Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Roman viridaria: Islands of Tranquility in a Brutal World

Gardens of the House of the Faun in Pompeii

Roman gardens and ornamental horticulture became highly developed under Roman civilization. The Gardens of Lucullus (Horti Lucullani), on the Pincian Hill in Rome, introduced the Persian garden to Europe around 60 BCE. It was seen as a place of peace and tranquillity, a refuge from urban life, and a place filled with religious and symbolic meaning. (Although the gardens of Lucullus are no longer fully extant, the Villa Borghese gardens cover 17 acres on what was once the site.) Even though Lucullus was mocked for his horticultural passion with Pompey calling him the Roman Xerxes and Tubero calling him Xerxes in a toga, as Roman culture developed and became increasingly influenced by foreign civilizations, the use of gardens expanded.
Roman pleasure gardens were adapted from the Greek model, where such a garden also served the purpose of growing fruit. The Roman peristyle garden, adapted from the Greeks, was used to beautify temple groves and create recreational spaces. Open peristyle courts were designed to connect homes to the outside world. Initially, lower class Romans used gardens as a source of food to provide for their families and mainly grew herbs and vegetables.
In Ancient Latium, a garden was a part of every farm. According to Cato the Elder, every garden should be close to the house and should have flower beds and ornamental trees. Horace wrote that during his time, flower gardens became a national indulgence. Augustus constructed the Porticus Liviae, a public garden on the Oppian Hill in Rome. Outside Rome, gardens tended to proliferate at centers of wealth. Modified versions of Roman garden designs were adopted in Roman settlements in Africa, Gaul and Britannia.
The xystus (garden walk or terrace) was a core element of Roman gardens. The xystus often overlooked a lower garden, or ambulation. The ambulation bordered a variety of flowers, trees, and other foliage, and it served as an ideal place for a leisurely stroll after a meal, conversation, or other recreational activities. Elite homes often had enough land to include a gestation, a shaded avenue where the master of the house could ride horseback or be carried by his slaves. It generally encircled the ambulation or was constructed as a separate oval-shaped space. Paths or walkways in Roman viridaria were made with loose stone, gravel, sand, or packed earth. Many ornamental objects were also included, from sculpture to frescoes to sundials. These depicted nature scenes or were put in place as a shrine (aedicula) to the gods or otherworldly creatures.
Plants ranged from flowering plants to herbs and vegetables for everyday use, as well as trees. The most popular plants found in a typical Roman family's garden were roses, cypress, rosemary, and mulberry trees. Dwarf trees, marigolds, hyacinths, narcissi, violets, saffron, cassia, and thyme may have also been included.

Gardens of the House of Julia Felix in Pompeii

Gardens of the House of the Painters in Pompeii courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko

Reproduction of the Gardens of the House of the Vetti in Pompeii courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko

Gardens of the House of the Citharist in Pompeii

Gardens and fountain at the Villa Borghese on the original site of the Gardens of Lucullus in Rome

Images: The garden of the House of the Vetti and the House of the Painters are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Sailko. The images of the gardens of the House of the Citharist, the House of the Faun, and the House of Julia Felix are my own taken on my first trip to Pompeii in 2005. The image of the garden at the Villa Borghese was taken on my trip to Rome in 2009.
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