The Landscape Guide

Pliny the Younger's villas and garden letters

[Note: Pliny's garden letters are on the CD]

In everything we have so far looked at we have described individual instances only, whether by pictures or verbally. We first get the description of his own villa from Pliny’s two garden letters, which are the only business-like accounts of much value and we find all features united in an intelligible fashion. No attempt shall be made here to reconstruct these villas in precise detail, for our knowledge is incomplete, and must remain so until the sites have been found and dug over. Any description would be rhetorical and obviously full of gaps. It is only when buildings by their arrangement actually imply the existence of gardens that they must be taken into consideration (Fig. 65). 

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The landscape is definitely described by Pliny, with his villa, called Tusci, in the middle of it, and it is a good example of the villa scenery of Tuscany. It lies at the foot of the hill, and by a gentle ascent one reaches a point where there is a fine view of the valley of the Arno with its ring of mountains resembling an amphitheatre. It has been possible to determine with tolerable certainty the site of this uniform slope, so well suited for a villa of the kind.

This place is clearly a villa urbana, for the farm buildings are so completely ignored that we are compelled to think they were in some separate group at a distance. However that may be, Pliny has only described the important features of the place, but fortunately he lays special stress on the gardens. His account shows three marked groups:

(1) first in importance the main building and its accessories, this section ending with the words, "this is the façade, this is accessible from the front"; 
(2) next a group of buildings of which we can only say from their position that they were at the side high up on the hill; 
(3) the hippodrome, the park, which also lies on one side only of the house, and adjoins the triclinium wing of the chief façade.

What do we see from the front? First, a wide colonnade with two wings, in which are both the important rooms—a dining-room (triclinium) and a large living-room, one on each side. In the middle of the colonnade towards the back is a little court, visible from outside through a double row of pillars. This is planted with plane-trees, and has a fountain in the middle. Round this court are three rooms, one of them described as a particularly charming garden-room. It has a marble foundation, above which are walls painted with trees, and with birds in the branches; a little stream ripples through the narrow pipes, scattering its cool water. In short, this is one of those garden-rooms in which the walls are hidden under the pictured garden, just as we have seen them at Rome and at Pompeii, and the fountain helps the illusion.

In front of the three-winged façade is the ornamental garden, or xystus. In the time of Pliny this and other technical words were probably so incorporated in common speech that there was no sense of their being derived from the Greek gymnasium, though this feeling was strong in Cicero’s time. But as in the Greek gymnasium, so in the Roman xystus, the pillared hall is indispensable in front of the garden, which has now become a highly decorated place, and well cared for. We hear from Pliny nothing of those thickets that Vitruvius demands, for now it is a front garden that serves the double purpose of adorning the façade and keeping the view clear and open. It follows the gentle incline in terrace steps, and round it there is a wall.

On the uppermost terrace, the xystus proper, there is a lawn cut out with flower-beds edged with box. Before the window of one of the wings there is a fountain fixed in a marble basin. Pliny says nothing about the disposition of the beds, but the Romans liked variety, and we hear of round and rectangular beds, and of wavy borders. Outside this box edging there was a favourite trellis border (Fig. 66), and the pictures also show fountains between the beds (Fig. 67).

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


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


From the lawn downward there is more plantation, leading to the next terrace; and raised box borders are cut into various shapes of animals facing one another. Pliny speaks now and then of this clipped box at the villa, but we have no picture of it in antique times. The lower terrace is planted with the softer-leaved acanthus, which here takes the place of our mown grass. On this terrace of acanthus there is a path bordered with clipped greenery, the so-called opus topiarium. Again, following on this, we find a wider terrace which is circular, and enclosed with box cut in many shapes, and with dwarf trees. Box cut in the form of steps conceals the outside walls, so as to obliterate the appearance of a separation of garden and open country. For it is always an object of desire that the front of the villa shall have a view over the landscape, “where Nature seems as good as a garden made by art.” Thus, then, has the xystus developed from an addition to the colonnade of a gymnasium into a beautiful ordered work of art, which is destined later on to be maintained in the world of horticulture, and which leads our minds onward to see what the future will be.

