tapir in a suit

anatomy of Norbiton

notes to the Ideal City: pt ii




...the marginal monstrosities...


I have elsewhere called us Cyclopes, or compressed sea creatures; but our monstrosity is perfectly real.

It is, I sometimes think, a tidal phenomenon: twice daily we are forced to confront the wreck of ourselves at some low tide of being, once in the morning and once in the evening, staring into mirrors, studying and prodding and testing the collapse of our body.

Twice daily then, when I brush my teeth, I spit blood. My teeth are falling out.


tapir with toothbrush

—wreck of ourselves—


I went to the dentist for the last time a few days before I quit my job; this itself was my first visit for ten years. The dentist, an agreeable quietly spoken man, talked me through the accumulated dints and degradations of a decade. The account could well have been worse. My teeth, he explained, were in passable condition, but there was such caked scaling that a series of clean-ups was scheduled. But here was the turning point of his argument: while bone damage in much of the body can be repaired, bone damage at the root of the tooth cannot. It is a ligament joint, and any degradation is irreversible. I had sustained a certain amount of such damage, which explained my bleeding gums, and all I could hope now would be to slow any further deterioration.

The hope was a false one; it was akin to saying, if you eat right and don’t smoke perhaps you will die of something other than cancer before cancer kills you. I had the opposite of cancer: a refusal of the material of my teeth to replicate. But it amounted to the same thing. Perhaps you will die of something before your teeth fall out, before you are a mumbling wreck. Perhaps, with work and injections and a coal chisel we can flatline your decline for you a little. You’ll be able to forget about your death for a while, it will, in the best cases, seem, locally, to recede; you will occupy grottos in the garden of life, you will smile, with your teeth, upon the sunlit garden of your soul. But you know in your heart, you will still be sitting here grinning like a toothless fool when winter is upon you.

I did not go back to the dentist, not because I didn’t want him to scrape my teeth, but because I needed to economise strictly once I had quit my job; I foresaw a few brief years of life, in which I would always have sufficient teeth. I would keep a fund against the emergencies of acute pain, but forgo immortal enamel.





...rhetorical balance of elements...


By rhetorical in this case I simply mean that in the cinquecento you are not merely enticed by a garden or indulged by it, you are in some measure controlled by it, or seduced by it, by its inventiveness, its elaborate disposition of elements.

Epideictic is one of the three classes of rhetorical display identified by Cicero, of which the others are forensic (proper to a Court of Law) and deliberative (proper to the Senate). Epideictic is a catch-all category which includes addresses at funerals or celebrations, speeches giving praise or blame.

A garden is an exercise in epideictic rhetoric insofar as it displays the consciousness of one man – its patron or owner, not its designer. In the garden we see this man laid out, see his intellectual and sentimental resource articulated, given rein, the potentiality of his city or kingdom realised, the balance of copiousness and order made good.

Rhetoric also implies a degree of remove from the direct experience, a remove that allows us to perceive order in the sensuous experience, a structure that can be read.

Why gardeners no longer conceive of their work as an exercise in epideictic rhetoric, I cannot say.





...whereas in the quattrocento...


This is a generalisation. The quattrocento knew perfectly well how to move individuals around in space. Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, for instance, binds the experience of a garden to the hermetic logic of a narrative arc, an unveiling of mysteries as the narrator moves towards the centre, a sort of bucolic and empty-headed Dante in search of his Beatrice.

Less fancifully, the High Renaissance or Mannerist Rhetorical garden can be said not only to find antecedents in the quattrocento, but to locate its origin at the court of Ferrara in the 1470s, where Borso d’Este and his successor Ercole used the remnant earth of a new rampart to construct an artificial mount, which was planted with a boschetto and studded with fountains and pavilions and statues; in the adjoining formal gardens there were grottoes. Ercole also, somewhat later, planted a small lozenge-shaped island in the Po in the same wild manner; this garden was approached through a complex of buildings where, in the forecourt, stood a fountain representing a tree; its trunk was of brass, and jets of water formed the branches.

