The Landscape Guide

Horace Walpole's essay On Modern Gardening: Roman Gardens

Introduction Ancient gardens Roman gardens Renaissance gardens John Milton Sir William Temple William Kent Early 18th century gardens  Thomas Whately Landscape Gardens Lancelot 'Capability' Brown

Roman gardens

From the days of Homer to those of Pliny, we have no traces to lead our guess to what were the gardens of the intervening ages. When Roman authors, whose climate instilled a wish for cool retreats, speak of their enjoyments in that kind, they sigh for grottos, caves and the refreshing hollows of mountains, near irriguous and shady founts; or boast of their porticos, walks of planes, canals, baths and breezes from the sea. Their gardens are never mentioned as affording shade and shelter from the rage of the dog-star. Pliny has left us descriptions of two of his villas. As he used his Laurentine villa for his winter retreat, it is not surprising that the garden makes no considerable part of the account. All he says of it is, that the gestatio or place of exercise which surrounded the garden (the latter consequently not being very large) was bounded by a hedge of box, and where that was perished, with rosemary; that there was a walk of vines, and that most of the trees were fig and mulberry, the soil not being proper for any other sorts.

Of his Tuscan villa he is more diffuse; the garden makes a considerable part of the description-and what was the principal beauty of that pleasure-ground? Exactly what was the admiration of this country about three-score years ago: box-trees cut into monsters, animals, letters, and the names of the master and the artificer. In an age when architecture displayed all its grandeur, all its purity, and all its taste; when arose Vespasian's amphitheatre, the temple of Peace, Trajan's forum, Domitian's baths, and Adrian's villa, the ruins and vestiges of which still excite our astonishment and curiosity; a Roman consul, a polished emperor's friend, and a man of elegant literature and taste, delighted in what the mob now scarce admires in a college-garden." [* Dr. Plot, in his natural history of Oxfordshire seems to have been a great admirer of trees carved into the most heterogeneous forms, which he calls topiary works, and quotes one Laurembergius for saying that the English are as expert as most nations in that kind of sculpture; for which Hampton Court was particularly remarkable. The doctor then names other gardens that flourished with animals and castles, formed arte topiaria, and above all a wren's nest that was capacious enough to receive a man to sit on a seat made within it for that purpose.]


All the ingredients of Pliny's corresponded exactly with those laid out by London and Wise on Dutch principles. He talks of slopes, terraces, a wilderness, shrubs methodically trimmed, a marble basin, pipes spouting water, a cascade falling into the basin, bay-trees alternately planted with planes, and a straight walk, from whence issued others parted off by hedges of box, and apple-trees, with obelisks placed between every two.* [* The English gardens described by Hentzner in the reign of Elizabeth are exact copies of those of Pliny. In that at Whitehall was a sun-dial and jet d'eau, which on turning a cock spurted out water and sprinkled the spectators. In Lord Burleigh's at Theobald's were obelisks, pyramids, and circular porticos with cisterns of lead for bathing. At Hampton Court the garden walls were covered with rosemary; a custom, he says, very common in England. At Theobald's was a labyrinth also, an ingenuity I shall mention presently to have been frequent in that age.] There wants nothing but the embroidery of a parterre, to make a garden in the reign of Trajan serve for a description of one in that of King William. In one passage above Pliny seems to have conceived that natural irregularity might be a beauty: in opere urbanissimo, says he, sithita velut illati runs irnitatio. Something like a rural view was contrived amidst so much polished composition. But the idea soon vanished, lineal walks immediately enveloped the slight scene, and names and inscriptions in box again succeeded to compensate for the daring introduction of nature.

In the paintings found at Herculaneum are a few traces of gardens, as may be seen in the second volume of the prints.* [* At Warwick castle is an ancient suit of arras, in which there is a garden exactly resembling these pictures of Herculaneum.]They are small square enclosures formed by trellis-work, and espaliers, and regularly ornamented with vases, fountains and caryatides, elegantly symmetrical, and proper for the narrow spaces allotted to the garden of a house in a capital city. From such I would not banish those playful waters that refresh a sultry mansion in town, nor the neat trellis, which preserves its wooden verdure better than natural greens exposed to dust. Those treillages in the gardens at Paris, particularly on the Boulevard, have a gay and delightful effect. They form light corridors, and transpicuous arbours through which the sun-beams play and chequer the shade, set off the statues, vases and flowers, that marry with their gaudy hotels, and suit the gallant and idle society who paint the walks between their parterres, and realize the fantastic scenes of Watteau and Durfé.

From what I have said, it appears how naturally and insensibly the idea of a kitchen-garden slid into that which has for so many ages been peculiarly termed a garden. and by our ancestors in this country distinguished by the name of a pleasure-garden. A square piece of ground was originally parted off in early ages for the use of the family-to exclude cattle and ascertain the property it was separated from the fields by a hedge. As pride and desire of privacy increased, the enclosure was dignified by walls; and in climes where fruits were not lavished by the ripening glow of nature and soil, fruit-trees were assisted and sheltered from surrounding winds by the like expedient; for the inundation of luxuries which have swelled into general necessities have almost all taken their course from the simple fountain of reason.