Somewhere between Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Dante’s Inferno, I developed a love for grottos, for garden grottos, and though even more rare, grotto gardens. Though the reference may seem obscure, while reading Inferno in high school, a discussion of the brief reference to a grotto between the dark wood and the underworld instilled in me the mystique of a grotto as a secret portal from the ordinary world to the mystical. Add to this my interpretation of the “Wood Between the Worlds” in C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew as also being a grotto, and you may understand a bit of my sense of a grotto being magical. From these references—Inferno and The Magician’s Nephew—one may think I have solely a woodsy feel for grottos, and the role of a garden may not be clear.
Figure 1. Gustave Doré — Inferno Illustration
There is a certain garden that is part of an Italian Renaissance style estate built around 1914-1923 in Coconut Grove, Florida. The estate is called Vizcaya. Imagine yourself in an urban subtropical paradise. You escape the metropolis into over forty acres of Italian Renaissance gardens. These gardens are filled with hedges, statues, and stately palm trees. Besides the immense breadth of the gardens, one of the architectural marvels of these gardens is the creation of outdoor rooms—areas that cannot be fully seen from one another as if they were distinct rooms. Terraces and walls of stone and foliage help construct this effect. Within the gardens of Vizcaya are several small grottos. There are also a few larger ones. A short distance from the small bay off of the Atlantic Ocean are stone steps leading up to a Renaissance style architected outdoor stage. The stage is hidden from other parts of the gardens.
Figure 2. Vizcaya Gardens
Connecting the Portals
How is this grotto of Vizcaya’s garden stage tied to literature? For me the connection is from an experience. In 1983 I saw The Tempest performed there. Such productions ran there until 1985. Experiencing a play such as that in an open theater amidst the gardens deepened my sense of wonder at the interplay of literature, theatre, gardens, and architecture. As with other botanical gardens, wandering the grounds of Vizcaya instilled in me an appreciation for the magical, mystical, and musical qualities of a good garden grotto and a good grotto garden.
Where is your sacred space?
What do you associate with grottos? Are there any notable grottos that you would like to share?