It was Ercole d’Este’s grandson, Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, who was responsible for the Villa d’Este at Tivoli, and also for converting the vineyards of his cardinalatial residence (Palazzo Quirinale) into a boschetto, notable in its day for its number of statue groups and grottoes. The d’Este connection, in other words, seems to have been a conduit through which the extravagant Ferrarese (quattrocento) manner was imported into Rome.

It amuses me to note that Ippolito’s uncle, also Ippolito d’Este, also a prelate (archbishop of Estergom, Milan, Ferrara) died in 1519 of an indigestion of lobster. I wonder if he thought to remove the exoskeleton.





...monstrous intermediate forms...


In the allotments it is mostly pests of one sort or another that I fear; but in the Kelley garden I am coming to abhor dandelions, which Kelley – perhaps for want of something to say – has instructed me to purge from his various patches of grass and flower beds.

I find that in the iterative process of stooping, picking, uprooting, casting aside, you become simultaneously battle-hardened – your technique is grooved, your attention hyper-focussed – but also weary of the low down horror of life at a few inches from the soil, your face constantly in all this crawlspace; dandelions start by annoying you but end by making you queasy; they defeat you by their dumb persistence, the alien tentacular form they take, the rapidity of their growth and change, their spidery stealth; you almost want to let them go, let them take over, reclaim the pavements, the paths, sprout from your nose, your mouth, draw sustenance from your own dusty bones.



—sprout from your nose—


I know too that at some point soon I will have to pick slugs, snails, caterpillars off the back of cabbage leaves in my allotment. I am beginning to realise that a gardener does not lay down and police boundaries. I am not a pilgrim pushing back the virgin forest so that I can plant and sow my other, cleaner, functioning rows of vegetables, my pure and numerable monoculture; rather, I am forced to draw on all this welter of disorder, of writhing crawling growing matter; my little field of corn – or my hundred of beans and potatoes – is no more than a version of it.

I look at Monty Don turning over the soil in his vegetable patch, and I do not recognise it as soil; it is loamy, fluffy, mobile, rich; there is not a stone or a root in it; when I dig, the earth is recalcitrant, claggy, globulous, compacted; full of wormy crawling things; I do not want to touch it; Monty Don’s soil is otherworldly, it is the soil of the paradisus terrestris,  the soil of a rich man.

I crave the clarity of my room, where the flies and mosquitoes and wasps bounce of the windows that I keep shut, where the green stuff is all outside. Where I sit in a sealed environment of inert and beneficent plastics (paradoxically characterised by nothing so disturbing as plasticity) and metals, perhaps some well seasoned wood from which all life has been healthfully expunged; if I died here in my chair and rotted to nothing the room would look much the same a thousand years hence, a little dustier perhaps, but not much different. The allotment, on the other hand, would by then have elaborated its own monstrous logic, would have become the wildwood, stalked by monsters, green men.





...resisted interpretation...


In summarising the various interpretive schemes, Lynette M. F. Bosch notes (in "Bomarzo: A study in personal imagery" (Garden History, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Autumn, 1982), pp. 97-107)) that ‘No interpretation has yet provided a single source for the garden's images.’ She is modest enough to make no such attempt herself.

Suggestions have focussed on literary allusion and memento mori, whereby the boschetto becomes either a humanist play of wit or a funerary park erected in memory of his wife.

It has also been suggested (by Lynette, in fact, but only on behalf of three of the garden objects) that the organising principle is autobiographical (referencing, for example, his incarceration after the battle of Hesdin and the fidelity of his wife in that period (case pendente) and his jealous rage following the elopement of his mistress, Laura, in July 1574, (giant dismembering shepherd boy).

According to this last hypothesis, the garden is a region of imprese or emblems. This is a murky but plausible thought; the old Duke decking his wood like a Bluebeard's hall of the memory and imagination. Two of Orsini’s literary circle in Bomarzo in these years were Giovanni Ruscelli and Ludovico Domenichi editors of two of the most influential emblems books of the sixteenth century (Le imprese illustri con ispositioni et discorsi, Venice, 1556 and L'imprese d'arme et d'amore, Venice 1562).

