Lauro, myrto et buxo frequentata. A study of the Roman garden through its plants
Sammanfattning: The plants in the ancient Roman garden were chosen with deliberation. These choices were ruled by the meaning and associations the plants conveyed to the garden visitors. Through a close reading of Latin literature and epigraphic sources (used here for the first time in relation to Roman gardens), as well as an examination of the archaeological record from Campanian garden excavations, I deal with plants used as elements in Roman garden design. Various treatments of the plants and what they say on the level of specialization in the area of gardening are the main objects of study. The Roman garden gave an aesthetic experience through its plants. Treated plants were arranged together with untreated ones for visual effects, creating contrasts and excitement and evoking feelings of a play between ars and natura. A special place was taken by evergreens in their role of structuring elements employed as hedges or cut into geometric or figurative shapes, making up topiary arrangements. I have observed that certain plants were chosen for certain surroundings based on their capacity to convey special references, creating ‘landscapes of allusions’. Plane trees seem to have been chosen in certain instances to transmit references to the Greek gymnasium, famous for its planes, thus creating an educational/philosophical aura. Manipulation of form as in topiary or shaped vegetables, graftings of fruit trees, and forcing the growth of certain plants in order to bloom or mature out of season are seen as examples of the involvement of man in the area of horticulture. Latin writers refer to several of these methods as Roman inventions. The present study can show that there seems to be a certain creative time span in the field of horticulture in early Imperial times. Certain ‘amateur’ interests in various treatments of plants are yet other examples of the interest and activity by the Romans in this area. Prestige and economic value were among the motivating factors. Through preliminary analyses of the epigraphic and literary testimonies relating to the terms viridia/viridarium as well as topiarius, I show that these terms are linked, regarding both chronology (occurring in late Republic/early Augustan times) and content, being interpreted as testimonies to a specialization in the area of gardening. Viridia and viridarium refer to plants and their milieu, being particular areas of some status. The examination of the occupational title topiarius has led to the conclusion that this word designated a workman possessing both skill and status. The evidence of the existence of training in connection with topiarius is particularly significant. Through this study I have given examples of how the Roman garden, with its well-formulated design and its instances of control and manipulation of natura by man, might be understood as belonging to a discourse on ars and natura, a discourse whose exact nature is not yet defined but whose importance cannot be denied in the context of the Roman society at large.
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