Friday, January 23, 2009

The Art of Topiary

Topiary Collection at The Cloisters Detail from "The Annunciation" Cotton lavender in Cuxa Cloister

Above, from left to right: Topiaries in the plant collection at The Cloisters; detail from The Annunciation, 1465???75, Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden (possibly Hans Memling, active by 1465, died 1494) (Netherlandish, 1399/1400???1464), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of J. Pierpont Morgan, 1917 (17.190.7); cotton lavender topiary in Cuxa Cloister.

Medieval topiary was relatively simple and non-representational. Woody plants were trained to standards topped by balls, or to a characteristically medieval form known as an estrade, in which the plant was grown in tiers. Although these are rarely represented before 1400, many fifteenth-century artworks show estrades and other simple, geometric forms growing both in pots and in garden beds. The more ornate representational topiary known to the Romans was revived in Renaissance Italy; the Rucellai garden in Florence, created in the second half of the fifteenth century, included animals and human figures, as well as topiary temples and urns.

The practice of artfully clipping and training woody plants into formal or fanciful shapes can be traced back to imperial Rome and the Natural History of Pliny the Elder, who attributes the relatively recent invention of nemora tonsilia or “barbered groves” to one Gaius Matius, a Roman knight and a friend of the Emperor Augustus (John Boardman, The Oxford History of the Roman World, 2001).

Our word topiary derives from another term, ars topiarium, used by Pliny in the much broader sense of ornamental gardening, although he does makes specific reference to tableaux rendered in clipped cypress as examples of opus topiarium. The Latin term topia, meaning “landscapes,” is of Greek origin. A topiarius was a landscape or ornamental gardener. Many topiarii in the service of the imperial family and other wealthy Romans were slaves of Greek extraction (The Oxford Companion to Gardens, 1986). The popularity of topiary work is also attested in a letter of Pliny the Younger, in which he describes the ornament of his villa garden in Tuscany, with its topiary obelisks, figures, and letters of clipped box.

Still strongly associated with formal gardens in both the French and Italian styles, topiary was cultivated in the gardens at Hampton Court Palace by the end of the sixteenth century, and enjoyed a long vogue in England, although it was not universally admired. (Read more about topiary in England.) In the seventeenth century, Sir Francis Bacon disparaged fancy forms as a childish taste, although he admired pyramids or columns. In the eighteenth century, the style was famously ridiculed by Alexander Pope in his Catalogue of Greens.

A number of famous topiary gardens in Europe, the U.K., and the U.S. are open to the public, and many handbooks, such as The Complete Book of Topiary by Barbara Gallup and Deborah Reich, and articles on the subject are widely available.

???Deirdre Larkin

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Comments (6)

  1. thea mcginnis Says:

    I hadn’t realized ornamental/topiary style gardening was that ancient. That style seemed to get lost for many hundreds of years, before popping up again in 1400s. What about espaliered trees? was that part of that ornamental style revival in Renaissance times, or was it common earlier in the medieval timeframe?

  2. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    Dear Thea,

    Pliny the Elder says that topiary was invented within the last eighty years in his compilation, and there is certainly a very long hiatus in figurative topiary from the first century until the Italian Renaissance. I don???t know of any medieval discussions of topiary work, and the forms were very simple, but standards and estrades are very commonly represented in northern European art of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

    True espalier, in which the tree is trained flat against a wall, is a Renaissance development. I know of no medieval representations of espaliered fruit trees, although there is some evidence that the Romans may have practiced a rudimentary form of espalier (Wilhelmina Jashemski, who excavated the gardens of Pompeii, found many nail holes in the west wall of the peristyle garden of the House of Polybius, an indication that the trees whose roots were found below had been trained to the wall). The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw many advances in fruit culture, including the development of methods like espalier that were intended to increase production and encourage early ripening.

    The famous espaliered pear in Bonnefont Cloister, which has not always been systematically pruned over the course of the more than 50 years it has graced the garden, has outgrown the bay in the wall that shelters it. It is about to be renovated by an arborist with experience in rejuvenating old and overgrown specimens—she will prune and strengthen the frame of the tree in phases over the course of the next three winters. (You can???t prune it too drastically all at once without sending it into shock). The work will begin in the net few weeks, and I would like to do a post on it.

  3. thea mcginnis Says:

    thanks for the info on the espalier tree!

  4. Deirdre Larkin Says:

    I expect to do a post on the remedial pruning of the pear espalier in late February or early March, Thea.

  5. nygdan Says:

    About that espalied pear, you are refering to this specimin, no?

    I wanted to know, what species of pear is this? How did they achieve such perfectly lined up tiers? Normally there is some offset, but these look like they are nearly perfect.

  6. Deirdre Larkin Says:


    Yes, the image that appears on Wikipedia is an image of a mature espaliered pear that has grown here in Bonnefont Garden for many years. It is a common pear, Pyrus communis. Our records do not indicate which of the many cultivated varieties of pear was planted here more than fifty years ago; however, it is a large fruit with a distinctive oblong shape. I believe it to be an heirloom variety known as ???Kiefer,??? but I???m not certain. The tree was obtained from, and planted by, Henry Leuthardt. The Leuthhardts have a nursery on Long Island and specialize in dwarf fruit trees and espaliers. ???Kiefer??? is among the varieties they have traditionally stocked.

    The younger specimen in the garden, planted close by the older specimen you admire, was obtained from Mr. Leuthardt???s grandson. If you were to visit, I think that you would see that the specimen is not as ???perfect??? in old age as it might appear in the photograph. The first phase of remedial pruning of this tree was completed in February.

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