The cutting of evergreen plants was important for attaining this end. It is difficult to ascertain the date when a device first appeared that was so great a step towards the art of formal gardening. Pliny ascribes the invention to a friend of Augustus, named Cnæus Martius, a Roman knight; and although rightly somewhat incredulous over the tendency of the ancients to give definite names to such inventions, we still have to admit that before the days of the emperors there is no mention to be found of this very peculiar treatment of plants. Cicero once uses the name Topiarius for the gardener who had the special care of the ornamental garden, but this was giving the appellation to the service first, and it was only afterwards that the term opus topiarii was applied to that clipping wherein the gardener could exhibit his greatest skill. It is noticeable that neither Cato, nor Varro, nor Columella, ever mentions this special pride of the garden, when they are inveighing against the luxury of villa life, In the time of the elder Pliny they must have been considerably advanced in an art that is none too easy, for they had whole scenes cut out, such as fleets of ships, hunting scenes, and so on, all in box and cypress.

At the west side of the colonnade is the bath-place, whose situation is not quite accurately determined. Steps lead to an upper terrace, next to three small living-rooms, one of which looks down on the plane-tree court, the second towards a meadow that lies far to the westward, and the third on the vineyard, which climbs the hill in a terrace formation. Behind, apparently on a similar terrace, is a cryptoporticus (covered portico), and under it a dining-room looking out on the hippodrome, the vineyard, and the mountains; lastly there comes a fourth living-room, connecting the villa and the hippodrome.

The second group of buildings lies in the vineyard, and seems to have a different approach. Here, too, the place is marked by two other colonnades and several more rooms, and also two pavilions, with no garden, but only looking out on the vineyard. Apparently one would feel entirely in the country here: in the Laurentinum villa we shall see how completely the kitchen-garden was adapted for the pleasure of the occupants of these best rooms

“All these places, and their amenities, are surpassed by the hippodrome”—thus Pliny begins his description of the third part, the park. This place, too, takes its name from the old athletic games; and much as it has lost of its former significance, it still keeps the rectangular form with one side rounded, and the chief features of its plantation. The hippodrome lies to the east of the villa, which fronts southward, and it seems to be on a lower level, for the windows of the eastern triclinium look down on the tops of the trees; but the whole plan can only come out clearly when excavations have been made on the spot.

Pliny’s account is so pleasant and easy to follow that it shall be given in his own words:
In the front of these agreeable buildings lies a very spacious hippodrome, entirely open in the middle, by which means the eye, upon first entrance, takes in its whole extent at one view. It is encompassed on every side with plane-trees covered with ivy, so that while their heads flourish with their own green, their bodies enjoy a borrowed verdure; and the ivy twining round the trunk and branches spreads from tree to tree, and links them together. Between the plane-trees are planted box-trees, and behind these laurels, which blend their shade with that of the planes. The raised path around the hippodrome, which here runs straight, bends at the farther end into a semicircle and takes on a new aspect, being embowered in cypress-trees and obscured by their denser and more gloomy shade; while the inward circular alleys (for there are several) enjoy the full sun. Farther on there are roses too along the path, and the cool shade is pleasantly alternated with sunshine.
Having passed through these manifold winding alleys, the path resumes a straight course, and at the same time divides into several tracks, separated by box hedges. In one place you have a little meadow; in another the box is interposed in groups, and cut into a thousand different forms; sometimes into letters expressing the name of the master, or again that of the artificer; whilst here and there little obelisks rise intermixed alternately with apple-trees, when on a sudden, in the midst of this elegant regularity, you are surprised with an imitation of the negligent beauties of rural nature; in the centre of which lies a spot surrounded with a knot of dwarf plane-trees. Beyond these are interspersed clumps of the smooth and twining acanthus; then come a variety of figures and names cut in box.
At the upper end is a semicircular bench of white marble, shaded with a vine which is trained upon four small pillars of Carystian marble. Water, gushing through several little pipes from under this bench, as if it were pressed out by the weight of the persons who repose themselves upon it, falls into a stone cistern underneath, from whence it is received into a fine polished marble basin, so artfully contrived that it is always full without ever overflowing. When I sup here, the tray of whets and the larger dishes are placed round the margin, while the smaller ones swim about in the form of little ships and water-fowl. Opposite this is a fountain which is incessantly emptying and filling, for the water which it throws up to a great height falling back again into it, is by means of connected openings returned as fast as it is received.
Fronting the bench stands a chamber of lustrous marble, whose doors project and open upon a lawn; from its upper and lower windows the eye ranges upward or downward over other spaces of verdure,... In different quarters are disposed several marble seats, which serve as so many reliefs after one is wearied with walking. Next each seat is a little fountain; and throughout the whole hippodrome small rills conveyed through pipes run murmuring along, wheresoever the hand of art has seen proper to conduct them; watering here and there different spots of verdure, and in their progress bathing the whole.