Regardless of the specifics, the garden seems to want to be read like a book of emblems: in or out of sequence, in a progress either logical or surprising. For the initiate (Orsini, perhaps his visitors) this approximates to a meditative excursion that must have at least felt like a gnosis; for the non-initiate (Orsini's peasants, us) it is like being left alone for an hour in the house of a stranger.

Orsini was a dilettante antiquarian and had family lands up near Sovano, where in the sixteenth century there were extant examples of Etruscan gabled aedicule tombs. One of the objects in the Sacro Bosco has been read as a mock ruin of just such an edifice. Northern Lazio was an Etruscan heartland, and suggestions have been made not just of an antiquarian’s Etruscomania, but of a cultural persistence, some monstrous Etruscan effluent permeating the land and erupting here at Bomarzo.





...a sanitised curiosity...


The gardens were reclaimed after World War II; not so much saved as neutralised, turned into a theme park. There are no monsters in the woods any more, we seem to say. We got all that out of our system at Nuremberg.

Our monsters bind us in time and place. In Star Trek: The Next Generation they are never called monsters, they are always entities, lifeforms. But when, for example, Picard is forced to fight an, ahem, ‘entity’ on El-Adrel and, on the eve of the final battle he tells Dathon, his gibbering compadre, the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu fighting the Bull of Heaven, he locates himself securely in a mythic space, a space where monsters roam beyond the ring of firelight, where their menace binds us together within that ring.


Picard and Dathon on El'Adrel

—Gilgamesh was a King at Uruk...—


The ‘entity’ he encounters is a monstrous form, the beast of El’Adrel, a minotaur, a Cyclops.


beast of El'Adrel



And in the same way within our own memory, out beyond Norbiton, in the Marches, the wild lands, there was Gordon Brown. We had heard rumour of him from over the horizon: glimpsed the thunder-browed cyclops, stomping joyless around his subjugated domain, brutal, gormless, misunderstood. Until, in early May, in good time both for the crops and the financial year, those fey Olympians Clegg, Cameron and Osborne dug the old Titan from his lair, bound and castrated him, and cast him into the outer dark.

Digging in my allotment, the news of these events was like the news of the Light Brigade at Balaclava to a serf out on the steppes, stooping over his patch of vegetables: garbled, delayed, lacking in detail, irrelevant, mythical, dreamlike; probably untrue.





...up to her rooms...


Mrs Isobel Easter, I discover, has not a room but a small system of interconnected rooms on the first floor of the house, of which on this occasion I see one, the defining character of which is encrustation.

It is a reasonably large room, but the proliferation of small objects on shelves, surfaces, and in drawers (I noticed as she rummages for her curiosity) extend its surface area to infinity. This, I take it, is what happens if you stay still for long enough. The objects themselves are unremarkable, and are immediately available to a rough and ready taxonomy:

  • Books, papers, and correspondence, bundled, stacked and loose
  • bits of stick, shell, stone, feather (found objects? Natural history?) including five very large beetles (Javanese, Indian, South American) pinned and labelled in plastic display cases
  • small statuettes and otherwise representational ornaments (a bull, what looks like a lama or alpaca, a Mercury)
  • some loose jewellery, beads
  • decorative boxes, various (inlaid, lacquered, fabric-lined, fabric-covered, including one ottoman-like bench)
  • stationery, including tools (multitool, stapler, a lot of paper clips)
  • postcards in frames and other two-dimensional representations (drawings, photographs)

A room, then, of barbaric untidiness, or at any rate of dishevelled copiousness of spirit. I think of it, henceforth, as the Grotto.





...rummages for her curiosity...


Behind me, Isobel has excavated her curiosity and is now unpacking it from boxes and tissue paper for my inspection.

It is an Etruscan lamp.


Etruscan lamp



I learn later, from Clarke, the rumour that Hunter Sidney once stole just such a lamp from an unlocked cabinet in the museum of the Villa Giulia in Rome, where he had chased Mrs Isobel Easter (to Rome, not the Villa Giulia: quite another story which I will not attempt to retell here).

