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Volume 1, redone Dec. 2014


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Luke Morgan on Salomon de Caus

Review published here in September 2007

Luke Morgan's Nature as Model: Salomon de Caus and Early Seventeenth-Century Landscape Design (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007) pleases by its analytical sophistication and thorough research. Why make this point? One finds books containing tremendous archival research that goes little beyond well-established if not dated conceptual frames; and similarly, one finds analytically and conceptually bright books supported by only thin research, little more than published sources and earlier studies. Let the reader think of the works that conform to these descriptions. Morgan's certainly does not.

The polymath that was de Caus has been studied by specialists in various disciplines. Morgan sensed the need for an analytical biography, and he is right. A lot of nonsense has been written about de Caus, not only about his work as an engineer and master gardener but about his life. A fake letter that was diffused in non-scholarly literature, plays and paintings, engendered a mythical figure, a persecuted mad genius who spent years in prison. Jonathan Dewald's Lost Worlds...(see my review of Jonathan Dewald's Lost Worlds), is a study of why nineteenth-century French philosophers and littéraires turned to the seventeenth-century in their search for understanding the origins of modernity. This, of course, is not Morgan's subject. His aim is to explode myths and over-interpretations.

There is not a shred of evidence that there were hermetic-NeoPlatonist meanings or conceits in de Caus' design and building of the famous garden for Frederick, the Winter King, in Heidelberg; but that has not prevented a bevy of scholars from finding layers and layers of meaning in it. Confirming my first remark, Morgan recognizes that reading and reception have their own histories, which implies that Neo-Platonic readings may be of interest despite the absence of sources. This is generous and sound on his part, but he also points to plain old nonsense written about this garden. Sabatier's demolition of the over-interpretations of the Latona fountain at Versailles comes to mind (see my review of Gérard Sabatier's Versailles ou la figure du roi ), but as expected in the case of Frederick's garden, the absence of sources is taken by some as support for their far-fetched interpretations. It is sad to note that Frances Yates fell into this myth-making, which does not surprise so much as it saddens, because so much of her work is superb.

Morgan's careful review of the facts about de Caus' life and family need not be reviewed here. Suffice it to say that by careful reading, he tells us a lot about a water engineer who traveled to Italy, the Spanish Netherlands, the Palatinate, England, and Paris and its environs. A time-line of de Caus' writings probably would confirm that this is what he did while waiting for some big commission. A reader of the ancients and an observer of the Italians and their gardens, de Caus contributes to natural philosophy, geometry, architecture and music ­ not as an autodidact but as someone who has spent time in the company of a learned engineer. He would seem more formally trained than his Huguenot counterpart, Palissy. Historians of science have found de Caus interesting, particularly on what he says about relations between theory and practice: he is on the applied-knowledge side of the teeter-totter, not the theory one.

De Caus is well-read and ready to make judgments on important questions. He is not servile toward the ancients; Vitruvius says that knowledge of music is desirable for an architect; de Caus disagrees, yet he writes a treatise on harmony. Homer and Ovid are good sources for what de Caus seems to call decoration. He works on perspective but does not seem to apply it where it might be useful. Morgan calls him a pragmatist. To me de Caus certainly would seem to be eclectic in his interests and writings. The latter contain quite detailed presentations of some of his garden projects, but no general treatise on gardening.

De Caus evidently sought and received a commission from the Paris government in 1621 for supplying water to various fountains and cleaning the streets. He was supposed to raise 40 pouces for the distribution of water ­ really quite a lot of pressure. Morgan does not note whether or not this project was related to the building of the Samaritaine, built in 1608. Indeed, the city council stipulated that the pumps should be built near the Arsenal, but is a connection with the Samaritaine to be ruled out? The pay was to be 60,000 livres, with a possible supplement of 20,000 livres for expenses that might come up ­ in fact, huge sums of money! De Caus' work for Paris suggests that the impulse for civic improvement ­ concern for water and bad air ­ launched in the reign of Henri IV, had persisted. Morgan seems to think that water from the Seine was not drunk.

