BMCR 2005.09.33

Gardens of the Roman World

Patrick Bowe, Gardens of the Roman world. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004. 169 pages : color illustrations, color maps ; 29 cm. ISBN 0892367407 $50.00.

Innovative work on ancient Roman architecture is on the rise. Scholars are expanding our sense of what exactly ought to be included under the term ‘architecture’. Typically, one imagines habitable structures, both public and private, designed with function and perhaps ostentation in mind. More recently, we are encouraged to include other ancient structures, such as monuments or gardens, since these other structures, like houses or temples, fulfill the essential architectural requirements: they are designed; there is an art and a science to their design; they are constructed; and they are intended often for use or enjoyment. In addition, they are of interest to scholars of antiquity because they serve both to enhance our understanding of ancient daily life and to reveal the extent to which contemporary Western culture is influenced by its Roman historical heritage.

Patrick Bowe (PB) could be included as a contributor to this broader understanding of ‘architecture’: he investigates the history, design, and function of Roman gardens, using as his evidence archaeological remains, extant frescoes and mosaics, ancient literary references, as well as garden-reproductions throughout history. His book, however, is not for the specialist in ancient horticulture, nor for a Classics scholar researching Roman gardens. It would appeal rather to a more generalist audience, one which harbors an interest in gardens or garden history. And a Classicist may well enjoy the book: there are plenty of excellent illustrations (197 in fact), and there is no dearth of interesting factoids peppered throughout both the text and the captions describing the illustrations.

PB arranges his material systematically, beginning with both the historical development of Roman gardens and an overview of the features and functions of various garden-types (Chapter 1), continuing with an exploration of Imperial gardens as well as public parks in the urbs aeterna (2), moving farther afield to gardens in the provinces (3), and closing with a chapter (4) on the influence of Roman gardens from the Byzantine period up to the contemporary Western World.

In the first chapter, PB lays the horticultural foundations to the book: he describes the Persian, Greek and Egyptian influence on Roman gardens, as well as the ways in which gardens at Rome developed as the Republic came to an end and the Empire was ushered in. Here too, PB discusses the sources used: literary, archaeological, pictorial (frescoes and mosaics), and the horticultural tradition. Each source provides some information, but none is complete. For instance, ancient agricultural treatises (from Cato, Varro, Columella, and Palladius) discuss farming and the “practice of gardening,” but there is still “little information about Roman garden design or ornamentation” (8). Extant sources, PB implies, must be used in tandem, and with care.

The introductory chapter also includes brief descriptions of the various functions, designs, buildings, sculptures, water, and furniture used in Roman gardens. And PB catalogues the various local and imported trees, plants, fruits and vegetables that were characteristic of Roman planting practices. Climate largely determined the design and choice of greenery, but so too did religion (certain plants were associated with certain deities) and aesthetics (where unity between the architecture, sculpture and plants was sought). Once the Empire started to expand, the import business effected an increase in the range of plants seen in gardens; wealth and power, PB implies, became factors in the design of a Roman garden.

In Chapter 2, PB documents the urban and villa gardens of the Emperors and the wealthy elite. He also discusses sacred gardens and groves, public parks, and market gardens, thus covering the gamut of garden-types as they reflected, or were used by, Romans of various economic and social status. Imperial gardens, both in and outside the city, reflected both the Emperor and his residence. For Augustus simplicity and modesty were key; accordingly, his installation of official gardens at the Palatine residence was, as far as the evidence suggests, correspondingly simple, focusing on the natural landscape and the role of the divine (a sacred grove was set up here, 56). In contrast, later emperors pursued and displayed great ostentation: in the city, Nero’s Domus Aurea all but took over the city, and his Imperial garden was actually a park of approximately 125 acres, replete with a great lake set in the middle. (One thinks of Michael Jackson’s Neverland Valley Ranch.) In the countryside, Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli comprised several, distinct and elaborate structures which, though not determined around a central plan, nevertheless formed a cohesive whole. So too were the gardens an “elaborate group of smaller individual gardens” that were somehow integrated (63).

City gardens of the elite developed over time. The atrium, for instance, had originally functioned as a place for gathering water; but with the construction of aqueducts, it was transformed into more of a garden, and was filled with fountains, pools, and decorative sculpture. Likewise, the other open area, typical of many houses, was formerly a space for growing vegetables and fruits for the owner; but with the development of public vegetable markets, this “kitchen garden” gradually became ornamental (85). Hanging sculpture, sumptuous frescoes, and lush plants filled these garden spaces.

