Open images in Luna Commons

Historical Documentation
Crescenzi, Liber ruralium commodorum
Varro, On Agriculture
Columella, On Agriculture

Important! Some links on this page will launch a pop window. To view the images you must adjust your browser settings to allow pop windows for the following url: For more instructions, click here.

Piero de’ Crescenzi and the Medieval Villa

Text by Johanna Bauman

What happened to the villa tradition in the middle ages? The general consensus among garden historians is that the agricultural villa both as an ideal and an economic institution vanished after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fourth century and did not reemerge until the fifteenth century in Italy as part of the revival of classical languages, literature, art, and architecture known as the Renaissance. Villas as places for recreation in the countryside and agricultural centers became less viable with the decentralization of power and the eroding of safety on the outskirts of cities. The practical and philosophical underpinnings of the villa tradition did, however, survive to some extent in the Christian monasteries that became important centers for preserving the Latin language and literature during the late antique and early medieval periods.

The contrasting and yet complementary states of otium and negotium that underlay villeggiatura in many ways parallel daily life in the monastery in which a balance was sought between the contemplative state of prayer and reflection and the physical activities required to run and maintain a monastic compound. It was in monasteries, moreover, that the writings of such Roman agricultural writers as Cato (second century BCE), Varro (116-27 BCE), Columella (first century), and Palladius (fourth century) were preserved. These works are referred to as agricultural treatises. A treatise is a written work that contains a formal or methodological treatment of a specific subject. These works formed the practical basis for the idealization of country life by such poets and statesmen as Vergil (70-19 BCE) and Pliny the Younger (62-113). The perpetuation of Roman agricultural knowledge in monasteries was not, however, purely theoretical. As monasteries grew from being small, isolated compounds to large centers of agriculture around which settlements and towns developed the knowledge preserved in the agricultural treatises was put into practice in a tangible way.

The first writer to provide an updated version of the Roman agricultural treatise was Piero de’Crescenzi (c. 1233 – 1320). He was educated at the University of Bologna where he came into contact with monks from the Dominican order whose interest in the natural sciences he shared. His treatise was completed between 1305 and 1309 and was based upon a mix of Roman agricultural works, medieval medical treatises, contemporary encyclopedic writings, and his own experience as an owner of a small estate on the outskirts of Bologna. Completed around the same time as the early Renaissance masterpiece the Divine Comedy (c. 1310-14) of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the Liber ruralium commodorum, or Book of Rural Arts, forms a practical bridge between the Roman agricultural villa tradition and its architectural and cultural reawakening in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries around Florence, Rome, and Venice. The main focus of his work is practical, but he also alludes to the ideals of villeggiatura in the preface:

"… nothing is better than agriculture, nothing more abundant, nothing sweeter, nothing more worthy of a free man, as Cicero says, and realizing that in rural culture a tranquil state is easily found, leisure is summoned and even attacks of neighbors are to be avoided."

The Liber ruralium commodorum is divided into twelve books and begins with two letters of dedication and a preface. It follows closely its Roman predecessors by outlining the structure, function, and life on an agricultural estate.

  • In Book One describes the best location for a farm in terms of climate, winds, and the availability of water.
  • Book Two describes the properties of plants, pruning and grafting techniques, and how to care for the soil.
  • Book Three focuses on field crops, includes general rules for tending the fields, and an alphabetical listing of different crop types.
  • Book Four is concerned with growing, harvesting and processing grapes into wine and other products, also known as viticulture.
  • Book Five deals with arboriculture or the cultivation of trees, by listing different types of fruit-bearing and non fruit-bearing trees and how they may be grown and used.
  • Book Six is an alphabetical listing of herbs and vegetables prefaced by a chapter on the virtues and origins of herbs.
  • Book Seven concerns the uses of meadows and groves and how they may be created through human intervention.
  • Book Eight describes three different types of pleasure gardens and how they are constructed.
  • Book Nine treats the practice of animal husbandry by listing domesticated animals from largest to smallest and includes information about diseases and uses.
  • Book Ten provides advice on hunting such animals as deer, rabbits, and birds.
  • Book Eleven summarizes the previous books in order to make them accessible to memory.
  • Book Twelve is in the form of an agricultural calendar that arranges the most important information contained in the treatise in short entries for each month.

The treatise was widely disseminated both in manuscript and print form and was sometimes illustrated, although the majority of the illustrations are found in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century editions. The images in the illuminated manuscripts range from those adorning the early Latin treatises, which may be related to the labors of the months and depict fairly humble surroundings, to those showing what appear to be princely estates in French manuscripts commissioned by royal patrons.

A typical example of an illuminated French manuscript is found in the Morgan Library in New York and was produced in Bruges around 1470 by a workshop in the circle of the Master of Margaret of York. In this lavish manuscript that must have been produced for a noble patron, each book begins with a full-page illumination showing the different parts of the estate, which appears to be centered around an elaborate palace-like structure. The composition of these images repeats from book to book: in the lower left-hand corner two male figures, one clad in the robes of a scholar and the other dressed in fine garments denoting an elevated status, are engaged in a discussion pertaining to the scene on the right, which varies depending upon the subject of the book. The robed scholar is a stand in for the author of the treatise, while the noblemen represents the elevated status of the audience for the illuminated work.

The majority of Crescenzi manuscripts, however, appeared in print starting has early as 1471 fewer than twenty years after the invention of the printing press. In the printed editions, which were produced for a broader, less wealthy audience, images play a much different role. The relative ease with which images could be reproduced made it possible for individual plants and trees to be illustrated, rather than limiting imagery to decorative introductions to the books and decorated initials. Although there were more images, many of those used to illustrate Crescenzi’s treatise were not produced exclusively for that purpose, as is the case with many of the woodcuts that adorn the Italian printed edition published in Venice in 1495 in which individual scenes may have originally been created for other books. These woodcuts, moreover, would vary greatly in quality. The editions printed at Speyer in 1495 contain rather generic images of plants and the scenes themselves are often crudely drawn.

Crescenzi’s Liber ruralium commodorum remained the most widely read and printed book on agriculture in Europe until the seventeenth century when the Aristotelian approach to science his work was based on was supplanted by the scientific method of such rationalist thinkers as Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650).

Click on the thumbnails below for a full view of the images.

Le livre des prouffis champestres et ruraux, Book 8 On pleasure gardens (folio 205v), Morgan Library

Le livre des prouffis champestres et ruraux, Book 6 On herb gardens (folio 157), Morgan Library

Example of a German woodcut edition of 1495, Book 4 On vines and vineyards, Chapters 16 and 17 with the cultivation of vines

Example of a German woodcut edition of 1495, Book 6 On herbs, Chapter 12 De affodillis (On bulbs) and Chapter 13 De Acetosa (On sorrel)

Frontispiece with scene of a villa from an Italian woodcut edition of 1504

Page from Book 8 with a pleasure garden from an Italian woodcut edition of 1504, an example of a woodcut taken from a literary work and inserted into an agricultural treatise

  © Copyright 2005 The Bard Graduate Center : Help : Terms of Use : Sitemap