On Friday, our new friend Martín suggested we meet him in the Botanical Gardens. It was a place we’ve been wanting to see for some time, eight hectares of thousands of species of plant life just a few blocks from our apartment. We’d already had a tempting vision of its leafy bowers walking past it on New Year’s Day, when it was closed. We’d heard the screeching of parakeets, seen the dense foliage between the trunks of tall trees and glimpsed a gleaming white nude. So it was with a pleasant sense of anticipation that we set off on a beautiful sunny (and, crucially, non-humid) summer evening to see this living monument.
The garden’s full name is Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays de la Ciudad Autόnoma de Buenos Aires. Carlos Thays (1849-1934) was a landscape architect who strongly influenced the design of central Buenos Aires. He is personally responsible for the fact that there are so many open spaces remarkable in a city of this size. Born in Paris, Thays moved to Argentina at the age of 40 and decided to stay for life. In 1891 he was named the city’s Director of Parks and Walkways and got to work planting trees, designing plazas and parks and reserving large tracts of land for his creations. My favorite running area Parque Tres de Febrero, for example, is an area of about 400 hectares, formerly the personal property of dictator Juan Manuel Rosas but now a public playground filled with trees, flowers, fountains, lakes, grand monuments and relatively innocuous sporting venues.
Curiously, there only seems to be three ways to enter the botanical gardens, and gates close pretty early. We had to walk about two blocks before finding the one on Avenue Santa Fe. I am wondering if this security measure could have to do with the preponderance of people depositing unwanted housecats in the gardens, where they’d need to fend for themselves dining on rodents and birdlife.
Near the Santa Fe entrance you are met by an urchin offering you a cup of water and carelessly spilling the rest of it out of a giant urn. Straight in front is the house where Thays lived while planning and planting (quite grand for a worker’s shack). To the right is the Roman garden, where we headed first.
The Roman garden features a bust of Pliny and species of tree that he described growing around his villa in the Appenines–cypresses, poplars and laurels. It had never occurred to me that a garden could be a kind of literary reconstruction, and it struck me as an interesting idea. What other ancient gardens might be resurrected? The walled rose-scented garden where Assasssins took drugged novitiates, so that they would wake up thinking they were in Paradise? The gardens of Babylon? The pleasure forests of India where Todi Ragini played the veena to deer?
A little beyond this was a pretty pond in a kind of concrete bath containing waterlilies and papyrus reeds. I was drawn to this at once, feeling some fondness for the papyrus plant since our visit to Sicily, where they say the plant has been growing since 250BC thanks to a gift from King Ptolemy to Hiero II.
Turning back, Martín led us back to his favorite monument in the gardens, a remarkable sculpture titled ‘Saturnalia’ by Roman sculptor Ernesto Biondi. It shows a group of ancient Romans of various caste and class reveling together in the holiday famous for its relaxation of societal norms—slaves played at being owners for a day, women dressed as men and, if Biondi is to be believed, got very drunk.
The original, completed in 1899, caused a sensation at the Paris Exhibition of 1900 and again in New York, where it was slated to be exhibited at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1905. The museum trustees attended a private preliminary viewing and were so appalled that the piece was pulled. Biondi sued the Met (unsuccessfully) for breach of contract (the brouhaha related amusingly in this blogpost). In 1909 Argentina-based artist Hernán Cullen Ayerza (1879-1936) acquired a copy for the city of Buenos Aires, but it was considered so risqué it was held in Argentinian customs for years. Ayerza finally decided to put it in his private garden, where it remained until his death. He gifted it to Museum of Fine Arts but it wasn’t until 1988 that it went on display here in the gardens.
Moving on, we drifted on red-clay paths towards the ‘Oceania’ section, which seemed mainly to involve dozens of varieties of eucalyptus. The ‘Asiatic’ section featured maple trees, a little Japanese bridge, tons of bamboo and more waterlilies.
As Martín and John talked about Vonnegut and Argentine literature, we passed into a little plaza with a circle of agapanthus. I have liked this plant ever since I found out it meant ‘flower of sacred love’ in Greek, as opposed to eros or philia or other sorts. That said, if I spend much longer in Buenos Aires I’m afraid I’m going to get sick of it because it seems to be the only kind of civic flower they have. The town council must have got a bulk order at some point. Either that or the agapanthus lobby threatened it with revolt.
Around this little circle of purple, there were several statues of naked women representing nature. There was this dryad-like figure whose pose reminds me definitely of the twisty trunks of several native Argentine trees.
And this odd little number, a tribute to Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ symphony. I really like the 6th symphony, but I have to admit that it never occurred to me to associate it with a topless girl shouldering a lamb.
Passing on from these installations, we came across a miniature water garden that reminded me of Monet. I tried blurring my eyes to make it look even more Impressionist. I suppose the similarity isn’t surprising since Thays was also a nineteenth-century Parisian and that sort of thing was in fashion back then. The variety of greens combined with the silvery water was soothing.
Then we went around the native section, featuring plenty of steroid-bulky trees, cactoid monstrosities and vigorous epiphytes that look like they are trying to wrestle their host trees into submission. John urged me to take pictures of tree roots. He said something about one of them reminding him of a sandworm in Dune.
Nearing the end of our circuit, we saw a massive greenhouse. Like Saturnalia, this was on display at the Paris Exhibition in 1900. It was carefully dismantled and moved to Buenos Aires. Unfortunately, it was closed, so we decided to leave and get coffee somewhere.
In any case, I plan to be back n the near future for an eyeful of more botanical vistas like these.