I suppose this to be the lamp in question.





...It has been said…


This is something I read somewhere. Perhaps in Terry Comito's book, The Idea of the Garden in the Renaissance, or perhaps somewhere else. Where it comes to proper citation, I increasingly feel like an ill-mannered barbarian horde on the move. Who cares who said it? I'm saying it now. It may in fact be that one of the points of proper citation is not to show the debts you owe, but to dissociate yourself from someone else's particular mode of insanity. Perhaps that's what I'm doing here.





...a gastronomy of scrag ends...


A speciality of mine. My economic circumstances do not allow me to eat particularly well.

I live for the most part now on pasta and tomatoes, toast, tea, and occasional cheap vegetables. But in spite of my parsimony in matters of gastronomy, or perhaps because of it, I am not feeling well. I sag, I bloat; I am a pasty, a slug.


Etruscan lamp

—a pasty, a slug—


Clarke tells how once, when he was living in Rome with no money for rent let alone food, he broke out in acne for the first time since he was fifteen.

He went round to see his ex-girlfriend and she laughed. But the next day she appeared at his door with a cardboard box in which she had packaged an emergency food drop: fresh vegetables, bags of pasta, tins of tomatoes, sausages, potatoes, fresh fruit, tobacco, bottle of wine. A box of ingredients, he says, with some bitterness. The last meal of a condemned man reimagined as a celebrity chef's trip to Borough Market.





...Restaurants are the bourgeois ideal of a convivial space...


Restaurants emerged in the middle of the eighteenth century. Before that there were plenty of places you could get a meal, but not where the food was the centre of the experience, and not where you sat cheek by jowl with strangers who were ostensibly your equals (it is the same menu, the same prices for everyone) but where in fact there were many pleasingly subtle gradations of status – a good table, more obsequious service, and wines more prestigious by several orders of magnitude. And the menu posted outside the door is as much a barrier or a warning as an advertisement.

Priscilla P. Clark supplements this observation (in Thoughts for Food I: French Cuisine and French Culture - The French Review Vol. 49 No. 1 Oct. 1975 p. 37: 'While the restaurant grew out of the earlier forms [cabarets, cafes, inns, tables d’hôte and caterers (traiteurs)], it offered more choice, a more systematic presentation (menus) and, most important, undivided concentration on the meal as a harmonious entity... the restaurant was an urban, and more specifically a Parisian phenomenon.’





...inconsistent with conviviality, properly understood...


Eating together in comfortable silence might not be an obvious form of conviviality, but if we accept, as we must, that good talk is predicated upon good and contemplative silence then it follows that it is a valid one. The convivium extends beyond any given meal.

I think we could go further with this idea and consider the properties of a solitary conviviality.


St. Paul the Hermit fed by a raven, after Guercino

—properties of a solitary convivium—

St. Paul the Hermit Fed by a Raven
after Guercino


I shared a flat for a few months with a man in Venice who was divorced, and employed from time to time on the transport boats; otherwise he was a musician. He had his hair cut with quiff and sideburns like an Elvis-impersonator; but unlike Elvis, I suppose, every day at lunchtime he would prepare himself a bowl of pasta or rice or whatever, and he would lay the table in his living room as though he were in a trattoria – knife and fork, bread basket, carafe of water, cruet set, napkin in a ring. And then he would sit down by himself at the table in silence for twenty minutes and studiously munch his way through his repast.

He said that the meal should be a moment of pause and reflection in your day.

The logical extension of my argument would be that conviviality is a virtue fostered as well or better in solitude than in company. The hermit, or Venetian Elvis, is in that moment of quiet absorption, a fully convivial being.

Convivial with what, is another question entirely.





...hand on lyre...


The instrument is a Renaissance lira da braccio rather than a classical lyre. It is not  easy to see here, as it appears to disappear up Priapus's skirts, but Bellini painted an angel playing one on the San Zaccaria alterpiece of 1505, which you can see, left.

