“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” Marcus Tullius Cicero.
It’s almost beginning to look like Spring outside. And with any luck we will soon have Daffodils on the verge’s and Poppy’s in the hedgerow’s, and since Daffodils are thought to be one of our most famous Roman imports, and this thought happened to coincide with my reading Pliny the Younger’s Garden Letters, I thought; “Why not do a post about Pliny’s Garden.” but let him tell you in his own words. Pliny the younger was an extremely house proud. He loved his villa’s which he gave special names to, and he enjoyed the pace of country life. In his letters he goes into great detail to describe them to his friends and nothing is left out. Not even the gardens, if you had wondered what dinner was like at a Roman Villa, you’ll probably enjoy finding out about his garden. Want to have a look around?
You are surprised that I am so fond of my Laurentine, or (if you prefer the name) my Laurens: but you will cease to wonder when I acquaint you with the beauty of the villa, the advantages of its situation, and the extensive view of the sea-coast. It is only seventeen miles from Rome: so that when I have finished my business in town, I can pass my evenings here after a good satisfactory day’s work…”
He goes on to describe his house in very precise and affectionately proud terms and then say’s:
“At the other end is a second turret, containing a room that gets the rising and setting sun. Behind this is a large store-room and granary, and underneath, a spacious dining-room, where only the murmur and break of the sea can be heard, even in a storm: it looks out upon the garden, and the gestatio,40 running round the garden. The gestatio is bordered round with box, and, where that is decayed, with rosemary: for the box, wherever sheltered by the buildings, grows plentifully, but where it lies open and exposed to the weather and spray from the sea, though at some distance from the latter, it quite withers up. Next the gestatio, and running along inside it, is a shady vine plantation, the path of which is so soft and easy to the tread that you may walk bare-foot upon it. The garden is chiefly planted with fig and mulberry trees, to which this soil is as favourable as it is averse from all others. Here is a dining-room, which, though it stands away from the sea enjoys the garden view which is just as pleasant: two apartments run round the back part of it, the windows of which look out upon the entrance of the villa, and into a fine kitchen-garden. From here extends an enclosed portico which, from its great length, you might take for a public one…”
A gestatio is was an avenue set apart for exercise either on horseback on in a horse-drawn vehicle. It was generally laid out in the form of a circus, but box hedge and rosemary aren’t the only sights to see. Pliny loved to spend time in the peace and quite of his garden, and he had a very special place to go where he could while away the warm Italian evenings after a hard days work:
“Before this enclosed portico lies a terrace fragrant with the scent of violets, and warmed by the reflection of the sun from the portico… At the upper end of the terrace and portico stands a detached garden building, which I call my favourite; my favourite indeed, as I put it up myself. It contains a very warm winter-room, one side of which looks down upon the terrace, while the other has a view of the sea, and both lie exposed to the sun. The bed-room opens on to the covered portico by means of folding-doors, while its window looks out upon the sea… When I retire to this garden summer-house, I fancy myself a hundred miles away from my villa, and take especial pleasure in it at the feast of the Saturnalia, when, by the licence of that festive season, every other part of my house resounds with my servants’ mirth: thus I neither interrupt their amusement nor they my studies”
Pliny owned several Villa’s, doubtless he put Summer Houses in most of them, and was always keen to buy more land. In one of his letters he asks for advise from a friend as to whether he should buy a very desirable neighbouring property. He outlines the pro’s and cons, including the price of “Fancy Gardeners” whether he bought it or not I don’t know, but here’s what he says about his villa in Tuscany.
“To Domitius Apollinaris
The kind concern you expressed on hearing of my design to pass the summer at my villa in Tuscany, and your obliging endeavours to dissuade me from going to a
place which you think unhealthy, are extremely pleasing to me. It is quite true indeed that the air of that part of Tuscany which lies towards the coast is thick and unwholesome: but my house stands at a good distance from the sea, under one of the Apennines which are singularly healthy. But, to relieve you from all anxiety on my account, I will give you a description of the temperature of the climate, the situation of the country, and the beauty of my villa, which, I am persuaded, you will hear with as much pleasure as I shall take in giving it… The greater part of the house has a southern aspect, and seems to invite the afternoon sun in summer (but rather earlier in the winter) into a broad and proportionately long portico, consisting of several rooms, particularly a court of antique fashion. In front of the portico is a sort of terrace, edged with box and shrubs cut into different shapes. You descend, from the terrace, by an easy slope adorned with the figures of animals in box, facing each other, to a lawn overspread with the soft, I had almost said the liquid, Acanthus: this is surrounded by a walk enclosed with evergreens, shaped into a variety of forms. Beyond it is the gestatio~ laid out in the form of a circus running round the multiform box-hedge and the dwarf-trees, which are cut quite close. The whole is fenced in with a wall completely covered by box cut into steps all the way up to the top…”
The passage that follow’s show’s not only the great skill of the landscaper who laid it out, but the great sense of relaxation and delight Pliny took in his garden:
“This arrangement of the different parts of my house is exceedingly pleasant, though it is not to be compared with the beauty of the hippodrome,’ lying entirely open in the middle of the grounds, so that the eye, upon your first entrance, takes it in entire in one view. It is set round with plane-trees covered with ivy, so that, while their tops flourish with their own green, towards the roots their verdure is borrowed from the ivy that twines round the trunk and branches, spreads from tree to tree, and connects them together. Between each plane-tree are planted box-trees, and behind these stands a grove of laurels which blend their shade with that of the planes. This straight boundary to the hippodrome alters its shape at the farther end, bending into a semicircle, which is planted round, shut in with cypresses, and casts a deeper and gloomier shade, while the inner circular walks (for there are several), enjoying an open exposure, are filled with plenty of roses, and correct, by a very pleasant contrast, the coolness of the shade with the warmth of the sun. Having passed through these several winding alleys, you enter a straight walk, which breaks out into a variety of others, partitioned off by box-row hedges. In one place you have a little meadow, in another the box is cut in a thousand different forms, sometimes into letters, expressing the master’s name, sometimes the artificer’s, whilst here and there rise little obelisks with fruit-trees alternately intermixed, and then on a sudden, in the midst of this elegant regularity, you are surprised with an imitation of the negligent beauties of rural nature. In the centre of this lies a spot adorned with a knot of dwarf plane-trees. Beyond these stands an acacia, smooth and bending in places, then again various other shapes and names. At the upper end is an alcove of white marble, shaded with vines and
supported by four small Carystian columns. From this semicircular couch, the water, gushing up through several little pipes, as though pressed out by the weight of the persons who recline themselves upon it, falls into a stone cistern underneath, from whence it is received into a fine polished marble basin, so skilfully contrived that it is always full without ever overflowing When I sup here, this basin serves as a table, the larger sort of dishes being placed round the margin, while the smaller ones swim about in the form of vessels and water-fowl. Opposite this is a fountain which is incessantly emptying and filling, for the water which it throws up to a great height, falling back again into it, is by means of consecutive apertures returned as fast as it is received.”
Statues where also a great part of a respectable Roman Garden, as Pliny says while talking of a deceased friend, Domitius Tullus. Though he is not clear if he owned any specifically, but really he must have.
It is expected his curiosities (Tullus’) will shortly be sold by auction. He had such
an abundant collection of very old statues that he actually filled an extensive garden with them, the very same day he purchased it;”
Well I feel relaxed and refreshed.
The quotes used where all excerpts from “The Letters of Pliny the Younger.” iBook by Project Gutenberg.