In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
July, 2006
Regional Report

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At Peter Paul Rubens' garden in Antwerp, Belgium, garden designer Walter De Backer explains Renaissance garden style.

Stepping Back Into a Renaissance Garden

Several years ago, American friend Priscilla Estes invited me to Antwerp in Belgium. She deftly executed a whirlwind tour, including a stop at Rubenshuis, artist Peter Paul Rubens' house and garden. Stepping through the ornate baroque portico into the impressive Italianate courtyard, I quickly admired the expansive pergola, the "garden gods" statues, and the original pavilion. Rubens' garden of low-hedged, encased beds and sparse plantings was, well, underwhelming. Granted, it was October -- less than garden prime time. Accustomed to colorful arrays of flowers and shrubs, I left mildly disappointed, wondering what the fuss was about.

Earlier this July, I got a second chance to appreciate Rubens' Renaissance treasure -- this time through history's eyes -- thanks to Walter De Backer, who designed the garden's historical reconstruction in 1992; museum curator Ben Van Beneden; and tour leader Suzy Mucha.

Together we stepped back in time to the Renaissance garden of the early 1600s. While we Americans are about "more is better," the Renaissance garden is about controlling nature and highlighting each and every expensive plant acquisition. Garden beds are enclosed in strictly clipped hedges surrounding square or rectangular compartments. From one to a handful of plants grow in each compartment. Every plant is a star -- a rare, imported specimen given space to "radiate," to be singularly enjoyed, explained Ms. Mucha.

The tulip is a well-known example. One tulip was worth more than its weight in gold in the early 17th century, so each flower was prominently displayed for friends, colleagues, and family to enjoy to the fullest.

Tulipmania -- Brief and Expensive
For perspective, it helps to understand the value (real and contrived) of rare plants from abroad. The tulip represented phenomenal luxury, power, and prestige. In Netherlands from 1623 to 1637, the price of one special, rare type of tulip bulb called 'Semper Augustus' climbed from 1000 guilders to 5500 guilders (equal to the 1990 U.S. value of $50,000 in gold). One single bulb of this tulip had the value of a house on Amsterdam's smartest canal, including coach and garden. The average annual income then was only 150 guilders.

Back to Rubens' Garden
Rubens' garden has been reconstructed despite the lack of direct reference plans, explained Mr. De Backer, of Antwerp's landscaping department. He based his 1992 restoration on Rubens' marriage portrait, "A Walk in the Garden." He also relied on plans in several books of the period. He's still searching for information on the original plants.

We Americans recognize many flowers, trees, and herbs in Rubens' courtyard: acanthus, marigold, cleome, foxglove, hellebore, campanula, columbine, malva, oregano, nepeta, sedum, snapdragon, calendula, poppy, iris, and fritillaria, as well as lemon, laurel, and fig trees in pots.

The Renaissance garden was a haven as much as a showpiece, Ms. Mucha emphasized. Prominent men would invite their closest friends "to share the enjoyment of a bit of poetry and lilting music" in this sensorial, serene, and aesthetically perfect enclosure.


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