The Landscape Guide
EUROPE: contents
The farming villa c40 BC Cicero and the urbane villa c40 BC Rome's gardens in the age of Augustus c 10 AD Gardens in Pompeian frescoes Pliny the Younger's villas and garden letters c100 AD Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli c130 AD Pompeii and the domestic garden 79 AD Gardens in the Roman Provinces c100 AD Roman gardens and Gothic invaders c200 AD Next
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Cicero and the urbane villa

One early result had been the separation at this period of the Villa Rustica (farm) and the Villa Urbana (gentleman’s house). The villa urbana indicates not so much the place in the town or the neighbourhood as an elegant residence, and the term is best translated by the French name, maison de plaisance. Cicero’s villa at Arpinum was originally nothing but a villa rustica, and only acquired a more urban character from certain alterations that he and his brother made.

Vitruvius passes over the plans of the villa urbana in a very superficial way, not so much because there were very few of them, as because he gained all his knowledge from textbooks, which had not yet treated of any particular style. But about the villa rustica we have the most precise information, not only from Vitruvius but from all the authors who, like Varro or Columella, wrote about farming, wherein are included farm buildings, kitchen-gardens, and places for vines, fruit, and vegetables. It is true that very little is said about the ground-plan for a kitchen-garden, but there are careful descriptions of the kind of fencing used. It is easy to see that for practical reasons the garden must be next to the villa, and that it is important to have a well or a stream for irrigation. The planting of trees, shrubs, and vines in quincunx formation seems to have been a specifically Roman plan, at any rate Greek writers never mention it. Xenophon too, in the passage where he admires and extols the regular order of planting in an Oriental park, is only talking of rows; and Cicero naturally interprets this as the quincunx order, as he has no other in sight. Pliny describes it as “ universal and necessary.”

Not only in the time of transition, but also later on, a mixture of the two types was very common.  Columella says that a complete estate requires a third department, the “villa fructuaria,” in order to include the different kinds of storehouses. But we shall find from the description of Laurentinum by the younger Pliny that these useful granaries were occasionally to be found associated with elegant villas, and close to the living-rooms.

A striking feature about Roman property is the way in which a man's belongings were scattered about. Cicero, in addition to what he inherited, bought in his lifetime seventeen other estates, which were partly made by uniting smaller garden grounds into one whole; and in this he was by no means exceptional. We may find different reasons for it: the chief estate of a Roman, originally his only estate, was still the one place of importance; and to statesmen it seemed so fundamentally important for the welfare of the people, that when it was not adequately cared for by the owner it had to be protected by a decree of the senate. Rich men bought such scattered properties partly so that their revenues might not be affected by bad weather, partly to get for each product the place that suited it best. But there was another reason, and not least in importance—that they might enjoy the various beauties of mountain, undulating lands, and sea. They wanted, moreover, to be sure (when they were travelling) of finding at certain stages a roof of their own under which they could spend a night. It came about, that with all this scattered property the owner could not himself look after the farms, still less work them; and so the. whole management of the villa rustica was entrusted to a villicus, or bailiff, and the owner could live at the villa urbana undisturbed.

The Romans had seen from the beginning, and with a sore conscience, that this turn of affairs could not last long; the feeling was very deep-rooted in the best of them, that the dislike of agricultural life was the beginning of the end for the Roman people. Quite endless are the warnings, the moral teachings, the satires, that are levelled against luxury in houses, gardens, and villas. It was not everyone who could boast, as Cato could, of personal renunciation; but everyone was eager to put forward that view which Pliny condensed in the famous phrase, “ Large estates have ruined Italy.” Whether he was a writer about farming, like Varro and Columella, or a naturalist like Pliny, or a poet like Horace, or a moralist like Seneca, every man was a laudator temporis acti, and all preached on the common theme, “ Greatness and Simplicity dwell together.”

We learn, however, from this contemporary picture of superabundant luxury, that horticulture, from the later republic onwards, advanced with giant strides, and once more the name of Cicero is associated with the first stages of this development. We do not indeed possess a detailed description of any particular villa of his, but many of his dialogues have for background his own or a friend’s villa with the garden, and in this way a mental picture may be arrived at. A garden such as Cicero’s was quite different from the kitchen-garden of the villa rustica; and what we find is an ornamental site and park land, where he and his friends stroll about, plunged in philosophical discourse, as in the days of old. For Cicero, who was so eager to bring back a philosophical Renaissance in the Greek style, and to prove himself the immediate heir of the great thinkers, betrayed more conspicuously than any other writer that what we have to do with here is the conversion of a Greek gymnasium site into a Roman villa-garden.

