English Samgha/Saggi/Speciali

The Gardener of Murano

di Stefano Gulizia*

Sometime in 1552 Giovanni Battista Ramusio left his home to reach the Ducal Palace. He had a delicate task to perform. The Venetian Senate had just assigned him the production of a detailed mappa mundi to be sent to Costantinopolis, as a gift requested in a letter by one of the sons of sultan Suleiman. The services of the cartographer were an apt choice, since Ramusio had just finished collecting and illustrating the first series of his Navigationi e viaggi, printed by Giunta in 1550. Ramusio was then sixty-seven years old, and his expensive artefact would soon enter a luxury outlet more cosmopolitan and far larger than any other entrepôt in the Mediterranean.

Ramusio and his supporters knew that Istanbul had become a meeting place for merchants who had an interest both in mapmaking and in Venetian manufacture. In the subsequent years, traders and diplomats facilitated the marketing of other goods related with geography, often making sure that the routes of transport were planned for maximum safety. In 1563, for example, Suleiman asked Venice to provide information on Christian countries to help planning a new comprehensive, no doubt celebrative, history of the Sublime Porte. Thirty years later, in 1598, a bundle of maps, a isolario, and some unspecified “curious books” all printed in Venice were donated to Cigalazade Sinan, the famous renegade of Genoese descent who was repeatedly appointed kapudanpaşa, or General Admiral of the Ottoman fleet. Ramusio knew that while he was consorting with cartographic experts for the world map, a group of Englishmen were seeking legitimation for a colony in modern-day Canada. Ramusio had faith in that westward expedition, especially after John Cabot made it to the mainland. Moreover, the logic of seizing the Strait of Magellan would have been obvious to anyone looking at a contemporary atlas published in the 1550 Navigationi (fig. 1), which the gift for the sultan naturally had to replicate. Summoned by the Senate, Ramusio tried to offer assistance, to reassure the patricians worried that the threats on Crete and Cyprus would damage the city’s commercial networks, and to allow the court at Istanbul to relish the “wonders” of Venetian mapmaking. Ramusio’s tactics impressed his allies. A reader of Suleiman’s political assessment would have visualized chances and challenges that a crew faced in North America, and perhaps even believed that the area of Spanish colonization could be contrasted, although the sultan himself had no intention to tackle the Habsburg enemy all the way there. But none of Ramusio’s talents could save him from the economic realization that his atlas was part of a governmental investment in a flow of objects traveling to the same emporium, including expensive fabrics, glassware, watches, jewels, magnifying lens and early modern reading glasses. In 1590 Safiye, valide of the sultan and the power behind the throne of Mehmed III, ordered to the artisans of Rialto a stock of turban plumes in stained glass.