The lira da braccio, with its two drone strings (bourdons), belongs to a now-defunct evolutionary branch of stringed instruments, pushed from their niche, I suppose, by the more muscular, more Neanderthal viols, which in their turn were superseded by the hyper-intelligent violin family.

Attending a concert of Renaissance music is much like visiting the Natural History Museum.


Collection of Renaissance instruments

—Natural History Museum—

Your eye wanders over the stage, spotting the extinct grotesques, the parping, flapping, cumbrous curiosities, and you try in vain to name them: Sackbut? Theorbo? Oboe da caccia? Basset Pommer? Tromba marina? Hurdy-Gurdy? – as you might, in a museum of bones, try to pick out the auroch or the glyptodon. 



—Basset Pommer?—





...pricks of lusts and snorting asses...


I would be pleased to think it, but ultimately the picture is too strange to postulate an inner convivium. There is something disconcerting about those watchful or indifferent gods, after all, that excites, in the wrong mood, horror. What Priapus does, it seems, is his affair. The only being who will be woken by the braying is Lotis. Mercury and Proserpine in particular are dream-like watchers of the rape of their sister (perhaps a naiad is too inconsequential a being for them to care). And both Proserpine and Mercury, and indeed all of the gods, are acquainted with rape first hand, one way or another.

Or perhaps, in fact, it is that very dream-like state of indifference or inaction – they show not even amusement at what is passing, although we are assured by Ovid that the braying of the ass was accompanied by gales of laughter – which suggests the assembly of inner spirits in the first place.





...like the feasts T.E. Lawrence describes.


I am thinking of the great communal meals which Lawrence attended from time to time, in Feisal's tent and elsewhere: '... cubes of boiled mutton were sorted through the great tray of rice, Medfa el Suhur, the mainstay of appetite.' - page 128 in my Jonathan Cape edition of 1973.

But glancing back through the book, it is by the frugality, necessarily of the campaign in the desert in general and particularly of Feisal himself, that I am struck.

'Feisal', writes Lawrence, 'was an inordinate smoker, but a very light eater, and he used to make-believe with his fingers or a spoon among the beans, lentils, spinach, rice, and sweet cakes till he judged that we had had enough, when at a wave of his hand the tray would disappear, as other slaves walked forward to pour water for our fingers at the tent door. Fat men, like Mohammed Ibn Shefia, made a comic grievance of the Emir's quick and delicate meals, and would have food of their own prepared for them when they came away.' (p. 127).

In part, fat men notwithstanding, Feisal was typical of the Beduin, as Lawrence understood them:

'The Beduin of the desert, born and grown up in it, had embraced with all his soul this nakedness too harsh for volunteers, for the reason, felt but inarticulate [except that Lawrence will articulate it for him], that there he found himself indubitably free. ... In his life he had airs and winds, sun and light, open spaces and a great emptiness. There was no human effort, no fecundity in Nature: just the heaven above and the unspotted earth beneath.' (p. 38)

It is perhaps apt that I should find myself writing about frugality in the context of our feast, for a feast is only so by dint of its asymmetrical relation to the rest of life. Every day is potentially a feast day in the Ideal City but few are actually so. When I left the New Devi I did not step into deserts of heaven and unspotted earth exactly, but I was aware of leaving a place of plenty for a more precarious and pitted existence.





...impossible weightlessness of Ideal Geometry itself...


It followed that the Ideal Fortification could only be built on a flat site, just as in designing the Ideal City you start necessarily with a blank sheet of paper, somewhere flat and characterless (neither too hot nor too cold, too damp nor too dry, says Alberti). There is no wresting with an existing  topography or the complex pressures of context.

In the 1460s and 70s, the Sienese architect, Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439-1502), architect to Federigo da Montefeltro in Urbino and successor there to Luciano Laurana (c. 1420-1479), worked on a remote fortification, the castle of San Leo, perched on a sheer cliff above the drear and empty land of the Marche. 

The fort had a reputation for impregnability, in part for its imposing stone works, but mostly for its unscalable perch. There was little an architect or engineer need do, except pile up the stones.

