Welcome to the third post in the ‘Let’s talk about Roman gardens’ series. I hope that you will find it interesting and informative. Please feel free to ask any questions by using the comments box.
The ‘Let’s talk about …’ series is a collection of short blog posts in which I’ve asked people to answer a few questions on the subject of Roman gardens. I have posed my questions to individuals who have conducted research in this area. Although the questions I asked were intentionally broad in scope, the responses I’ve collected show just how significant gardens were and how they permeate many aspects of Roman life. I chose Roman gardens as the topic for ‘Let’s talk about …’ because I’m currently researching them myself. The focus of my research is on the relationship between gardens and the Roman perception of health and well-being.
You can catch up on the other posts in the ‘Let’s talk about … Roman gardens’ series by clicking on the links below.
Let’s talk about Roman gardens : Dr Jane Draycott
Let’s talk about Roman gardens : Jessica Venner
Frescoes in Eagle’s Tower, Castello del Buonconsiglio, Trento, Italy.
I would like to say a huge thank you to those who have contributed to the ‘Let’s talk about Roman gardens’ posts. Needless to say I couldn’t have done it without your willingness to spare the time and get back to me with answers to my questions.
Let’s talk about … Roman Gardens with Dr Patty Baker.
Q. Can you tell me a little bit about your research into Roman gardens?
My work on Roman gardens is influenced by my research on ancient medicine, part of which explores various perceptions of healthy spaces, such as healing sanctuaries, their surrounding landscapes, and medieval Islamic hospitals. In these studies, I incorporate sensory theory into my analyses to gain an understanding of how spaces were experienced by those who visited and worked in them. In particular, I am interested in understanding what were considered good and bad sensory experiences that were beneficial for bodily humours and health of the individual. However, it was through my work on the senses, rather than landscapes, that introduced me to ancient gardens.
My first publication that involved remains from ancient gardens was on the sense of Taste and Medicine, published in the volume on Taste for the Senses in the Ancient World Series. In this paper, I explored conceptions of healthy diets and how the flavors of different foods affected humoral balance. Here, I compared the food remains from Roman gardens and sewars located at archaeological sites in the Bay of Naples with Galen’s works on food and diets.
While I was writing this paper, I was also undertaking a teaching exchange in the Department of History at Virginia Tech, and the office I was using had a poster of the Roman garden fresco painting from Livia’s Villa at Prima Porta, Rome. I recall staring at it wondering how a Roman might have felt in this beautiful space.
This led to one of my favourite publications, which examines the Roman concept of Pure Air. A number of ancient writers commented on pure/clear air being salubrious, and I was curious as to how they identified it. Again, comparing ancient literature with the archaeological remains found in Roman gardens, I argued that the Romans identified it through viewing specific colors: green, blue, and white; smelling light and fresh scents; feeling light breezes; and hearing the sound of running water.
There are three other projects related to gardens that I am developing…
First, this past summer I received funding from the Institute of Classical Studies Public Engagement Grant to recreate a Roman Garden with the Trust for Thanet Archaeology in east Kent. We used information from studies by M. Carroll, W. Jashemski, and K. Gleason to plan our garden. Working on it gave us a wonderful opportunity to consider questions about how we thought the Romans might have sourced their plants, especially in different areas of the Roman empire. The garden we recreated is growing well and will continue to be used by the Trust for many years to come as a space for public outreach.
The second, is a paper with Dr. Giacomo Savani (Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow, UCD). We gave a presentation at the British School in Rome last December on the reception of Roman Gardens and Baths in the Villa Albani, Rome. One of the questions we address is how were ancient Roman conceptions of healthy spaces represented and received in the reconstructed bath building and the garden at the Villa.
The third area, is a side project on ancient floral design. I used to work as a floral designer when I was an undergraduate, and floral design has remained a hobby ever since. After learning about Roman gardens and the flowers grown in them, I decided to try some experimental archaeology to determine how the Romans made their garlands and crowns. I was also fortunate to receive funding for this project from the ICS Public Engagement Grant to teach floral designers about the history of Roman floral crowns and garlands as well as demonstrating how they might have been made. My recreations of Roman garlands, crowns, and wreaths will be exhibited for as an artistic installation in the forthcoming conference on Antiquity and the Anthropocene this winter.
