Geoffrey Doube[1]

There is an interesting and on-going philosophical debate that can be traced through the scholarly journals of human geography, landscape architecture, and garden history.[2] The central question with which this debate is concerned is, “are gardens meaningful?” This debate is pertinent in relation to Hamilton Gardens because one of the key messages that visitors to Hamilton Gardens come away with is (hopefully) that gardens are meaningful. Thus the very existence of Hamilton Gardens seems to weigh in on the affirmative side of the debate. In this article I illustrate some ways gardens can be considered meaningful through the example of the Italian Renaissance Garden at Hamilton Gardens.

Meaning and Gardens

Without straying too far into abstract philosophical issues, it might be helpful to firstly clarify the concept of ‘meaning’ we are using here. While sometimes we use the word ‘meaningful’ to refer to the concept of importance or significance, in this context the word ‘meaning’ refers to semantic meaning. Lots of things are meaningful in this sense – gestures or facial expressions, paintings or pieces of music, sculptures, films and so on. Therefore when we suggest that Hamilton Gardens is meaningful, we are suggesting, amongst other things, that Hamilton Gardens can be ‘read’ in much the same way as can a book or a film.

The theme of Hamilton Gardens is ‘The History, Context and Meaning of Gardens’. There is a story to tell about gardens, their development over time and their variation across cultures. There is also a story to tell by using gardens. By looking at gardens in a particular way we can discern some very fascinating things about the culture and attitudes of their builders. However it must be noted, firstly, that reading gardens is a learnt skill, just like reading a book; and secondly that there are many different ways to read gardens. The question of whether there is one single ‘right’ way to read a garden is beyond the scope of this article. Our more modest aim is to outline some possible ways in which a garden might be read.

Hamilton Gardens: Concept

If you’ve never been to Hamilton Gardens then a quick overview of its concept is in order. The focus of Hamilton Gardens is very different from that of the traditional botanic garden. Instead of being primarily a collection of plants, Hamilton Gardens is a collection of gardens. Despite first appearances, this is a major distinction. In a traditional botanic garden the design of the gardens is subordinated to the display of plants; whereas at Hamilton Gardens the planting is subordinated to the demands of the garden design. If we were to explicate this distinction in terms of meaning we might say that a traditional botanic garden is a sort of living list of plant species, whereas Hamilton Gardens is a narrative account of social and cultural changes expressed through the medium of garden design.

Thus while traditional botanic gardens have what is called an ecological or ethnobotanical theme that focuses on the relationships between humans and plants and between different plants, Hamilton Gardens has an ethnogarden theme that focuses on the relationships between humans and gardens and between different gardens. It is not only the meaning of each garden that it explores, but also the combined meaning of groups of gardens that can be viewed as a narrative. Hamilton Gardens as an entirety and its overall theme is one such narrative configuration, but it is broken down into smaller parts which can be meaningful in their own right, and it’s tempting to think of the smaller parts as being rather like the chapters of a book or the movements in a symphony: the parts contributing to the whole.

For example, the Paradise Garden Collection tells the story of gardens that have expressed their original designers’ conceptions of paradise. This is only one part of the story of gardens but it is an important part and its historical importance is mirrored in the Paradise Collection’s central position within Hamilton Gardens. Their importance is easily seen when we consider the role that the concept of ‘Paradise’ takes in a culture. We might argue that the concept of ‘Paradise’ never appears without its opposite, which is ‘Earth’. Paradise is an unearthly place, far from the cares of this existence. A garden, on the other hand, is by its nature an earthy place. Thus a “Paradise Garden”, as a combination of the two, lies somewhere between Paradise and Earth.

The features, therefore, of the various Paradise Gardens may be instructive because they might be read as revealing how different cultures have attempted to resolve the antagonism between the sacred and the profane. As one of the Paradise Garden Collection, the Italian Renaissance Garden can be used as a brief illustration of this point.

The Italian Renaissance Garden

According to much of European medieval metaphysical thought, Nature is set against humanity as a direct consequence of the Fall. By eating from the tree of knowledge, Adam and Eve’s actions set all their descendents against Nature, both conceptually and as a physical condition of our existence. According to this Western view, while Humanity is sentient and moral and capable of ordered conduct, Nature is unthinking, cruel and chaotic. As God’s creation, Nature is not morally bad as such but it is constantly opposed to Humanity, bringing privation, sickness and death. Its internal nature is unknowable and therefore we cannot predict or avoid the misfortunes that Nature visits upon us.

The Renaissance, however, represents a paradigm shift in the way that Nature was understood in the West. For Renaissance thinkers Nature is neither chaotic nor unknowable. In fact it is governed by discoverable natural laws which can be used to improve the lot of the people. In their thinking, Nature does not conspire with God to punish us for the original sin; humankind actually lies between God and Nature in the great cosmic hierarchy.

Renaissance gardens tended to express this relationship, firstly, by intending their gardens as a complete microcosm of the world and such relationships. The idea that Nature could be entirely knowable meant that it was possible to build a garden which contained every species of plant and animal in existence. Secondly, thinkers expressed this relationship through the creation of a ‘Third Nature”; that is, a Nature improved upon and shaped by the artifice of humanity. Nature by itself is good, but it is so much better when it is bred, set out, tended, and pruned by people. Humanity thereby acts as a mediator between the heavens and the earth – between God and Nature – by bringing the divine order, which is usually hidden from view, into the open.

