The Landscape Guide

Gardens of the Roman World Patrick Bowe Frances Lincoln 2004

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A book on the gardens of the Roman World was a very good idea. As the beautifully painted map in this book reminds us, it stretched from the North Sea to the Dead Sea. The book’s other virtue is its excellent photographs. Copyright in the book belongs to the J. Paul Getty Trust and they did not skimp on the quality of the photography. It is possible, however, that they negotiated a quantity discount from the two Italian photographers who provided most of the images - this would explain why there are almost too many photographs of the places which are illustrated, and why a number of important places are not illustrated at all. One sizable gap is the Palace of the Emperors on the Palatine Hill in Rome. The text rightly accords it a key position in the garden landscape of Rome, but there is not a single illustration of the surviving courts or water features. Another significant omission from the book is garden plans. The nearest the book comes to including a plan is a 1699 imaginative reconstruction of Pliny’s Laurentine Villa. The author correctly observes that ‘this drawing appears to be a plan of a typical seventeenth-century French Baroque garden’. But then why is it included? – and why are there no other plans in the book? They would have saved the author many pages of convoluted text.

Since the author does not use any bibliographic references it is often difficult to tell whether he is well-informed or ill-informed about the details of Roman gardens. The example of the villa and grotto at Sperlonga suggests the latter. Bowe asserts that it belonged to Tiberius. Though he undoubtedly went there, scholars now believe it was not in his ownership. Similarly, at the start of the first chapter, Bowe declares ‘we know that many of the elements characteristic of ancient Roman gardens had been featured in Mesopotamian’. Such a comment demands a reference: so far as I know, the inhabitants of Mesopotamia left no literary descriptions of their gardens and none have been excavated. Bibliographic support is also necessary for the remark that ‘the art of the ornamental garden was also imported from Greece’. The dust jacket describes Patrick Bowe as ‘a garden designer, author and historian’ who has ‘led dozens of garden tours’. If a trained historian, it is a pity he did not use his professional skills. The acknowledgements give thanks to ‘Maria Teresa Train and Elizabeth Blair MacDougal for their initial proposal of the book’. They are both scholars with a keen regard for sources.

The Villa Brioni in Croatia is an example of a little-known garden in the Roman World