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Metamorphoses

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Winterbourne’s review of Ovid’s Garden Party!

Digging for Dirt

Miriam Bay, Winterbourne House and Garden, Digging for Dirt Miriam Bay

All good gardens impart narrative; that is, they exist in conversation with the surrounding landscape, evoke memories of the past and give meaning to the future. Good gardens tell the story of their makers. Yet over time, that story often becomes not a permanent account of a fixed moment in time, but a fluid exchange which is as changeable as the people who engage with it. As the world changes so too does the meaning of the gardens we make within it. This concept of a constant but supple narrative, able to shift with time and place, has allowed University of Birmingham PhD researcher, Miriam Bay; landscape designer and author, Kathryn Aalto and the Winterbourne team, to create a garden which unites together the seemingly disparate influences of contemporary Birmingham, Roman antiquity and Edwardian England.

‘Ovid’s Garden’ was first conceived of by Miriam two years ago…

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Photo credit: Joel Mills Photography


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Ovid’s Garden Party Review

We had a fantastic turn out for Ovid’s Garden Party on Saturday, which featured talks from myself, Miriam BayCultivating Narrative & Composing Landscape, and garden designer and bestselling author Kathryn AaltoCreating Gardens with Narratives, followed by performances of episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses by ancient Roman pantomime theatre group Avid for Ovid.

Ovid’s Garden Party marked the official opening of my garden project at Winterbourne House and Gardens, recreating the plantings of Italian Renaissance gardens inspired by ancient botany. Ovid’s Garden is a project that forms part of my PhD research in the Classics Department at the University of Birmingham, exploring the invocation of ancient myth, landscape and botany within Italian Renaissance gardens, transmitted through the writings of Roman mythographer Ovid.

In my talk, Cultivating Narrative & Composing Landscape, I discussed how both my PhD research and Ovid’s Garden were inspired by the idea of landscape as a living link to the past, as conveyed by novelist Margaret Drabble in A Writer’s Britain: Landscape in Literature:

‘The past lives on in art and memory, but it is not static: it shifts and changes as the present throws its shadow backwards. The landscape also changes, but far more slowly; it is a living link between what we were and what we have become.’

I was fascinated by this idea of landscape, and particularly plants, as a living link to antiquity, generating a physical, sensory experience as well as an intellectual, semiotic one. I was particularly drawn by the fact that the same plants cultivated since antiquity are still in cultivation today. This meant they have the potential to be experienced physically, just as they once were, whether for their aesthetic and olfactory properties in a garden setting; or practically, in food, medicine or cosmetics.

I wanted to create a space that could be used as a testing ground to look at the somatic properties of these plantings, in order to explore the sensory experience they generated, alongside their symbolic meaning. The plants grown in Ovid’s Garden represent those cultivated in antiquity, which were also popular features of Italian Renaissance gardens, valued for their aesthetic and practical properties or their symbolic associations.

Lavender lines the front of the garden, its name comes from the Latin lavare, ‘to wash’, as it was used to scent bath water in antiquity. In the two front flowerbeds there’s thyme, rosemary, sage, borage and pennyroyal mint — common herbs used in cooking from antiquity to this day.

In the two flowerbeds at the back of the garden, poet’s narcissus, hyacinths, violets and anemones flower in the spring, as well as saffron crocus in the autumn. The story of Narcissus is well known, the youth who was transformed into a pale daffodil after wasting away with longing for himself, but these other flowers also represent young men who have undergone metamorphosis. From the blood of Hyacinthus, fatally wounded by his lover Apollo’s discus, springs a flower whose petals are inscribed with the god’s mourning cries. In the myth of Adonis, Venus causes an anemone springs to spring from youth’s blood, after he is mauled by a wild boar. Similarly, violets spring from the blood of dying Attis and the saffron crocus appears in place of the body of Crocus. In each myth, flowers signify the youths’ transient masculinity and fleeting lives: in the bloom of youth, their lives cut short before they have transitioned to maturity.