In the morning of January 7, 1527, Marin Sanudo noticed a striking object in the Senate chamber, property of Giacomo Loredan. “It was a round high chess board, large and very beautiful. It was wrought of gold and silver an set with chalcedony, jasper, and other jewels. The chess pieces are made of the purest crystal.” The quartz shades of the chess board were so impressive that the Loredan clan planned to sell it to the Senate, send it as a gift to the Sultan in Istanbul, and use the proceeds of the sale to fund the dowries of two daughters. The Ottoman fascination with jeweled artefacts is also evident in Venetian exportations of the cesendello, a cilindric hanging lamp, complete with oil, water, and wick, produced in Murano glass, which was variously used to illuminate mosque chapels or ceremonial rooms at the Topkapi Palace. A direct parallel of this craft is present in Marco Basaiti’s Christ Praying in the Garden (fig. 2), probably painted in or around 1516. It is suggestive to think that the vertical axis connecting Christ to the hanging lamp across a leafless tree would also emphasize Mediterranean trade. Encouraged by its position at the midpoint of the canvas, against a solemn-toned evening sky of Bellinesque texture, the hanging lamp is less a quaint device to show its destination upon an altar than a sharp demarcation between urban boundaries. Basaiti’s “garden” retains the pathos of the twilight, but into the high-pitched rhetoric strides a chamber-like dimension coming from an adjacent marketplace. It is truly a garden of Murano. In 1510 Basaiti had already experimented with similar postures of encircling and concealment in the Calling of the Sons of Zebedee. If we briefly compare Basaiti’s space, routinely mistaken as a cozy little cosmos, with Tintoretto’s Agony in the Garden (fig. 3), a painting commissioned by the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament for the Venetian parish church of S. Margherita, and completed in 1576, it appears that this second garden is at the same time more eucharistic and engaged in a general appeal for the disintegration of continuous space. Christ’s moment of mortal weakness (“if thou be willing, remove this cup from me,” Luke 22.42) is a nocturnal scene framed by encircling shadow. The splintered fall of moonlight on Christ’s soaring body—whose posture is inspired by more surrender in these parish prototypes in comparison with Tintoretto’s later paintings at San Rocco—combined with dry-brush techniques, loaded to leave a stroke fading into shadow, suggest that this “garden” is an expressive height of chiaroscuro. Unlike Basaiti’s penchant for telescoping the conventional coordinates of Venetian commercial activities, Tintoretto, who otherwise outdid his competitors through shrewd entrepreneurship and exceptionally fast delivering, suffers minimal intrusion to painterly definition.

