Category Archives: Italy

Walking, talking and showing off – a history of Roman gardens



Model of Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy showing the poikilé, the large four-sided portico enclosing a garden with central pool.
Carole Raddato/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Annalisa Marzano, University of Reading

In ancient Rome, you could tell a lot about a person from the look of their garden. Ancient gardens were spaces used for many activities, such as dining, intellectual practice, and religious rituals. They also offered the opportunity to flaunt horticultural skills as well as travels. As such, gardens were taken rather seriously by Romans. Walking had an important role here, as there is no better way to show off your garden than to take people on walks through it.

The role of horticulture in the construction of elite identity in ancient Rome is one of the topics I am investigating, while the excavation of an ancient Pompeian garden I co-direct is revealing tangible information on settings for horticultural displays.

For wealthy Romans, gardens were a place to exercise the mind, for instance by strolling while conversing about philosophy or literature. The orator and philosopher Cicero famously wrote that if you have a garden and a library you have everything you need.

The leaves of the plane tree.
Ellywa/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

The type of plants chosen could reveal much about how cultured the owner was. From the writings of Roman authors, we can see that plane trees (which nowadays commonly line streets and walkways in parks) were a good choice. They offered shade in summer and were a way to show that one was versed in Greek philosophy: Aristotle and Plato’s famed philosophical schools were held in garden’s shaded by plane trees, as Plato referred to in his Phaedrus.

Fruit of the empire

Rome empire-building military expeditions abroad also resulted in new plants, or new cultivars (a plant variety produced by selective breeding) of known plants being introduced into Italy. Roman generals or provincial governors often came back to Italy with specimens that they planted in their gardens. For example, Lucius Vitellius the Elder, the father of Emperor Vitellius, planted several figs varieties in his rural villa estate near Rome that he had encountered while governor of Syria. In this way, gardens could also become a sort of microcosm of Rome’s empire, with plants from different territories.

Excavating the House of Queen Caroline (VIII.3.14) in Pompeii.
Author provided

Horticultural display of grafted fruit trees and other plants reproduced by layering might have characterised the large garden of the House of Queen Caroline – named in the 19th century after the queen of Naples and sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, Caroline, who visited during its initial excavation. I am currently excavating the site in Pompeii in collaboration with colleagues from Cornell University. Here wide walkways seem to have separated the regularly spaced plantings, an indication that it was not a commercial orchard but a garden in which horticultural productivity was an important part of the pleasure the garden was meant to offer.

Committed to exercise

Walking in their gardens was a serious exercise for many wealthy Romans. Medical works such as the de Medicina by the encyclopedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus, written in the first century AD, give specific indications about the daily exercise physicians recommended: one Roman mile, or 1,000 paces.

Some gardens even came with exercise advice inscribed in them detailing how many laps a person needed to cover. One such inscription from Rome once stood in an ancient orchard. It advised that to cover one mile one needed to go along the path back and forth five times.

In Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy, a similar inscription was found in the Poikilé, the large four-sided portico enclosing a garden with a central pool. The north side of the Poikilé was a double portico, with circular spaces at both ends to allow one to do laps: this was where the emperor could walk sheltered from the elements. Thus, Hadrian could either take exercise in the open air, in the central garden, or under the roof of the double portico.

Excavation of a planting pit, a Roman plant pot is starting to appear. Such pots are usually found partially or completely buried in gardens and planters.
Author provided

All this may suggest that the stereotype associating ancient Romans with excessive drinking and eating is undeserved. But, for wealthy individuals, moving about in a chariot or being carried around in a litter (a “vehicle” without wheels) by slaves in hippodrome-gardens (they were shaped like an elongated U and imitated the shape of the chariot-racing stadium) also counted as “exercising”. Indeed, there are two words in Latin texts for the daily walk: ambulatio, “walking about”, and gestatio, “being carried about”.

Such walking was the pastime of those who owned impressive townhouses or luxurious villas in the country or by the sea. But shrewd politicians such as the Emperor Augustus, who ruled from 27 BC to 14 AD, included gardens among the public building projects they financed. They understood that improving living standards by providing ordinary people with a green oasis to escape Rome’s crowded streets and cramped accommodation was a great way to gain popularity. Augustus opened to the public the groves and walks which surrounded the magnificent Mausoleum he had built, and before him, Caesar had willed to the people of Rome his large pleasure park (Horti).

