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Amy Tigner, Literature and the Renaissance Garden From Elizabeth I to Charles II: England’s Paradise (Ashgate, 2012)

Amy Tigner, Literature and the Renaissance Garden From Elizabeth I to Charles II: England’s Paradise. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. ISBN: 978-1-4094-3674-4. xii + 271 pp. HBK. £60.00

Reviewed by Andrew Wadoski

[1]  Literature and the Renaissance Garden offers a comprehensive survey of the garden over a roughly 100-year period from the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign to that of Charles II and the printing of Paradise Lost. It addresses the garden as both a physical site and literary topos, describing the specificities of their manifestations in both soil and ink as well as the interactions of these two forms, the doublings and reflections of gardens ‘both real and imagined, gardens made of plants and those cultivated from ink and paper’ (1). This ambivalence is constitutive of the book’s understanding of the garden as a representational site, and throughout the garden is understood principally as a site of mediation between opposed forms of theorizing both individual and collective political being in the English Renaissance. It is a representational form working to rationalize the contradictory relations between an England valorized both as a self-contained happy garden state and in its georgic labors of colonial expansion; the private labors of self-cultivation and the public project of commonwealth building; the regressive yearning for a golden age of simple knowledge and early modern science’s forward looking and expansive gaze on the world.

[2]  Driving this wide-ranging survey is the pursuit of a multiform and ever shifting network of symbolic associations termed in this study the ‘paradise imaginary.’ The ‘paradise imaginary’ is an essentially utopian epistemology; like any good utopia, the thinking work embodied in these Renaissance gardens generates and reinforces the very ambivalences it seeks to capture and contain. At its core, this book’s image of the garden is a figure through which nostalgic yearnings for Eden work to center the early modern state’s imagination of its own ideal origins and ends. Sensitive to the ‘multiple and conflicting associations’ of Eden as an historic site in the Renaissance, Literature and the Renaissance Garden’s analyses of the figure’s story of a redemptive encounter with the natural world opens onto a range of fraught questions about the nature of political identity in the early modern world, and of that identity’s essential grounding in the story of the Fall.

[3]  Professor Tigner’s work thus picks up on and extends the growing body of writing on Renaissance gardens, both real and imagined, that has flourished since the early and foundational efforts of Giamatti and Comito while notably engaging the more materialist readings and methodologies of Roy Strong, Keith Thomas, Michael Leslie, and Rebecca Bushnell, among others. Like its critical interlocutors, this analysis moves across a variety of texts, offering readings of works such as The Faerie Queene, King Lear, and Paradise Lost in relation to a wide range of herbals, planting guides, and accounts of period gardens. Along the way, an impressive record of archival work is always foregrounded, pointing the adventurous reader to countless possible excursions into EEBO and the Short Title Catalogue. This book’s fascination with the archive, while often illuminating, also, at times, offers one of its greatest difficulties. Many of its readings get bogged down in citation and information, and the analysis too often wants to offer major poems as interpretive guides to archival curiosities rather than the other way around—occasionally at the expense of the complexity this book’s argument seeks.

[4]  As this book sets up the garden as a privileged ground for early modern England’s dialogue with such complications of political identity as gender, colonialism, and the regulation of the body, its underlying concern is with describing an ecocritical Renaissance. This book’s political, the ‘paradise imaginary’ is fundamentally an ecological account of the ways human relations are shaped by, within, and against the natural world. Here, early modern politics exist largely at the intersection of nature and culture and the garden is the figure that most fully embodies this nexus. While a number of important recent works have argued for the utility of ecocritical theory as a mechanism for interrogating Renaissance culture, notably Robert Watson’s Back To Nature, Literature and the Renaissance Garden perhaps too readily accepts the argument both as settled and as offering a clearly defined methodology. While there is certainly a large and growing body of scholarship productively deploying ecocritical perspectives on Renaissance culture and its artifacts, this does not necessarily constitute consensus on either the viability of this critical method or even of what the Renaissance ecocritical actually is. The argument, which covers so much historical territory, so many conceptual frameworks, and so many different texts, could have found more focus and force with a rigorous, clear, and sustained advocacy for the ecocritical hermeneutic’s place in Renaissance studies.

