Bosco della Ragnaia

May 25th, 2014 | 6 Comments »

From Roman times, the contrast between sun and shade has played a major role in Italian garden design. Understandably so, in a country where people search for shade in the summer and for the warmth of sun in winter.

This traditional feature is a major design element in a contemporary garden near Siena, Bosco della Ragnaia. Two parts form this garden: a shady woodland,

This is the central area of the woodland garden.

and a former field, now opened to sunlight and the distant view.

An overview of the sunny garden shows how Bosco della Ragnaia relates to its surroundings.

This two-part division is the guiding principle of the garden, begun in 1996 by the American ex-pat Sheppard Craige. His portrait as Pan, god of woods and groves,  mischief and music, marks the entry to the garden and appears elsewhere, broken, in a sculpture made by his wife, the artist Frances Lansing.

Sheppard Craige as Pan?

Throughout the woods and sunlit hillside, pairs of words underline the theme of contrast and opposition: day and night, before and after, order and disorder. Black and white striped columns continue the theme, as do the dark and light stones in the path that bisects the sunlit field.

Is the patterning here intriguing or a distraction?
I can’t decide.

Most of the words carved into stone are Sheppard Craige’s own formulations, written either in Italian or English. One telling quotation is in French, from Montaigne: ‘Que sais-je?”  Asking ‘what do I know?’ introduces a level of complexity that goes beyond simple two-part division. Because the garden world Craige has created is much more nuanced.  Open the book titled “Le Cose Come Sono” and you see a mirror reflecting the sky and surrounding trees: things as they are. Puzzle out the eroding words on a stone stele and you read “Everywhere you can see part of it; nowhere can you see all of it.”

Options and decisions are laid out literally and metaphorically. Paths fork, circle around or back on themselves, lead to dead ends or bee-line destinations. Words outline a range of options or pose questions that demand thought more than answers. “If not here, where?”

Even in the simplest way, choices are offered — and required.
Shall I walk on the left or the right side of the tree?



In his recently published book, Words in the Woods, Craige says that the garden is an inquiry into three major themes. The first “lies in the tension, or balance, between certainty and doubt. The second regards nature: is it there open to us, thrilling and generous, or is it veiled, always just a step beyond our comprehension? The third theme is the mystery of time, one that each gardener feels in his own way.”

Some people would hesitate to call Bosco della Ragnaia a garden. Certainly there could be an interesting conversation about definitions. I come down firmly on the side of yes. This is a garden, a deliberately designed space.  

Perhaps sometimes it is over designed, overly contrived. There is a feeling of cleverness barely contained. Two Columns of Rhetoric flank a path; one proposes, the other refutes. A stone carved with the word Fruscio, the murmur made by wind in the trees, needs to be spoken to have its full import.

Balancing this is the sense of history and the depth of Craige’s inquiry. This is my kind of garden: a content-filled place where big issues are examined. I admire so many things about it, yet I do have criticisms. The choice of materials, for example. Stone blocks and locally made terracotta pots are appropriate to the site, and while I liked them, over-use made them almost tedious to the eye. Their shapes, achieved through inverting and stacking different pots one atop another, were occasionally jarring, suggesting Asian temples more than Italian shrines. More variation here would be welcome, as would greater use of higher quality materials.

These stacked pots look to me like the tops on Burmese temples.

My other criticism concerns over-elaboration in the sunny field. There are many aspects of this area that I like. One is the connection to the past suggested by the shapes and decoration of different areas that refer back to the parterres that were so common in Italian gardens from the Renaissance onwards.

Hedges reinforce the triangular shapes of the ‘parterre’.

Other admirable elements include the allée of columnar trees and shrinking rectangles that are the first view of the garden from the road…

Yes, you’ve seen this photo before: top of the post.
But it does illustrate my point!

and the circle of green grass and gravel that, by breaking the straight line to the single sentinel tree at the top of the hill, offers a pausing point for the eye.

This circle recalls others in the shady garden:
a good link between the two.

But overall, the sunny field is busy. Very busy. So much is going on that any guiding idea is lost in detail.  Simplification here would be an improvement.

It isn’t only the angle of the photo that makes this sunny garden feel over-stuffed.
Walking through the space, I felt the same sense of ‘too muchness.’

The name of this garden installation requires explanation. The word ‘ragnaia’ relates to spiders and their webs. Historically, Renaissance gardens often included arched tunnels where fine nets were strung like spider webs to capture songbirds. A favourite Renaissance debate concerned the relationship between nature controlled and uncontrolled, or between artifice and the natural. This traditional idea is illustrated simply, through the use of stones placed on top of pedestals. In the bosco, or wood, the stones are naturally rounded…

Stones top the pillars that flank a narrow path leading to an ‘altar’ to nature.

while in the open field, they are hard-edged forms: triangles, rectangles, squares. Craige compared them to children’s blocks, to be arranged and re-arranged any way you liked.

Hard-edged forms sit on top of a column in the sunny part of the garden.

Disingenuous? Definitely. Craige’s bosco, or wood, traps our minds as those songbirds were captured centuries ago. Rare is the person who can visit this place without falling quiet, without starting to think, to wonder, perhaps even to worship at one of the many places that felt, to me, like altars to nature.

A bronze sculpture by Frances Lansing

Bosco della Ragnaia is not an ordinary garden. Rather it is a splendid work of art, a contemporary creation that engages with the past in meaningful ways, containing a depth and complexity of thought that is sadly absent from so many gardens. It is a place to celebrate. I feel truly fortunate to have been there. And if I’m lucky enough to visit the garden again, I know I will see more, more deeply.

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