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Reassessing the Roman hortus: Cultural self-definition and the aesthetics of production

Katherine Temple von Stackelberg, Trinity College Dublin – University of Dublin, Junior Fellow 2004/05

The study of ancient gardens is well positioned between a growing awareness of the importance of environment to social development and a renewed interest in material culture. For this reason, the past twenty-five years have seen increased academic interest in ancient gardens. Dumbarton Oaks has played a significant part in promoting this awareness. In 1979, Dumbarton Oaks hosted the first of two colloquia on ancient Roman gardens, a subject that had until then been generally perceived by classicists as an attractive, but essentially marginal, aspect of Roman culture. The interest sparked at those colloquia resulted in an appreciation of Roman gardens not merely as decorative spaces, but as important cultural material and an integral aspect of the art, architecture, and society of Rome.

The study of the creation, utilization, and representation of Roman garden space participates in the current dialogue concerning the interrelationship between society, landscape, and urban development in the ancient world. My study focuses on the Roman use of garden space to promote and define national and self-image through the rhetorical and visual representation of productivity and consumption. This project addresses the relation between the visual and archaeological evidence for productivity in Roman garden space, and the rhetoric of social anxiety that emerged around the garden as a topos in the late Republic and early Empire. It also traces the reception of the Roman garden that has promoted a binary perception of productive hortus / unproductive Horti into the twenty-first century.

At Dumbarton Oaks, I was in the fortunate position of having access to both the extensive garden library and classical reference works necessary to my project. The Garden Library was particularly useful in enabling me to create a framework for the most difficult aspect of my project, the reception of the ancient garden. This required accessing sources that were wide, varied and, in some cases, very rare. Therefore, it was a vital that I was able to access Robert Castell's The Villas of the Ancients Illustrated (1728), a work more usually studied for its architectural information. Having only previously read excerpts, I was now able ascertain at what points Castell designated elements of garden design as being overtly drawn from a classical context, which were drawn from more contemporary sources, and which of them he considered to be ornamental or utilitarian. This aspect of ancient Roman gardens will expand interest in the ancient garden into new areas of academic dialogue.

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