Humankind has always sought to alter the landscape to suit our purposes. Whether that is for agriculture, construction, mining or even the beautification of our surroundings. Yet beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder and what we recognise as beautiful or dismiss as ugly is often a product of the culture from which we originate.
So it has been throughout history when cultures that may be distanced by thousands of miles encounter each other. Marco Polo is the classic example of this type of encounter and his reports back to the 13th century Europe influenced artists from all walks of life, perhaps most famously Samuel Coleridge who wrote “Kubla Kahn” Based on a vision he had of those stately pleasure domes as described by Marco Polo. Europe continued to be influenced by ‘The Mystic East’ as more pilgrims, ambassadors and emissaries made their long trek along the Silk Road.
A great curiosity grew as encounters between the great cultures of Renaissance Europe and of Imperial China grew and blossomed. Emperor Quinlong (1711-1799) commissioned visiting Jesuit priest Father Castiglione to construct for him a replica of the fountains that he heard about in the magnificent gardens of Versailles. Chinese culture was also influencing European garden designers and Chinese pagodas, bridges and pavilions were constructed in all manner of stately homes during the 18th century, the height of the Chinoiserie movement in Europe. Yet the European and Chinese styles were vastly different in conception and execution.
The Europeans were bewildered by the naturalistic style of arrangement the Chinese favoured, being so very different from the ordered rows of trees, sweeping boulevards and symmetrical arrangement of plants, paths and garden features. The Raison d’etre of European design seemed to be the demonstration of mastery over the forces of nature, the exercising of order and the imposition of stately bearing by Man risen above the limitations of nature. Chinese design principles differ dramatically however, seeking to emulate the works of heaven, yet perfected by the genius of man’s creative impulse. Ji Cheng in his book ‘Yuanye’ or “The Craft of Gardens.’ Published in 1633 wrote: “Even though everything [in the garden] is the work of man, it must appear to have been created by heaven…” In Chinese gardens we see twisting paths that will suddenly open up to a garden scene carefully crafted by the landscaper to evoke an emotional response. There is an ancient Chinese proverb that couches this design principle perfectly “By detours, access to secrets.”
In both cultures gardens are designed to be places of retreat from the world, a glade of contemplation or flowers planted in an evocative fashion or combining exotic scents, colours or shapes. Both cultures would alter displays and the composition of the flowering plants dependant on the seasons and the mood they wished to evoke. From the great walled gardens of the mystic east to the wide boulevards and orangeries of France gardens still speak of the soul of the people who made them.
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