Palazzo Pitti and the Boboli Gardens, Giusto Utens, 1599

The relationship between art and  garden is one of the most topical issues of general interest today, but it has its roots in the history of landscape transformation. One of the first problems that arises regarding the subject is what kind of influence one has had on the other or vice versa. In his essay “Il giardino degli equivoci” (The Garden of Misunderstandings), Guido Giubbini poses an interesting question, while at the same time tries to give a provocative answer, one that certainly has an impact on the thinking of others: A question I am often asked is whether contemporary art has had any influence on the development of the garden. I generally answer that no, it has had none (Guido Giubbini, Il giardino degli equivoci. Controstoria del giardino da Babilonia alla Land Art).

The answer might seem surprising, considering the age-old relationship between art and garden, but continuing to follow the thread of his reasoning: In fact, I would like to counter the interlocutor by asking him whether he thinks the garden has had an influence on contemporary art. The idea that “high” art, or art commonly understood as such, has “influenced” the garden, which is evidently considered a second-rate art, is an indication of the low esteem in which the garden is still held today, despite being so fashionable (Ibidem).

So who influenced whom? Obviously, there is no immediate answer to this question, and it is necessary to start from a time well before that of contemporary art in order to clarify certain concepts.


We can imagine the path followed by Art (capitalised from now on to indicate its highest aspect, that category which includes the visual arts par excellence since antiquity: painting, sculpture and architecture) and garden art as two lines, two diachronic paths running parallel. Whatever art is and will be, it runs parallel to the succession of socio-cultural events, to the changes in philosophical thought, to the technical-scientific and geopolitical fractures (Angela Vettese, L’arte contemporanea. Tra mercato e nuovi linguaggi)

In fact, numerous studies have shown that there has always been a relationship between the “style” of an era and the arts that were being developed; the garden, like architecture or the visual arts or everything else, evolves on its own (or does not evolve), within its own language, its own codes, its own tradition, without needing to imitate anyone or be subject to external influences. It can therefore be safely said, at least in general terms, that the style of an epoch manifests itself independently within some or all of the artistic languages, whose development takes place along parallel rather than branched or interdependent lines. […] In other words, there are gardens whose style, in its own expressive sphere and at the same time, corresponds to that of a painting, a sculpture or a photograph, without the need to think of influence or derivation, either in one sense or the other (Guido Giubbini, Il giardino degli equivoci. Controstoria del giardino da Babilonia alla Land Art).

Engraving of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles, Abbot Delagrive, 1746

The association between the monastic garden, the hortus conclusus and the Gothic period, or the Italian garden and the Renaissance period, and consequently the Baroque and the French garden is quite immediate. We can indeed speak of influence, but not of exclusivity of relationship; in fact, every aspect of the society of an era is influenced by the models that are developed and followed: In the Renaissance, the return to the study of the classics, the astonished gaze towards nature and the cosmos, the centrality of the human figure, scientific research and the love of geometry, mathematics and symmetry were part of every artistic aspect, participating in the development of the arts such as sculpture, painting, architecture, but also of non-visual arts such as literature, poetry and music, dance and theatre, and the minor arts – goldsmithing, garden art, textile production, etc. – which were mostly considered to be the same as the arts of the Renaissance. – The minor arts – goldsmithing, garden art, textile production, etc. – are mostly considered as crafts.

The same could be said about other historical periods, always keeping in mind our parallel line diagram. Of course, garden art is influenced by Art, and we can draw several parallels between artistic production and garden design, but fundamentally this relationship is linked to the decorative insertion of artistic elements into the garden.

The link is only made explicit through the application of the models that govern each production of the era in question. We can linger on this formation until the end of the 19th century, when our two lines remain parallel, but the scanning of styles increases: no more centuries pass before the ‘fashion of the age’ comes to an end, the artistic avant-garde makes its way in and a real intellectual upheaval is underway.

The canons of the past are being decisively overtaken (i.e. there is no longer that progression from “style” to “style”, in which each current found solid support on the preceding one), new approaches to Art allow for new points of view on the garden, and the evolution of thought is so rapid that even landscape design must adapt.

We are on the threshold of Modern Art, the turmoil began before 1914, but ended before the dissolution of the Soviet empire. If we really need to set dates, the beginnings of the great adventure would rather be located in 1905, i.e. at the moment when we witness almost simultaneously the phenomenon of “liberated” colour of Fauvism, the first experiences of the disintegration of form with Proto-Cubism, the predominance of subjectivity with Expressionism and, finally, the coming to consciousness with the first attempts at abstract art, and finally, with the first attempts at abstractionism, the need for art to come to terms with the difficulty of visually representing phenomena that fall within the sphere of the invisible or immaterial, as demonstrated by the progress of science and technology (Jean Clair, Breve storia dell’arte moderna).

However, this is a concept that is currently not always easy to define. The terms Modernism, Postmodernism, Contemporary are often used: we can identify three moments that are more intense than others. The first moment was the era of the avant-garde, which started with the Cubism of Pablo Picasso’s Demoiselle d’Avignon in 1906 and proceeded with the galloping overlap of Futurism (from 1909), of many forms of abstractionism (starting in 1910), De Stijl (from 1917), Metaphysics (from 1917), Dadaism (from 1915-1916), Surrealism (from 1924) and the many forms of Magic Realism, as well as the ‘return to order’ of the 1930s. The second salient moment began with the rebirth of the most experimental practices from the post-World War II period onwards, with such a mass of tendencies that it is impossible to make even a partial list. The third moment is ahead of us with an identity yet to be deciphered, which is being founded on the new way of building relationships between people and between cultures (Angela Vettese, L’arte contemporanea. Tra mercato e nuovi linguaggi).

