Can this world be one

The garden is also a way of life. That too is one of the lessons the corona pandemic has taught us

We are forced to retreat. On ourselves, in our own four walls - or in a garden that can become a small cosmos in times of pandemic.

The country estate was on a small hill, still near the city, but still out of the way. On the top of the hill rose a splendid palace with colonnades, halls and rooms that were lavishly decorated with flowers. It was surrounded by beautiful gardens with trees and bushes, all of which had green foliage. Wells kept providing cool water. A cheerful company of seven young women and three young men had come here to flee from suffering and death in the city and to live happily together.

To pass the time, they told each other stories, ten in a day. After ten days it was a hundred. In between they strolled through the gardens, walked through the dew-moistened grass in the morning, later wound beautiful laurel wreaths, sat down on a meadow in the afternoon and refreshed themselves at the fresh spring. The group had fled from Florence, which was struck by the Black Death in 1348. Boccaccio created it in his «Dekameron».

The withdrawal of this educated Florentine elite, the “popolo grasso”, is long gone. But in times of the Covid-19 pandemic, the villa with a park or the townhouse with a garden have re-emerged more clearly as privileged places of individual protection and collective exchange. The renaissance of the green refuge in the midst of the crisis raises questions that also preoccupied the Trecento poet.

How can loneliness be endured?

How can loneliness be endured in the enclosed space and how can everyday life be organized, how can we organize togetherness and structure intellectual life? Do you enjoy your own safety or do you worry about your neighbor? Even if, thanks to digital media, it is much easier to maintain contact with the outside world today, the relationship with those who are exposed to danger beyond the protective walls remains a permanent challenge.

How do we behave in the field of tension between anthropologically necessary sociability and epidemiologically necessary segregation? Scholarship holders who were staying at the Swiss Institute in Rome in the 2019/20 academic year recently tried to answer these pressing questions. Six young artists and six young scientists spend ten months in the Eternal City every year to realize their projects.

During your stay you will reside in the Villa Maraini on the Pincio. The splendid building with a park of over 5,000 square meters was donated to the Swiss Confederation in 1946 by the childless widow of a successful industrialist from Ticino, on the condition that it promote cultural and scientific relations between Switzerland and Italy. Since then, conferences and concerts, exhibitions and workshops have transformed the Swiss Institute in Rome into a unique place for international encounters, and the scholarship holders invite the whole world to the villa.

The scent of rosemary

The lockdown in the spring of this year abruptly stopped all activities. The heavy gate on Via Ludovisi remained closed. The employees and scholarship holders suddenly perceived the house and garden differently. Boccaccio's "Dekameron" seemed very close. In 21st century Rome there was a sheltered haven in the middle of the city shaken by the global plague.

The park, otherwise only perceived as a beautiful arabesque, in which slender palm trees rise majestically into the sky and mighty rosemary bushes spread their intense scent, became the epitome of physical and mental freedom of movement. Now they no longer arranged to meet at the Fontana di Trevi, but at the fountain that was quietly splashing on their own grounds.

The virus changed the multidisciplinary community from one day to the next. The uniqueness of the previous daily routine was called into question by the omnipresence of the pandemic. The openness to the world, which the foundation mandate categorically demands, could no longer be realized. At that moment, however, the fellows who had stayed in Rome, unlike the “nobile brigata” from Florence, did not retreat to the “vita oziosa”, the elitist idleness.

Completed in private

They used the inspiration from the closed and protected space for a cooperative project that brought artists and scientists together to deal productively with the crisis. But they were able to learn from Boccaccio that the permanently endangered human cohesion must be constantly re-established through conversation.

The result is a book that was presented to the public in autumn under the fitting title of “Orto”: Elf “borsisti” take readers on an impressive journey into the gardens of their knowledge and imagination. The title is reminiscent of an essential characteristic of Italian gardens: private seclusion. These gardens gather only a lucky few who have access and marginalize everyone else.

Individual contributions in the volume address this tension between inclusion and exclusion: Here the lordly character of the early modern park is described from a historical perspective, there the liberating, transcendent aspect of atmospheric landscapes. In Italian, “Orto” also refers to the vegetable garden, the maintenance of which is known to require effort and work and in which gardening success does not come naturally.

Escapism is not an option

The bibliophile splendor of the volume and the thematic variety of the contributions should not, however, let the most important goal of the project take a back seat: the productive reflection on the garden is a collective examination of the existential experience of the lockdown. Personal withdrawal and intellectual escapism would be the wrong answers. Because the threats of the pandemic that suddenly hit us from China can only be mastered together.

The human being as a social being cannot do without sociability. So all means must be used to creatively bridge boundaries and overcome distances, because otherwise there is a risk of loneliness even in the middle of a paradisiacal ambience. Experimental cooperation can be playful, bring joy, make you happy - just like working in the garden.

Stefan Rebenich is professor of ancient history and the history of the reception of antiquity at the University of Bern. The volume “Orto” has been published by Nero Editions, Rome, and can be obtained from www.neroeditions.com (25 €).