It is not only from Pliny that we learn that Cicero had a villa at Puteoli which was specially famous for its portico and park, and which he named Academy after the Athenian model. Cicero himself is continually talking of places so named, which evidently were to be found on all of his estates. In his place at Tusculum there was one part called Academy, and another higher up called Lyceum. At the home of Crassus also, where the greater part of the scene of De Oratore is laid—that is, in his Tusculan villa—the gardens are still more plainly copied from Greek models. Even when the friend is made to express a doubt as to whether (in their day) time, place, and human understanding show any real leaning towards philosophy, he has to admit that this portico, these palæstras, and all the other adjuncts of a gymnasium, are bound to incite to disputations; and on another occasion Cicero, strolling in the grove of planes that belongs to Crassus, congratulates himself on the fact that Socrates too had enjoyed the like cooling shade, but that his friend's well-kept place provides him with comfortable seats to rest on, whereas the Greek philosopher had to sit down on the grass. That these gymnasiums carried no arrangements for athletic games is clear from what Cicero himself says; and Vitruvius expressly emphasises the fact that Greek palæstras were not customary in Italy. The Hellenistic philosophers had been the first to convert the park gymnasiums into private gardens; and now the Roman philosophers (centred round Cicero) were consciously copying this later plan.

We also learn much of the ornamentation of these gardens, for their purchase plays a large part in the correspondence between Cicero and Atticus. Indeed, they invented a new adjective, and Cicero begs his friend to send him “ ornamenta, if you can find any suitable to the place, which you know so well.” In these gardens, following a Greek example, there was a great deal of sculpture. We find Cicero impatiently awaiting a consignment Atticus has promised for the villa at Tusculum; and when a Hermathena arrives, he is enchanted, and it is so well set up that the whole place seems to exist for this statue alone. This villa he seems to have adorned very sumptuously with works of art, for he asks Atticus to send him pictures also, to hang on the walls of the ante-room. Unfortunately the spot where the villa stood has not been identified; and whether the place that goes by the name of Cicero’s Villa really belonged to him, is quite as uncertain as whether the so-called amphitheatre beyond is to be taken as part of a garden construction. One might more easily suppose that a place behind the theatre, the purpose of which is not clear, belonged to a garden. It is a large basin with a straight end on the side next the hill, and a round end in front, with several grottoes in its walls. Here one would expect to see a nymphæum, so often mentioned in Hellenistic gardens; and it may be that the amaltheum, which Cicero made in imitation of one that he had greatly admired in the garden of Atticus, was really a nymphæum.

The amaltheum of Atticus was in the park of his country house in Epirus It was shaded with plane-trees, and apparently had its water from the Thyamis. Cicero asked his friend to send him any literature which he possessed on the subject. It is as a sort of literary interest that Cicero has his amaitheum made, or, in the fashion of his circle and their Greek traditions, it is an imitation made as far as possible similar to a place known by description, or maybe still in existence at that time, which was a sanctuary for the nymphs who nourished Zeus. It is clear from the amaltheum of Gelon that places of that name must have existed for a long time past. As Cicero says nothing more about it, one can only guess that it was a grotto with water running through it, and shaded by trees. What such grottoes looked like in Roman gardens we can see from a fresco at Boscoreale (Pompeii) (Fig. 57), where a grotto is depicted made out of unhewn blocks that are piled below rose-covered pergolas.

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 There is a stream foaming into a much decorated fountain, and falling down into a bright basin;  there is green ivy all round the grotto, and there are birds skipping about in the plashing water.

The two grottoes which Seneca saw in the villa at Vatia were of a larger kind, “as striking as two large halls,” which may imply that they were lighted from above, as we find them today in Italian gardens.

The interior was coated with tufa, or pumice-stone, and shells; and the floor, especially the part near the water, was covered with soft moss. The same sort of moss grew on the borders of the basin, in the central tank, and in the houses. For protection against the broiling sun red curtains were stretched across.

At first the sanctuaries of the Muses were similarly arranged, for the Muses were also honoured in grottoes; but when the philosophers assembled for learned discourses, halls were made instead. Thus always have the museums of a philosopher's garden been metamorphosed, though with the nymphæums the case is different. We learn from poetry that they kept up their old character for solitude, seclusion, and cool shade, which had shown itself in Hellenistic times and always remained the same. In Horace’s lovely Ode "0 fons Bandusiæ,” we have a description in the Latin tongue of one of these beautiful nymph sanctuaries.

