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Architectural historian Vittoria Di Palma’s book Wasteland: A History examines the shift in the way wasteland was understood, classified, and managed over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is both a wide-ranging survey of representations of wasteland in prints, paintings, maps, and elsewhere, and an alternative account of English improvement understood through developments in modern aesthetics. As such, it is of interest not only to art and architectural historians, but also to those concerned with environmental history and theories of aesthetics. Including twenty-three color and eighty-four black-and-white illustrations, Di Palma’s book relies heavily on visual representation to articulate a narrative that may not have otherwise been recorded.
Although her focus is England, Scotland, and Wales, Di Palma has larger geographical ambitions. She makes the stakes of her text clear by opening with an account of the recent impact of United States military action on a Caribbean island. She locates the source of ongoing attitudes toward wasteland in the eighteenth century, and suggests that a deeper investigation of this period can reveal something about our relationship to nature today. According to Di Palma, the term wasteland is unique in that it can refer to both untouched and industrially ravaged land, pre- and post-human landscapes, and thus pertains to issues of both preservation and reform. The establishment of “wasteland” as the dichotomous other to “wilderness” over the course of the long eighteenth century provides the arc of Di Palma’s argument. While the two terms could be used interchangeably in the seventeenth century, by the end of the eighteenth century wilderness came to describe uncultivated land, whereas wasteland was spoiled by human use. This shift is explained by the development of aesthetics and an increased emphasis on the effect produced by a landscape, rather than its practical utility. Wasteland and wilderness were equally useless in a production-oriented model of development. As usefulness because less important than aesthetics in the consideration of a landscape, wasteland remained associated with repulsion, whereas wilderness came to suggest sublime or picturesque feelings. Such associations conceal human responsibility for both wasteland and wilderness.
Recognizing wasteland as a historically specific construct directly tied to human endeavors also entails taking accountability for it, and this seems to be Wasteland’s ultimate goal. In this aspect, Di Palma’s work is closer to contemporary architectural accounts of environmental engagement, like David Gissen’s Subnature: Architecture’s Other Environments (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), than to art historians engaging with the historical concept of improvement in England, as in the work of scholars like John Barrell and Ann Bermingham.
Di Palma begins chapter 1 by defining wasteland and its place in a moralized geography of Christian salvation. She traces the term to biblical sources, identifying its use in the King James Bible of 1611 as a critical moment. There, wasteland refers to land that has been ruined but may be redeemed. This usage is expanded in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), where movement through the landscape becomes an allegory for the path to salvation. She writes that these moral overtones will persist in discussions of wasteland and its treatment, particularly in the rhetoric of those invested in its improvement. Efforts at eradicating wasteland foregrounded improvement’s dual aims: the betterment of both “soil and soul” (50).
In chapter 2, entitled “Improvement,” Di Palma locates disgust as a primary driver of improvement projects to the wastelands, first as a form of physical repulsion and then later as an aesthetic response. Her interpretive framework draws on theories of disgust ranging from Charles Darwin’s biological explanation to twentieth-century psychology. This emphasis sets Di Palma’s account apart from other histories that are driven by an attention to improvement’s primary role in modernization, such as Paul Slack’s recent work on material progress in seventeenth-century England (Paul Slack, The Invention of Improvement: Information and Material Progress in Seventeenth-Century England, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). For Di Palma, improvement was not unequivocally positive, and its increased implementation in the eighteenth century had much to do with aesthetic concerns. She cites historical responses to wasteland coded in terms of disgust, including traveler accounts such as William Gilpin’s reference to the “gross fluid” and “putrid fibres” of swamps (84). More than a question of generating productive land, the notion of “improving” a wasteland was an issue of removing a threatening otherness, and it arrived alongside changing modalities of visualizing the landscape. Following the philosophy of Francis Bacon, more empirical ways of describing space were implemented. Places increasingly became represented in terms of lists and numbers, defined by quantifiable and discrete data. John Ogilby’s Britannia (1675), with its innovative strip maps, made visible the new list-like quality of landscape. Spaces such as swamps that were not easily rendered as lists became increasingly problematic.