[5]  This, I admit, would be a very different kind of book; however, it is one that is gestured towards in Literature and the Renaissance Garden’s final chapter, a reading of Milton that projects the ecological underpinnings of Paradise Lost’s civic humanism forward to Jefferson’s Monticello—a crucial historical groundplot of ecocritical theory as it is currently constituted. (As an aside, this chapter includes one of the book’s most fascinating archival revelations, an image of a signed title page from Thomas Jefferson’s copy of a 1751 edition of Paradise Lost now in the Stanford University library.) Overall, this book’s aim for comprehensiveness poses readers their greatest challenge. Simply, the book covers so large a territory and accounts for so many perspectives that the ‘paradise imaginary’ as described herein cannot quite carry the burden of structuring the multiform and historically emergent ecology of nationhood pursued throughout this book.

[6]  The true importance of the book is twofold. First, its image of the garden allows us to think of early modern nationhood in ecological terms. Second, it does so with an impressive synthesis of diverse and wide-ranging networks of documentary evidence. Its account of the garden, and the connections it draws among a range of texts and period ecological discourses, from middlebrow herbals to cutting-edge scientific treatises, notably gives the reader ample material with which further to refine and historically specify the emerging ecocritical conversation in Renaissance studies. Further, its rigorously documented portrait of Renaissance England’s complex vision of political ecology offers fruitful ground from which to assess the stakes and ideological investments of this most fraught of iconographies as it appears in major English writers from Spenser to Milton.

Oklahoma State University, November 2012

Larry Silver, Pieter Bruegel (Abbeville Press, 2011)

Larry Silver, Pieter Bruegel. New York and London: Abbeville Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-7892-1104-0.  424 pp. Hbk. $150.00

Reviewed by Amy Orrock

[1]  The recent rediscovery in Spain of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Wine of St. Martin’s Day is the latest in a series of developments contributing to a revival of interest in the Netherlandish master, famed for his captivating depictions of peasants cavorting within atmospheric landscapes. ‘Bruegel’ today is a brand in every sense – drawing crowds to museums and galleries across the world and stimulating large amounts of research and publications, from the scholarly to the whimsical. Into this weighs Larry Silver’s tome, replete with 355 high quality colour illustrations, which rightly declares its central purpose to be the contemplation of pictures. Silver freely admits to standing on the shoulders of giants, drawing on recent scholarly catalogues of the artist’s paintings (Sellink, 2007; Marijnessen, 1988, reissued in 2003) prints (Orenstein, 2001) and drawings (Mielke, 1996). The book’s real achievement lies in the author’s light touch; these catalogues are synthesized with other recent research to create an updated overview of the artist’s entire oeuvre that is wide-ranging and readable, and will appeal to specialists and newcomers alike.

[2]  The book is well organised, with all of Bruegel’s authentic works discussed in a loosely chronological order. A framework of eleven thematic chapters enables Silver to speculate upon disputed attributions and lost works, and to pay attention to the wider economic, religious, political and social circumstances of the period, without ever straying too far from the appropriate chronology. The grand panel depicting the Procession to Calvary is the focus of the first chapter; Bruegel’s sweeping, multi-narrative treatment of a biblical subject here provides an excellent introduction to the kinds of issues encountered when studying the artist. In Chapter 2 Silver surveys the scant documentary evidence to outline what is known of Bruegel’s biography, taking him from his humble beginnings as a landscape artist and ‘Second Bosch’, whose birthplace and date are unknown, through his career in Antwerp and Brussels, to his patronage by Antwerp’s elite and the praise which proliferated after his sudden death in 1565. Bruegel’s commercial concerns are further fleshed out in chapter 3 with a discussion of his involvement with Hieronymous Cock’s printing house ‘At the Sign of the Four Winds’, where Bruegel progressed from having his drawings used as models for Cock’s designs (Landscape with Bears) and passed-off as the work of Bosch (Big Fish Eat Little Fish) to finally being credited as an ‘inventor’ in his own right (the first being The Ass in School).

