The Monster in the Garden: Reframing Renaissance Landscape Design

The Monster in the Garden: Reframing Renaissance Landscape Design

The Monster in the Garden: Reframing Renaissance Landscape Design

The Monster in the Garden: Reframing Renaissance Landscape Design


Monsters, grotesque creatures, and giants were frequently depicted in Italian Renaissance landscape design, yet they have rarely been studied. Their ubiquity indicates that gardens of the period conveyed darker, more disturbing themes than has been acknowledged.

In The Monster in the Garden, Luke Morgan argues that the monster is a key figure in Renaissance culture. Monsters were ciphers for contemporary anxieties about normative social life and identity. Drawing on sixteenth-century medical, legal, and scientific texts, as well as recent scholarship on monstrosity, abnormality, and difference in early modern Europe, he considers the garden within a broader framework of inquiry. Developing a new conceptual model of Renaissance landscape design, Morgan argues that the presence of monsters was not incidental but an essential feature of the experience of gardens.


And after having remained at the entry some time, two
contrary emotions arose in me, fear and desire—fear of the
threatening dark grotto, desire to see whether there were any
marvelous thing within it.

— Leonardo da Vinci

In 1536, two female conjoined twins were dissected in the Orti Oricellari (Rucellai Gardens) in Florence. the humanist Benedetto Varchi, who was in attendance, gave a detailed account of the twins’ anatomy in his lectures on the generation of monsters (1548), before concluding that owing to “these & many other similar Monsters & different ones, like those that you see in the loggia of the Scala Hospital, we philosophically believe that there have been, & can be monsters.”

It is significant that the site chosen for the dissection was a garden, albeit one that was already well established as a learned academy and meeting place of Florentine intellectuals. Palla Rucellai’s garden was a sophisticated example of early sixteenth-century Florentine design, with many rare plants. It also contained several ancient statues from the Medici sculpture garden on the Piazza di San Marco, which were auctioned off in 1494 after the expulsion of Piero de’ Medici. Little remains today of the Oricellari besides the colossal figure of Polyphemus, sculpted by Antonio Novelli, a pupil of Giambologna, some decades after the dissection, and a seventeenth-century grotto.

In the late 1500s, the garden was purchased by Bianca Capello, the mistress of Francesco I de’ Medici, who put it to quite a different purpose. Clelio Malespini described one of the entertainments Capello contrived for the . . .

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