402 Cohen Hall
Mention of ancient Roman gardens conjures images of lavish suburban estates outfitted with sprawling gardens containing specimen plantings from around the world, aviaries and fishponds, pergolas for outdoor dining, and sculpture-lined swimming pools such as those described by the younger Pliny in his letters or evidenced by the remains of Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli. Such gardens would influence Byzantine, Islamic, and monastic gardens as well as gardens of Renaissance Europe; they would resonate in gardens from the seventeenth century onwards, their underlying presence felt to the present day. But the Roman world had not always been a garden showcase.
This lecture traces the origins of the Roman domestic garden ‘movement’ from the mid second century BCE, when conquests in the Near East—the former Persian Empire including Egypt—exposed Romans to garden traditions already thousands of years old. On the model of Near Eastern kings and potentates with their ‘paradise’ gardens, wealthy Romans created gardens that were Roman empires in miniature, gathering in the monuments of the larger world in replica. Romans of lesser means, in turn, replaced kitchen gardens with decorative plantings and, in the absence of space for gardens, covered walls with botanical murals. It will also be shown that the Roman garden, whether large or small, was not simply a reflex of fashion, for the Roman garden movement gained traction at a particularly volatile point in Roman history, with the garden offering a welcome ‘escape’. Thus, combining a full range of paradisiacal associations, sacred and profane, Roman domestic gardens and their painted counterparts came to express an ideal of living harmoniously with nature.