By 1494 Martini was in Naples, and present at the siege which would render San Leo and all other fortification in Italy suddenly irrelevant. When, in the 1490s he published his revised trattati d'architettura civile e militare (Codex Magliabechiano) he stated in book V, in which he dealt with fortification, that “the strength of the fortress depends upon the quality of its plan rather than the thickness of its walls”, an obvious and necessary but nonetheless revolutionary departure from all logic of fortification propounded hitherto. “The ancients”, Martini explains, “did not know our artillery”.

Martini, in proposing that henceforth the power of mind, not the accidents of geology or the piling up of stones, would determine the strength of fortifications, was setting the tenor of the coming century. It would be generally held (although not without contention) that the most perfect – functionally, the best – fortification was that which was built in the open, where the logic of geometry could be most completely brought to bear.

Hence Palmanova, you might say, lodged like an uplifted fossil in the centre of an empty plain, defending horizons of earth and sky from invisible armies, the rumour of the Turk, and, ultimately, nothing at all.





...back-garden and public fallout shelters...


Emmet Lloyd tells me that his father in the 1980s did in fact build a bunker in their back garden. His nursery business had by then taken off, and Emmet thinks that the bunker may have been an index of insecurity, a compensatory or apotropaic gesture to the gods.

His father's imagination, he says, was certainly lurid enough for that: he was a big man and lame in one leg; he would go clumping over his nursery fields, spade in hand, bellowing incomprehension at his startled employees or pitching in with the work in terrifying bonhomie. Perhaps his vision of nuclear strike was bound up with his greenhouses, says Emmet; a nurseryman has constantly on the anxious fringes of his mind the possibility of damage to his greenhouses, as if the whole of his business were enclosed in a fragile glass case necessarily subject to attritional damage: the tenor of his business is an everlasting remedial fretfulness. Perhaps the old man woke at night in the sweat of dreams where mushroom clouds girded the horizon of his nursery, until in one more local flash the glass of his greenhouses passed through his flesh like a catrillion unleashed photons.

The bunker, says Emmet, is still there, derelict in a corner of the garden. And his father too, vast and durable, still lives in a corner of their house, clutching to the business like the ancient mariner to a spar of wreckage, mumbling his visionary shibboleths of gross profit, sunk costs, depreciation and amortisation.





...think of as her grotto...


In the decade following the advent of Charles VIII in Italy, Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) busied herself hollowing out the redundant medieval castle in Mantova into which she had moved on her marriage with Francesco II Gonzaga (in 1490), and creating in its rocky secluded interior a fair approximation of a Renaissance palazzo.

Isabella’s complex of rooms comprised a bed chamber, the studiolo proper, a private oratory, a large reception room (the camera degli armi) a library cabinet and a camerino da bagno. She was also close to the camera picta of Mantegna. And on the floor below the main suite of rooms was a grotto, a small room with a gilded stucco ceiling into which, it may be supposed, Isabella would from time to time, Erda-like, descend.


Isabella d'Este's grotto at Mantova


Grotto of Isabella d'Este at Mantova


A great prince, like a great Magus, discharges her power into talismans, synecdotes, emblems, and extends her empire over the realms of speaking objects; who knows but that there in that deep cave Isabella would mull, arrange and rearrange the most precious of her polysemous artefacts, seeking the correct arcane alignment, as though a syntactic energy of understanding might thus be released, fit matter for proper contemplation.





...the story of that escapade...


Mrs Isobel Easter was herself the instigator of the crime. She and Kelley had come to Rome for reasons that are not entirely clear to me and Hunter Sidney, desperate and abandoned, had followed them there. And his affair with Mrs Isobel Easter reached, in Rome, its greatest intensity.

At a certain point, Mrs Isobel Easter was visiting the Etruscan Museum of the Villa Giulia with Kelley, when, the two of them having drifted apart, she noticed, in among the silent cabinets, that one was open. She tells me that there was a centimetre of space where the glass front had not slid fully across, and, looking around at the entirely empty gallery, she laid the palm of her hand against it and tested it. It was not locked.

