The rebirth of the garden that doesn't exist

Written by  Gianni Venturi
«...The hope is that other generations will help reconstruct the lost gardens.»
The story of Ferrara's gardens is a strange and absorbing one. In the days of its greatest splendour, the city of the Este's had constructed a system of gardens that made Ferrara famous throughout the world and served to create that particular architectonic feature known as a pleasaunce. And yet, with the devolution of 1598 that saw the Este family abandon the city to be replaced by the Papal powers, those gardens were immediately "unmade AND uprooted".

Thus oblivion swallowed up the gardens hailed by Ariosto and Tasso as well as intellectuals from all over Europe as the expression of a utopia. No other place in Europe managed to imbue its own pleasaunces with such a precise degree of ideological content; nor did anyone manage to emulate the bold way in which the Ferrarese court interpreted and exploited both the symbolic and legendary impact of such places. And this was precisely why the new power represented by the Cardinal Legates decided to wipe out all traces of them.

But our story is also and above all a story of oblivion, neglect and decay bound up with the future and the vicissitudes of human destiny - and what was obliterated, removed, and refused yesterday, can and must live again at least as an inheritance of the memory, as a pietas that redeems our own time: antiquity as future.

Today, anyone who chose to observe Bolzoni's Pianta, the urban insula constructed between palazzo Schifanoia and palazzo Bonaccossi, between the Giovecca and via Cisterna del Follo would note a linking up of gardens, orchards, and woodland that forms one of the most complex and renowned products of Ferrarese architecture and town planning.

But while it is simple to recognize the importance and the central role played by the garden in the composition of these places, it is less simple to recognize the style of those gardens. Written evidence, maps, and reconstructions tell us little about the real configuration of those gardens. Generic distinctions such as garden, big garden, woodland, all refer more to types of garden rather than to any specific configuration they may have had.

There are some rather remarkable examples of an Italian garden developed around buildings of no particular size or importance. These gardens represent the real fulcrum of the complex, they indicate - so to speak - the style. Think, for example, of Villa Lante in Lazio. But the Palazzina of Francesco D'Este - the fulcrum of the pleasaunce of San Silvestro known as the Marfisa - has no important gardens.
Marquis Francesco's design did not succeed in eliminating what had been left undone between the three residences, and by this I am referring not so much to the three abandoned hovels standing right at the beginning of the Giovecca, as to the complex diversity of the façades: the sublimely horizontal lines of Schifanoia and the many-towered presence of palazzo Neroni whose formal lines clashed with the informal look of the Palazzina.

Certainly the ideology of the pleasaunce was entrusted - as it had to be - to the system of gardens that made its circularity possible; in their turn the gardens were invested with a typically theatrical function as demonstrated by the grand Loggia or Teatro - still extant to this day. Moreover it is indubitable that the gardens were an expression of the typological syntax of the great art of Renaissance gardening, but without any novelties of a Mannerist sort. It is not indicated whether those gardens were furnished with those artifices that post-Mannerist fashion was disseminating in certain gardens full of marvels to be found in the capitals of the bizarre and the whimsical.

All we know about Marfisa is that it was laid out according to the original model of the Italian garden, based on the division between garden and woodland that represents, perhaps, one of the most brilliant concepts of the garden.
It is often said that the division between woodland and garden (between the natural state and the garden) corresponded to the idea of a model in two different states (the original state of nature and the human intervention that transforms it into a garden). At Marfisa there was a meeting between that unique combination of woodland and garden that justifies the poetic and ideal value of the garden understood as a paradisaical place, an Eden, the lost site of original human happiness.
While exploring this place that does not exist - or, rather, exists no longer - we should pause to reflect upon the sense and the worth of the loggias that adorn the gardens. Loggias such as the one known as Il Cenacolo (The Last Supper) that linked the rear of palazzo Neroni with the wood, perhaps in line with the rear portico of the Palazzina, and the grand Loggia or Teatro.

Loggias and porticoes had always been an integral part of garden architecture. Renowned in Roman times, they became models for the Renaissance garden, as well as fulfilling this theatrical function. The examples in Ferrara might have been many: from that of don Giulio D'Este's palazzo to that of palazzo dei Diamanti, up to the perfect and harmonious structure of palazzo Naselli Crespi, but not so explicitly emphasized as the grand Loggia of the Palazzina.

The Palazzina has now found a new dignity and new worth; but this is not so for the garden that, alas, is still a place that does not exist. As far as the gardens go, instead, a few sparse mentions of a architectonic, botanical and horticultural hodgepodge leave us with a confused idea of how they must have been. The hope is that other generations will help reconstruct the lost gardens.
Perhaps the city will feel the need to recreate that tract between Schifanoia, Bonaccossi and Marfisa; perhaps others will be privileged to bring a Ferrara that no longer exists back to life.
A consummation devoutly to be wished.