 Au contraire, it was drunk by thousands of people and was recognized as less dangerous than the water from courtyard wells located only a short distance from courtyard privies. But all this is minor and ought not be allowed to displace the importance of Morgan's reconstruction of de Caus' life.
The chapter on de Caus' grottos at the Coudenberg Palace is an important complement to what has been learned about these Baroque places, most notably in Italy (the Pratolino, visited by Montaigne), and D'Urfé's on the Lignon. Here is where detail is so important and interesting, e.g., de Caus' use of cheese in his mortar to make sealed surfaces, and for affixing shells to walls. His creation of a water-driven "merry-go-round" where revolving figures were accompanied by concealed pipe-organ clearly gave him both pride and notariety.

Integrating contemporary individuals or groups into the program of a grotto is one of the striking features of de Caus' work at Coudenberg. Urfé's grotto is laden with meaningful conceits and with a Neo-Platonic Christian dimension right along with Ovidian and other antique icons. De Caus shows forgers, sawyers, woodcutters, weavers and cooks "working" at their trades. Perhaps the Hapsburgs ordered this, perhaps it was de Caus' idea; but it is tempting to infer that the result as a more extensive and statist vision of a water feature than D'Urfé's aristocratic one. Frances Yates, in her study of the Valois Tapestries, notes that peasants from different parts of the realm danced at a Henrician fête in their regional dress. De Caus says "même des cuisiniers," indicating a sense of social or corporate hierarchy among artisans.

In his work for Cardinal Richelieu at Rueil, de Caus developed a painted trompe-l'il garden that was life-size and so effective that birds were fooled. Some art historian doubtlessly has already worked on this one, but I shall note it here: this perspective scene, which showed an Arch of Constantine and other architectural features, may well be the inspiration for Jacques Stella's Liberality of Titus (see P. Rosenberg, France in the Golden Age: Seventeenth-Century French Paintings in American Collections, the Metropolitain Museum exhibition catalog, New York, 1982, as cited by Sir John Elliott, Richelieu and Olivares, Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1984, p. 169) ­ an enigmatic painting that yields its meaning thanks to Morgan's research on Rueil. And who could the man in the shadows be? Stella? Perhaps. Sublet de Noyers? This "favorite" of the Cardinal ­ who was the superintendent of buildings, the "decider" who invites Poussin to France and who helped the Cardinal draft his will ­ also had a trompe-l'oeil painting on his garden wall!

One of the most puzzling aspects of de Caus' career is the near disjuncture between his writings ­ on perspective, for example ­ and his practice. He never seems to have set out fully to work out perspective in a total garden program. Patricia Ranum (Histoire et Archives) has shown how Le Nôtre worked to create the maximum effective perspectival garden at the Hôtel de Guise, despite an irregular land tract. But of course, that was almost a half century later. There are other near disjunctures between de Caus' practical learning and his application of it. Still, from Frederick's statue all parts of the garden could be seen, a sovereign coherence.

Morgan is very careful when evaluating not only de Caus' accomplishments as engineer and writer but also the technical and philosophical cultures to which he belonged. It is far beyond this reviewer's competence to question judgments about the lack of importance of ancient technology to that of the late-medieval and early-modern "advances." Here and there, however, one senses disciplinary turfs not so much defended by Morgan as framing concepts to clarify de Caus' precise role as an engineer specializing in waterworks. True, de Caus was not a philosopher in the sense of someone who takes up formally epistemological questions, but he does have strong rules for evaluating techniques (demonstration with repetition yielding the same results) and he was certainly "state of the art" in perspective and hydraulics.

Morgan probably shied away from going deeper into how de Caus understood Vitruvius as a result of the works already published on the subject. Clearly de Caus viewed him as what Huizinga called a "historical ideal of life," that is, a semi-heroic figure worthy of emulation (see my Artisans of Glory). He seems not to have known Vignola's work on Vitruvius' orders, or sought to contribute to the great project of discerning conformities between proportions in writing about and drawing the different orders, to recover the coherences of forms that the ancient Roman set down. Engineers were not architects, or so it would appear!

De Caus also seems to be quite a literalist ­ in his use of motifs from Ovid, for example. This characteristic would distinguish him from the more literary persons of his generation who might draw on antique thought for inspiration and then take off from it. I am not certain on this point, however, given the fact that de Caus wrote about Vitruvius in possibly quite bold ways, not unlike Machiavelli on Livy.

