The Garden and the Machine

Eduardo Prieto

Few concepts have undergone an inflation of meaning as spectacular as that of the picturesque. For the writers of treatises in the Renaissance and the Baroque, the picturesque merely referred to what was worth painting; the definition was so broad – and ultimately useless – that it would have been lost to history had Joseph Addison not freed it from irrelevance at the beginning of the 18th century by turning it into something different: a novel object that produces a pleasant surprise and which, precisely for that reason, is “appealing”.

Addison was not naive: he saw the picturesque as the indicator of an era in which art was no longer subject to the apodictic but arbitrary rules of the Academy and was instead entrusted to the subjective but natural rules of Taste in general. Catching up with the new times, he proposed getting rid of all the allegorical fauna that had overrun nature since the times of Titian – nymphs, satyrs and Virgilian shepherds – seeking out beauty in what remained once all that fauna was gone: an empty natural setting. He paved the way for the Enlightenment and, in the process, made taste into an aesthetic category that could be held up, when necessary, as a rival to the now somewhat withered but still recognizable classical Beauty.

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