Genius loci

If you were ever wondering what that is, read this and you will understand:

It is too long  since a post went up on this blog so here is a poem in small essay form.   Largely in the words of Marco Martelli, artist,  from Venice Biennale last year.

The Romans believed that every  space was inhabited by a minor divinity, a genius loci that guaranteed its uniqueness.  To settle into a place, to build and to live there required a dialogue, a negotiation with that god.

What needed to be done to make him stay?  Because only under that condition could the project to build in that place be brought to fruition.  The ancients believed that the greatest danger, the constant menace for man was to live in a place devoid of spirit and therefore of meaning.  A non-place.  And that is why they created sacred groves within the city, wild forests in which the divinities could live alongside man.

Today such places have become rare.  They are being trivialised, converted into functional non-affective spaces that offer no exchange between the individual walking through the space and the ‘scenario’ that surrounds him.  Having lost his sense of place, man – separated from himself – separates himself a little further every day from the world, which he does not perceive as a living space.  The garden, whether ancient or modern, palatial or intimate, devoted to producing fruit or contemplating nature, hidden or public, is a laboratory.

Men have always experimented with new ways of dwelling on the earth in their gardens, between artifice and nature.  In the past, they condensed dreams of ideal beauty or cosmogony.  Today, perhaps gardens are a pocket of resistance:  they eschew market rules and no-one has yet found a way to transform them into consumer objects.* A garden puts in a place where we can dwell poetically on earth.  So it is time to return to the garden.  To plant new sacred groves.  To give in to the forest.

PS I had no idea what cosmogony meant – reaching for a dictionary  – it is the theory of  the cosmos coming into existence.

PPS* I don’t agree with that.  Subject for a debate?


  1. Ann says:

    Excellent! Just one addition….many of the Romans’ genius loci were goddesses, often associated with water – wells and/or springs, an association that gets picked up with Mary in Christianity…

  2. Pat Webster says:

    I agree with you, Catherine. Many people have found ways to transform gardens into consumer objects. Which is a great pity. A personal garden created by an individual with care and love and attention to the meaning of what is there can be a sacred grove, whether the garden is an urban or forested space.

  3. Pat Webster says:

    PS. Is that the Bardini garden in Florence in the first photo? I think I recognize the wisteria tunnel.

    1. Well spotted Pat – yes it is and I agree with your comment on the consumer objectification of gardens. Such a mistake.

  4. Francesca says:

    Wonderful post! It is so interesting how Romans were thinking of gardens!

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