Summer flowering damask and centifolia roses are ancient cultivars, valued in antiquity for their strong scent and abundant petals, their fragrant essential oil was used in ritual, medicines, cosmetics, perfumes and cooking. White Madonna lilies, red poppies and orange calendulas bloom in mid summer — flowers which conjured meadows where girls picking flowers, like Europa and Persephone, were abducted by opportunistic deities. These flowers were used in ritual, medicine and cooking, and the poppy was particularly valued for the opium derived from its sap, as it is today.

Then we have evergreen cypresses, bay laurels and olive trees. According the Ovid, the nymph Daphne, transformed into a laurel to escape the amorous advances of Apollo; whilst cypresses were a symbol of mourning in antiquity, derived from the story of Cyparissus, another unfortunate youth who died in his prime and was transformed into the tree by Apollo.

As well as being a testing ground for my own research, I wanted Ovid’s Garden to be a public facing project, accessible to any one. To function as a living museum without glass cabinets, where any one, regardless of academic background or knowledge of antiquity, could experience this living link to the past.

Kathryn Aalto’s talk, Creating Gardens with Narratives, situated the intertwining of landscape and narrative which I discussed within a broader historical and contemporary context. Kathryn explored how physical landscapes are imbued with symbolism and meaning when a literary dimension is added to them:

Adding a literary dimension to the physical landscape imbues it with additional ‘sense of place’. What does that mean? To me, it’s that invisible layer of memories, history and emotions covering the real landscape we see in front of us. It’s like unseen but powerful strata. And it’s different for each of us. It’s important both in writing as well as designing. We are adding a new layer to our sense of Ovid’s work today, and to the sense of place he evoked in his writing.

You can read Kathryn’s talk on her blog.

Theatre group Avid For Ovid performed four inspirational pieces, each a collaboration between the dancers and musician Malcolm Atkins, who composed and performed music which supported the narrative of each piece. The performances were chosen to complement the garden setting:

We chose stories for this event that had outdoor locations which might be echoed by the real garden; thus Medea’s plant gathering, Circe’s herb garden, and the woods in which the nymphs Syrinx and Daphne flee their pursuers and are themselves transformed into plants.

The first performance was Medea Mother of Dragons, by Marie-Louise Crawley. Medea was the sorceress who aided the hero Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece and gave Jason herbs that put the dragon guarding the Fleece to sleep. Ovid recounts how Medea traveled the world in a chariot drawn by dragons, in order to procure a myriad of plants to brew a potion that extended Jason’s life.

Susie Crow performed Pan & Syrinx. Syrinx was a huntress nymph who fled the amorous advances of Pan – half god, half goat – and was transformed into hollow water reeds before Pan could seize her. The haunting sound of the wind blowing through the reeds inspired Pan to fashion the pan pipes.

Ségolène Tarte performed Circe the Enchantress. Circe was another sorceress, who Odysseus encountered on his wanderings. Circe brewed a potion from flowers and herbs that she tricked Odysseus’ men into drinking, transforming them into pigs.

The final episode, Apollo & Daphne was performed by Marie-Louise Crawley. Daphne was a nymph who was transformed into a laurel tree in order to evade the sun god Apollo.

I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate the thanks I gave in my talk at Ovid’s Garden Party and acknowledge those who have supported the project:

First of all, thank you to Winterbourne and the AHRC Cultural Engagement Fund, who funded the opening event. The project itself was made possible by generous funding from the AHRC Midlands Three Cities Doctoral Training Partnership, the University of Birmingham and Winterbourne.

Thank you to all the staff and gardeners at Winterbourne who have helped with the project – particularly curator Lee Hale, events manager Anna Fawcett and gardener Leighanne Keasey.

I also want to thank my wonderful supervisor Professor Diana Spencer, who encouraged and supported me from the project’s inception, when Ovid’s Garden was just another one of my crazy ideas!

Thank you to Joel Mills, for kindly offering to photograph the event and for the fantastic pictures you took.

Finally, I want to thank Kathryn Aalto, for her brilliant talk, Creating Gardens with Narratives, as well as the Avid for Ovid – Marie-Louise Crawley, Ségolène Tarte, Susie Crow and Malcolm Atkins – for their fantastic performances.