This text from Pliny is the clearest and most intelligible account of a garden ground that antiquity has bequeathed to us. The plan is fixed by the shape of the hippodrome, and its original planting, and is very simple. The chief feature is as usual several avenues, and they no doubt are wide enough for the small vehicles used in those days to drive in. This plan is easily to be seen from the middle space that makes one whole out of the various parts.

It is planted with acanthus, like the racecourse of Hercules at Elis, and a visitor on entering would look over the rose-garden, whose scent would reach him, as it is open on the south side; behind him stand the slender vine-clad pillars of the stibadium (semicircular seat) with a fountain, and still farther back the pretty pavilion. The whole picture is framed by a dense wall of cypresses, and to right and left there are avenues. The massing of foliage is cleverly distributed: on the outside great shadowy laurels and planes; farther in, the clipped box and dwarf planes; and quite inside, the acanthus plants. All the separate groups, which have paths round them, skirted with box, are treated in striking variety. No gardens except the French can boast that they ever surpassed this picture of skilful inventions in the way of special grouping. Behind the pavilion, at the highest point on the north, rises the spring, which first serves the fountain, then the waterworks of the stibadium, and lastly the many canals that intersect the whole of the garden.

Pliny was the very man to enjoy in his innermost soul the peace and beauty of villa life. What a joyful longing speaks in the questions he asks his friend Caninius Rufus in his short note:

How stands Como, that favourite scene of yours and mine ? What becomes of the pleasant villa, the ever-vernal portico, the shady plane-tree grove, the crystal canal so agreeably winding along its flowery banks, together with the charming lake below, that serves at once the purposes of use and beauty What have you to tell me of the firm yet springy avenue, the bath exposed on all sides to full sunshine, the public saloon, the private dining-room, and all the elegant apartments for repose both at noon and night ?.

Leave, my friend (for it is high time), the low and sordid pursuits of life to others, and in this safe and snug retreat emancipate yourself for your studies.

Pliny’s description has one great defect, for not a word is said of plastic decoration, and this is not through forgetfulness or with any rhetorical intention, but simply from want of taste. In his letters he gives in elaborate detail what he holds to be the highest culture, but to pictorial art he is entirely indifferent. He once had a statue left to him, and the best he could do was to give it away! He makes no mention of statuary in any of his own villas, although since the time of Cicero there had been a great advance, if not in knowledge, at any rate in the fashion for plastic art, and consequently for the joys of possession. Although Cicero bitterly reproaches Verres for the luxury shown in the works of art in his garden, that is nothing compared with Pliny’s own account of the riches of Domitius Tullius, written shortly after his death. Pliny says that Domitius had hosts of art treasures, and could adorn immense gardens, the very day he bought them, with quantities of statues. Tastes of this showy inartistic kind indicate that it was a common custom to decorate gardens with as much statuary as possible. The best evidence of this comes from excavations, and, since the days of the Renaissance, gardens have been the chief hunting-ground for statues, partly in the villa urbana outside and still more in Rome itself; for the best pieces, the original Greek statues, are mostly there, and both Pliny and Martial despise the specimens outside in comparison with those in Rome.

A plan has been preserved of a garden hippodrome belonging to the place, formerly called Stadium, beside the Palace of Domitian on the Palatine (Fig, 68). Iits form is familiar from Pliny. Domitian, who first laid out the garden, set up a wall with alcoves in it, and the colonnade which now stands there belongs to a later date. Quite late is the oval enclosure, but the two fountains on either side may perhaps belong to the earlier date. The original planting was in avenues with varied groups of trees, and probably there

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were flower-beds round the crescent-shaped fountains. It is plain that there was an open space in the middle, which (like the niches in the wall and afterwards the colonnade) was adorned with statues; for this is shown to be so by excavations. On the south side, where the oval rounds off, there is a building that stands higher than the hippodrome by some two metres, and has steps leading down from it. It would answer to Pliny’s pavilion but that it has more of a town character and is not so hidden in green. It is not known whether or no the great exedra, on the eastern of the two long sides, belongs to the Flavian building group; but we do know that an exedra was much liked in a garden, and perhaps was copied from gymnasiums, for we are told that Plato’s own private garden had one. In this hippodrome on the Palatine it is an organic part of the ground-plan, rising steeply right in the middle of the garden, and so providing for the imperial family a good view over the  place itself and also far beyond. The grouping of house and garden here is much less precise than at Pliny’s place; the garden is all on one side of the palace, and can only be reached by a little gate. There is no talk among the Romans of unity or cohesion between the house and garden, and it seems as though there cannot be much connection between these loosely-arranged groups. The utmost they attain is the one composite whole made by the relation of each individual part to the xystus.

