Katherine T. von Stackelberg has written a book on The Roman Garden (Routledge 2009). At $100 for 182 pages, the list price seem high. Her work began ‘one spring morning when my mother asked what Roman gardens looked like’. The 16 b&w illustrations do not provide much of an answer. Seeing garden history as a ‘word and image’ subject, I regret that more effort was not put into picture research. The beautiful painting of Flora, right, is discussed on page 1 but it is not reproduced as a plate and there is no reference to the book jacket – on which it appears as a dull sepia image.
Chapter 1 has some useful information on Roman use of gardens. Chapter 2 opens with the remark that ‘all landscapes are, to a greater or lesser extent, cultural constructions’. Does she mean that the world had no landscapes before Homo sapiens evolved? I don’t think so. The chapter is an unenlightening application of cognitive theory and Bill Hillier’s space syntax theory to gardens. Nor are Foucault and Lefebvre are easy companions for a garden walk. Chapter 3 is about Experiencing the Roman Garden but should perhaps be called ‘How a cultural theorist would experience a Roman garden’. It says little about sights, scents or sounds. I fear the author’s mother will know little more about ‘Roman gardens looked like’ if and when she reaches the end of her daughter’s book – in fact I would recommend her to begin with the three Case Studies in Chapter 4. I can however recommend this book to people who are interested in the polsemic potential of gardens as a vehicle of communication (p.141).