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Evoking Roman Gardens

by Trevor Nottle
photographs by Trevor Nottle

Photographs to illustrate the article published in The Mediterranean Garden No. 88, April 2017

Trevor Nottle writes: Recently I was honoured to lead a small party of keen gardeners and garden-lovers to Montpellier in the south of France, almost but not quite on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. A highlight of the tour was a visit to the Jardin Antique Méditerranéen at Balaruc-les-Bains on the lagoon l’Etang de Thau. The garden is intended to replicate the mood and reality of a colonial Roman garden of some 2000 years ago.

Imagined, created, and curated by Laurent Fabre, the garden is remarkable for its serene atmosphere and spirituality. Each and every part, all connected and continuous, is both beautiful and a powerful evocation of an ancient Roman garden with its links to the landscape of man and the landscape of the gods.

.. a small amphitheatre sets the scene of an academic sacred grove where learning and discussion can take place. This conceptualises the Roman idea of the civilised man pursuing his otium – leisure or relaxation – in the enjoyment of (male) company and philosophical discussion.

A small amphitheatre

.. the visitor can see and hear a nymphaeum, a series of small spouts dribbling water into a shallow trough set at ground level and planted with aquatic plants.

The Nymphaeum

Above it is a large, raised, rectangular reservoir of water fed from a spring – a real spring that has been known and regarded as sacred since Roman times at least.

The reservoir

The spring-head is marked by a small shrine featuring statues of the gods of family life (lares).

The spring head

At every step Laurent explains the linkages which were once so obvious to ancient Romans and Greeks, and now so sadly lacking from our own insight into the meaning of gardens. We are the poorer for not having that rich background tapestry of myth, lore, religion and tradition that imbued every aspect of daily life in ancient times.

The fountain

While it is almost impossible to ‘read’ modern gardens in the manner the ancients did, we can at least recognise the strong links between the Romans, the Mediterranean climate they experienced in much of the Roman Empire, and the influence it exerted on their lifestyle. The lessons are there for us to read and understand: climate-compatible gardening, the use of a (relatively) simple, restrained plant palette, waterwise and seasonal planting, the contrast between formal and informal elements within garden spaces, the combination of productive and decorative components, and the use of gardens as living spaces, even those associated with death, as well as those associated with eating, talking, listening, learning and loving.

A hanging ceramic mask
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