Following the Roman dichotomy between amoenitas (delightfulness) and utilitas (usefulness), scholars traditionally class gardens as either utilitarian or pleasure gardens, but this binary choice does not fully capture the essence of Roman garden culture. Roman gardens were complex physical and ideological spaces. They represented wealth and contributed to wealth and they showed off horticultural skills through aesthetics as well as their ability to produce food.The Conversation

Annalisa Marzano, Professor of Ancient History, University of Reading

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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Venice had its own ‘Airbnb problem’ during the Renaissance – here’s how it coped



File 20190312 86690 1azh0vh.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A balancing act.
szeke/Flickr., CC BY-SA

Rosa Salzberg, University of Warwick

Cities around the world have had difficulties balancing the interests of visitors with the needs of residents, as holiday rental platforms such as Airbnb have grown in popularity and size. Evidence shows that the conversion of rented homes to short-term accommodation contributes to housing shortages, raises house prices, speeds up gentrification and erodes local communities.

Cities including Amsterdam, Berlin, Barcelona and London have acted to curb these negative effects, imposing new taxes or limiting the number of nights that a property can be rented out. Today, Venice is one of the worst affected cities: the resident population has fallen to its lowest level in centuries and city leaders are looking for ways to mitigate the ill effects of mass tourism.

Yet the city also has a long history of managing the pros and cons of migration and tourism, and finding ways to profit from – but also integrate – foreigners. Indeed, in Renaissance Venice, a huge influx of foreigners fuelled the rise of a large informal lodging sector, which was difficult to tax and regulate and had a major impact on the urban community. Sound familiar?

Renaissance boom town

By the 16th century, Venice was the capital of its own huge empire and a major crossroads of trade and travel between mainland Europe and the Mediterranean. At the same time as painters including Titian and Giorgione were making the city a centre of Renaissance culture, the population surged from around 100,000 to nearly 170,000 in just 50 years.

Unlike today, the people drawn to Venice at the time were mostly international merchants and entrepreneurs, migrants looking for work in local industries, or refugees from war and hunger. But the first tourists also arrived in this period, such as the French writer and nobleman Montaigne, who came to explore the city’s cultural treasures. And all of these people needed somewhere to stay.

Buzzing: Vittore Carpaccio’s painting showing a miracle healing in Venice, circa 1496.
Wikimedia Commons.

My research has shown how hundreds of ordinary Venetians at this time saw a chance to make money on the side by renting rooms or beds. Many were women who struggled to earn a living in other ways: people like Paolina Briani, who in the 1580s rented rooms to Muslim merchants from the Ottoman empire, in her home a few minutes’ walk from Piazza San Marco.

By opening up their homes to migrants and travellers, these accommodation providers – unlike the mostly absentee Airbnb owners of today – shared intimate spaces with people who spoke different languages and practised different religions.

Regulating the informal economy

The rapid growth of this informal economy of lodging alarmed the Venetian government. Fearing the spread both of diseases and of threatening political and religious ideas, the government was anxious to regulate and monitor the presence of foreigners in their city. They also wished to minimise competition with the city’s licensed inns – a profitable source of tax revenues.

So, a bit like today, the government made efforts to register and tax lodging housekeepers, and force them to report on the movements of their tenants. Though this regulation was very difficult to enforce because of the informal nature of many lodging enterprises, Venice’s rulers did not try to eliminate this sector altogether.

While wanting to control the movement of people, they also saw that migrants and visitors were crucial to the city’s economy and its cultural power. They wanted to welcome anyone who brought valuable goods, innovative ideas or essential manpower.

At the same time, the government took into account that ordinary Venetians – especially vulnerable and poor groups such as widows – also profited from the influx. And the money that residents made by offering lodging might be essential to their survival.

A delicate balance

To be sure, Venice’s authorities did not welcome all comers. They took aggressive action to stop “undesirables” (such as beggars and prostitutes) from entering the city. They also put more and more pressure on religious minorities to live in segregated spaces – most famously the Jewish Ghetto.

But they also saw the benefits of promoting a diverse and flexible hospitality industry that could serve the interests of locals as well as visitors. Licensed lodging houses were allowed to flourish and, alongside the inns, became a central part of the city’s emerging tourist infrastructure.

Many newcomers who came to stay in residents’ homes – where they might learn something of the local language and customs – went on to settle and integrate into the community. In its regulation of the hospitality industry, Renaissance Venice struck a delicate balance between the interests of foreigners and locals, which was crucial to the city’s economic, cultural and political strength.

Today, such a compromise appears very difficult to achieve. There are differences between then and now: in the reasons people come to the city; in the nature of competing urban needs; and in the likely solutions and policies. But it seems that cities can take a lead from Renaissance Venice, and act to promote meaningful interactions between visitors and residents; for example, as Berlin has done, by banning people from renting out entire flats on Airbnb. The Venice of 500 years ago challenges people to think about “the Airbnb problem” in a more nuanced way.The Conversation

Rosa Salzberg, Associate Professor of Italian Renaissance History, University of Warwick

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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