Gardens & books on display at the Bodmer in Geneva

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It is precisely in these days of the beginning of September that the Des jardins & des livres exhibit at the Martin Bodmer Foundation , near Geneva, has since last spring assorted in florilegium and put in tension over a hundred and fifty testimonies written on different media – mostly books, many in very rare prestigious editions, but also manuscripts, important autographs, illustrated texts meticulously or sumptuously – with the purpose of giving an account of the mutual bond that weaves those universal devices that are gardens and books.

Sharing both the dimension of the project and a structure that functions as a body of related parts, as well as the ability to abstract from the ordinary, if the books tell the gardens – when they do not inspire them -, structuring the measure as well as often remaining the only testimony after the disappearance or along the trajectory represented by their utopia, on the other hand, the gardens pervade the most diverse literatures, philosophies, religions, going beyond centuries and civilizations. In synaesthesia of bookish perceptions and metaphors, as well as weaving close dialogues with texts that variously convey technical knowledge, natural sciences, physicians, botanists, and all those that detect from the variegated universe of garden arts.

This is how, by imagining this two-faced exhibition, the curators Jacques Berchtold, director of the Bodmer Foundation, and Michael Jakob, professor of comparative literature and of theories and history of the landscape between Grenoble and Geneva, have focused on the unfolding of many forms of the imaginary that in coming and going between books and gardens are constituted as constant. In the most distant spheres, cultures, expressive genres, albeit holding perhaps too far from the contemporary, except for literary works.

The long work of research and analysis, also witnessed by the important catalog (edited by Jakob, for the MetisPresses editions, pp. 496 with 592 color images, € 65.00), as well as activating a rich series of loans from institutions and individuals , has had the opportunity to draw on the vast wealth of works of the Foundation. One of the main private collections, with over one hundred and fifty thousand of the greatest testimonies of written cultures, papyri, manuscripts, old books, first editions and autographs. A collection put together in the years of a life by the industrialist and bibliophile Martin Bodmer (1899-1971) following the visionary objective of establishing, in the footsteps of Goethe’s Weltliteratur , a library of universal literature.

Once descended from the garden terrace overlooking the lake in the rooms of the hypogeum Museum imagined for the Foundation by architect Mario Botta, the exhibition proceeds from the declared encyclopaedic aspiration – certainly Eurocentric, yet rich in openness to the neighbor’s universes and farther East -, then discarded in a series of intertwined paths, interrupted and resumed. A sort of labyrinth, even if made of recalls and transparencies, where the protagonists, who in the articulated arrangement of Stasa Bibic and Saskia Zurcher overlook the discrete penumbra necessary for the preservation of such fragile objects, make us stand on stilts reflecting an architecture of reflections of supports, easels, lecterns.

Immediately, here we are welcomed by the Garden of Eden of the Bible printed in four languages ​​(Jewish, Greek, Latin and Chaldean) in Antwerp between 1568 and 1572 and then, by a copy of the Canzoniere di Petrarca hand-painted by Bartolomeo Sanvito around at 1500, the prehumanistic garden or even the already renaissance catalog of forms and models of the ideal garden is revealed, which is the indispensable Sogno di Polifilo in the original Aldine edition of 1499.

And so on, by virtue of echoes and postponements, resonances, references, debts and interactions. From the monumental specimen in large folio, weighing 15 kilograms, published in Altdorf in 1613, here also in a watercolor version, of the Basil Besler’s Hortus Eystettensis , commissioned by the prince bishop Johann Konrad von Gemmingen to illustrate, often in natural dimensions, the hundreds of plants in his encased garden, in the original six-volume edition of the Novella Eloisa by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, then in Proust, Campana, Bassani, Jarman.

While on the golden background of the wall the engravings of the parterre of the gardens, almost everywhere drawn in the 600 by the French André Mollet, are paraded, the volumes are shown hovering on an open page. And yet, like any garden that you go along – except those designed to be synoptically viewed from the top of a terrace – those pages offer rather intuitive, foreshadow the surprise of what remains in the others, still to be scoured.

From these, bypassing the enclosure of genres, settings, protagonists, and metaphors of gardener spend from poetry to prose, from the epic to the theater, in literary works as in the treatises or practical manuals, from Paul Verlaine to Teofrasto, from the Instructions of Jean- Baptiste de la Quintinie to the illustrations of the linneian system by Robert John Thornton, in the Temple of Flora .

And indeed, in a game of intertextuality across the board, suggested by the curators also for the figurative dimension, the interest is often rather on what is placed on the limits and works as an intermediary, like the suggestions and the transference, from the Orlando furious as Elective affinities , when not from the lost Paradise that prefigures the aesthetics of the English garden revolution.

So, just to stay at the last chapter mentioned, the exhibition proceeds, marking large junctions (from the political survey of the sage on the modern garden , published in 1785 by Horace Walpole to the use of the landscape artist Humphry Repton to show the gardens in his Sketches of their properties before and after his overlap intervention).

Therefore amplifying at every step the game of reverberation in the books of themes and seasons of history and values ​​assumed by the garden. And viceversa.