The Renaissance Garden, therefore, can be read as a reconciliation of the apparent Western contradiction between God (the Divine) and Nature (the Profane). It presents a narrative of the progressive subjugation of Nature from the woodland to the orchard to the scientific garden. The strong central axis of the design can be read as mirroring the Renaissance belief in the inexorable and direct path of humanity towards order and scientific omniscience. In short, each feature of the garden can be made to contribute to the overall meaning of it as a cosmic reconciliatory mechanism.

Different Approaches to Reading the Garden

However, you might like to take a less mythical and more historically-bound approach by looking at what the particular garden says about its owners and their standing in society. It’s possible to see gardens in terms of their position in power relations. The Paradise Gardens at Hamilton Gardens, as reproductions of historical garden designs, also reproduce the messages that those garden styles were used to encode.

In milieux characterised by inequality between rich and poor, only the wealthy few are able to mobilise the labour required to build and maintain their own personal paradise gardens. It follows that if the owners intend their gardens to send a message about their social status, the message will be, “I am much richer and more powerful than you”. One way in which the garden designers of the Italian Renaissance sent this message was through the sheer size of their gardens. Simply put, the bigger the garden and its features, the wealthier and more powerful the

owner. Another way that this message was sent was through the incorporation of garden features that displayed the owner’s mastery over Nature. For example, the control and manipulation of water symbolised the control and manipulation of nature in general. (Fig 1; Fig 2; Fig 3; Fig 4) This control could be either overt (in the case of fountains); covert (in the case of the enormous and technologically advanced hydraulic systems used to raise water) or a mixture of both (in the case of ‘water tricks’, where hidden jets of water were suddenly turned on to surprise and soak garden visitors). Another method for displaying one’s power was built into the garden layout itself: villas were often constructed on slopes overlooking the city in which their owners lived. The gardens would be designed to make use of this view, but for more than scenic reasons. By structurally incorporating the city into the garden (for example, by aligning the spires of city buildings with axes of symmetry of the garden) the garden seems to indicate that the city is merely part of the garden; or to put it more bluntly, only another part of its owner’s domain.

Closely related to reading a garden in terms of societal power relations is reading the garden in terms of sexual and gender relations. Gardens, by their nature, are sexual places. After all, flowers are the sexual organs of plants and much of the activity in the garden revolves around either promoting or actively discouraging plants’ sexual reproduction. It is perhaps for this reason that gardens have often been symbolically linked to the concepts of fertility and sex. In the case of the Italian Renaissance Garden at Hamilton Gardens the symbolic link is quite explicit.

Two aspects in particular can be shown to have this sort of symbolism. The first, and most obvious, is the statue of the Capitoline Wolf, which respresents Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf. This is a reproduction of a statue which is thought to have been cast in two stages. The wolf itself was cast in around 400 BCE by the Etruscans, and with her enlarged teats and protective stance she is already the image of protective motherhood. However, in the late fifteenth century this symbolism was made unequivocal by the addition of the suckling twins beneath her. A declaration is being made about the nature of the State, and if the garden represents power and authority then the declaration can be extended to the garden as a site for nurture and protection.

Nymphaeum, Renaissance Garden
Fig 1: Nymphaeum, Renaissance Garden. The progression of water in the Italian Renaissance Garden: from the grotto to…

The Cascade
Fig 2: The Cascade…to

The Fountain
Fig 3: The Fountain…to

The Waikato River
Fig 4: The Waikato River.

The second kind of sexual symbolism in the Italian Renaissance Garden is not quite as overt. The ancient Greeks and Romans considered natural landscape features such as streams, springs, trees, and meadows to be inhabited by female spirits called nymphs. They erected monuments consecrated to the nymphs called nymphaea. Later in the Renaissance, garden designers used nymphaea as features in their gardens. When this is combined with the Renaissance fashion for creating artificial grottoes (dark, deep, moist spaces) then it can be seen that the garden contained strongly feminine elements. The feminine was balanced by the masculine, both by the rigid geometry of the garden layout and by phallic elements such as fountains that spray rather than trickle.


There are more meanings to be found in the Italian Renaissance Garden at Hamilton Gardens than we have space for here, and many more ways to read it. It would be very illuminating to compare some of these Renaissance meanings with those that can be read in, for example, the Japanese Garden of Contemplation or the English Flower Garden, both represented in Hamilton Gardens. And concerning the debate around whether gardens really do have meaning or not, I hope that this article has given some reasons why they certainly do.


[1] Geoff gave up a doctoral degree in the Philosophy Department at the University of Auckland in order to pursue a career in Public Gardens. He is currently Information Officer at Hamilton Gardens. This article was originally published in The Gardener’s Journal, 5 February 2009.

[2] For two recent examples see Gillette, J., ‘Can Gardens Mean?’ in Landscape Journal (24:,1 2005) and Herrington, S., ‘Gardens Can Mean’, ’ in Landscape Journal (26:2, 2007)