Nature as Teacher: Seeing Ancient Rome in the Environment of the Modern City

The Roman author Pliny the Younger described the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD by likening the rising cloud of smoke to a pine tree. I didn’t understand what Pliny meant by his analogy, and I certainly couldn’t picture a volcano spewing out a coniferous Christmas tree of smoke and ash. When I arrived in Rome, however, and saw pines with high umbrellas of foliage that looked like they’d been dreamt up by Dr. Seuss, I could see what Pliny had seen.

In a letter to the historian Tacitus, Pliny wrote of the eruption, “I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long ‘trunk’ from which spread some ‘branches.’"

In a letter to the historian Tacitus, Pliny wrote of the eruption, “I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long ‘trunk’ from which spread some ‘branches.’”

My discovery of the Roman pine, which appears later in the landscapes of Poussin and Cezanne, led me to seek out other places in Roman art where the artist has taken his cue from nature. One of the best example is the Ara Pacis, the Augustan “Altar of Peace,” which has several panels of stylized scrolls of acanthus.

The Ara Pacis is a four-walled enclosure with sculpted relief inside and out.

The Ara Pacis is a four-walled enclosure with sculpted relief inside and out.

 

This detail of an acanthus panel shows the care with which the artist transformed organic natural forms into orderly ornamentation.

This detail of an acanthus panel shows the care with which the artist transformed organic natural forms into orderly ornamentation.

Here is a picture of the acanthus plant, which still grows in Rome today:
Acanthus
The Romans also brought their natural surroundings into their homes. This is evidenced beautifully in the garden room of Livia’s Villa, which is painted in such detail that the observer can make out several different species of plants and animals.

This subterranean room was painted to look like a lush garden.

This subterranean room was painted to look like a lush garden.

Though I am not a botanist, nor am I making a formal botanical study, being in Rome has allowed me an unexpected link to the artists and patrons of the past, thanks to the natural environment, which blooms for me as much as it did for Pliny nearly 2000 years ago.

This entry was posted in Museum and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.