In Chapter 3, PB explores provincial gardens from the Eastern Empire to Britain in the west, documenting specific gardens in Greece, Turkey, Hungary, Croatia, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, Spain, France, and Britain. As Rome expanded the Empire, she Romanized the conquered cities and their inhabitants. Civil and military institutions were established; and, PB notes, Roman-style gardens appeared in these provincial cities. Climate, again, was a factor: thus, gardens were Roman in style (often adopting the peristyle courtyard), but often local in vegetative content and in structural detail. At Bulla Regia, in North Africa, for instance, houses had an underground courtyard, designed to protect the inhabitants and the plants from the blistering heat of the sun (128). Likewise, gardens at Thuburbo Majus in Tunisia had water running through underground pipes in order to provide the plants with sufficient moisture (130). Generally, PB notes, the increasing complexity of provincial garden-designs reflected the growing “wealth, power and splendor” of the cities of the Empire, even as the prestige of Rome itself was, over time, dwindling (139).

In his fourth and final chapter, PB records the continuum in the design of Roman gardens, documenting horticultural echoes and reproductions from the Byzantine Age through to 20th Century America. PB discusses Byzantium, and how its garden tradition is mostly inferred from its rich mosaics; no garden has survived in its entirety, and none has been fully excavated. The mosaics show a strong architectural element to the gardens: colonnades, fountain basins, and garden fencing appear quite frequently. In Islamic culture too, structural elements (more so than plants) were central to the garden: hydraulic systems enabled some plant growth, but they mostly made sophisticated pools and canals possible (143).

PB moves through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassicism, and Eclecticism rather quickly. But in each period, evidence of ancient Roman gardens can be found, whether in the cloisters of medieval cathedrals (as at Montreale, Sicily, 145), the blending of ancient and new elements in the gardens of the Renaissance (as at the garden of Palazzo Guisti in Verona, 147), or in the Pompeian-style courtyards in some 19th C European gardens (as at the palace of Empress Elizabeth of Austria, Corfu, 150). As for the 20th C, early on, landowners were interested in filling their gardens with ancient sculpture or in buying property and setting up a garden next to (or over) ancient remains. In the U.S., where proximity to ancient Roman sites was impossible, prosperous American families were instead keen to produce gardens that were modeled on ancient precursors. Partial reconstructions are evidenced in the gardens of the du Pont and Hearst families from the 1920s. It is only in the 1970s that we see a “comprehensive” reconstruction, thanks to J. Paul Getty whose museum in Malibu is modeled after the Villa dei Papiri of Herculaneum (159).

It is in America, and at Malibu in particular, with glossy, beautiful images of the Getty Museum that PB ends his book. This end is appropriate enough, since the book was published by Getty. But, perhaps more appropriate (to the general reader) would be a concluding chapter, or even a brief epilogue, that summed up the aim, contents and tenor of the book, that reflected back on the importance of the ancient Roman garden in terms of our understanding of antiquity and the traditions that contemporary society has inherited.

Overall, PB’s book is fine: it is both sufficient and handsome. It is, as mentioned, a book for the non-specialist, whose interest is not in conducting research on Roman gardens but in absorbing a general sense of ancient horticultural practice and design. Yet, even to this generalist reader, some footnotes are needed. Comments like “According to one source …” (85), “we know” (101, etc), “Nero is credited …” (109), “[Diocletian] is known …” (117), and so on, ought to be supported. Ancient sources are also insubstantially referenced (see Martial, 94; Seneca, 94; Pliny the Younger, 101, 102, 105; Cicero, 107; etc.). Without a source for verification (or further reading), and without a specialist’s knowledge of ancient Roman gardens, literature, or culture, a reader is left dependent on the accuracy of the author alone for his/her information.

There are some careless mistakes (“the park of Divius Claudius” 108), and repetitive statements (compare PB’s comments on the peristyle on pp. 4 and 18). And there are inconsistent claims: “The fresco paintings that survive offer an excellent guide to the arrangement of plants in Roman gardens” (my italics) starts a paragraph, but “Although frescoes show very dense plantings, archaeological evidence suggests that garden plants were, in fact much more widely spaced than is shown in these paintings” ends it (43). The “Suggestions for Further Readings” is scant. Important works are missing, among them books by Marcello Fagiolo and Roberto Schezen ( Roman Gardens: Villas of the Countryside, New York: Monacelli Press, 1997), Annamaria Ciarallo ( Gardens of Pompeii, translated by Lori-Ann Touchette, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Publications, 2001), M. Cima and E. La Rocca ( Horti Romani. Atti del Convegno Internazionale Roma, 4-6 Maggio 1995. BCAR supp.6, Rome, 1998), and Maureen Carroll ( Earthly Paradises. Ancient Gardens in History and Archaeology, Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Publications, 2003).

The beauty of this book lies in the beauty of its illustrations. As with most Getty publications, this book enchants its reader with its sumptuous images: the lush gardens, refreshing fountains, and gorgeous mosaics and sculpture pictured in PB’s book are well-selected, well-arranged, and often mesmerizing (the grazing deer beyond the colonnade at the Villa Brioni in Croatia captured my eye for a long while; fig.127). In a way, then, the text itself is informative in an appropriate way: if it were filled with all sorts of detail, in-depth analysis, and footnotes, it would detract from one of its central objectives, to let the reader “see” Roman gardens, and witness the influence of their design and beauty.