At the moment his 1552 atlas arrived in Istanbul, Ramusio knew much about the sea and its geopolitical dangers. He was, after all, an avid reader of travelers’ accounts. But even those with less obvious connections to oceanic ventures had at least heard about the strength of the waters that bounded their lands. Many senators of Venice never saw the Atlantic, but they would have picked up some ocean lore from Sebastian Cabot, son of the explorer, who, although employed by the Spanish crown, was secretly dealing to the Most Serene Republic crucial information about an obtainable Northwest Passage to China. A generation before the publication in London of Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s Discourse of a Discoverie for a new Passage to Cataia, which spurred investors to hire Martin Frobisher for a journey into the North Atlantic in 1576, Ramusio had already written in the Navigationi that whoever found the Passage would earn immortality. Venice was neither in a position to disentangle herself from the influence of Spain, nor in need of a policy, as England, to ameliorate poverty at home. Ramusio’s persuasion about immeasurable riches literally frozen in the arctic ice, however, informed the scope of the earliest printed map of North America that appeared in his Navigationi (fig. 4), offering a synoptic, and necessarily rudimentary view of the current Carolinas up to Labrador—a territory stretching from Florida north to 67 degrees North latitude that, as the Frenchman and fellow-cartographer La Popilinière acknowledged, was by right of discovery in the possession of England. A direct endorsement of English territorial claims was not in Ramusio’s mind. Yet, as Peter Mancall meticulously reconstructed, the Navigationi came to be seen as a valuable asset in a colonial effort of anti-Spanish sentiments. In 1595 Richard Hakluyt, the British Ramusio, instructed a correspondent to purchase a copy of the Venetian Navigationi, then at their third reprint, either in Paris, Frankfurt, or Cologne. If jewels and spices framed a large European discourse whose ideological axis was Eastbound, maps and chorography rehearsed extensive arguments on the West. It is an historical paradox that, as private studies and cabinets of curiosities were filled by Venetian prints, the voice of Ramusio would have been caught in a conversation that had all ideological incentives to describe the excesses of Spanish torture and depredation in the new world. Ramusio was still the man who first translated and embraced, on Andrea Navagero’s request, the perspective of De orbe novo by Peter Martyr. The busy editorial rambling, the flurry of Spanish editions we observed earlier in Campo San Fantin, was eventually superseded by an even more transnational and dangerous literary market. On a smaller Mediterranean scale, Venice’s trust in Ramusio was reinforced by his 1543 edition of the travel diaries of Benedetto Ramberti. A Venetian diplomat, Ramberti traveled through Spain as a secretary to the Republic, but he left a detailed itinerary of another journey in 1533, which took him from Ragusa to Istanbul. It is difficult to imagine much of a market for his printed memoir, at least outside of Venice and especially in Spain, where patriotic or filiopietistic book buyers might have puzzled to get their hands on an altogether flattering account of the Ottoman costumes. In Anatolia, Ramberti’s gaze focuses on vestiges of antiquities, mosques, private houses and baths; in Dalmatia, his merchant ethos fantasizes about wine and timber in retails, to then linger at length on a row of attractive gardens full of oranges, lemons and citrons, adorned with fountains fed by aqueducts. In the same way matters of maritime trade were disguised in the paintings of the generation of Carpaccio and Giorgione, the garden became a most cherished visual and cultural matrix of Adriatic experience. Venice’s overseas colonies remained a pursuit of profit and honor, but they also reflected an articulation of intimacy and empire, a peaceful balance between gardens and galleys. The coastal outlook of Ramberti’s “Illyrian dialogues,” invoked throughout Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (and, I would also add, The Comedy of Errors) in less benevolent traits, were confirmed by another Balkan travelogue, written in 1553 by Giovanni Battista Giustinian. Giustinian would rather use the edge of a pen than of a sword to describe the friendly disposition between Venetians and Ottomans he discovered near the useful Turkish mills in Šibenik. A fitting emblem of the patrician’s journey is his impressive description of the Gozze garden in Trsteno, dating from 1492 but remodeled in the early sixteenth-century to fit the inclusion of new irrigations and a marble pavilion-belvedere. The traditional outward-looking attributes of the Renaissance garden arise in the area of Dubrovnik through a specific integration of the surrounding landscape and the views toward the sea; enclosed, inward-looking and intimate spaces, on the other hand, borrowed to the Dalmatian villa an aura reminiscent of the Arabian garden-court that sailors would have seen all over the Mediterranean. A blend of intimacy and empire, so dear to Venetians, could be followed precisely in the garden’s geometrical networks. Unlike a medieval hortus conclusus, however, the ground-plan of the Trsteno arboretum was only the best compromise possible between the needs of axial composition and its sloping terrain (fig. 5), dominated by parterres and terraces like in Liguria. Vineyards, stone pillars and the pergola would have had more than some resemblance, to a Venetian like Giustinian, of the Brenta canals with their villas. Beneath the playfully pastoral trappings of the topiary gardener’s humble craft the Neapolitan humanist Pontano was able to recognize nothing less than a “cosmic hero,” shaping into beauty a