Pompeii’s wallflowers

Image of Robin Lane Fox

Gardening has very old roots and we now have the chance in London to see fascinating evidence of them. The British Museum’s exhibition on Pompeii and Herculaneum has an entire room entitled The Garden. It is has only been possible thanks to the fine patronage of Goldman Sachs. Until September 29 we can enjoy the people who put the word hortus, the Latin for garden, into horticulture.

On Tuesday nights we can then watch the top of the Roman social hierarchy in dramatised action. BBC4 is rescreening the superb 1976 multi-part TV series, I, Claudius. I defy you to name a better performance as a Roman woman than Siân Phillips as Livia, Augustus’s scheming wife, whom ancient gossip called “Ulysses in petticoats”. Best of all, John Hurt as the mad Caligula is still to come. Be sure you make your lovers, spouses and children watch it too. I once asked Hurt how long he had taken to absorb the ancient sources on Caligula before going on set. He told me that he never read a word of them. He simply asked the director what sort of person he was supposed to be acting. The result has shaped our image of Caligula ever since.

In so many of the excellent BBC sets, flowers and garlands are prominent. The first century AD was a great time to be a suburban nursery gardener. Down on the Bay of Naples, at little Pompeii, we have a glimpse of what the gardeners’ range may have been. The more we learn about Pompeii, the more we realise that the town was full of green spaces, including so many gardens of all sizes behind the town houses. In Herculaneum, as excavated so far, the houses are jammed together and gardens are much rarer. The first botanical guide to Pompeii was written by a Dane, Joachim Schouw in 1851. It was followed in 1879 by a guide with twice as many plants, recognised by Orazio Comes, a botany professor at Portici. I still use it with gratitude. Nowadays pollen analysis and the study of root-cavities in the open ground have added to the subject. They have not sprung great surprises. The real surprises are where Comes already observed them, in the flowery wall-paintings in Pompeii’s houses.

Fresco from the south wall of a room showing garden scenes in the House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii

Here the British Museum comes into its own. I had my doubts about its exhibition area as a place to show the big wall paintings. Its space is much more limited than, say, the big museum in Houston, Texas, where in 2008 I saw the fabulous show of red-ground wall paintings restaged as entire rooms. In fact, the BM and its curator, Paul Roberts, have managed brilliantly to give the impression of self-contained rooms devoted to particular themes. The garden room has a bit of an ancient spade and even a pillar inscribed with a note about a number of vine poles. Above all it has an entire space given over to the wonderful wall paintings of Pompeii’s House of the Golden Bracelet. They are not easy to see back in Naples but bits of them are well known as images on tourists’ shopping bags. In the BM they are visible en masse.

They leave me with many more tantalising problems than the BM’s captions or the catalogue pursue. This amazing house was found in 1979 in block 1.vi of the town plan. It contained the usual evidence of domestic tragedy, the skeletons of people, including children, who were caught there. In 1983 the garden beyond the rooms was excavated too. The paintings ran round all the walls of a garden room.

Like so many other paintings they are evidence for a charming array of plants. There is a Madonna Lily, a cultivated violet with smudges on its petals and also the fruits and leaves of the strawberry tree, or Arbutus unedo, which is still so frequent in the area. There is a remarkable rose which is clearly Rosa gallica. I admired a purple sort of dianthus but could not give it a second botanical name. Ivy, poppies and calendulas are all visible but on one wall there is a shrub with downward turned green leaves and heads of pin-like little white, well-spaced flowers. The BM captions follow regrettable museum practice and say next to nothing about these flowers, though many keen gardeners will be visiting the show. Back in Italian journals I find a confident identification of this tall shrub as Laurustinus, or Viburnum tinus. I would never recognise it as any such thing. The leaves are inexact and the flower heads are wrong. Perhaps the little blueish berries on one plant supported the suggestion. You might think the artist is being impressionistic but all his other plants are painted with life-like accuracy. My present thought is that there may be a shrub here that nobody has yet identified. Have we lost it since? Perhaps FT visitors can give it a name.

Obviously this profusion of flowers never blossomed at the same season. The paintings show an idealised garden, not a real June in the courtyard beyond. They also show an idealised range of birds. Nowadays we keep aviaries apart from gardens. I doubt if all these birds, from golden orioles to doves, magpies, partridges and landrails, were to be seen at once in a house in block 1.vi. Nowadays, anyway. the Italians would have shot the lot, before trying for the ultimate Euro-fatuity, a bill to protect their remaining magpies as an endangered species.

What did all this idealised profusion mean to the houseowners? Here we come up against the amazing plaques, discs and pillars painted in the garden scenes. On three white pillars there are lifelike heads, a man, a lady and a younger girl, all with fashionable hairstyles. They are generally called “herms” and left inexact but might they be modelled on the features of the House of the Golden Bracelet’s owners? Above them are wider white plaques showing topless reclining ladies. Whatever is going on?

In Oxford I preside over gardens which have their maenadic moments, especially when the young hold their triennial College Ball. Was there bunga-bunga in the Pompeian garden before the eruption of AD79? The plaques appear to show reclining females whom we can link to the worship of Dionysus. Did such plaques stand in the actual garden? They have never been found there. Or are they aspirational, the houseowners’ erotic ideal, like the hidden thoughts of a modern financier with a mortgage? Was there worship of Bacchus, or Dionysus, in the garden itself and is there a symbolic dimension to the flowers and landscape? Wonderfully we do not know. The skeletons in block 1.vi took their interpretation with them.

The best known ancient town is still so hard to understand in detail.I think I would have gone down to it only very occasionally, as it is a combination of a sort of Worthing near the sea and modern Fulham. My own garden villa would have been at nearby Stabiae, nowadays the most ruined site in the area. Here, grand society lived in greater splendour. I might even have invited Siân Phillips for a glass of wine when she and Augustus were in their villa at nearby Nola. The gossip afterwards would have been great. Wonderfully on June 18 and 19 the BM has fixed up screenings of its exhibition in 250 cinemas all over Britain. On June 19 a special film-rendering for schools will be on offer all over the country. Watch out for that so-called laurustinus. Ponder those topless maenads and wonder what an ancient garden really evoked.

‘Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’ runs to September 29, www.britishmuseum.org

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.