The primary purpose of this opening event was to showcase Ovid’s Garden as a space for public engagement. There are already plans to run interactive workshops on the uses of plants in ancient cooking, ritual, medicine and perfumery as part of the schools outreach events run by West Midlands Classics For All, and I’m also liaising with the University of Birmingham School to run workshops for their students.

So if you have an interest in using the garden space for outreach events or as a performance space, do contact me: mxb494@bham.ac.uk / @mim_bay.

Ovid's Garden


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Ovid’s Garden Party at Winterbourne House – Saturday 18th June

Ovid's GardenIt’s been almost two years since work first began on Ovid’s Garden and I am thrilled to announce our opening event, ‘Ovid’s Garden Party’, will take place on Saturday 18th June, 2-4, at Winterbourne House and Gardens.

Ovid’s Garden Party will include a drinks reception, with talks from myself, Miriam Bay, ‘Cultivating Narrative & Composing Landscape’, and garden designer and bestselling author Kathryn Aalto, ‘Creating Gardens with Narratives’, followed by performances of episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses by ancient Roman pantomime theatre group Avid for Ovid.

This event is an opportunity to showcase Ovid’s Garden as an outreach space, and there are already plans to run interactive workshops on the uses of plants in ancient cooking, medicine and perfumery as part of the schools outreach events run by West Midlands Classics For All.

This is a free event and all are welcome to attend, although admission prices to Winterbourne apply – £6, £5 concession, and free for University of Birmingham staff and students.

Ovid’s Garden is a project that forms part of my PhD in the Classics, Ancient History & Archaeology Department at the University of Birmingham, funded by AHRC M3C, recreating the plantings of Italian Renaissance gardens inspired by ancient botany. My research explores the invocation of ancient myth, landscape and botany within Italian Renaissance gardens, transmitted through the writings of Roman mythographer Ovid.

The ancients inscribed their own myth and symbolism onto the natural world, and in Metamorphoses, Ovid portrays a treacherous landscape inhabited by wandering heroes, powerful enchantresses, mischievous nymphs and malevolent deities, into which mortals ventured at their peril. For many of the flowers, trees, rivers, mountains and natural features which comprised this landscape are victims of metamorphosis – like Daphne, transformed into a laurel to escape the amorous advances of the sun god Apollo (Met. 1.473-552); or Narcissus, who wasted away with longing for his own reflection and became a pale daffodil (Met. 3.402-510).

In my talk ‘Cultivating Narrative & Composing Landscape’, I will explore how Ovidian narrative was recreated in the ideological programmes of Italian Renaissance gardens through lushly storyboarded experiences, which enabled visitors to locate themselves within landscapes of mythic encounter. I will also relate how the plants grown in Ovid’s Garden were imbued with symbolism in antiquity and the Renaissance – like the hyacinth, narcissus, saffron crocus, violet and anemone, which embodied metamorphosed men; or the lily, marigold and poppy that conjured meadows where girls picking flowers were abducted by opportunistic deities; whilst trees like the mulberry recalled the story of doomed lovers Pyramus and Thisbe and the laurel evoked Daphne’s fate.

Avid For Ovid will be performing some of these episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses within the garden, and Kathryn Aalto’s talk ‘Creating Gardens with Narratives’ will situate the intertwining of garden and narrative within a broader historical and contemporary context.

Kathryn Aalto is a writer, designer, historian and lecturer based in Devon. For the past twenty five years, her focus has been on places where nature and culture intersect: teaching literature of nature and place, designing gardens, and writing about the natural world. She is the author of The New York Times Bestseller The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh: A Walk Through the Forest that Inspired the Hundred Acre Wood (2015) and Nature and Human Intervention (2011). Kathryn lectures on literary landscapes and garden topics around the world.

Avid for Ovid is a group comprising three Oxford-based artists, dancers Susie Crow and Ségolène Tarte, and musician Malcolm Atkins, as well as Birmingham-based dancer Marie-Louise Crawley. Working on selected episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, A4O explore the nature of ancient Roman pantomime through the telling of ancient myths with dance and music. They bring together a rich range of dance knowledge both as performers and choreographers, drawing on experience of ballet, contemporary, mime, mask work and butoh. A recent interview with A4O can be found on the Open University Classics blog.

