Crescenzi, Pietro de’

Title Le livre des prouffitz champestres...
Paris, J. Bonhomme, 1486
Madrid, Universidad Complutense, X531590959
Subject Gardens
Transcribed version of the text


     Born in Bologna in 1233, Pietro de’Crescenzi wrote the Ruralium commodorum libri XII between 1304 and 1309. This “pre-Renaissance” text is considered to be the most important medieval treatise on agronomy, but its innovative characteristic is not unanimously held. Written by a contemporary of Dante, which reveals an undeniable “ability to observe, to organize and to abstract”, it is also witness to his contemporaries’ fascination for marvelous phenomena and architecture. Crescenzi was a legal practitioner in Bologna. It would seem that his membership in the Ghibelline party obliged him to move away from Bologna between 1268 and 1298. The annotations in his treatise in which he compares several religions in Northern Italy are apparently a consequence of this itinerant life. In 1298, after retiring definitely from public life, he spent his time in both Bologna and his rural residence of Olmo. He apparently developed most of the agronomical knowledge that he passed on in his book while managing that agricultural operation.
Starting in 1350, the Opus Ruralium commodorum was translated into Italian, then into French starting in 1373 on the order of Charles V. One can count approximately 130 manuscripts. The French manuscript, sometimes obscure, even incomprehensible because of the translation, is entitled Le livre des prouffitz champestres... Rustican du labour (Paris, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, ms. 5064). It is part of a coherent corpus translated on order of the king, with the aim of circulating knowledge in the vernacular. The printed editions came out early, since the first Latin edition appeared in Augsburg in 1471. There are fifteen incunable editions in Latin, Italian, French and German. The first French edition dated from 1486 is entitled Le livre des prouffits champestres et ruraulx, touchant le labour des champs, vignes et jardins... This compendium of 488 pages, composed after Charles V’s manuscript, was printed in semi-gothic characters by Jean Bonhomme. More than ten French editions followed. The last one, dated 1540, was renamed for it was enlarged by the treatise on grafting by Gorgole de Corne (Le bon mesnaiger...). In the second half of the 16th century, this French version was supplanted by the editions of La Maison rustique by Charles Estienne and Jean Liébault which were better adapted to the agro-climatic context of Northern Europe. But elsewhere, more than thirty some editions, two-thirds of which were in Italian, appeared during the whole 16th century.
To write the twelve books of his treatise, Crescenzi relied on an impressive appreciation of encyclopedic synthesis and knowledge. But for minor details, the particularly clear thematic grouping of the sciences and techniques that he developed in an unprecedented way is even in force today: general agronomy, cereal farming, arboriculture, viticulture and horticulture. Memorizing this organization of knowledge was facilitated with a woodcut full of pictures (folio a1). On the one hand book I has a long commentary on the “desirability of the liveable space in general”, that is, the location and arrangement of the dwelling depending on the climate, the geomorphology and water resources and on the other hand a chapter on the roles of the “father and master of he family”. Book II deals with “the virtue of the quality contained in each plant”. This is a physiological model stemming from Aristotelian physics, for the generation, the growth, even the “transmutation” of plants. This account is a prerequisite to the presentation of fundamental agronomical knowledge: soil science and cultural techniques (fertilization, irrigation, plowing, sowing, grafting, etc.). Book III describes growing cereals. Vineyards and wine-producing constitute a large part of book IV. Book V on arboriculture contains fruits good for eating and for making medicines. Book VI presents the growing of garden “herbs”, describing more than one hundred and thirty plants useful for medicines and nutrition. Book VII deals with meadows and woods. In book VIII, the pleasure garden is one of the most original subjects in the treatise. The longest part concerning questions on livestock farming (IX) is followed by a section on hunting and fishing (book X). A compendium organized in various indices (book XI) and a resumé of the labors of the days (book XII) recapitulate and conclude the treatise.
One originality of this book can be found in the description of observations made de visu, but the readership’s sensitivity to the topos of the meraviglia probably led Crescenzi to imagine some of the fantastic practices that we discover in the chapters on falconry or the pleasure garden. It is certainly this search for the pleasure of being astonished which justifies one part of the speculations based on Aristotelian physics appearing in book II. Furthermore, the results of his practice of experimental study and of theoretical reasoning by conjecture, which it is also necessary to relate to Aristotle’s science , are amplified by numerous textual quotations from antique and medieval authors. But as Jean-Louis Gaulin (1990) has pointed out, regardless of the thirty-four authors that he quotes, Crescenzi founded his research on a relatively limited number of written sources, for his references are for the most part second-hand. Sometimes he even resorts to preexisting knowledge that he contests without citing the authors, or conversely, he cites authors without using them, the Greco-Latin writers belonging most often to this last category.
One originality of the text, which can be detected from the beginning over and above the problem of the sources, is found in his plan. This model of effective and coherent explanation is extended into the sub-parts, like in book VIII where in a hitherto unseen way the pleasure gardens are classified according to the fortune and the birth of the owners. This is a distinction that the treatises of the 16th century make less explicitly. According to Crescenzi, it is first necessary to distinguish tne “orchards” covered with grass from those planted with trees, but these two landscapings can be added to each other. When the orchard is grassy, the lawn is “similar to hair and will cover the plain like a green cloth”; the textile analogy expresses the hoped for “hairy” aspect. Then he recommends that the “orchard be square”, on the other hand nothing indicates a quadripartite partition. It seems that the grassy carpet is planted “round about”, that is, surrounded by aromatic and medicinal plants: “basilic, sage, hyssop, marjolaine, sariette, mint”. The interest in this vegetal assortment does not lie only in the pleasure gained from the fragrance or the sight of them, for according to the agronomist, the quality of the air is better in a plot enveloped in the purifying fragrances of these plants. Concerning garden fittings, a fountain and seats in theshade can occupy the grassy meadow when it is not covered with trees. Let us emphasize that for Crescenzi as for Albertus Magnus (c. 1260) medicinal plants can be mixed in with the grass in a lawn. As the owners moved up in society the “orchards” increased in size to reach from one to three hectares. The space is more spread out and there are more layouts, but the landscaping recommendations are practically the same as in the preceding chapter. Then the Italian agronomist describes at length, often with a lot of imagination, the royal gardens of his period. The kings’ “garden”, surrounded by a high wall, is a priori more a woods with wild animals reserved for hunting than a horticultural parcel. It is also a question of a vast utopian architecture: a house or a palace constructed out of living plants set close together. The text is confused here, since the “royal orchard” is henceforth a sort of botanical garden which includes plant curiosities collected to amaze the courtiers. Crescenzi’s project still lacked a rational interweaving of the landscape scales.