formless mass. Even through a contrast of level grounds and its differently raised bed of plants, the Trsteno arboretum was a type of grand garden so far as it expressed concerns for straight lines and regular geometric shapes extending from the largest design units down to the smallest components. Like initial patterns in battle or a formation kept during a dance, the garden was an art-form meant to be viewed from above. Horticultural and kinetic arts, Jennifer Nevile mantains, manifested a fundamental kinship in their common search for choreography. Dance could be seen as the creation of patterns in space. The most common floor pattern of the bassadanza, choreographed at the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici, possibly by the prince himself, involved a circular figure, often interspersed with rectilinear patterns. In dances for more than two, the couples traced 90 degree arcs across the width of the hall (fig. 6), creating patterns that are very similar to the central compartments of gardens such as the ones arranged at the Medici villa Petraia or villa Poggio a Caiano. Formal gardens can also be viewed as the creation of patterns on the ground. The overwhelming importance of order is further underscored by the influence of symmetry in Renaissance cartography, as John Gillies observed. In the world maps cultivated by Ruscelli or Ramusio, the southern and northern hemisphere would have to be equal, and the landmass of the Old World and that of the New put in vertical axis. An important aspect of the conceptual framework underlying the early modern garden corresponds to the definition of the museum as a site of knowledge provided by Paula Findlen: its ability to create patterns. In her analysis of the museum as en epistemological structure mediating between the humanist notion of collecting as a textual strategy, silent contemplation, and the social demands for display, Findlen reads in the way in which each room differentiated the nature of the materials collected the reflection of conflicting jurisdictional claims upon them, and an overarching conflict of authority against curiosity. From floor to ceiling, the layout of most sixteenth-century spaces of collection, whether proto-museums or patrician apartments, presented a linear progression from an outside, ground entrance to the inner chamber or study, through clusters of objects, specimens, cabinets, tables, and traditional libraries. The role of statues and plants in this design is hybrid: similar to woodcuts and manuscript illustrations, between enclosure and partecipation. The presence of an herbarium emphasized both the traffic of medicines and simples across different regions, and the role of deambulation as a matrix of conversation and a threshold of experience. As new ‘Roman’ houses were explicitly constructed like a memory theater, fully-fledged botanical gardens were also constructed not only to sort out and host the materials naturalists brought back from their voyages but as a replacement of travel itself. The first botanical garden of the Venetian area was built in Padua, in the early 1540s. The first prefect of the so-called giardino dei semplici was Aloigio Anguillara, who had the double task to financially supervise the istitution and to facilitate important decisions about the identification of simples essential to the making of authentic Galenic antidotes. Although at a later stage botanical gardens offered a meeting location for scholarly exchanges, a sort of ‘dry-seed’ hub for the kind of naturalistic enteprise that Pietro Mattioli was starting to print between sheets of paper, the Paduan did not necessarily grow in size and importance through an endless cycle of visits. The Paduan garden was rather built at the intersection of a patrician interest in pleasure gardening, the teaching and propagation of exotica, and the method of the latest military constructions. The enclosed parterres, divided into four square quarters and penetrated by four tunnels (fig. 7), were planned by the learned Venetian cleric Daniele Barbaro as complex geometrically figured plots.A product of the first wave of travel and exploration, Andrea Navagero left a description of the Alhambra palace of Charles V (fig. 8), which he first visited in 1526, where Spanish splendor is carefully distinguished from the Moorish craftsmanship of the walls and ceilings. In a room-by-room elaboration of its outstanding features, Navagero notes the expert chanelling of water, “a grove of beautiful myrtle and some orange trees.” The ‘Spanish style’ court at the Alhambra finds a parallel in Navagero’s description of gardens and fountains at the Generalife palace. An overall effect of pastoral otium, marked by a special fascination with marble stones and flowing waters, also allows the ambassador to make of classical quotations a point of focus of his narration, which in this respect differs sharply from the more predictable and mundane version of his secretary Zuan Negro. Navagero’s landscaping at the Alhambra gardens was closer to the rhetorical tradition of topothesia (a fictional tableaux) than topographia (a description of a real marvel). It was neither an extravagant entertainment nor simply an admiring and grateful observation, but rather an exercise of laus Hispaniae, or praise of Spain, which drew on Utopian ideals of ethnography to impart an epic color and elevation to his letters. Like Martial’s epigrams and Statius’ Silvae, Navagero showed a marked interest in the paradoxical and marvelous, the disquieting luxury frequently associated with foreign worlds. As an ambassador vis-à-vis his private patrons and within the Spanish court of Charles V, he highlighted paradox and pleasure, wealth and sophistication, seemingly immune to the potentially damaging effects of the luxurious environment he describes. Labor, like in Statius, is only grateful to earth and land:

