The Landscape Guide

Roman gardens and Gothic invaders

When the Roman Empire began to decline and fall, it was not only Byzantium that maintained the tradition of designing gardens and villas. In Spain, the south of France, and Italy we can trace in individual cases a continuation of the old style of garden making —sometimes weaker, sometimes stronger—right on into the sixth century. Even the conquerors, the German invaders, did something to preserve the buildings and gardens. They liked taking possession of the villas of their Roman predecessors. 

Procopius relates that the Vandals, when they had grown effeminate in North Africa, discovered that they could do very well in the fine, shady, well-watered paradises that they found ready to hand at Carthage. We are told by Luxorius that these places looked much the same as in classical times, when they were in their glory. In two of his epigrams he writes admiringly of the views from the towers, the clear rushing springs, the fine summer-houses, and of how he enjoys the scent of flowers and the song of the birds.

By that time, and even sooner, both taste and expression were corrupted and perverse. We see this particularly in a description given by Apollinaris Sidonius of his Villa Avitiacum in the Auvergne. His attempt to rival Pliny is obvious, and, quite in accordance with his model, the pleasantness of the southern aspect and the fine view are commended. He lingers over the baths, especially a piscina, which without boasting he feels he can compare with a public one. Water is supplied from canals and flows from lions’ heads. There is a long colonnade, which he cannot call hippodrome, but does call erypto porticus. One can see that he has no notion of what was meant. He goes on to describe a green court (area) as a delightful grove (nemus) This “ nemus” lies at the exit of the colonnade towards the lake, which with its island in the middle is the joy and pride of its possessor. In the “area” two loftylime-trees mingle their tops to make thick shade. This is the substance of a very wordy description: the ancient clothes sit loosely on him.

The open villa of the old time was threatened by the flood of nomadic peoples, more and ever more, in the place and time at which Sidonius lived. The great uncertainty of life demanded stronger dwellings; and Sidonius shows us, in an invaluable description, how the transition took place between the villa and the castle of the Middle Ages. He writes of the castle (burgus) of Pontius Leontius, his friend, in a poem. It stands on several terraces upon the slope of a high mountain, close to where the Garonne and Dordogne mix their streams, and is visible from afar: round it are walls and watch-towers, which serve both for ornament and protection. A ditch, following the line of the fortification, he calls Thermos, perhaps to suggest that it can be used for cold baths, as he also mentions the warm bath indoors. Separate colonnades divide the parts of the building, and look towards different points of the compass. Two of them are oval in outline, and are crossed by crooked paths; so we may suppose that there was the usual plantation outside the walls. There is a summer and a winter colonnade, also a winter house for the gentlefolk, a women’s quarter, and a so-called chapel. The granary has to be inside a castle of this kind.

The picture is completed with a burying-place, which is on the highest ground, with a great balcony above it for the sake of its fine view. Beside one of the double oval colonnades there is a canal of flowing water called Euripus, filled from a lake that lay higher on the hill, and no doubt falling into a basin below which is not mentioned, but would be on a terrace. There is of course a laurel grove, where pedestrians find shade, and also a pretty nymphæum. There is a fountain, not artistically made in handsome marble, but in a porous tufa-stone with grotto work all round it. Outside the walls the whole castle hill is planted with vines. Thus we find all the characteristics of the villa, and at the same time we recognise the different parts of a knight’s castle of a later day, which are really descended from villa buildings. Everything is more compressed, so as to save space, and also to give the appearance from outside of a defended stronghold. In these homes of the proud Gallic nobles with their retinues of vassals, there was coming to birth the whole feudal system of the Middle Ages. The proof of this development is given in lively fashion by the works and letters of Sidonius.

In Italy itself, on the western side—that great road for the Germanic nations as they passed through Tuscany on the way to Rome—the devastations had been so many that little can have been preserved of garden culture until after the fifth century. But when the emperors perceived that a safer place of refuge was ready for them on the east coast, and took up their residence at Ravenna, circumstances were more propitious, and 150 years of peace were secured for the civilisation of the ancient world. The coast of Ravenna had already been covered with villas and castles built for pleasure. Nero had killed his father’s sister Domitia, because he wanted her fine house, and he had himself built a great place here, that was still admired in the days of Dion Cassius. Martial, too, praises the glorious sea with its villas, saying he would like to end his days there. The pinetum was renowned far and wide: it was a wood of stone pines a mile in width, whose foliage yielded a cooling shade in summer, whilst in spring its floor was covered with countless flowers. After Ravenna had become the imperial city, everybody of importance migrated here from their unsafe villas in Rome. But Theodoric the Goth, who considered himself the heir of a Roman line, gave the order to his architect: “ Our works must only differ from the old in being new,” and he not only spared the old, but used it as much as he could as a model for his new creations. There is nothing at all left of his famous palace; but a mosaic in the church of San Apollinare Nuovo bears the inscription Palatium, which probably means the chief part of the building. Here again there is a colonnade flanked with a tower, and behind it a peristyle with other buildings. Between the pillars there are traces of statues, which have had to give place to the disfiguring addition of curtains.

Another memorial is the tomb of Theodoric. At the present day this building is in a thickly-wooded park quite outside the town, but at first there was a flourishing suburb. Just as Augustus built his own tomb in his lifetime, set a park round it, and then presented it to the people, so Theodoric erected this proud Rotunda; and we may assume that there were walks round about and shrubberies. It may be that the great time of Ravenna passed away with Theodoric, but the town remained as the headquarters of Byzantine art, And we owe it to this that Italy was not stripped of those models by which the monks, who carried on the culture and civilisation of the Middle Ages, were enabled to learn the art of gardening, and (though the threads were thin and few) to carry forward the traditions of antiquity.