Urban Gardens: A Public Place for Private Activities?

“The first gardens were not made, but discovered.” So begins Christopher Thackers The History of Gardens (1979) in his treatise on the first woody or grassy areas that we humans would soon consider as gardens, parks, or groves. Although the parks that Thacker initially discusses with this sentence are those untended gardens of the elusive nymphs, the bountiful flower goddess Flora or the ever-fruitful orchard of the Hesperides,  the sentence rings equally true to all the tended parks that would follow in the footsteps of these mythological spaces. These real places were all sprung from a sense of discovered beauty to quickly become a place of human control, walled limitations and man-made constructions.

The Garden of the Hesperides (1892) by Frederic Leighton.
Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight, UK, Public Domain.

During the coming three years I shall study how urban gardens and parks functioned as a middling area between public elements and private activities within the urban landscape in the PhD-project: Urban Gardens: A Public Place for Private Activities?. Specifically, I will study how parks were:

  • locations for the intermingling of individuals across the social strata,
  • tools for indirect communication between the elite (or the state) and the “people”,
  • secluded places for private conversations and encounters,
  • tools for peer-to-peer rivalry and a source of social capital for its owner and their visitors,
  • disruptions, but also intrinsically connected parts of the urban landscape,
  • locations for political gatherings and public protests,
  • locations that were “hard” to control by the governing or policing body and thus became places commonly associated with illegal and anti-social activities. 

These perspectives on gardens will be pursued á longue durée, focusing on the continuity, the changing functions, and accessibility of urban gardens from antiquity to the early modern period. A multitude of varied urban landscapes will serve as cases for this project, but few such landscapes can exceed the historical continuity existing in Rome when it comes to urban gardens. The urban gardens and parks of Rome enable comparisons with how other urban landscapes of antiquity, such as Constantinople (Istanbul), Pergamon (Izmir), and Athens, developed and how urban landscapes that grew to prominence at later periods, such as those in Aachen, Florence, Paris, London, Copenhagen, Tunis, or even Boston were established. In summary this project primarily focuses on European gardens and parks in an urban setting, as well as the interconnected gardens of the extended eastern Mediterranean. 

Sommerdag i Villa Borghese i Rom (1922) by Hans Andersen Brendekilde.
Photo from Bruun Rasmussen Kunstauktioner, Public Domain.

Horti Luculliani – The First Urban Garden in Rome

To visualise a rough outline of the study and its approach, we can look at Rome’s first large urban garden, the Horti Luculliani as an example. In the first century BCE the Roman aristocrat and graecophile Lucius Licinius Lucullus (118–56 BCE) constructed his own enormous private pleasure garden within the urban landscape of Rome, the Horti Luculliani. The garden was primarily used as a meeting place for the retired general and his associates; it was never open to the general public. The Luculliani was thus a private garden that was only used by a highly curated group of individuals; at the same time it was a very publicly visible garden. It was located by one of Rome’s major roads, the Via Flaminia, on the slopes of the Pincian hill and towered over the Campus Martius.

Modern reconstitution of the Horti Luculliani as made by André Caron (andrecaron@videotron.ca)  

The Horti Luculliani, later renamed as the Horti Asiatici, would eventually become imperial property during the reign of Claudius (10 BC–54 CE). As an imperial property, it was turned into a “semi-public” park and was used as a site for the emperors to withdraw but also for private gatherings of the political elite and it was regularly opened for the general populace during festivals and other events. It would survive in this fashion for most of antiquity, occasionally changing hands between an aristocratic elite and the emperor, until the 600s when it is mentioned for the last time as being the target of renovations performed by the Byzantine general Belisarius (c. 500–565). 

Sometime after these renovations, the park and most of the now ravished and greatly diminished surrounding urban landscape were abandoned and given up to ruralisation. Among the abandoned ruins of the gardens on the Pincian hill instead sprung up vineyards, used, owned, and frequented by papal dignitaries and their hired hands, and it was not until the 15th century that the area would again become included in the revitalised urban landscape of Rome. During this revitalisation, the former area of the Horti Luculliani, became part of three new renaissance urban parks: the monasterial garden of the Trinita dei Monti, and the two aristocratic park-palatial complexes: the Villa Medici and the Villa Borghese, which all still remain today. These complexes would all go through different stages of being private, semi-private, and, as they stand today, public. By the 18th and 19th century they were joined by many other public projects such as galleries, museums, a French institute and, by the early 20th century, the Bioparco di Roma, one of the first zoological gardens that was primarily aimed towards public amusement, and not, like many other early zoological parks, scientific endeavours. 

Thus, just by looking at one urban park in one urban landscape we are able to see the park going through a myriad of uses, all of them interlinked with the private and the public. In summary, my project will look at parks as places for curated private gatherings, tools for peer-to-peer rivalry, tools for the elite to curry favour with the general populace and with their associates, places for being withdrawn and having privacy, commercial meeting areas for the elite, places to show sophistication, wealth and erudition, and finally as public places where private visitors can come to relax, sightsee and be amazed.

La fontana dei Cavalli Marini a Villa Borghese (c.1880) by Aurelio Tiratelli.
Photo from Paolo Antonacci Roma, Public Domain.

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