Winterbourne House & Gardens is situated close to the University of Birmingham’s Edgbaston campus, just 10 minutes from Birmingham city centre. More information on getting to Winterbourne by road, rail, bus or bike and parking at can be found on their website here.

We look forward to seeing you and if you require any more information about Ovid’s Garden Party, please contact:

Miriam Bay: mxb494@bham.ac.uk
Winterbourne: enquiries@winterbourne.org.uk

This event is sponsored by the AHRC Cultural Engagement Fund and Winterbourne House & Gardens


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Ovid’s Garden: Autumn

Autumn brought spectacular colours to Ovid’s Garden: brilliant orange marigolds which lasted through summer to the middle of autumn set in vibrant relief against the copper beech hedge, transformed into a spectrum of yellows, oranges, reds, greens and purples as the leaves changed.marigolds against beechNative to the Mediterranean and western Europe, marigolds are vigorous, fast growing annuals or perennials which thrive in summer, often late into autumn and for this reason has long been a popular garden plant. The marigold got its Latin name calendula because it was thought to bloom on the first day of the month, the day known as calendae in ancient Rome. It can also mean ‘little clock’, referring to the vibrant ring of sun ray-like petals encircling the centre of the flower like a sundial.

In antiquity the marigold was used as a culinary and medicinal herb, its edible petals have a spicy and peppery taste from which a yellow dye is extracted – a thrifty replacement for costly saffron.
marigoldMarigolds are one of the flowers with which Ovid populates his mythical landscapes in Metamorphoses and Fasti, featuring in flower-strewn meadows and settings of erotic encounter. They are among the flowers Persephone and her handmaidens gather before she is abducted by Pluto and taken to be his queen in the Underworld:

‘That one gathers marigolds, this one is concerned with banks of violets, that one cuts off poppy hair with her nail. These girls you attract, hyacinth; those you detain amaranthus. Some like thyme, others wild poppy and clover. Abundant roses are gathered, and there are nameless flowers too.’

– Ovid, Fasti 4.437-43

herbsThe last of the herbs have been planted: thyme, sage, rosemary, spearmint and blue flowered borage are all thriving in the two front herb beds. We have also planted saffron crocus bulbs, which will flower towards the beginning of winter and bring splashes of colour to the garden in the darker months when all the other flowers have died back.

It’s now been a full year since Ovid’s Garden was planted and it has come so far from the muddy plot it was this time last year! There’s lots planned for the garden next year, including an opening event in June which I’m currently in the process of planning – date and time to be posted on my next blog…before and after


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Ovid’s Garden: Summertime

Summer is here and the season’s scents are filling Ovid’s Garden: sweet-smelling roses in full bloom, aromatic herbs mingling with lavender, fragrant bay and olive, smells that never fail to remind me of Italy.photo 1The olive and bay trees have finally arrived and been placed around the perimeter of the garden in front of the copper beech hedge, which at present is covered in a vibrant display of crimson, burgundy and purple-hued leaves, dramatically contrasting the silvery olives and glossy green bays.

Native to the Mediterranean, the olive tree has been cultivated for thousands of years, predominantly for olive oil and the olive fruit, and used by the ancient Greek and Romans in all aspects of daily life, including food, medicine, cosmetics, and ritual.

The olive was sacred to Athena, and Ovid tells of its role in the godesses’ contest against the sea god Poseidon for the patronage of Athens: Poseidon creates a salt water spring from his trident, but Athena triumphs with her gift of the olive tree and the city is named after her:

‘…the earth had been struck by the goddess’ spear to produce the olive tree covered with berries and grey-green foliage’

Metamorphoses, book 6

photo x2The bay tree also had many uses in the ancient world, it’s fragrant leaves were used as a seasoning in cooking, as they are today and laurel wreaths were given as prizes at games to honour the victor.

Sacred to Apollo, Ovid recounts the story of the beautiful nymph Daphne who is pursued by the god and transformed into a laurel tree to escape from his clutches:

‘…a heavy numbness came over her body; her soft white bosom was ringed in a layer of bark, her hair was turned into foliage, her arms into branches. The feet that had run so nimbly were sunk into sluggish root; her head was confined in a treetop; and all that remained was her beauty.’

