t even know about the layout of those gardens. Without the institutions, we wouldn’t have a way to remember the cultures of different time periods. Without Bagheera, Mowgli certainly would have been led astray. Without the law, we would be lost as people. Without boundaries, there would actually paradoxically be no freedom. (Read more on the paradox of choice here at the Rabbit Room.) And without truth, how could we fully experience grace? We need theses “hedges” for protection and posterity’s sake to experience the fun and colorful part of life.

And oh how we love the flowers, the artists, Baloo, license, freedom, and grace! (Can you tell which way I lean?) May we not forget the rich colors of culture and what that offers to the structure of civilization. Another way of putting it could be the personality to these bones and flesh. I am reminded how we all have this structure of a body, bones and flesh, but we also have a personality that adds “color” to our person. There’s a reason God talks about his church as a body. There’s a reason we like to walk in gardens. There’s a reason music is comprised of individual notes. Somehow, the little pieces come together to create something greater. To remind us of the Land of Plenty where it’s not addition language but multiplication language.

Now maybe we lean towards one way over another and we need to take that to the Lord of our faith to work out, but isn’t it marvelous that God intricately weaves these two things together in our hearts for freedom and posterity’s sake? For ourselves and for others. Something that is apparent to me is this idea that the more ordered and beautiful a garden is, the less you think about it, but the more you just enjoy it. I remember the first time I visited a local spot called Maymont Park with my family and my cousins. It was the first time I ever saw an Italian Garden. I was a child. There was a covered walkway with columns leading me through the garden.T here were flowers everywhere and a beautiful running fountain in the middle of cascading steps. There were walkways to run down and walk around; and it made me want to sing and dance. Did I think about the design? No, I simply enjoyed it.



PS. After writing this post, I might have made a whimsical trip to Maymont to delight once more. I was met with flowers and deer and the golden hour.

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