She says that she did not have the gall to open it more than an inch or two, but she took out some paper and sketched the two objects that she thought could be most easily reached – the lamp and a sort of votive statue on the shelf above. I have the drawing, given to me by Hunter Sidney.


drawing of Etruscan statuette and lamp

—I have the paper—


That lunchtime she saw Hunter Sidney and showed him the drawings, described to him where the objects could be found, and suggested (laughing? trembling? imperious? coy?) that he steal one or both for her. He went to the museum immediately, found the room, the objects, the cabinet; slid it open as she had done, and stretched his hand inside. He says he would have stolen the statuette, given the choice, but it lay slightly beyond the lamp, and he was simply too nervous to have his hand inside for more fractions of a second than was necessary. He took the lamp and put it in his pocket.

He says it then took him a couple of sweaty minutes to realise that it was not like shoplifting, they would not wait until he tried to exit before they stopped him, there was nothing to be gained by hanging around, seeing if he was watched. So he left the museum and ran, he says, the length of the Villa Borghese until he could lose himself in some streets.

He had not seen Mrs Isobel Easter again in Rome. They had all returned to England, and she had ended the affair with him, he says, before he could give her or even tell her about the lamp, so in the end he posted it, well-wrapped, to her home address. And the lamp had disappeared, for him, down some funnel of silent time.





...first outlined by Alois Reigl and W.H. Goodyear in the 1890s...


Both were reacting to the prevailing explanation of ornamental devices as being based in craft technique – thus basket-weaving was said to generate weave patterns, and so on. But Reigl, taking his impetus from Goodyear’s more speculative work on the Lotus (The Grammar of Lotus, 1891), traced the development of a single motif through several millenia of European and Near Eastern art history.

According to Riegl's formulation, the acanthus - to take a significant example - is not a representation of the leaves of the acanthus plant, but a motif derived from the palmette. In other words, the acanthus ornament is an offshoot of the palmette, not a picture, so to speak, of an actual leaf. Riegl may have overstated his case somewhat (or indeed psychotically), but I am relieved to be able to remind myself of the fact that plants in ornamental borders do not necessarily have anything to do with plants that actually grow. Perhaps this should have been obvious to me all along. Plants inhabit a different world from painted representations of plants, not only ontologically, but epistemologically, perceptually. You can dispense with the one in a consideration of the other. Art history suddenly becomes an impersonal, depeopled, and above all clean vision of applied pigment, chipped stone.





...through the World in its entirety...


This is what I thought then, and I think, now, secretly, indulgently, from my retirement, that I wasn’t so far off the mark.

But rather than emphasising the ornamental nature of the figures in Italian Renaissance art, it would have been more accurate, more taxonomically fitting, to return the ornament to the margins. To accord to the margins their own strange life. This was, after all, the initiatory impulse.

It is a truism to remark that the borders of anything – a painting, a building, an empire, a consciousness – are a sort of undergrowth, or hedgerow, concealing animals, grotesques, monstrosities: a zone of mutability, so to speak.

Thus I would not by any means be the first to recognise the marginal world as alive, as a source of patterned inventive growth. But to accord it is own strictly representational status is another matter. Here is the famous Chi-Rho page of the Book of Kells, with its ornamentation as hedgerow, a habitat for small creatures.


Chi-Rho page, Book of Kells

—ornamentation as hedgerow—

– Chi-Rho Page, Book of Kells


Like a gothic cathedral, it is not an ornamentation untouched by geometrical regularities, but those regularities are impossible to read in their entirety from any one vantage. It is centreless, just as those monks on Iona, or Lindesfarne, occupied the margins of a world which had no centre; a world not unlike our own universe. This is a privileged situation, one bettered only, I imagine, by inhabiting the centre of a world with no margins.





...which I did, on my allotment, in a fit of autumnal glee...


This was before the foundation of the Ideal City, and subsequent to quitting my job. It was a time, in other words, when I can be said to have floated free of all social ties. I knew no one, saw no one, and spent up to 22 hours of every day sitting in my room.