Laurent Paya (Centre d’études supérieures de la Renaissance, Tours
/Artopos, Jardin et Paysage, Montpellier) – 2013


Critical bibliography

J. Bauman, “Tradition and Transformation: the Pleasure Garden in Piero de’ Crescenzi’s Liber Ruralium Commodorum”, Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes, 22, Issue 2, London, Philadelphia, Taylor & Francis, 2002, pp. 99-141.

R. G. Calkins, “Piero de’ Crescenzi and the Medieval Garden ”, E. B. MacDougall (ed.), Medieval Gardens, Washington, Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1986, pp. 155-173.

J.-L. Gaulin, Pietro de’ Crescenzi et l’agronomie médiévale en Italie (XIIe-XIVesiècles). Doctoral thesis under the direction of P. Toubert, Université de Paris 1–Panthéon-Sorbonne, 1990.

H. Naïs, “Le Rustican. Notes sur la traduction française du traité d’agriculture de Pierre de Crescens”, Bibliothèque d’humanisme et de Renaissance, 19, Genève, Droz, 1957, pp. 103-132.

L. Paya, Les parterres des jardins à compartiments en France et dans le monde (1450-1650): entre figures de pensée et ornements de verdure. Doctoral thesis under the direction of Y. Pauwels, Tours, Centre d’Etudes Supérieures de la Renaissance, 2012.

A. Saltini, “Ibn Al Awam e Pietro De’ Crescenzi: l’eredità di Aristotele tra scuole arabe e università cristiane”, Rivista di Storia dell’Agricoltura, 1, 1995, pp. 73-75.

P. Toubert, “Pietro Di Crescenzi”, Dizionario biografico degli italiani, Rome, Treccani, 1984, 30, col. 649-657.