One great attraction of Cicero’s Arpinum was the fine supply of natural water, which he no doubt procured for the sake of the nymphæum. The rushing stream of the Fibrenus flows round a small island and forms a delta before it empties itself into the River Lins. The villa probably stood below the island, but in any case the island belonged to the garden. Cicero had made a palæstra here, as we may now assume, a garden with shady trees and comfortable seats, perhaps like the Platanistas at Sparta around which the Euripus flows. That Cicero had a place here for games is not at all probable, for this was his favourite resort from the orator’s point of view, where he retired when he wanted to think or read by himself, and where he brought his friends for the dialogue about the Laws. With this abundance of water Cicero might well laugh and tease his friends when they, who had far grander villas, spoke of an artificial canal as “like the Nile,” or “like Euripus.” But, when it was needed, Cicero was most anxious to get artificial irrigation, and at the Fufidian farm, a place belonging to his brother Quintus, he wanted both a piscina and a fountain: at another of his villas Quintus had himself given the name of Nile to his canal, but he had no grove and no palæstra, and Cicero advised him to put these in. He paid a visit of inspection to the place when Quintus was absent in the field, and in a detailed letter sends him a report, mentioning various important particulars. The porticoes have a prominent place: they often contain statues, and open on palæstras, or xysta, and other features of a park, which Vitruvius always insists upon. Since people were fond of having the villa at the foot of a hill, and the dwelling-house as a rule some- what higher up, it was natural to make the garden in the form of terraces; and it is clear that this was already done in Cicero’s time from his description of Tusculanum, where he not only talks of the upper and lower part, but also “ walks down “ into the Academy.

Cicero’s words show that it was not a mere tradition—already fading after the time of Hellenism—that bequeathed to this Roman group of educated men the sort of garden that owed some of its characteristics to the Greek gymnasiums, but that they themselves felt a wish to have their gardens just like those of the philosophers in the most flourishing days of Greece. It is quite likely that these men tried to pave the way for the adoption in Italy of the Greek garden style more than other people did; at any rate, none of the other gardens and later villas show so lively a sense of relationship. Be that as it may, Columella reproves the fashion of wanting so many departments in a place, great pillared halls, immense bath-rooms, and almost everything “ that the Greeks had in their gymnasiums,” also libraries, museums, towers for fine views, ponds, fountains, and waterfalls. So here, too, we have evidence of Greek influence, and after what we have seen in the Ciceronian villas we may assume that garden sites were of the first importance.

The style of Cicero’s villa and that of his brother shows the Greek renaissance spirit in a comparatively simple way. The great love of display in Roman gardens was still in the future, but before Cicero’s time we hear of individual cases of extreme luxury. Varro says that the villas of Lucullus and Metellus vie with public buildings, and the edifices built by Lucullus in particular are regarded partly with astonishment and partly with dislike. He owned many villas near Tusculum, and these had watch-towers commanding very distant views, countless lovely avenues and pavilions, and he looked on all this as a contrivance (as he himself declares) for flying off any day to another house, "like a crane or a stork.” There is even more to tell of the great ponds at another villa, where he introduced a dam, to keep the sea-water for his fish.

The passion for the chase, which came from Greece, had hold of the Romans after the time of the younger Scipio, and hence there came about the construction of parks of a size hitherto unheard of. In Varro’s time Quintus Hortensius had already made a park of fifty yokes of land, and enclosed it with a wall, and on this estate he had set up on the higher ground a shooting-box, where he entertained his friends in a peculiar way. He had a slave dressed like Orpheus who sang before them, and then sounded a horn, whereupon a whole crowd of stags and boars and other quadrupeds came up, so that to him who told the tale the spectacle seemed more delightful than the hunt itself.

The more money people had to spend on buildings after the peace of the first empire, the more they strove to produce extravagant homes in the villa centres of the Latin and Neapolitan coast, and on the hills near Rome and in Tuscany. There came a time, deplored by Horace, when the great villas cramped the farms more and more, and instead of elms and olives were planted planes and myrtles, laurels and beds of flowers, enclosed with fine shady porticoes. And although we must not forget that Horace’s poem belongs to the rhetorical-poetic type, as the allusion to Cato shows, we still have quite enough evidence of the great increase in the number of ostentatious gardens attached to imperial and private places.