Pompeii: view from a courtyard into a garden
On my recent trip to Italy, I was thrilled to get a peek into the domestic life of the ancient world at the city of Pompeii, which was buried in ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., and thereby beautifully preserved for busloads of bored school children and ecstatic middle-aged adults.
Pompeii has a heart-breakingly beautiful site. I would risk flaming lava bombs, too, to live on that hillside above the Mediterranean, with the golden sunshine, the faint smell of the ocean, and mountains all around.
The great revelation for me about the ancient Roman aesthetic was how complete it was–and how flashy! It wasn’t all monochrome marble and classical restraint. Every single surface in Pompeii, as far I could tell, was decorated, either with brightly colored paint or mosaics. Half the ancient world must have made a living as fresco painters. In the archaeological museum in Naples, there are columns covered with mosaics. They must have been dazzling, if they weren’t just too, too much.
The courtyard gardens, though, within the city of Pompeii, were small. There were also dominated by architecture in that they were surrounded by colonnades and focused on a water feature in the center. A great model for city gardens even in the 21st century. God knows, my water feature in my city garden–a plastic tub from Home Depot with a plastic frog spitter–adds hugely to my life.
In the archaeological museum in Naples, I learned something else about how the ancient Romans gardened–with loads of erotic art. For over 200 years, one of the great embarrassments of the excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum–another ancient city in the Bay of Naples buried in ash at the same moment–were all the dirty things that were dug up.
The ancient Romans were looked upon as moral paragons, and 18th and 19th century excavators found that difficult to reconcile with the many pieces of statuary representing giant penises. God knows what they made of a beautiful marble statue found at Herculaneum of a satyr having sex with a goat…and both of them clearly enjoying the experience tremendously.
Fresco in Pompeii: Weighing it to see whose is bigger
According to the museum, a lot of this erotic art was found in gardens. Priapus was frequently represented there as a warning: steal the fruit or vegetables, and you’d be impaled on his giant member as punishment.
Of course, all this makes perfect sense to me. There’s sex in the garden anyway, and not just flower sex, but bee sex, bird sex, bat sex, and people sex. Nobody can convince me that the perfume of an Oriental lily is about anything but sex. I spoke once with a psychologist at Rutgers who studies the effects of plants on moods, and she pointed out that plants are chemical factories–since they can’t move, that’s how they adapt. We know that they imitate animal pheromones in order to be pollinated. She suggested that they may be imitating human pheromones, too, in order to persuade me to place that big lily order with Brent & Becky’s Bulbs every spring.
Anyway, I’ve got little kids. There won’t be any satyrs and goats in my garden. But I might consider installing a Venus admiring her butt, if I happen to run across one.