Beyond the Garden of Epicurus: The Utopics of the Ideal Roman Villa

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A garden is less an imitation of Nature, than Nature herself put before our eyes, and called into play with Art. The Abbe Noel-Antoine Pluche (1688-1761), from Le spectacle de la Nature (Kruft 257)

Nature's workings, so inspiring to man, were imitated by him and then prodded with a little magic. (Neutra 97)

THE GARDEN HAS FROM TIME IMMEMORIAL been a part of utopia and the creation of utopian spaces. (1) Raw nature may threaten or it may beckon; it may terrify us or draw us in. The terrifying aspect of nature we may wish to tame while the alluring aspect becomes something we wish to capture. In both instances, the human impulse is one of inscription, of control, and the result is the enjoyment of amoenitas, pleasantness. (2) This enjoyment is no frivolous thing, for

   people need contact with trees and plants and water. In some way, which is
   hard to express, people are able to be more whole in the presence of
   nature, are able to go deeper into themselves, and are somehow able to draw
   sustaining energy from the life of plants and trees and water. (Alexander,
   Ishikawa, and Silverstein 806)

It is thus hardly surprising that Eden, the Christian world's first paradise, was a garden. Indeed the origins of Paradise itself lie in the garden. The term "paradise" is derived from the Greek paradeisos, which is in turn a translation of the old Persian pairidaeza, "an enclosed space." The "paradises" that captured the imagination of the Greeks were the hunting grounds of Persian kings, for these teemed with a stunning variety of plant and animal life. The Persian prince Cyrus himself reportedly found working in his paradise garden a source of "security and contentment" (Thacker 16). Further, it is entirely apposite that Socrates and Phaedrus select a grassy, cool, and shady spot beneath a tall plane tree as a location for their discourse on the nature of the soul. (3) The place they select too is a garden, for the very act of choosing is a form of demarcation and separation from the general landscape. Regardless of its "shape," it may be said that a garden affords seclusion, security, and tranquility, precisely what is needed for philosophical reflection and for a general restoration of the spirit.

The essential restorative and reifying value of the inscribed landscape is what makes the garden so critical to the success of domestic architecture, and this has certainly not gone unnoticed by architectural utopians. The necessity of a dwelling's meaningful dialog with nature, both with respect to location and with respect to prospect, whether real or illusory, is one of the unifying threads in early to mid twentieth century Modern architecture; this dialog is central to the work, for example, of Neutra, Schindler, Le Corbusier, and Wright. It is also a distinguishing feature of domestic architecture in Roman Italy, particularly in the urban centers of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Because the evidence they afford is extraordinarily complete, these two towns have become the focus of most studies of urban, single family homes in Italy for the years prior to the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius. Although the houses of Pompeii and Herculaneum are anything but uniform in size and layout, it becomes readily apparent from a general survey that there was indeed an ideal towards which all appear to have aimed. (4) A dwelling's proximity to that ideal was evidently determined by the financial circumstances of its owners. This ideal can be characterized as a civic ideal, and it is an ideal that is represented most clearly by the grandest houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum. (5) The ideal is that of rus in urbe, of bringing the countryside into the city. (6)

There are two ways in which the urban Roman villa or house strove to create a "natural" milieu for daily life; one of these was via architectural mediation and the other an application of the graphic arts. The first method was the physical creation of paradisical spaces, of oases contained within the confines of a given dwelling. …