The third chapter, “Swamp,” focuses on the draining of the Fens, a marshy region in eastern England. Somewhere between land and water, the indeterminacy of the swamp challenged the neatly classifiable and productive landscapes improvers sought. Drawing on both historical accounts and cultural theorist Mary Douglas’s theories of dirt, Di Palma argues that the Fens were seen as not just unusable but dangerous to both body and soul. Beginning in the seventeenth century, technological developments facilitated their drainage. However, the wetlands did not disappear entirely. To stay dry, the Fens required constant maintenance via windmill or, later, steam pumps. Their story is not one of simple reclamation, but rather an indication of the way a particular vision of land use is produced and sustained. Di Palma calls attention to this ambiguity in her discussion of an 1810 painting attributed to John Sell Cotman in which the artist casts a gloomy pall on a nearly defunct windmill, suggesting that he saw the futility of human efforts to conquer the landscape (127).
In her fourth chapter, Di Palma is primarily concerned with the changing aesthetic significance of mountains. In the seventeenth century, mountains were associated with fallen man, as features of a post-apocalyptic landscape. This interpretation was propagated by Thomas Burnet’s The Sacred Theory of the Earth (1684), a text describing the present state of the earth as a wasteland, based on his terrifying encounter with the rough and ragged Alps (144). Burnet thought a perfect earth should be as smooth and symmetrical as God himself, and his theories were widely taken up by his contemporaries. Di Palma writes that his text “established a powerful congruence between the fallen and the formless” (149), which she suggests contributed to the formation of modern aesthetics. The repulsiveness of mountains offered a counterpoint against which an ideal landscape could be established; later, mountains could be reincorporated into that landscape through a process of aestheticization. Thomas Smith of Derby’s engravings of Derbyshire and Staffordshire peaks (ca. 1740s) made of the mountains something beautiful; Gilpin later outlined how to smooth and abstract their rough features to conform to his picturesque conventions. Inspired by Edmund Burke, the visceral response provoked by mountains was reframed as an encounter with the sublime.
In the following chapter, “Forests,” wasteland shifts from describing land awaiting physical improvement or aesthetic transformation to indicating the destructive consequences of human intervention. Waste here is recast to mean spoil or use up, and attempts to prevent the waste of forests are precedents to modern landscape preservation. As early as 1225, legislation was directed at protecting woods from misuse. By the seventeenth century, the arguments for preservation were not only economic. Aesthetics became an important consideration, and a new type of designed landscape emerged: the forest garden (191). The forest garden differed from the forest in its emphasis on creating views and visibility, as opposed to the haphazard cluster of actual woods. Bolstered by theoretical tracts imported from France, tree plantings became part of a number of great estates, including the Duke of Kent’s gardens at Wrest Park, which also incorporated elements evoking swamps and mountains, demonstrating the reintegration of wasteland into an aesthetically transformed landscape.
The final chapter elaborates on the aesthetic use of wasteland in gardens, and points to the extent to which questions of disgust or pleasure are dependent on context. For example, in a 1772 treatise, architect William Chambers encouraged the use of terrible and terrifying garden features in pursuit of the sublime, notably including man-made aspects: gibbets, forges, collieries, abandoned villages, and more that might be “converted into the most romantic scenery imaginable” through artful arrangement (234).
One of the book’s strengths is Di Palma’s interdisciplinary approach to landscape history, echoed in her selection of sources, and the wide range of images, including agricultural diagrams and architectural plans alongside paintings and fine art prints. However, those with a particular interest might want more in-depth analysis. One might ask if the category “wasteland” is in fact coherent enough to provide a legible narrative—but part of Di Palma’s point is that the subject’s inherent complexity renders it a crucial topic. Rather than a straightforward story of transition, her history highlights the multivalent associations of wasteland. It can alternately repel or attract, require transformation or stand as a warning, disgust or delight. Whatever its associations, humans are implicated, and as such wasteland commands our attention in ways that discussions of wilderness have not. Wasteland, Di Palma suggests, can offer a more appropriate model for thinking about environmental engagement today, and her book provides the essential historical and theoretical proof for it.
Fellow, Dumbarton Oaks