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The First Dumbarton Oaks Landscape Architecture Colloquium

Posted On June 15, 2017 | 15:21 pm | by Dumbarton Oaks Archives | Permalink

On April 24, 1971, Dumbarton Oaks took a major step in advancing its Studies in Landscape Architecture program (the former name of the Garden and Landscape Studies program) by hosting a colloquium on “The Italian Garden.” The aim of the colloquium was to renew interest in the academic study of the Italian garden, which had lost popularity after the first few decades of the twentieth century.

According to director William R. Tyler, the decision to hold the colloquium on the Italian Garden was particularly apropos at Dumbarton Oaks because Italy’s historic gardens had served as the backdrop for scholarly interaction since the birth of the Renaissance. It was hoped that the Italian-inspired gardens of Dumbarton Oaks would serve a similar purpose, in accordance with the institution’s goal of advancing knowledge.

Princeton professor David Robbins Coffin served as the chair for the colloquium. At the time, he was a member of the Dumbarton Oaks Garden Advisory Committee, on which he served from 1970 until 1981. Faced with assembling scholars to speak on a topic that he realized had become unfashionable, Coffin extended his invitations far and wide. As he expected, the bulk of the responses to his invitations were negative. To assemble the minimal number of individuals for the panel, Coffin had three foreign scholars join Elisabeth MacDougall, the sole American willing to speak on Italian gardens.

Georgina Masson's Italian Gardens, first published in 1961 Georgina Masson, Italian Gardens (London, 1961) Masson Guide to Gardens Georgina Masson, Dumbarton Oaks: A Guide to the Gardens (Washington, D.C.,1968, repr. 2012)

At the colloquium, Eugenio Battisti spoke about the magnification of the scale of Italian gardens, which was achieved through the construction of large embankments; the alteration of rocks and mountains; and the diversion of rivers. Seeking to rectify the misconception that the designers of Italian gardens had focused on green planting and architectural features over flower growth, Georgina Masson presented her work on flower collectors’ gardens in Italy dating to the seventeenth century. Masson previously had written, in 1961, a book on Italian gardens and, in 1968, a short guide to the gardens of Dumbarton Oaks. The third foreign-born speaker, Lionello Puppi, spoke on the integration of the gardens of the Venetian villas into the structure and coherence of the architecture, forming a key component of the residence.

Elisabeth Blair MacDougall (1925-2003) Elisabeth Blair MacDougall (1925-2003)

The final presenter at the colloquium was Elisabeth MacDougall. The only American speaker at the colloquium, she focused on the influence that literary theory had on garden iconography in sixteenth-century Italy. Her affiliation with Dumbarton Oaks would continue, as she was appointed the first director of the Studies in Landscape Architecture program the following year, in which capacity she would serve until her retirement in 1988.

Dumbarton Oaks published the papers of the colloquium in The Italian Garden, edited by David R. Coffin, in 1972, introducing them into academic discussion and solidifying the position of garden studies at the institution. The colloquium on the Italian Garden would prove instrumental in paving the way for the development of the Studies in Landscape Architecture program, which became one of the three fellowship-granting areas of study at Dumbarton Oaks.

Constantly evolving and expanding to reflect new interests in the field, the Garden and Landscape Studies program (the former Studies in Landscape Architecture program), like the colloquium that inaugurated its foundation at Dumbarton Oaks, strives to improve the understanding of landscape designs and to provide scholars with the basis for future discourse on how cultural landscapes of the past have shaped our environment in the present.