Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Garden of Eusebius

Eusebius: 'Now that the whole countryside is fresh and smiling, I marvel at people who take pleasure in smoky cities.'
Timothy: 'Some people don’t enjoy the sight of flowers or verdant meadows or fountains or streams; or if they do, something else pleases them more. Thus pleasure succeeds pleasure, as nail drives out nail.'

This exchange can be found in The Godly Feast, one of the Colloquies written by Erasmus (first published in 1518 and then added to over the years; the Craig R. Thompson translation is available at the Catena Archive). Erasmus has Eusebius argue that "nature is not silent but speaks to us everywhere and teaches the observant man many things if she finds him attentive and receptive."  To prove his point he suggests a visit to his "little country place near town, a modest but well-cultivated place, to which I invite you for lunch tomorrow."  Timothy is worried he and his friends will be putting Eusebius out, but Eusebius reassures him: "you’ll have a wholly green feast made, as Horace says, 'from food not bought.'"

When they meet at this villa, Eusebius shows Timothy his statue of Jesus at the entrance to the garden: "I’ve placed him here, instead of the filthy Priapus as protector not only of my garden but of everything I own; in short, of body and soul alike." Eusebius stresses the utility and lack of luxury in his garden. What appears to be marble is merely painted concrete - ''we make up for lack of wealth by ingenuity".  There is a lesson for life in this: appearances can be deceptive, he warns Timothy.  A delightful stream is not all it seems either.  It is used to drain kitchen waste to the sewer, like Sacred Scripture cleansing the soul.  Elsewhere there are herbs for cooking and medicine, exotic trees, an aviary, orchards and bee hives.

In addition to the garden itself, Eusebius has had frescoes painted showing views of nature. This second, painted world even extends beneath their feet: "the very ground is green, for the paving stones are beautifully colored and gladden one with painted flowers".  He explains to Timothy that:
"One garden wasn’t enough to hold all kinds of plants. Moreover, we are twice pleased when we see a painted flower competing with a real one. In one we admire the cleverness of Nature, in the other the inventiveness of the painter; in each the goodness of God, who gives all these things for our use and is equally wonderful and kind in everything. Finally, a garden isn’t always green nor flowers always blooming. This garden grows and pleases even in midwinter."
Eusebius is proud of his garden but he is just as keen to mention his library, globe and paintings.  I like the fact that place names have been added to his religious paintings, "to enable the spectator to learn by which water or on which mountain the event took place".  It is clearly the ideal of a Renaissance scholar, and the garden is a highly artificial landscape.  Indeed, John Dixon Hunt has pointed out that it is 'substantially architectural: walled, with galleries and pillars, it may be seen as much as a city as a garden.'

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