– Metamorphoses, book 1

photo 2The damask and centifolia roses are in bloom, both ancient cultivars, valued since antiquity for the strong fragrance of their abundant petals – see my April post Ovid’s Garden: Rosa damascena and Rosa centifolia for more information about the cultivation and uses of these roses in antiquity.

There are still summer annuals and herbs left to plant, as well as the autumn-flowering saffron, but the garden is flourishing under the summer sun and looking more abundant than ever.photo 5


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Ovid’s Garden: Spring Flowers

Ovid’s Garden is in bloom! The top layer of golden gravel has been laid in time for the spring bulbs to blossom and their vibrant flowers have brought the garden to life.
Front ViewThe hyacinths were the first to colour the flower beds with their violet-red hues, followed by the bright white poet’s narcissi with their red-tipped golden trumpets heralding the spring.HyacinthsNarcissusThe cornelian cherry trees are growing more densely branched and leafy; the roses are also thriving and covered in buds, promising plenty of blooms come the summer.

There’s no sign yet of the anemone rhizomes planted in early spring, but there’s plenty of time for them make an appearance, and the Madonna lilies are just beginning to emerge in bright green spiral tufts.LilyWe’re waiting for the lollipop bays and olives to be delivered, as soon as they arrive we’ll be potting them in large terracotta pots and placing them around the garden paths.

Still to be planted this month and next are the wood anemones, violets, marigolds and poppies, which are being grown from seed to be bedded in once the threat of frost has passed. We’re also growing thyme, borage, marjoram, sage and mint for the herb bed, so it’s going to be a busy couple of months of gardening!Side View


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Ovid’s Garden: Rosa damascena and Rosa centifolia

Planted in early spring to allow their buds to grow before bursting into bloom come the summer, the roses planted in Ovid’s Garden, Rosa damascena and Rosa centifolia, will soon be filling the air with their sweet, musky scent. Both are ancient cultivars, valued since antiquity for the strong fragrance of their abundant petals.

Rose

From ancient times, Rosa damascena and Rosa centifolia have been two of the most highly prized flowers because of their fragrant essential oil, used in ritual, medicines, cosmetics, perfumes and cooking. Ovid describes the famous ‘gardens of sunny Paestum where roses abound’ (Metamorphoses 15.708) where both Pliny (HN. 21.20) and Virgil (Georgics 4.119) claim the roses would bloom twice a year, accounts which identify the Paestum rose as the twice-blooming Rosa damascena.

The vocabulary used in these descriptions (rosaria, ‘fields of roses’) and the emphasis on productivity indicates rose cultivation on a grand scale and a perfumery uncovered at Paestum, which was equipped to produce perfume on a near industrial level, bears further testament to this. These gardens (or fields) of roses would have not only been a remarkable sight, but the smell in summer would have been phenomenal, when one considers that 10,000 pounds of roses were required to make 1 pound of essential oil and approximately 5,000 rose bushes could fit into one acre of land: their perfume would have been strong enough to scent the air for miles around!

In excavations from Pompeii, carbonized remains of roses were found in the garden of the House of the Chaste Lovers, and roses featuring on numerous frescoes at Pompeii, such as the one from the House of the Golden Bracelet.

Rose detail from Garden Room, House of Livia, Prima Porta 500 BC - 1st century AD

Rose detail from Garden Room, House of Livia, Prima Porta
500 BC – 1st century AD

Rose Detail, Garden Fresco House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii 1st century BC – 1st century AD

Rose Detail, Garden Fresco House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii
1st century BC – 1st century AD

They also have numerous culinary uses: distilled rose water is used to flavour and perfume dishes, petals can be dried, crystalized, caramelized or simply left fresh to produce delicate flavourings and create floral decorations; even the rosehips can be made into jelly.

In Renaissance Italy the use of roses in cooking was prolific and Scappi has over a hundred recipes which incorporate roses in their various forms (see Flavouring the Garden for some of these). As yet, I have been using a bought rose oil for these recipes, but once my roses are in bloom I intend to make my own rosewater from the petals harvested in the summer, so watch this space!

Rose

‘Madame Hardy’ Damask, planted in my own garden last year