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Ann Kuttner

Delight and Danger: Motion in the Roman Water Garden at Sperlonga and Tivoli
Ann Kuttner

Roman garden practice — public and private — emphasized water display of many kinds. These pools and channels that we can associate with the Roman terms piscina, stagnum, and natatio, and the modules called eurippus and canopus formalized the natural environments of ocean, river and marsh. Any inhabitation of water, that moving element, is itself essentially a state of motion, of distinctive sensation, and to move in and over water offers in equal measure danger and pleasure, risk and reward. Potentially, any water garden could configure the real water landscapes of the Roman Mediterranean and its land masses, risked or enjoyed for a broad range of human ends, important alike to history’s narratives and to social economy. The water garden could also embody the heroic past or present, in which the same waters of this world were inhabited or crossed by gods, heroes, and the souls of the dead. Elaborate water gardens recapitulated those iconographies of traversing through, over, and around water in two ways: first, by spatial contours that would suggest, permit, and invite motion; and second, by making sculptured beings inhabit these water worlds, to overtly denote ocean and river, immersion and navigation.

My paradigms here are the Augustan lagoon-grotto at Sperlonga (ca. 30 B.C.) and the so-called Canopus of Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli (A.D. 130s), both special in their elaboration and in that we know their historical patrons. Both sites exemplify how, at the Roman water garden, the visitor was encouraged to enjoy the sensations of navigating these great decorated pools in order to will the imagined sensations of quite other voyages — into the seas and coasts of legendary history, between far-flung regions of the empire, out of city or house into a benign Dionysiac wilderness, from this mortal realm to an elysian marine archipelago. Most Latin words for physical movement, like motus, applied equally to the motions of the heart and the convulsions of the state. For Sperlonga and Tivoli, the biographies of their cultured patrons let us also understand how these — or any — water gardens could recapitulate personal or national history, celebrate its triumphs and cauterize its pains.

Ann Kuttner works in Hellenistic and Roman art and cultural history, with a specialization in politicized art and architecture, especially in the city of Rome. She also publishes on Roman villa culture and its arts, cultural exchange between Hellenistic Italy and Asia Minor, and Roman art and patronage texts; she has just co-edited a volume on Renaissance exploitation of “ancient” models. Her ongoing work in landscape issues includes garden painting, Roman landscape poetry, and the plantings and installed art of Rome’s sacred and politicized landscape monuments. She has a B.A. in classical and Near Eastern archaeology from Bryn Mawr and a Ph.D. in ancient history and Mediterranean archaeology from the University of California, Berkeley. Formerly associate professor at the University of Toronto, she is now associate professor in the Department of History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a member of the Graduate Groups in classical studies and art and archaeology of the Mediterranean world, and currently chairs the Graduate Group in ancient history. Penn’s principal representative to the American Academy in Rome, she is on the Advisory Board of the American Journal of Archaeology; her recent fellowships include the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, and the Center for Hellenic Studies.

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