In ancient Rome, originally and during the first decades of the republic, the term hortus was used to indicate a land, surrounded by walls and annexed to the house, in which plants and vegetables for food use were grown, in houses in the countryside or in immediate vicinity of urban centers. In the period immediately following the conquest of Greece during the 2nd century BC. the Roman civilization assimilated new scientific and technical knowledge in the agronomic, botanical and medicinal herbs fields. The Hellenization process touched all social classes and the rural simplicity began to be conquered by the culture and art of the Greek and Oriental gardens, especially Egyptian and Persian. The first step was the introduction of ornamental plants and flowers. We therefore began to speak in the plural of horti when one or more parts of the land were used for the cultivation of fruit trees, vineyards, olive groves, areas that have always been green as cypresses or bushes such as myrtle or rosemary.
The peristilium (porticoed courtyard), a characterizing element of the Roman domus overlooked by all the rooms of the house, increasingly becomes a point of connection between inside and outside. Precisely in the peristilium, at the end of the Republican age, in the patrician villas in the city, in the spas and theaters, horti also began to be set up for ornamental purposes. This type of garden inside the central porticoed atrium is called a viridarium. The most prominent public figures, among the first and most famous Lucullus and Sallust, build sumptuous private gardens enriched with statues, fountains, temples, flower beds, hedges and areas populated by evergreen plants expertly modeled in geometric, human and animal shapes by the figure of the topiarius. The ars topiaria, according to the writings of Pliny the Elder, was born at the end of the first century BC. by Gaius Matius, who first began to grow plants in plastic forms, meticulously taking care of the pruning phase.
In the villas, especially in the imperial age, gardens became indispensable elements for the higher social classes, places chosen to devote themselves to conviviality and otium, an inseparable condition from poetic, musical and artistic creation in general. Starting from the 1st century AD the architecture of the garden becomes more and more complex with the introduction of water features, heated pools, connecting paths bordered by flowering hedges between the house and structures such as the nymphaeums.
The few frescoes that have come down to the present day have made it possible to acquire a certain amount of information on the gardens of the Roman period, from those of the domus to those of the imperial villas, from the types of plants in use to their distribution without forgetting the contribution of the most recent studies of archaeobotany on the samples of roots, seeds and pollen preserved under the ashes of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The gardens of the less spacious houses were in fact visually extended by painting the walls of the peristilium with natural landscapes or gardens.
Among the tall trees were used arbores silvestres (wild) such as oaks, chestnuts, poplars, beeches and arbores urbanae (domestic) such as pines, elms, palms, limes, cypresses and plane trees. The actual fruit trees were located in a specific area called the pomerium. Among the ornamental plants, evergreen shrubs such as acanthus, boxwood, myrtle and periwinkle were preferred. Flowers were little used, mainly as dots of color.
In most of the private gardens of ancient Rome there are three distinct areas. The xystus was located within the peristilium or connected to the main building through a covered porch and could be configured as a terrace or as a green area full of avenues protected by vines or tree branches modeled in a gallery. At a lower level, the ambulation was a green area with ornamental plants, flowers and tall trees dedicated to walking and in general to activities related to otium. Finally, the gestation was a circular or oval space built around the ambulation often used for activities on horseback.
The maximum expression of the garden in ancient Rome is reached in the imperial villas. The total lack of expenditure or extension constraints give life to a perfectly integrated set in the environment and landscape of homes and service, leisure and representation buildings, surrounded by meadows, wooded areas, colonnades, swimming pools, natural and enriched lakes. from fountains, statues and whatever else the imagination suggested. Some famous examples are Nero’s Domus Aurea, the Horti di Mecenate, the Villa of Domitian on the Alban Hills and the Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli.Back to Index