We shall presently find a similar garden design at Hadrian’s Villa. It is clear that hippodromes, as well as other places for games, were still used for their original purpose, because it was just at this period that the Romans were particularly fond of Greek competitive sports. So Martial, after speaking in praise of plane-trees, laurels, and rushing water, goes on to tell of a hippodrome where “ the flying hoof rings, scattering the dust.” Pliny, too, speaks of a room in his second villa, the Laurentinum, which he calls “ the gymnasium of my household.” It is in a corner in front of the chief façade of the house which faces the sea, and is protected by certain parts of the buildings that jut out: it cannot be anything but a playground or garden site.

Laurentinum is very different from Pliny’s Tuscan villa. It is on the sea, and so near Rome that the owner can get to it in the evening after his day’s work in the city. It is a mixture of villa rustica and villa urbana, the buildings so arranged that everything needed for farm use is on the land side, but the house to live in is next the sea. Pliny says the place is very convenient from the point of view of utility, and not expensive to keep up; and he had no large park or important pleasure-garden here. A xystus he certainly had, but this he speaks of as “ scented with violets,” so it was probably a mere lawn with flowers, enclosed on the sea side by a colonnade. But the colonnade and xystus are not necessarily joined together; and there were no borders of box, for Pliny says that only the tree-garden behind the colonnade can have box borders, because they are protected by buildings, but that where there is exposure to the wind and the sea foam, box must be replaced by rosemary.

Perhaps the beds were enclosed with low interrupted stone walls, or with woven osiers, such as we see used very effectively on some of the frescoes at Pompeii. The tree-garden, lying on the other side of the colonnade away from the sea, produces in particular mulberries and figs, which grow tall here, but here only. Round about are lovely walks, first a path of vines laid with fine gravel, so soft that one can walk on it barefooted. The other wider paths for driving are, as was said, bordered with box or rosemary.

At the end of the xystus and colonnade is a summer-house, where Pliny can flee from the noisy Saturnalia to a beloved spot, made by himself, and so enjoy peace and quiet. There are several rooms in it—one a living-room with a charming veranda, which gives a fine view of the sea, the shore by his villa, and the woods between. The colonnade and immense tree-garden are between this summer-house and the villa fructuaria (the barn, and the threshing-floor), which includes very attractive rooms, and enjoys a view over the tree-garden or perhaps a kitchen-garden of fruits and vegetables adjacent to the main entrance on the land side. For the chief dwelling-house has no separate garden of its own, its front being close on the sea. There are several courts, one behind the other, the first set with the slaves’ dwellings round them, so pretty and neat that they can be used for guest-rooms. The best thing of all at the villa is the view of the sea enjoyed from the state-room at the great house, As there is no fine view outside, on account of the flatness of the country round, the outlook at the back through the courts is especially famous. The chief room in the house is a large dining-hall, in the middle of the façade, jutting out like a balcony. The most distant view is gained from either of two towers, one flanking the main building, the other beside the villa fructuaria.

The appearance of Laurentinum outside we can easily arrive at, helped by a long series of villa pictures found on the walls of Pompeii (Fig. 69). 

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With variations here and there, the pictures all show villas beside the sea with towers, and as a rule with statues on the banks, but of statues Pliny says not a word (Fig. 70).

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Wherever the second type of mountain villa occurs, there is nearly always a three-winged colonnade before the house, and a xystus in front of it, and behind various diætæ ( summer-houses), or towers set up on higher terraces. The picture (Fig. 71)
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 from Pompeii (with a ground-plan after Rostovtzeff, Fig. 72) may be taken, just as it is, as

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giving a good idea of the chief group at a Tuscan villa: the three-winged colonnade runs round the xystus with its pretty bordered flower-beds, and in the middle, behind the buildings, there is what seems to be the roof of the atrium, while farther back we observe, reaching to the top of the picture, more diætæ and more colonnades.