hic nec terra fuit: domuit possessor, et illum

formantem rupes expugnantemque secuta

gaudet humus                     (Silvae, 2.2.56-8)

The diplomat’s admiration for architectural and horticultural extravagances contrasts with traditional moralistic condemnations and the prevailing Venetian moral tone of domestica parsimonia (domestic moderation), which is in turn modeled against the tastes of Flavian emperors in Rome. In the villa poems of his Lusus, a posthumous pastoral collection printed in Venice in 1530, Navagero lavished ekphrastic enthusiasm upon the playful illusions created by the regulation of water. As in the letters to Ramusio from Alhambra, his terms are that of military domination over nature. An ancient precedent for the dissolution of boundaries between indoor and outdoor that Navagero notes in the Court of the Lions is in Varro’s description of Lucullus’ aviary. But more striking is how he reverses Tacitus’ outraged reaction to Nero’s Golden House, a site where art “provides a semblance of what nature had denied.” If the qualities of a landscape allude to the owners’ virtues, as Statius wrote (“dominique imitantia mores,” Silvae 2.2.29), Navagero reacted to the marvels of technology in the palace of Charles V less as a student of ancient architecture and mnemonic techniques, and more as a client to his patron—a sprawling, highly socialized affair that naturalists, virtuosi, and courtly entourage inhabited simultaneously. The dazzling way in which politics, curiosity, deambulation and scholarship happily comingled transformed gardens in public show-pieces for the city. Souvenirs of villa visits became respected achievements, the bleached bones of multifaceted cultures. Presumably, the civic notion of the garden as a museum “in motion,” forever opening its door to selected friends and visitors, combined with a growing self-consciousness as amateur botanist, urged Navagero to include in the letters to Ramusio instructions concerning the care of his gardens at Murano, as well as to convey his longing to be there. On May 5, 1525, for example, he wrote to his friend from Barcelona to suggest that the cartographer plant laurel trees and roses at Murano. It is plausible that Navagero’s fascination with the variety of plants in Spain may have grown out of his reading of Pliny’s Natural History, since Pliny’s appeal, as Findlen reminds, “lay in his expansive rather than synoptic approach to knowledge.” In further imitation of Pliny, the posthumous volume of Navagero’s travel diaries, curiously published only in 1563, in an age more and more fascinated with lists and inventories of ‘things in transition’, portrayed the ambassador as a collector, expanding facts of nature and visiting the hills around Granada in search of simples.

On April 7, 1527, Pietro Bembo wrote to Navagero from Murano: “I have been in your pleasant retreat in the suburbs for fifteen days now, thanks to the courtesy granted me by our Ramusio; my pleasure was such that I am sorry to leave.” The Belgian humanist Christophe de Longueil, as Mario Cermenati recalls, also traveled to Navagero’s garden, describing its beauty in a Latin letter that insists on the garden’s sense of order and distribution, on the possibility to alternate conversation and observation as in self-contained units of perambulation (intervallis discretae), and on the inherent spectacularity of the location. Navagero cultivated a reputation as a naturalist more through patrician coteries than by an assiduous self-advertising; strangely though, the reception of his garden is similar to the more bombastic efforts of apothecary Francesco Calzolari who, in Findlen’s reconstruction, combined the collection of distilling devices he proudly displayed in his native Verona with guided excursions up the slopes of Monte Baldo, usually concluded by a return to Calzolari’s laboratory to test wat the visitors had collected. This sort of experientia is woven of the same substance of Navagero’s proofs of botanical virtuosity.

Still, despite the enthusiasm for plants and the hospitability that made the spot a meeting-place for people with intellectual interests, Navagero’s garden at Murano also revealed a further political dimension in the characteristic horizon of a wealthy Venetian of this period. The emotional center of the garden’s narrative would have drawn the attention of any patrician back to the story of Bernardo Rucellai’s brief public career: the meetings held in a large suburban garden along Via della Scala in Florence, the Orti Oricellari. It has been generally assumed that these shady Florentines gardens alternated, along with the busts of emperors, statesmen, poets and thinkers, quiet readings, serious conversations, group discussions, and theatrical representations. Problems which would be now termed historical or philogical, political or antiquarian coexisted side by side: whether the character of Cato or Fabius deserved greater admiration; the political institutions of the ancients; the form of the best state and the foundations of the strength of Venice. A protagonist of a later phase in the Orti Oricellari, Antonio Brucioli, would actually become a Venetian resident.


* la nota bio-bibliografica su Stefano Gulizia è disponibile in calce al suo precedente articolo qui su samgha.