Tuscany is famous for handsome villas set in elevated positions overlooking formal gardens of clipped box that give way to an increasingly wild landscape of water and woodland and terminating in a borrowed view of distant hills or peaks. The pattern is formulaic and deliberate, and is linked to complex ideas about the relationship between nature and artifice that is also found in the poetry and art of the period.
These villas are typical of the Renaissance, we are taught, with its rediscovery of classical values, including Pliny’s ideal of the villa as a place of intellectual retreat where civilised people recharged their batteries and grounded themselves in physical labour, mixed with poetical composition and philosophical debate (Lorenzo de’Medici’s Platonic academy based at the Villa Medici di Careggi being the most celebrated example).
Except that if this is true, we have to revise our ideas of when the Renaissance began. Visit Clifford’s Castle in the Marches of Herefordshire, and guess what you find? An architecturally distinctive castle on a mound, with large windows that overlook the remains of a formal garden set beside the River Wye, beyond which lies the half-wild, half-tamed landscape of a deer park with artificial lakes, framed by wooded hills that lead the eye to distant views of the Brecon Beacons. Clifford’s Castle is just one of several examples in Herefordshire of 12th century castles in such spectacular landscapes that one wonders whether the setting was chosen for aesthetic reasons rather than defensive.
Oliver Creighton’s new book argues that the latter is the case. He cites hundreds of further examples, with detailed plans and crisp black and white photography, of medieval landscapes that challenge the notion that castles are military and that an appreciation of nature and of carefully composed views is a purely humanistic and Renaissance phenomenon. He argues persuasively that the term ‘designed landscapes’, mainly used by archaeologists to describe the parks laid out around the stately homes of the 18th century by the likes of William Kent, Capability Brown and Humphry Repton, should also be used for the settings of the castles, palaces and manor houses of the medieval elite, and even those of the princes, bishops and abbots of the church.
These landscapes are deliberately theatrical, Creighton argues, designed to enchant and surprise those who experience them, whether close up, as visitors, or more distantly, as passers by or toilers in the surrounding fields. And the symbolism is as much about the values of benevolence and careful husbandry as it is about controlling and shaping nature or dominion over a demesne and its subservient peasantry.
Exploring this symbolism through myriad examples, Creighton is also keen to stitch back together components of these landscapes that have been studied in the past as if they were separate entities: monographs on dovecots, parks, fish ponds and rabbit warrens miss the point and downplay the interrelationships between these integrated landscape components: tellingly, the author reminds us even the choice of the species placed in these environments is symbolic.
In bringing together such a comprehensive account of ornamental medieval landscapes, Creighton rescues the study of castles from their purely militaristic context and re-establishes them as places that are as much about poetry, art and the intellect as they are about the clash of swords and stench of boiling tar. Even so, one suspects this book will have little impact on the popular idea of the castle or of the Middle Ages: re-enactors will still put on displays of beefy men in armour rather than men in tights composing poems about sweet roses and lovely views. As has been remarked before in this magazine, the English prefer the wife-abusing armour-clad version of Henry VIII to the intellectual Renaissance king who composed ‘Greensleeves’.
But those who do read this book will be introduced to a whole new way of seeing the landscape around castles – not just utilitarian but designed as ‘a gardyn faire’ of delightful prospect whose symbolism is every bit as crafted as that of a medieval poem or painting.