De Caus' chef d'oeuvre (not pièce de résistance) was the garden he designed for Frederick of the Palatinate (the Winter King) and his spouse, Elisabeth, daughter of James I of England. Much has been written about this garden. Morgan convinces when he presents examples of ignorance and over-interpretation. His generosity is remarkable, because it is founded on an understanding of reception, though he himself pursues de Caus' intentions.

One of the reasons for the over-interpretation has been de Caus' stress on the importance of music for understanding not only his garden but the cosmos as well.

In the early-modern centuries, persons interested in music in history and theory (not necessarily in practice) quite often are also influenced by Neo-Platonist and/or Hermetic ideas. These systems of thought favor the creation of a search for correspondences between the arts, iconographies, paganism and religion, astronomy and human action. But from what Morgan presents, it would seem that either from his experience in pursuit of the concrete, or from his own turn of mind, de Caus' interest in music remained infused with ideas of nature and God and did not descend to the trivial, such as an overall "program" or scheme for a garden. Was it his Protestantism that led him to set a kind of boundary of possible meanings, after asserting that order was in nature but that it was not up to man to rework beyond a certain point what God had done ­ e.g., through geometry and perspective? And of course he had to take his patrons into account. Perhaps Frederick's learned clergy might have attacked a more iconographically meaningful garden as too pagan, or too Catholic! And we would need to consider as well the views of Elizabeth, the daughter of the most learned king in Europe, a theologian who very probably expressed hostility to magic and secret meanings. The fact that novels were found in her chamber after the flight caused by the debacle of White Mountain, does not mean openness toward Hermetic thought. Who knows? De Caus might have had hearsay knowledge of Casaubon's great critique of Hermetic thought.

This said, it would be presumptuous of me to go over the interpretation of Frederick's garden. To be sure, it is a celebration of sovereign power in the person of Frederick of the senior branch of the Wittelsbach dynasty, it is a celebration of the power of music over the natural world, and of love (not necessarily marriage). In the statue that occupies such a prominent place in the garden, Frederick holds an orb in his left hand. He probably could not have pretended to such sovereign power prior to his election to the Crown of St. Stephen. I simply do not know if electors had the right to carry an orb.

But as king of Hungary, he certainly could have claimed the right to carry an orb, at least until his troops were clobbered by the emperor's (and Maximilian's). Especially so since the crown of St. Stephen has the shape of a very large half-orb. So an orb is placed on top a column with an Ionic capital, and four very orb-like crowns are designed in the succeeding parterre ­ a very beautiful design, by the way. The message of sovereign power is pretty explicit, and indeed heavy ­ as heavy as in the great portraits of Elizabeth I of England, at least one of which shows her carrying an orb. As king, Frederick was lording it over all the other electors, and more especially his erstwhile cousin of Bavaria, Maximilian, who was not yet even an elector.

Why a column? Let's propose what might be a de-Caus reason. His pumps could push water almost to the top of the column! It would have been indecent for him to have the orb held up by the water, like a ball; so the fountain begins just one rusticated ring below the Ionic capital. Why Ionic? I must stop: I am doing just what I said I would not do.

Luke Morgan is to be congratulated for his thorough research, his critique of previous work on de Caus, and his convincing analysis of the thought and work of a man who fulfilled and enlarged that life-model known as "the engineer."

Pedantic Quibbles
These are really very unimportant, but they testify to an effort at close reading:
p. 36, last line of first paragraph: "touchand" (that is, "touchant")?
p. 53: Condé was already about twenty when this vandalism occurred. Such violence should be studied: e.g., the aristocrats who rode through the Foire Saint-Germain and tipped over tables of food, etc., for sale.
p. 122, line 6: it's a quote so Morgan is right to leave it, but why would anyone make goût, gustus feminine?
p. 190, line 15: "... our numbers": de Caus seems to have thought a lot about the boundaries between the human and the divine. If numbers are human, was geometry also human? He doesn't seem to have the idea that God's reason and human reason are the same, but that man's is far more limited.
p. 201, line 4: see G. Defaux on curiosity. This phrase suggests that de Caus had pretty good religious training.
p. 202: in his portrait the hand is so very fine, perhaps due entirely to the painter. If not, it indicates that the sitter did not wish to be considered one of the gens méchaniques?