The Landscape Guide

Gardens in Pompeian frescoes

We saw in the Greek gymnasiums and the philosophers’ gardens the scattered buildings, i.e. the very different sorts of buildings and houses collected into one garden scheme. If we next look at special instances of villas (Fig. 60), as shown in the Pompeian frescoes, we find the same front view constantly recurring, the colonnade, generally with three wings, and sometimes with conspicuous pavilions at each corner.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see

 We can tell from the dominance of the peristyle that the inside atrium was rather old-fashioned even in the first century, and later on practically a thing of the past. At Pompeii we shall return to the difference between Roman Atrium houses and Greek Peristyle houses. But here in Rome the pure Greek peristyle—for one may consider the three-winged colonnade to be an open peristyle—comes immediately to the fore; and the conclusion is forced upon us that not only the garden but the whole plan was adopted from a Hellenistic source, as a perfected product of Greek design. 

One must not, however, be deceived into supposing that garden frescoes depicting villa types were first known in Roman times, though wall-paintings of the Hellenistic age are so few that the material gives no opportunity for comparison. When Pliny relates that in  the time of Augustus a certain Tatius or Scudius was the very first to paint pictures of villas on the walls, with shelters, opera topiaria, groves, woods, hills, fishponds, Euripus rivers, the sea-beach, and all manner of varieties of the garden or seaside villa, the remark only holds good of Roman times. This artist, a man of note, had no doubt painted the imperial villas of Augustus, but these pictures are not instructive about the style of architecture, and rather show the design of the gardens, and still more their decoration. At that time undoubtedly Egyptian taste prevailed, and the art of gardening had been furthered by the incorporation of Egypt as a Roman province. Anyhow the name “ Nilus” was used for an artificial canal in Cicerots time, and that is only explicable if something of an Egyptian look had been given to its surroundings. This is supplied by the accessories shown in the wall-paintings : the Nile is strewn with the lotus, encircled with palms, and made lively with pygmies and crocodiles; round about there are Egyptian sanctuaries.

Many such scenes have already occurred in Hellenistic carvings, and the whole art was no doubt much affected by Hellenistic influence. We see it, for example, in the treatment of the symbolic tree in frescoes at Pompeii (Fig. 61). To be sure, the veneration for trees

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


 is very old among the Romans, and in Caligula's time there stood on the Palatine the sacred cherry-tree out of which sprouted the spear of Romulus. Lucan has a nice sketch of a dead oak, whose bare trunk casts a shade, and holds the place of honour in the midst of green woodland.

The landscapes were mostly painted as views seen between the buildings, or as a background to a small garden. In both cases the idea was to make the room look larger. It was not enough to have a view right through, but the actual walls must look like a garden, and in every case the illusion was encouraged of being on the green hill-top. Similar attempts were made in ancient Egypt, and the overseer of the gardens of Amon had desired to rest in death under his arbour of vines, and had made his tomb accordingly. There are not enough monuments to demonstrate the direct influence of Egypt on Roman taste, but it is very probable that what had been granted to the dead would in later days be granted also to the living.

We have already looked at one of these garden-rooms in the so-called Auditorium of Mæcenas, but the best of all is found in the Villa of Livia by Porta Prima in Rome ( Fig. 62): here there is a subterranean room almost three metres below the old ground floor.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


 Romans were glad to escape from the hot sun into a cellar like this, and they decorated it, so that any pampered soul might be able to find enjoyment there. The room was probably lighted from the roof, but in the Villa of Hadrian at Tivoli there are dark subterranean rooms quite as grandly set out as if they were living-rooms with artificial lighting. The confessed aim of the Empress Livia living at the gates of Rome was to transfer her garden into this cool room out of the summer heat. All four walls, not interrupted by windows, are painted as a green garden full of flowers, and anyone who comes in is in the middle of it. The illusion is helped by the arrangement of the room: round it runs a wooden fence, broken here and there, then a broad green path, and on the other side a second fence, more ornate and complicated, showing three patterns, which are separated at fixed intervals. There is a semicircle with high trees. Among the trunks we have acanthus, and in some cases ivy winding round. Close to the fence there runs to right and left, as a border to the path, a belt of flowers with very pretty white blossoms, and at equal distances between them a small cactus or an ivy-plant tied up. Above the outer fencing there is visible a medley of trees in the garden beyond; and yet again one can recognise the trees and shrubs, all planted in regular order—oranges with flower and fruit, and in between them splendid colours in a fine flower-bed appear over the barrier. Farther back there are cypresses, palms, and other shady trees. In the branches a number of many-coloured birds are flitting about, enjoying the flowers, and their freedom also, for only one of them is shut up; his golden cage is standing on the balustrade.

Another room with much the same intention as this of Livia’s, and just as attractive, is the little Frigidarium of the Stabian Baths at Pompeii (Fig. 63). 

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


It is a circular room, letting in the light overhead: the blue sky above mixes its own colour with the roof, which, has stars painted on a blue ground. The walls and the four semicircular alcoves (see illustration above) that are meant to enlarge the room, are also covered with a garden fresco, of trees over a red border. There are many fountains, where doves are seen quenching their thirst; while others are fluttering about among the trees, which are planted at regular distances (Fig. 64). The water starts from one small recess, opposite the entrance, and from its round basin it encircles the whole place in a small narrow stream.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see