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OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312




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Garden Art in the British Villa

Fences, walls, and hedges
Water features
Other ornaments

We know from research in other Roman gardens, especially in Pompeii, and from contemporary wall paintings showing villa gardens, that a wide variety of garden ornaments were enjoyed. The fresco (below) from the House of the Golden Bracelet in Pompeii illustrates several examples of favorite garden art.

Fresco from the House of the Golden Bracelet in Pompeii; photo by S. Bolognini, Wikimedia Commons

A garden and its ornaments, as seen in this fresco from
the House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii, which shows
oscilli, a pinax,
urns, swags and, at the top, a basin or birdbath.
Larger image


Garden scene at Villa Livia, from Wikimedia Commons
Fresco, Villa Livia, Pompeii

Frescos - Much of what we know about villa gardens has been learned from the images found in early Roman frescos, pictures painted on freshly plastered walls. Frescos were popular on exterior as well as interior walls. One outdoor fresco, painted on the garden-facing wall of Fishbourne's west wing, showed a garden scene, using trompe l'oeil to make the central court seem even more spacious. 

Fences , walls, and hedges

Trellis fencing - Fresco,Villa
Livia, Pompei

Trellises were used as fencing, as well as to support vines, espaliered trees, and other ornamental plants.

Wall - Fresco, Villa Livia,

Walls and fences, often elaborate, surrounded gardens large and small.

Fishbourne hedge border, Wikimedia Commons
Boxwood hedge,
Fishbourne Villa, Britain

Plant borders were a popular structural element in villa gardens. Evidence of two familiar hedge plants, yew and European box, have been found in villa gardens in Britain; the careful application of garden archaeology has been used to recreate of one of these hedges at Fishbourne, seen at left. From literary evidence, we also know that the Roman gardens of this time contained topiary.


Lararium, House of the Vettii, photo by P. Lorente, Wikimedia Commons
Lararium Shrine to the lares or household deities, House
of the Vettii, Pompeii

Lararia were shrines that honored the lares or gods of the household, shown here on either side of the home's matron. Below their feet is the  guardian of the household, often portrayed as a serpent.

Nymphaeum, Chedworth
Villa, Britain

Nymphaea, shrines to nymphs or water deities, are found at several Coventina, from her shrineRomano-British villas. Three of the best known nymphaea can be seen at Chedworth, Lullingham, and Coventina's Well beside Hadrian's Wall.

These shrines often had artwork showing water nymphs, such as the stela of Coventina, at right; as well as fountains or pools, like the pool at Chedworth, at left.


Lullingstone bust, photo by Udimu, Wikimedia Commons
Bust , Lullingstone Villa,

Busts from Romano-British sites portray deities, emperors, and even the inhabitants of a villa. The bust at the left may be one such inhabitant; it was found at Lulllingstone Villa.

Popular Roman garden
statue,a "crouching Venus"

Garden statues showing gods, animals, athletes, politicians, philosophers, villa owners and their families, were common. Favorite garden deities were Venus (seen at left), Priapus, Pan, and various water deities.

A herm now in the
Capitoline Museum, Rome.

Herms were square stone posts topped by the head of a god. They are named for the god Hermes, who was originally the only god portrayed in this form. Believed to promote luck and fertility, herms later showed a variety of gods and people; gardens often had several.

Some herms supported an additional ornament, a square painting on plaster or wood called a pinax, and placed on top of the head. 

Herm statue with pinax seen in a fresco from the House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii

Pinax from Pompeii, photo by S. Bolognini, Wikimedia Commons
Pinax  seen in a fresco from
the House of the Golden
, Pompeii

A pinax might also appear by itself, mounted on a easel or a post.

Term statue - Getty
Museum, USA

Term statues marked the boundaries of the garden;  these are from the Getty Museum garden, a recreation of the Villa Papiri in Pompeii.

Water features

Early Roman villas developed in a hot, dry Mediterranean climate, and so water features -- pools, fountains, basins -- were savored for the coolness and tranquility they provided. Even though the British climate was cooler and wetter, these features were common in Britain as well.

Photo by S. Bolognini, Wikimedia Commons
Basin fountain, seen in a
 fresco from the Villa Livia,

Fountains and basins such as these have been found in Romano-British villas.

Urn fountain, seen in a fresco from the Villa Farnesina, Rome

Water pipes from Fishbourne
Roman Villa, Britain

Pipes, made of ceramic, wood, or lead, carried water to garden pools and fountains from central tanks. These pipes were unearthed at Fishbourne Roman Palace.

Birdbath seen in a fresco
from the Villa Oplontis, Italy

Birdbaths are pictured in many garden frescos, and a basin that might have served this purpose was found at Fishbourne.

Other garden ornaments

Oscilli seen in a fresco from
 the Villa of Golden Bracelet, Pompeii

Oscilli, brightly colored ornaments -- plaques with scenes, theatrical masks, masks portraying heroes or gods -- were suspended on chains from architraves and porticos. Designed to turn --  occilate -- gently in the wind, they were called oscilli.

Swag seen in a fresco from the
Villa of the Golden Bracelet,

Swags of greenery -- climbing vines or plants -- were hung between portico supports or along tree branches.

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Botanists are among those who know that, in spite of the rude shocks of life,
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F.D. Drewitt


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