The great difference from the terrace buildings of the Renaissance lies in the absence here of any consistent architectural idea, such as is expressed in symmetrical building ( an “ axial lay-out “), and one regular scheme for the whole: as yet there was no connected plan at all, though generally the chief house was below, and the other lesser buildings above, the hill. But not always: Statius describes the villa of Pollius Felix on the Punta della Calcarella which covered the whole territory between Marina di Popolo and Sorrento; below, on the brink of the sea, a warm bath was put up with two towers, a temple to Neptune, and a temple to Hercules. A colonnade, apparently zigzag, climbed the rocky cliff, and the villa stood on a plateau at the top. According to Statius, this had meant a great deal of digging, and the colonnade “ creeping upward “ must have had an unusual, and for those days a strikingly picturesque, effect. A little picture from Pompeii, unfortunately ill-preserved, shows this kind of colonnade “ creeping upward.” Pliny gives yet another description of the two types of villa: they are on the Lake of Como— one actually on its border, on level ground, like Laurentinum.

There is a very large xystus on a slightly curving inlet, and the villa behind it takes all its charm from the lake. The other one, on the top of the spur, enjoys a lovely view which includes a straight avenue passing along the back of the mountain. Pliny calls this (in his witty, antithesis-loving style) Tragedy, because it is poised on the cothurnus, and the other one on the strand is Comedy, because it is on the soccus, nearer to the ground. To him these two represent the two types of villa such as were built at Baiæ, the great fashionable bathing-place for the plutocrats of Rome.

In all these descriptions of villas one feature is wanting, which will prove of great importance in the architectural forms of the Renaissance—the stairway. Of course there were stairs of some sort out of doors, and Pliny mentions them at his Tusci, but they appear to be only the means of getting to a higher part of the villa. If there was any architectural treatment of stairs, they were entirely isolated, like the fine covered stairway of the Hellenistic Pergamon. It was only at the time of the Renaissance that the possibilities were realised of connecting links, such as the sloping terrace, acting as a rib in the whole wall of terraces. Accordingly we may justly look with suspicion on the drawings of Ligorio, the Renaissance architect, who represents staircases in antique villas. One of his sketches (Fig. 73) has been far too credulously accepted. It purports to show the ascent from the

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 Field of Mars to the present Villa Medici and Monte Trinità, where formerly were the Acilian Gardens with the round temple already mentioned, and the remains of the great hemicyclium (semicircular seat). It would almost appear that the hemicyclium is the one and only centre and starting-point for the whole of Ligorio’s imposing plan (Fig. 74), because it is not confirmed either by literature or by monuments.

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These sketches, like so many thrown off by this great artist, must be regarded as misrepresenting the architecture of the ancients. Further, the great villa built by the emperors in four terraces above the Alban Lake was far from presenting the  appearance of an enclosed place from the Renaissance point of view. At a distance the chief building looked like a castle. The remains are so scanty that we cannot form a mental picture of the whole enormous place. But what we do get from ruins is the sense of the ever-growing leadership and dominion of the emperors in the first century, until Domitian, at the same time as he made his residence on the Palatine, gave to such places their final form.

The palaces with their gardens, the colonnades and towers, enclosed a great stretch Of the lake, which spread out below them like a huge Naumachia, Certain parts of a cryptoporticus, leading to the lake, have been preserved. There are also traces of a theatre and an amphitheatre; and the Emperor Domitian encouraged games of every kind and instituted Greek games, calling them Capitoline. The slope of the ground made irrigation an easy matter, and the reservoir may well belong to the ancient fishponds: one of these, resting on 36 pillars, could hold 20,000 cubic metres of water, and a second one, a little smaller, 16,000. The water was conveyed by a system of canals to every part of the villa, Connected with these reservoirs are two nymphæums or grottoes, one of them still recognisable by its decoration (Fig. 75), and at the time of Piranesi still giving a good impression of the magnificence of the emperors. In both cases natural grottoes were altered, and turned into elegant rooms, with alcoves in the walls, and with stucco or mosaic floors. 

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 The place was kept cool by fountains and waterfalls, and adorned with statues and other carved work; from the opening the bright green garden seems to look into the cave-like darkness. The villa at Tusculum was not much smaller, but has left fewer traces. This villa was set up by Domitian on the ground where Lucullus had lived, and now a great part of the town of Frascati stands on the same territory. We know the names of many other villas of Domitian, at Antium, Gaeta, Baiæ, and elsewhere, from what is said by Martial.