[3]  Chapter 4 marks the chronological beginning of Bruegel’s career, with a discussion of his development as a landscape artist following his trip to Italy in the mid 1550s. The topographical drawings that Bruegel produced during this trip were to form the backbone of many future compositions; he was famously described by Van Mander as having ‘swallowed all the mountains and rocks and spat them out again, after his return, onto his canvases and panels’. In this and subsequent chapters Silver uses Bruegel’s drawings or designs for prints as a starting point to explore themes also addressed in paintings: chapter 5 follows Bruegel’s Boschian designs for the print series the Seven Sins through to his fantastical paintings Dulle Griet and the Fall of the Rebel Angels, while chapter 6 demonstrates how the everyday worlds catalogued in panels such as The Combat Between Carnival and Lent, Netherlandish Proverbs and Children’s Games originated as settings for the Seven Virtues series of engravings.

[4]  In later chapters the book turns to Bruegel’s large-scale ‘Biblical’ narratives and images of festive peasants, some of his most contentious paintings. Here Silver deftly navigates his way through the historic debates on what these images might reveal about Bruegel’s own religious disposition and attitudes towards peasants, offering up some new perspectives while recognizing the contingencies inherent in interpreting an artist such as Bruegel. In chapter 8 a convincing case is made for a revised dating of the Triumph of Death (from c. 1562/3 to c. 1566/7) on the basis of its slender figure types and the impending military menace in the Netherlands. The author of Peasant Scenes and Landscapes (2006), Silver is well qualified to discuss peasant iconography and in chapter 9 two ‘lost’ Bruegel compositions, known today only through copies, serve to flesh out a discussion of the harmony and nostalgia often evident in Bruegel’s peasant scenes.

[5]  The book is particularly strong on comparative images. In chapter 2 the rich aesthetic rivalry that existed between the two main schools of Antwerp painting in the sixteenth century is aptly illustrated by images of ‘Bruegelian’ subjects by the Italianate Frans Floris. Elsewhere, a discussion of Bruegel as a printmaker is prefaced by an overview of the evolution of the practice and business of printmaking in the sixteenth century (chapter 3); works by Patinir, Cornelius Matsys and Venetian artists are used to shed light on Bruegel’s presentation of landscape (chapter 4); and altarpieces by Rogier van der Weyden and Bernart van Orley are cited to enlighten our understanding of Bruegel’s series of Seven Virtues (chapter 6).

[6]  Silver’s closing chapter, ‘Bruegel’s Legacy’, considers the reduction of Bruegel’s corpus in recent years, as more of his works are re-catalogued as the work of followers and forgers. While material addressing the artist’s most faithful copyist, his son Pieter Brueghel the Younger, has to an extent been superseded by Currie and Allart’s brilliantly illuminating three-volume technical publication The Brueg[H]el Phenomenon (2012), Silver’s appraisal nonetheless provides a useful, brief overview of Bruegel’s appeal to later generations of artists and collectors. Here, as in the earlier chapters, we are continually reminded that Bruegel existed within a contemporary marketplace and belonged to a diverse community of artists, craftsmen, engravers and publishers – a perspective often lost within the rarefied pantheon of ‘great artists’ to which he now belongs.

[7]  Bruegel’s complex compositions are keenly observed and richly detailed: they vividly bring the past to life and deserve to be looked at, and then looked at again. This lavish book looks and feels indulgent; revealing with thrillingly intimacy details of large panel paintings, including dress, gesture, facial expressions and under-drawing, it offers the closest thing to a museum experience. It is difficult to criticize such an ambitious undertaking, but the lack of a bibliography feels like an oversight in a work that professes to offer an overview of such a well-documented subject. A more minor complaint is the selection of image details in the opening chapter, where figures discussed in the Procession to Calvary are frustratingly not illustrated.

[8]  Nevertheless, taken together with Silver’s Hieronymous Bosch (2006), Pieter Bruegel presents a masterful survey of Northern Renaissance visual trends over a span of more than a century. The book provides a fabulous resource of images, supported by a lively text that re-engages with a much loved master, and is sure to inspire many more people to look again at Bruegel.

November 2012

Reviews welcome