Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Dance and the Garden: Moving and Static Choreography in Renaissance Europe

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Dance and the Garden: Moving and Static Choreography in Renaissance Europe

Article excerpt

In his book, The Renaissance Garden in England, Roy Strong describes those gardens as a "profound expression of the Renaissance mind."(1) He argues that "not only are these gardens important in the history of art and architecture but they also provide abundant material in relation to the history of literature, theatre, science and ideas."(2) Roy Strong, along with scholars such as David Coffin, John Dixon Hunt, and Claudia Lazzaro (to name just a few), have added immeasurably to our knowledge of the grand gardens of Renaissance Europe, through their detailed studies of the design, plantings, architectural features, iconographical schemes and the philosophical and political significance of these gardens.(3)

This article draws on the work of scholars of garden history and it would not have been possible without the detailed studies of individual gardens which these scholars have produced. However, this article draws parallels between the design of gardens in Renaissance Europe and the contemporary choreographic designs of Italian, English, and French dancing masters: a linking of the choreographic and horticultural expressions of the "Renaissance mind" which has not hitherto been explored. Through an analysis of the choreographic patterns of Renaissance dance practices, I argue that the principles which underlaid the design of grand gardens in Europe also underlaid the construction of choreographies. Furthermore, that changes in the design principles of these gardens occurred at a similar time to corresponding changes in the choreographic practice.

My contention that the principles which governed the conduct of the art of dance in the Renaissance were the same as those which determined other creative endeavours, including that of the planting and design of gardens,(4) was also recognized at the time is supported by Sir Hugh Plat, who published several gardening books in the early seventeenth century. In his book, The Garden of Eden, Plat says: "I shall not trouble the Reader with any curious rules for shaping and fashioning of a Garden or Orchard ... Every Drawer or Embroider, nay, (almost) each Dancing-Master, (my emphasis) may pretend to such niceties."(5) As far as Plat was concerned both choreographers and garden designers created artefacts which were constructed according to the same design principles.

Both garden design and choreography are concerned with manipulating, controlling, and ordering space. Dance can be seen as the creation of patterns in space: patterns which form and reform, and trace out shapes in the air and on the ground. Formal gardens can also be viewed as the creation of patterns on the ground: their shapes are static, but they still present changing images as viewers stroll from section to section, and new shapes open up before them.

An important element in the creation of patterns in both the choreographic practice and in garden design of Renaissance Europe is that in order to be fully appreciated patterns were meant to be viewed from above. Order and measure, symmetry, geometrical forms, straight lines, the construction of the whole out of small compartments, the expression of splendour and power, and the creation of enclosed spaces with clear boundaries, these were all fundamental principles of both court dance and the grand gardens.

These fundamental principles are clearly seen in the Italian gardens and in the contemporary collections of choreographies. The earliest extant garden design of the sixteenth century is a sketch for a small garden by Baldessare Peruzzi from the 1520s.(6) The designs in the compartments are geometric, segments of squares and circles. The now famous Italian gardens of the Medici family and other nobility or sixteenth-century Italy were built from the 1530s onwards. The Medici villa at Castello was started in 1537,(7) the villa at Poggio was begun in the fifteenth century by Lorenzo de' Medici, but Duke Cosimo I made additions from 1545. …

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