All our pleasure gardens in the western world have their feet firmly planted in Persian origins.
Whether you follow Italian Renaissance, French gardens or English landscape tradition, the origins ultimately come back to the early Classical gardens of Ancient Rome - these gardens were, in turn, influenced by early Greek gardens, and they by the fabulous gardens of the Oriental kings.
These Persian gardens, known as pairidaeza (where our own word for paradise comes from) were filled with running water, planted in strict planes and often divided into fours to represent the regions of the earth. They had aromatic herbs, clipped fruit trees and plane trees. Often they were filled with animals, ornamental birds and fish, which could then double up for hunting, paradise indeed then.
But if you want to keep Paradise pure then you will need a wall. You cannot let everyone in, as the outside world might wantyour fine birds and ripe fruit too. We have always liked our version of Nature best, we garden because we like to exclude. Our success is, in part, because we are not willing to share. The wall, hedge or fence is all about making that obvious.
Walls are practical and thus ever present in garden design, particularly where food is grown, but what happens behind the enclosure changes radically over time. Greek and Roman gardens wear their Persian influences openly: the fountains, the covered walkways, the clipped trees, although the gardens have plenty of eating going on in them the main thing they are cultivating are ideas. Plato, Socrates, Aristotle and Theophrastus (the father of Botany) all wandered and thought, exercised and played in gardens. Their work was all directly linked to the cultivated outdoors.
During the Medieval period the design of the garden does not change that radically, other than becoming somewhat smaller, but their use does. If the gardens weren't hunting grounds, then they were walled hortus conclusus, often literally found in the walls of the castle. Medieval Europe was a wild, warring place; monasteries and castles were fortresses on high hills and their gardens represent that need for protection. Hunting grounds to protect animals, walled vegetable and simple gardens to protect food and medicine and hortus conclusus to protect noble women.
The term hortus conclusus is Latin for enclosed garden and is derived from the Song of Solomon in the bible: the garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up'.
Medieval pleasure gardens are both symbolically and practically about protecting an idea of femininity and purity. Throughout the Medieval period, the theme of the Virgin Mary and her perpetual virginity in tact was played out in art, poetry, garden designs and ultimately women's lives.
The Virgin Mary in this period is nearly always standing either in a walled garden or near one. It literally becomes her chastity belt. For noble women, these walls, clipped or not, represented a similar view. Male medieval nobility was often off fighting and thus couldn't protect their lot. The enclosed garden then becomes away to protect female purity in the family line. Noble women can go outside, but not outside the garden wall, she can experience paradise, but only one she cannot leave.
Interestingly the few women afforded some sort of intellectual freedom, were religious women of the medieval period. Monastic culture and their cloistered gardens were so private and secluded that they permitted intellectual freedom allowing women to pursue educational programmes that rivaled what was on offer even to men of that period.
Within fifty years though, Renaissance gardens would radically alter everything we know about design. The garden screened off from the surrounding landscape would give way to a new perspective, one where the house and garden would be seamlessly integrated with the surrounding landscape. The world was opening up.
There was still a small walled enclosure, now often known as the "giardino segreto" or secret garden. But these were as likely to house rare plant specimens that need protecting from thieves, as they were femininity.
The great garden-art of the Renaissance was about looking out, not looking in. In the rapid flowering of Italian civilization the castle walls were soon thrown down, and the garden expanded, taking in the fish pond, the bowling green, the rose arbours and the clipped walk', writes Edith Wharton in Italian Villas and Their Gardens.
The French garden traditions can be seen as enlarged and amplified version of Roman gardens, leaving Capability Brown the task of merely doing away with the hedges and there you have the English Landscape style. Capability Brown offers up the ultimate refinement to the boundary. He creates the ha-ha, a glorified ditch that blends the garden and the wider countryside seamlessly together. And thus, the great vista is borne.
Words by Alys Fowler
Lead image: Depiction of a hortus conclusus. Little Garden of Paradise by Meister des Frankfurter Paradiesgrtleins. Image credit:The Yorck Project, distributed by Directmedia.