Q. Why do you think Roman gardens are worth studying?
To me, the Roman gardens offer us a great amount of potential to explore different aspects of life in the ancient world. For example, health, diet, conceptions of relaxation, social gatherings, places of work, and gendered spaces. They can be explored for water and agricultural technology. Art historians can examine the frescos, statues, and reliefs found in them. The archaeobotanical remains give us an idea of how they were laid out, what was grown in them, and what were popular plants. They also offer us an opportunity to consider the ancient conception of otium and philosophical views on ancient spaces, particularly in relation to Epicureanism and Stoicism. The list is perhaps endless, but this gives a brief overview of how wide studies on gardens can be.
Wall painting from the House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompei.
Q. Why do you think that gardens are important sources of evidence for our understanding of the Roman world?
As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, they offer us many different opportunities to explore various aspects of ancient life. Their survival in the Bay of Naples due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius is exceptional, and the rich remains found in them give us rare insights into ancient life. These include archaeobotanical, skeletal, art, structural, epigraphic, and technological examples. Moreover, the ancient literature on gardens is also wide-ranging from poetry, philosophy, medicine, politics, and personal letters.
Q. Do you think that there’s potential for further research on the subject of Roman gardens, and if so, what do you think this research might be?
I believe there is plenty that remains to be done, but one area I think could be explored further is how activities changed in ancient gardens throughout the different months and seasons of the year. The idea for this comes about from a visit I made to the Castello del Buonconsiglio in Trento, Italy, where I saw an amazing series of fresco paintings dating to the late 14th/early15th century. The paintings give rich details of vegetation, as well as people playing and working throughout the year in the landscape surrounding the castle. Some other important work could be undertaken on comparisons between life in Roman gardens with medieval/Renaissance gardens. This would make some very interesting work in the area of reception studies. So, to end on a pun, there is plenty of room for growth!
Baker, P. 2018 “Identifying the Connection between Roman Conceptions of ‘Pure Air’ and Physical and Mental Health in Pompeian Gardens (c.150 BC–AD 79): a Multi-sensory Approach to Ancient Medicine.” World Archaeology 50 (3): 404-17.
Baker, P. 2018, “Tastes and Digestion: Archaeology and Medicine in Roman Italy.” In K. Rudolph (ed.) Taste and the Ancient Senses. The Senses in Antiquity Series, London: Routledge, pp. 138-60.
Baker, P. 2017 “Viewing Health: Asclepia in their Natural Settings.” Religion in the Roman Empire 3 (2), 143-63.
Baker, P. 2012 “Medieval Islamic Hospitals: Structural Design and Social Concepts.” In P. Baker, H. Nijdam, and C. van ’t Land (eds.) Medicine and Space: Body, Surroundings and Borders in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Leiden: Brill, pp. 245-72.
Baker, P. and H. Nijdam, 2012. “Introduction: Conceptualizing, Body, Space and Borders.” In P. Baker, H. Nijdam, and C. van’t Land (eds.) Medicine and Space: Body, Surroundings and Borders in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Leiden: Brill, pp. 1-22.
Institute of Classical Studies, UK, Public Engagement Award. Recreating a Roman Garden: Teaching a Wider Audience about Garden History with the Trust for Thanet Archaeology, Birchington-on-Sea, Kent. 2020
Institute of Classical Studies, UK, Public Engagement Award. Lessons from Roman Floral Design: Building Sustainable Floristry Today. 2019
Baker, P. 2021. “Roman Floral Design: The Embodiment of Environmental Ephemerality” For the Antiquity and the Anthropocene Conference and Exhibition. University College, Dublin (February).
Baker, P. and Giacomo Savani 2019. “‘Contriv’d according to the Strictest Rules of Art’: The Reception of Roman Baths and Gardens at the Villa Albani.” Il cardinale Alessandro Albani: collezionismo, diplomazia e mercato nell’Europa del Grand Tour.” British School at Rome, Italy, December 11-13.
Dr Patricia Baker is an honorary researcher at the University of Kent (UK), she is also founder of Pax in Natura.
Subscribe to the Pax in Natura YouTube channel …
You can find out more about Dr Patricia Baker by clicking here.
You can follow her on Twitter at: @Patrici70319540