Valsanzibio: “Ivi e l’Inferno e qui il Paradiso”

Having established that the imaginary garden is baroque both in the way in which it is apprehended and in its collection of the fashionable bulbous plants and florists’ flowers, Hawkins progresses to his discourse, and here he allegorizes these elements in a manner which is poised between tradition and innovation. [... ] As the “Discourse” continues, it becomes clear that we are indeed contemplating a baroque garden on a vast scale, perhaps not unlike the semi-sacred Paradise garden of Valsanzibio in the Veneto. (Davidson 90)

In this quotation, Peter Davidson creates a connection between Jesuit baroque imaginations and the actual gardens of Valsanzibio, helping, in the process, to conjure a specific site of baroque pastoral in action. Following through on a vow made by his father to God in 1631, Cardinal (and, eventually, Saint) Gregorio Barbarigo created a garden “to be a monumental symbolic road trip to perfection; a journey that brings man from the false to the truth, from ignorance to Revelation” (Ardemani, n.p.). Having made this vow in request for protection from the ravishes of the black plague that swept through Venice that same year, Zuane Francesco, Gregorio’s father, had intended to commemorate and glorify the might of God. The garden, then, inscribed into its terrain a common but important argument. First, the argument insisted that God indeed participated in the lives of human beings. Second, it clarified that humans had to discern and then follow a specific path in order to escape ignorance and rise to the knowledge of God’s presence. By walking il Percorso di Salvificazione (The Path of Salvation) through the garden, and attending to the allegorical meaning embedded within each piece of statuary and declared through the statues’ inscriptions, visitors would experience this argument on a sensorial level and depart from the garden with new knowledge that they should incorporate into their everyday lives for the improvement of their spiritual well-being.

Designed by Luigi Bernini, brother to the famous artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the seven-hectare garden (roughly 753,000 square feet) materialized in the Euganei Hills of Padua and took the name Valsanzibio (the Venetian pronunciation of “the valley of Saint Eusebio”). Upon arrival at the garden by gondola, Venetians were greeted by “Diana’s Doorway,” itself a conglomeration of sculptures (sculptures within sculptures within sculptures) laden with significance. Essentially a hierarchy of spiritual and secular identities, the doorway presents Diana on top, a familiar nod to the classical Roman pantheon then so much in vogue with scholars and artists. Below Diana and second in the hierarchy, Bernini inserted a bearded figure (known in architectural-decorative language as a mascaron), probably a symbol of the Barbarigo male ancestry. Next, he offered another reference to mythology in the statues of Ateone and Endimione that represented the Venetian nobility who, like the mythic figures, were never satisfied with their material wealth. Below them, peasants, the base of aristocratic wealth, sit near the bottom and console themselves in their plight with a barrel of wine. Visitors to the garden could situate themselves within this hierarchy and then follow the Path of Salvation through the garden’s artistic offerings and arrive at the Villa of Cardinal Barbarigo himself, which, ensconced within the elaborate allegorical fabric superimposed on the garden’s exterior appearance, presented the pinnacle of humankind’s achievement. Inscribed on the steps stretching out before the villa, one could read the final lines of a sonnet (author unknown) declaring that, having escaped the Hell of Venice located a few miles east, here in the garden one has found Paradise: “Ivi e l’Inferno e qui il Paradiso.”

Of the many features within this garden, two environments in particular showcase the baroque pastoral at work. The first is II Labirinto di Bossi Secolari (The Labyrinth of the Sacred Wood) erected with the help of 6,000 buxus sempervirens plants. Neither a clear example of the unicursal or multicursal labyrinth, this feature leads individuals to a central tower from which he or she (though, at the time, more frequently the former) can spy the one true path that leads away from confusion into the light and towards the truth of Revelation. As Angela Ndalianis explains, “[T]he multicursal (or multidirectional) model ‘suggests a series of choices between paths.’ Unlike the unicursal model, it does not consist of a single prolonged path [... ]. Rather than the path’s guiding wanderers to the labyrinth’s center or exit, in the multicursal labyrinth, the wanderer must make choices when confronted with multiple possibilities” (82-83). Though Valsanzibio’s labyrinth leads to a central tower, its multiple entry-points present visitors with a challenge. Choose the wrong path and you will either end at one of six dead ends, each one a manifestation of a deadly sin (greed, lust or lewdness, avarice, sloth or indolence, anger, envy), or else you will end up looping around the perimeter of the labyrinth indefinitely and fall prey to “the 7th and most insidious capital sins, the haughtiness or arrogance [sic]” (Ardemani). Only the most virtuous will reach the tower in the center, survey the remainder of the True path, and then proceed to the Hermit’s Grotto “to meditate on what you have just achieved and discovered in the maze’s saunter” (Ardemani).

The second baroque pastoral garden environment presents the juxtaposition of immanence and transcendence, thereby offering an opportunity for individuals to acknowledge the faults of the flesh and the promises of the spiritual life. The frailties and finitude of the body appear in the form of L’Isola dei Conigli (Rabbits’ Island). In the center of this island, spectators rest their eyes upon a birdcage containing doves: the spirit, trapped by the body, remains sutured to the earth. Surrounding the birdcage, a miniature glen unfurls atop a rabbit warren populated by those most effective procreators: without a rational soul to see beyond the desires of the flesh, the mind will only concern itself with the body’s immediate needs. As if viewing this scene from its nearby vantage point, the Statua del Tempo (Statue of Time) looks over the rabbits while also yielding to garden visitors a glimpse of Cronos stopped momentarily on his journey through time and space. With a dodecahedron weighing on his shoulders (12 sides, one for each month; a symbol of time’s heft) the god of Time may soon fly off and beckon the spirit of the garden visitor to follow. Unburdened by the body, the human spirit can then transcend the physical limits of space and time.

Both of these environments articulate the garden thinking of the baroque pastoral. As complex parts that express the totality of an ever-more-complex whole, they call to mind not only the discourse of Henry Hawkins but also the gardens within gardens invoked by Leibniz as they simultaneously work upon the imaginations of visitors to Valsanzibio in an effort to raise the intellect and spirit to a loftier position. At the same time, these thought- provoking qualities of the environments’ allegorical supertext emerge from earthen materials. Boxwood shrubs, marble, stone, grass, mud, iron, water, and rabbits: these materials, which will surely reappear in front of the eyes of the garden’s visitors as they return to Venice through the Venetian countryside, remind all that divine inspiration unfolds from an attention to the here and now. Material and allegory are not separate from one another. Bound by some powerful affinity realized through the architects’ art, these two elements fuse together into a third nature. More specifically, this third nature relies upon both the topological arrangement of elements within the garden and the interior/exterior relation that distinguishes the there of the countryside from the here of the garden—“Ivi e l’Inferno e qui il Paradiso.” Simultaneously a play between opposing forces (inside/outside) and a material argument arranged through the garden elements, Valsanzibio expresses dialectical garden thinking at work in the Veneto of the seventeenth century.

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