Reaching for the Heavens: Sundials in Early Modern European Gardens

Alcanzando el Firmamento: Relojes de Sol en Jardines Europeos

Denis Ribouillault para LOFscapes

En nuestra primera columna internacional, el historiador del arte Denis Ribouillault nos relata cómo los olvidados relojes de sol que todavía podemos encontrar en jardines históricos, particularmente en Italia, han sido dispositivos capaces de materializar una narrativa del paisaje configurado como centro del universo y del jardín, como una representación ideal del mismo.

Early modern gardens in Europe contained many treasures: beautiful fountains with ingenious mechanisms, elegant statues of gods and goddesses, which helped construct a sense of narrative within the garden, mysterious grottoes staging nature’s alchemical power, and, of course, trees, plants and flowers artfully arranged by an architecture of paths, stairs and viewing platforms. All this has been well studied by garden historians. Sundials, however, have not. Yet, sundials were prominently displayed in most early modern gardens: in Henry VIII’s garden at Hampton Court palace, Queen Catherine of Medici’ Tuilerie gardens in Paris, Villa Aldobrandini at Frascati, Villa d’Este at Tivoli, Palazzo Farnese at Caprarola, Villa Medici at Pratolino or Villa Madama in Rome, to name only some of the most famous ones. Most of them have simply been forgotten.

At the Villa Giulia in Rome, built for Pope Julius III around 1550–1555, a monumental sundial, rediscovered recently, stood prominently at the highest point of the great garden-park. Mounted on a high column, it is a rare polyhedral sundial made of African marble with the name of the eight winds and the corresponding cardinal directions skillfully inscribed on the central faces. A rhombi-cuboctahedron (polyhedron with 26 faces), it resembles one of the Archimedean solids drawn “by the divine left hand” of Leonardo da Vinci in Luca Pacioli’s De divina proportione, published in 1509. With this particular shape, the sundial, a mathematical marvel of “Archimedean ingenuity,” also became an object of philosophical contemplation according to Platonic doctrines. For Luca Pacioli, regular solids constructed through mathematical proportions gave visual access to the invisible structure of the universe.

The sundial was conspicuously set on top of a monumental pyramid in an area of the Pope’s domain called Vigna del Monte, on today’s Monte Parioli. Its shape and its association with two obelisks recalled prestigious ancient structures such as Augustus’s Mausoleum or the tower of the Winds at Athens. From this lofty position, the pope could assert his dominion over the landscape of Rome but also over time and thus celebrate his destiny as a result of divine will.

The sundial had therefore a variety of functions. It gave the time of different places and functioned simultaneously as a wind rose to help the visitor better appreciate the breath-taking panorama of the city, with Saint Peter’s basilica and the Pope’s palace in the distance. Topped by a metallic wind-vane, it also worked as an anemometer. In contemporary treatises on architecture and gardening, such instruments are sometimes described and recommended for such use. However, they are also singled out as “curiosities,” marvelous objects that please the intellect of the most cultivated garden visitors. Because they suppose a high degree of mathematical knowledge and craftsmanship, they were regarded as particularly delightful, like the complex automata found in garden grottos or the scherzi d’acqua used to startle and wet peaceful garden visitors. Finally, garden sundials can be understood as models of the universe. Because the gnomon — the sundial’s stile — is, from a theoretical point of view, the center of the universe, the sundial locates the garden and its owner at the very center of the cosmos. The presence of sundials is thus related to the fundamental belief in early modern Europe in the correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm. The garden, itself often described as a microcosm of the world, is placed within the perspective of the whole Creation. For this reason, garden sundials are often linked to other objects or decoration within the villa and its garden where ideas concerning time, fate and the cosmos are also expressed.

At the villa Giulia for instance, the sundial may be understood as another expression of the theme of Fortune, which had a special significance for the Pope who chose the allegory as his personal emblem (impresa). The allegory is found repeatedly within the villa’s decoration. In fact, the all’antica architecture of the villa, especially its famous semi-circular courtyard, clearly inspired by the ancient temple of Fortune (Fortuna Primigenia) at Palestrina, may be linked to this concetto. The Pope, Giovanni Del Monte, was, from 1543 until his election, cardinal-bishop of Palestrina. He was thus well aware of the importance of the ancient temple of Praeneste for the practice of divination and the power the ancients attributed to the goddess Fortuna Primigenia, presiding over destinies and symbolizing eternal return. The small loggia or logetta of the famous nymphaeum was also decorated with an astrological fresco cycle. Jupiter, in the central tondo, is surrounded by the 4 elements (Mercury for earth, Apollo for fire, Venus for water, Juno for air), the sun and the moon (Diane and Endimion) and, in the rectangular borders, the triumph of the Seasons and the zodiacal signs. The disposition of these signs in relation to the figures of Jupiter, the sun and the moon, has been related to the positions of the stars on 19 September 1487, the Pope’s birthday.

From a global perspective, the importance of sundials in early modern European gardens comes as no surprise. Gardens of most civilizations, in China, Persia, the Arabic world, or the Maya and Aztec empires for instance had deep cosmological roots, reminding us that one should not only look at trees, flowers and streams when visiting a garden, but also look up at the boundless sky and feel part of a greater universe.

Denis Ribouillault es Profesor Asociado en Historia del Arte en la Universidad de Montreal, Canadá, y experto en paisajes culturales, jardines y cartografías históricas. En el link adjunto puedes ver su currículum, además de acceder a sus últimas publicaciones: <>

Para leer en extenso acerca de la Villa Giulia, ver Ribouillault (2013), “Julius III’s Tower of the Winds: A Forgotten Aspect of Villa Giulia,” en Machtelt Israëls et coll., Renaissance studies in honor of Joseph Connors, Florence, Italy: Villa I Tatti, 2 vol., Vol. I (Art History), Coll. « Villa I Tatti », 29, pp. 474-484 <>

Leyenda Imágenes:
(1) Reloj de sol poliédrico de mármol (c.1550), originalmente en el Jardín del Papa Julio III de la Villa Giulia, hoy en el jardín de la Villa Balestra, via Bartolomeo Ammannati, Roma, Italia © Denis Ribouillault (2010)
(2) Reloj de sol poliédrico de mármol (c.1550), originalmente en el Jardín del Papa Julio III de la Villa Giulia, hoy en el jardín de la Villa Balestra, via Bartolomeo Ammannati, Roma, Italia © Denis Ribouillault (2010)
(3) Ribouillaut y Elias Guenoun, Reconstrucción hipotética de las fachadas norte y sur de la Torre de los Vientos de la Villa Giulia © Dibujo de Guenoun (2010)
(4) Ribouillaut y Elias Guenoun, Reconstrucción hipotética de las fachadas norte y sur de la Torre de los Vientos de la Villa Giulia © Dibujo de Guenoun (2010)

* Las traducciones y opiniones vertidas son de exclusiva responsabilidad del autor y/o Jefa de Sección correspondiente *