When printing first reached western Europe books rarely had illustrations, and when they did they tended to be simple rather crude woodcuts which were few and far between. The quality of images improved gradually and by the mid-16thc books of architecture and even garden design were beginning to appear, beautifully illustrated and sometimes even with very little text. The coffee table book had arrived except that of course at that point there was no coffee.
Amongst the earliest and finest of these books were several by Hans Vredeman de Vries, a Dutch engineer, architect and artist.
He was the first person to present the garden as a work of art in its own right, so it’s with him that I’m going to start this look at early images of garden design. His influence soon spread far and wide and copies and echoes of his work can be found all over western Europe.
De Vries was born in the northern Dutch city of Leeuwarden in 1527, then part of the catholic Hapsburg Empire. It was the beginning of the Reformation when the largely protestant Dutch were beginning their long struggle for independence. The oppression and civil wars that followed were to dominate his life. His father was an artilleryman for the local ruler which may explain why De Vries was also later interested in engineering and fortifications. However young Hans did not follow in his father’s footsteps, instead began his working life apprenticed to a stained glass maker before moving to Mechelen near Antwerp.
There Hans studied art and architecture with the Emperor Charles V’s court painter Pieter Coecke van Aelst who had translated the architectural works of both Serlio and Vitruvius into Flemish. It was from van Aelst and these books that he discovered,and soon mastered, the principles of perspective which he was to go on and make his artistic specialism.
De Vries also helped van Aelst design and build the triumphal arch erected for the ceremonial royal entry of the city by Charles and his son the future Philip II of Spain. He was to use that knowledge later to design theatre sets as well as buildings and gardens, and you’ll see there’s an obvious overlap, if not interchangeability, between the two in his engravings. It would be hard to say about many of them whether they were for the stage or for the garden of a client.
De Vries produced his first series of architectural perspectives in 1560, probably aimed at amateur artists rather than architects. Published in Antwerp, Scenographiae sive Perspectivae was a set of twenty fanciful views of imaginary cities in meticulous linear perspective. Another 28 were published two years later.
Whether it was because Antwerp was the centre of the European printing industry, or because it was the richest city and economic powerhouse of northern Europe, de Vries moved there in 1565 on the death of his wife, and took up a post as a city architect. In 1576 following the sacking of the city by Spanish soldiers during the so-called Spanish Fury he helped rebuild the extensive fortifications. Also in the aftermath those sets of architectural designs were republished this time in book form, with a commentary in 1577 as Architectura. These various versions were then themselves republished in several languages many more times over the next century, sometimes under the title Architecturae variae formae.
[One of the problems with early architectural prints like these is that they are often republished, perhaps collected with other things, with or without additional text and commentary, and with different titles. That seems to have been the case with much of de Vries’s work. So please accept my apologies if you’re an expert and I get some of the details confused.]
It’s now, in the wake of their success, that Hans Vredeman de Vries turns his attention specifically to gardens. In 1583 he published what is regarded as the first book of garden designs Hortorum viridariorumque… formae. It has no text but draws on his mastery of perspective to create a series of imaginary gardens . [The images without captions below all come this book]
Contemporary texts about gardens and their design by such writers as Olivier de Serres’ Le théâtre d’agriculture, of 1600, generally identify four categories of gardens: those for vegetables, flowers, medicine and fruit [ie orchards]. De Vries’s gardens fall neatly into the flower garden group. His designs are all extremely formal ornamental pleasure gardens rather than productive spaces and they have all the expected garden features of the day.
The major structural elements are the elaborate trelliswork structures that surround and divide the ground. Some are simple pergola style constructions, others tunnels or bercaux. Sometimes he adds double height pavilions at the ends or intersections. All are covered with creepers or made from trees carefully kept trimmed to perfection so that there is no sense of nature asserting itself, rather only of nature under complete control with human proportion and order reigning.
The parterres themselves are geometric and filled with complex patterns of planting which resembles the familiar strap-work patterning often seen the facades of buildings of the period. The divisions interlock and interweave but are rarely the uninterrupted pattern of a knot which were by this point becoming old-fashioned . Instead they show their trendier replacement the cut work parterre or parterre coupee.
There are usually plenty of urns, statues and topiary work of all kinds too, including several examples of estrade, a hangover from the medieval style of clipping trees into a series of discs rather like a cake stand.
De Vries sets the various gardens designs amongst buildings in various of the classical architectural orders although the intricacy or lack of it in the gardens does not appear to be related to the complexity of the order. He uses the Doric order in the buildings in six gardens, then the Ionic and and Corinthian orders in seven more each. There are, however, no gardens in the simplest of all Vitruvius’s classical orders, the Tuscan. This may be because its simplicity associated it with more utilitarian vegetable, physic or fruit gardens, subjects which de Vries makes no attempt to tackle.
Despite the rigidity of the architectural features and the structural elements of the garden these designs are not uniform or boring. Instead de Vries plays with the various shapes, patterns and forms, mixing and matching in ways that May Woods described as “exuberant and extravagant epitomising the Dutch interpretation of Mannerism.” [Visions of Arcadia p.54]
Hortorum viridariorumque is definitely not a book of models or a practical work in any way. The lack of text or or even notes on the prints makes that clear. De Vries merely says they are examples of “belles et diverses figures” However there is surely more to it than that. These images were aimed at an audience of patrons and professionals with De Vries effectively suggesting that garden making is on a par with architecture as an art form and of course that is how it was beginning to be considered by many at the time, including in England , Sir Francis Bacon .
