Baroque Pastoral: Ground as “Infinite Work in Process”

The vertiginous geography of references within pastoral literature and baroque gardens makes it difficult to know where to start when trying to appraise and analyze them. In general, two possibilities present themselves. Empiricists taking a structural approach might read the pastoral as a system that delights audiences (and scholars) by offering an enigma that can be decoded or deciphered. If the interpreter understands the code, then he or she not only grasps the meaning of the artwork but also proves his or her knowledge ofthe artwork's epistemological offerings. While this approach offers the possibility of understanding historical artifacts' contents and meanings, it does not rise to the level of imaginative excess that shines through so clearly in baroque artifacts. To entertain the excess of baroque works, one can pair the structural, empiricist approach with a treatment of the artifacts as unstable matrices of accumulating meaning, or what Angela Ndalianis calls a poetics of serial thought:

According to a structural order, signs and messages belong to a shared or preestablished code that can be “decoded.” In serial thought, however, messages disturb prior codes by replacing them with their own distinctive variations. [... ] Serial thought is intent on producing new signs. That which is important in the message or sign is not information but its aesthetic equivalent: “its poetic meaning” (Eco 1989, 59). Serial thought is concerned with form itself, with what Deleuze has called the “infinite work in process” (1993, 34). (71)2

The effort of tracking meaning through the passages of Colonna’s pastoral wonderland emulates the strife faced by Poliphilo as he struggles to unite with Polia. As such, the mathematical soundness of the diagrams proposed by Colonna and the referents hiding beneath the torrent of his citations matter less than the form of the book itself, its meandering, oneiric state of perpetual unfolding. In a similar vein, Tasso may reference Orlando Furioso in L’Aminta and show signs of his familiarity with the pastoral genre, but his play intends to produce new signs that indicate the path to self-knowledge and true love through a poetic sensibility that splices Platonic philosophy, Renaissance humanism, and Christian ethics into a practice of wayfinding. By thinking serially and by allowing the baroque pastoral to come into focus as a fluctuating ground, the fecundity of which nurtures the infinite work in process, interpreters will stumble upon a more playful yet still rigorous interpretation of these texts as well as the (textual, theatrical, botanical, spiritual, and quotidian) performances taking place in and around Venice during the sixteenth century.

Probing more deeply into the Deleuzian quotation harnessed by Ndalianis, I suggest that a specific trio of ludic dialectical relationships motivates the process or the processual movement of these performances. First, I discern the tension of the interior and exterior that Cocco recognizes at the heart of every garden. When the botanical art of making gardens relocates to the epistemological art of garden thinking, the tension between interior and exterior migrates from the locus of the garden’s emplacement to the boundaries of the thinking subject. A privileged (spiritual) interior safe from the hazards of the (civic, social) exterior has no place within the baroque. Interior and exterior communicate, contest and inform one another so as to require a practice ofself-pruning that itself relies upon an incessant practice of discipline. Jesuit thinkers such as Kircher and Hawkins, and Jesuit-trained artists such as Tasso, demonstrate this discipline in their works.

Second, each disciplined gesture finds its counterpart in an excessive gesture. I have attempted to reveal this situation by juxtaposing Bomarzo’s libidinal and citational excesses and Valsanzibio’s well- groomed and rectilinear Path of Salvation, which at first seem at odds with one another but, through analysis, begin to appear as two sides of the baroque pastoral coin. The excesses of Bomarzo only come into being through a lifetime of concerted and disciplined garden thinking, which, in turn, injects a multiplicity of meaning into each textual and sculptural element within the sacred wood. The disciplined architecture of Valsanzibio requires a sprawling landscape teeming with sculptural signs and didactic inscriptions, thus proving that its disciplined “art” only comes into being through an awareness of nature’s fecundity and diversity. Where discipline shows itself, excess likewise asserts its presence. A similar schema appears when pairing Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and L’Aminta, for the excesses of the former seem to lock with the discipline of the latter to create a pastoral literary force field, and yet the discipline of Tasso’s play comes about by giving oneself over to the all-encompassing tumult of love’s fire, and even the circuitous sentences of Colonna’s magnus opus bear the hallmark of an assiduous effort to craft a dreamscape in literary form. The poetic meaning of baroque pastoral hinges on this pairing of excess and discipline.

Third, the poetic meaning within the baroque pastoral, indeed a poetics of meaning, bursts forth from a dance between art and nature. What appears today as the high art of Tasso’s poetry also resembles a particularly compelling choreography. Where the poetry seems to be showing itself most ostentatiously (in its fancy phraseology and ornate imagery) it actually upstages itself purposely in order to show off the beauty of nature. The garden art of Valsanzibio enacts a similar movement, as its sonnet clearly states. Inversely, where nature makes its presence felt most overtly in L’Aminta (for example, in the way it cushions the fall of Aminta and protects him from dying) the poet’s signature shines through, since nature as such exists nowhere in the poem. Every line, every image springs from the poetic world as conceived by Tasso. In the next chapter, by distinction, Ruzzante’s Pastoral will display an unease with such moves because the nature foregrounded by the high art of the pastoral poets has little to do with nature as understood and experienced by the lower classes. What appears to the members of the upper classes such as those at the d’Este court where L’Aminta debuted as a poetic gem given form by nature itself appears to Ruzzante as a kitschy substitute for nature that has the power to obscure the earth’s bounty in the same breath as it offers it praise. Indeed, anticipating Ruzzante’s response, I stress that whereas the baroque glimpsed in Leibniz’s connection to the gardens of Herrenhausen showed thought that emerged from and remained tethered to the dirt, the baroque of Tasso and Colonna floated up higher off the ground, as it were, and threatened to lose touch with the terrestrial world altogether. This, at least, is a claim reasonably argued by the classes of people whose daily lives were governed by both the caprice of nature and the desires of government officials.

Together, the ludic dialectical relationships motivating the materials collected in this chapter animate the infinite work in process of the baroque pastoral. The final lesson from the material gathered here leads from this more familiar dimension of the dialectic’s collision of opposites to the less familiar work of arrangement foregrounded in Spranzi’s The Art of Dialectic. For the baroque pastoral unfolds through expressions of serial thought and as such culminates not in closed, finished, or fully autonomous artifacts untethered to the world from which they sprang but, rather, in open-ended poetical meaning that requires aesthetic critique to unpack. Such a critique must train itselfon the arrangement ofcitations and the path offered through the work’s terrain by the form of the work itself. This path belies a concerted pedagogical, and as I demonstrate in the case of the Jesuits a psychagogical, effort to hew a specific life performance from the reader and/or spectator who walks it. To uncover the path and the pedagogical or psychagogical effort undergirding it, I deploy the techniques of garden and spatial thinking that the gardens and literary works in this chapter have revealed.


  • 1. According to Jernigan and Jones, the theatre in which the play first took place was likely an outdoor one: “Most modern critics feel that Aminta was written in Spring 1573 and first performed on July 31 by the Gelosi company on the island of Belvedere del Po, near Ferrara; the d’Este summer palace was situated there” (Tasso xvii).
  • 2. Ndalianis’s reference is to Umberto Eco, The Open Work, trans. Anna Cancogni (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press) 1993.
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