So it was that I grew tired of looking at the bulging remnant of my intellectual dreams, the files and notes and false starts and printouts. I stuffed as much of it as I could carry in a rucksack and walked it down to the allotments, where I left it in a pile and came back for the rest. I burnt everything I had on my computer pertaining to my academic life on to a DVD, a little pre-inferno, and took that down too, with the rest of the papers.

Clarke says he saw me that evening, a sorry Viking in the firelight, in the mud of the allotments, watching a conflagration of papers. He knew, he said, that something was ending, something else beginning, down there. He had seen it before. We burn Guy Fawkes, after all, at the outset of autumn, in order that it may help the crops.





...full, predictive taxonomy...


Later, in the office, Emmet Lloyd shows us the digital manifest of the nursery. It is a real-time map of operations. Mousing over one of the colour-coded plots brings up detailed information on batch sizes, stage, condition and so on. What I took to be medieval hundreds, subject to a tacit understanding on the part of the nurserymen who knew the borders and histories and soil-types of the plots from gnarled years of experience, are in fact rigorously defined and docketed zones; the nurserymen, it transpires, carry barcode readers.

Lloyd is proud of the operation, and as a pragmatic organisation of the Ur-Nursery it is impressive. But it is, ultimately, nothing more than a catalogue, always running behind whatever is actually happening out there, in the fields and greenhouses.

A catalogue has no predictive power. It tells you nothing, or next to nothing, about total-plant-space. A taxonomy, properly understood, tells you precisely everything you ask of it. It can be argued that Linnaean taxonomy is nothing more than an elaborate nomenclatorial system – it overlays the actual relations of plants only arbitrarily. But that arbitrariness is its strength. By selecting a fixed number of variables the taxonomist can control how many taxa will be called into being. It is thus a gradable system, and one which, like the periodic table, allows for exempla which have not yet been discovered, or do not in fact exist.

It is a godlike dominion. It is not necessary to see something, not necessary for that something to be anything other than imaginable, in order to exact tribute from it.





...dare not look her in the eye...


Returning from Cobham to Kelley’s garden, and entering there by the back gate with the plants I have bought, I bring Solomon and Hunter Sidney into the garden. We deposit the plants near the back wall in a concealed space which I call the workshop – there are a couple of compost bins, the overgrown greenhouse, a broken down potting shed containing tools.

And there we stand, exposed, where Hunter Sidney is concerned, on the screaming edge of creation, in the garden of his twenty-year-lost love. He is, as he describes it later, suddenly centre-stage in his own world, bathed in the illumination of a thousand arc lamps, exposed, vulnerable, unprepared, exhilarated. But the auditorium is empty. She does not come out. She cannot have the first idea we stood there for two minutes, inside her circle of fire. The auditorium is empty and the script – there is no script – unspoken. As though, he says, he had been a ghost in his own life and had only realised it, there at that minute.

Later, recalling the moment, he wonders if this thicket of emotion and memory is in fact rooted in the originary experience at all. The Ur-emotion, insofar as it can be distinguished, was an approximate, unproportionate chemical activity, a sort of carpet bombing of the soul. The precise weight of a given experience should only be measured rationally, temperately, cognitively, he says; as though each man and woman were historian of his or her own soul. But the memory of our emotion is a corrupt dataset: we cannot recreate the experience from it. We can only generate from it an ever diminishing, qualitatively distinct, cognitive simulacrum with its own, distinct, emotional purpose.

Hunter Sidney is close to death, and far removed from the day to day commerce of the emotions, of the account book of predicaments or the currency of situations, which, insubstantial network though they be, still sufficiently ground our psychic life. But in saying this he alarms me, because he has experienced this night garden, not as a field for taxonomical study, nor certainly as what Solomon calls a library of forms; but as an existential rush of fear and hope.

I note as footnote to this footnote that some years after the end of my relationship with the woman who, it amuses me to think, galloped like a witch through my defenceless life, I met her again. I was still in love with her, she not with me. It was a friendly meeting, but I could not look her in the face, no more than I can stare unblinking at the sun. And some suns, as Hunter Sidney can attest, are black holes in the making.