But how far has Contemporary art moved away from Postmodernism, and when was the transition between “old” and “new” in the modern sphere? As always when talking about history and art, it is not easy – not to say harmful – to impose a precise date. We will simply adopt the following convention: by Modernism we mean the period from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 1960s, a period of great theories and artistic ferment; by Postmodernism we mean the overcoming of the negation of the forms of the past, the highlighting of new values (and the crisis of those ideologies that Modernism carried forward), which however refer to what existed before the Modernist revolution, caused mainly by the evolutionary acceleration of modern society.

The term Contemporary, on the other hand, is more complex, subtle in its meaning and in what it really wants to express; in the artistic sphere the concept of Contemporary expresses what is the production of today, of our days, but also the immediate past – in many cases it extends to the threshold of Postmodernism, considering the latter as a period that is not yet exhausted and still relevant today.

We will adopt a similar scope for Contemporary, letting Postmodernism actually become a period at the turn of the 1960s / 1970s, and use the most adherent meaning of Contemporary, i.e. referring to our times, those we live in, (that contemporary [art] generally considered to be the product of living artists (Will Gompertz, E questa la chiami arte? 150 anni di arte moderna in un batter d’occhio), to the present day and to the very recent past.

After this digression, let us return to our graph illustrating the trend of Art and Garden Art. As we were saying, from the end of the nineteenth century until about the 1930s, the artistic currents that followed one another established reciprocal influences with gardens, a direct link that was expressed in the design of true works of green art, placing the accent on the construction of the garden according to the canons of each current.

After the Thirties, the main influence came from architecture: the aesthetics of the time, combined with the precepts of functionalism and minimalism led to the garden being seen as a whole with architecture, and we began to notice that fundamental step of incorporating art into the design method.

More than artistic currents, we are talking about designers and their way of being influenced by art. A period of great masters of architecture and landscape – Sørensen, Scarpa, Burle Marx, Porcinai, etc. – Modernism has rightfully become the most important period in the history of architecture. – Modernism has rightfully become the reference period for the study and design of the contemporary garden as well. From the seventies onwards our chart began to change considerably. On the one hand, Art no longer has a linear trend.

This sequence would end around 1968, marked by the great libertarian uprising in France, Europe and also the United States, with the impressive demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the black and women’s Lib movements. The 1970s saw the transition to a new dimension of the work of art, which in the 1970s no longer had much in common with what we were accustomed to considering as such: a more or less well-constructed, moulded, painted object, whose manufacture obeyed a set of rules aimed at ensuring a certain perpetuity over time and bearing witness to a spiritual project. Actions, happenings, works that are ephemeral or destined to self-destruct, environmental art creations, “installations”, multimedia, etc. are not made to last, much less to aspire to relative eternity..(Jean Clair, Breve storia dell’arte moderna).

There are no longer any great movements, some artists continue to follow in the footsteps of modern currents, others reinterpret them and give rise to discordant trends; the ways and means by which art can express itself have become infinite thanks to the advent of technology and digital technology; the work of art is no longer just an ‘artist’s piece’ on display in a museum, always available over the centuries and almost an object of veneration; the work loses materiality, becomes ephemeral, made with materials destined for natural decay; it becomes a performance, an act of pure movement in variable contexts; the work is also a desire for change, a social denunciation through minimal effort or the absence of matter.

Our line of Art divides into multiple ramifications; some are quickly severed, others continue to divide, and go on to affect the line of garden art, meet it and divide again. Environmental Art, Land Art, and open-air museums, garden performances, Street Art are born.

We cannot properly speak of landscape design, but we can nevertheless affirm the current existence of a continuum of mediations between art, on the one hand, and landscape and garden design on the other (Monique Mosser, e Georges Teyssot, L’architettura dei giardini d’Occidente. Dal Rinascimento al Novecento), since, if it is true that through the centuries Art and the style it has always led have influenced the garden, now it is the garden, the landscape that exerts its influence on art.

Art that is exhibited outdoors, art created exactly and only for a specific natural context, art that becomes exactly landscape and shapes the earth. At the same time, the garden project, which we can rightly call contemporary, has integrated the artistic method into the design process, no longer as an aesthetic, decorative or exclusively functional form, but as a profound integration with the creative process, as a tool for transforming places and making them available to the individual, who can recognise himself and find himself in them, regaining his identity which has been overwhelmed by a globalised and depersonalising society.

These are the contexts in which the main actors move, Art and Garden, but their interactions can also be far more complex, and to close the discourse opened with Giubbini’s words, again from his own: This premise, of course, is mainly a matter of principle: the reality is much more varied. There are examples of the influence of contemporary art on the garden, and vice versa, of the garden on contemporary art, cases in which contemporary art takes on landscape value and cases in which, despite having it, it does not determine the characteristics of either the garden or the landscape, and obviously a number of examples in which the garden and contemporary art are in similar positions while remaining independent of each other (Guido Giubbini, Il giardino degli equivoci. Controstoria del giardino da Babilonia alla Land Art).

And it is precisely this variety of possible interrelationships between art and the garden that leads us to affirm that there is a multiform compatibility between them, and their malleability can be expressed in works that are not only aesthetically appreciable, but of great cultural and social significance.