These were not Vredeman de Vries’s only garden designs. Other engravings of his often have them in the background as part of the setting or incidental detail. eg as the image above taken from the series illustrating the Ages of Man.
Unfortunately as the independence movement on the Low Countries continued the Spanish once again laid siege to Antwerp in 1584 and when they captured the city ordered all the Protestants to leave within two years, de Vries amongst them. Antwerp’s economic and political power was broken and never recovered, with Amsterdam and London now vying for the top spot. As you can see in the plan above its fortifications were planted with trees and effectively turned into a wall-top walk.
As the two year deadline loomed in 1586, De Vries who had by then remarried, moved with his new wife and son Paul to Germany where he accepted an offer to work for the Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. He was charged with two things, which show the diversity of his talent. One was designing a new grand garden for the duke and the other planning and overseeing the building of a major new canal. Unfortunately neither project was finished as the duke died and his successor was not interested. With the schemes abandoned de Vries set off travelling round northern Europe with his family working first in Hamburg where he designed gardens and trompe l’oeil panels of and for gardens, then Danzig, before arriving at the court of the Hapsburg Holy Roman emperor Rudolf II in Prague.
Rudolf was one of the most extraordinary and controversial monarchs of the early modern period. He might have been unprepossessing but he was a great patron of the arts, and also of the occult, alchemy and what what might best be described as the origin of modern science. He built up the greatest art collection of his day and de Vries designed a new gallery to house it although in the end it wasn’t built.
Hans returned to the Netherlands in about 1600 finally settling in Amsterdam, and in 1604 he was offered the professorship in architecture at the University of Leiden. It was the same year that his book on perspective, which included some more theoretical garden designs was published. After his death in 1607 his works continued to be republished for many decades after his death.
De Vries’s garden designs may have been imaginary but they were amongst the most advanced in Europe, fusing mediaeval tradition with renaissance innovation. They inspired several other artists, prominent amongst whom were Salomon de Caus, Jacques Boyceau. and Crispijn van de Passe the Younger. De Caus was to go on and work at Richmond and later design the Hortus Palatinus at Heidelberg for the Winter King and Queen – both of which I’ve written about on here. [follow the links to read more]
Boyceau was the superintendent of the royal gardens of Louis XIII in Paris and later published Traité du iardinage selon les raisons de la nature et de l’art which is a key text in French garden history. It includes sixty plans of parterre plans although no architectural settings.
Probably better known to English audiences, and more in keeping with de Vries’s style is van de Passe’s Hortus Floridus which, amongst his exquisite portrayal of flowers, has a few engravings of gardens based on the layouts and architecture in de Vries’ work.
Much less well known, although given the quality and scale of the work this is surprising, is a collection of drawings done for the Emperor Rudolph. For many years thought to have been drawn by de Vries himself when he was in Prague, they have now been positively ascribed to the imperial gardener Hans Puechfeldner and date from the 1590s. Three volumes of them exist, two in the National Library in Vienna and the third at Dumbarton Oaks. All three have been digitized and are relatively easily accessible on-line. All are drawn in the same style of perspective used by de Vries and which were probably meant to be turned into engravings. They were in large part inspired by, or copied from, the engravings in Hortorum viridariorumque but they are much more diverse and less rigid in approach and somehow easier on the eye. All three volumes have been digitized and are relatively easily accessible on-line.
The Vienna volumes date from 1591 and 1594. The earlier one has no text and 47 drawings, while the other is equally devoid of commentary and has just 6 drawings. One image in each has been coloured.
The volume at Dumbarton Oaks, dating from 159x, contains fifty-six drawings but also a couple of pages of text about the siting of gardens, mostly drawn from classical writers like Pliny & Varro which focus on the idea that gardens and architecture are a good antidote to melancholy. Puechfeldner goes on to suggest that the gardens should not only be full of rare and beautiful plants but birds and animals too to bring consolation and pleasure. There is also a reference back to the 14th Italian scholar Piero di Crescenzi in Opus ruralium commodorum, which had as many as 10 editions in German in the 16thc and so would have been well known to both the emperor and his gardener. Erik de Jong who suggested Puechfeldner as the artist translates part of the text as : “For we are not born for fun or play but for earnestness and strain to act justly and seriously. Play and fun my be enjoyed together when enough serious and necessary business has been conducted.”
Since the book was created before de Vries arrived in Prague Puechfeldner must have had access to a copy of Hortorum viridariorumque which shows the influence that the Dutchman had already had. For further information see the article by Erik de Jong about the Puchenfelder Album at Dumbarton Oaks:
So even there was no coffee there were coffee-table books, or compilations of prints which would have been pored over by those wealthy enough to dream of a grand garden. What no-one seems to have thought or certainly not mentioned anywhere about is the maintenance costs! But then this was the late 16thc when labour was cheap and so maybe the images do reflect potential reality after all!