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that naso’s song may flower for all time

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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: / @mim_bay.

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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:

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


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.


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!


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


Ovid’s Garden: Cypresses & Cornelian Cherry Trees

Since the radical transformation the garden has undergone since planting the evergreen box hedging, its greening has continued with the arrival of some new plants and the (frustratingly slow) coming of spring! We now have two slender cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens) flanking the entrance of the garden, its dense sprays of dark evergreen leaves adding another level to the landscaping.Blog UploadFrom ancient times, the cypress was closely associated with death: it was used in funerary rites and to wreathe statues of Hades, god of the underworld; to this day it grows in graveyards and memorial gardens in Italy, and throughout Europe.

Ovid recounts how the cypress became a symbol of mourning. Grief transformed Cyparissus, beloved of Apollo, into the tall evergreen tree after he killed his own tame stag in a tragic accident:

 ‘Though Apollo consoled him as far as he possibly could and implored him not to distress himself overmuch, Cyparissus kept sobbing away and asked, as a final gift from the gods, to mourn to the end of time.
‘He wept and wailed till his blood drained out and the whole of his body started to turn the colour of green. The hair that was hanging over his creamy forehead was changed to a shaggy profusion, which stiffened and rose to the starry sky in a slender point. The god sighed deeply and sadly exclaimed,
“You’ll be mourned deeply by me, you will mourn for others and always be there when they mourn for their loved ones.”’

Metamorphoses 10.106-142

In the beds either side of the garden we have also planted two cornelian cherry trees (cornus mas) which in late summer they will bear glossy, ruby-red berries that can be eaten raw (although they are a little sour!), used to make jam or to infuse alcohol to make liqueurs. Over autumn its leaves will turn from green to shades of crimson and purple before falling, then in winter its bare branches will be covered with clusters of brilliant yellow, star-shaped flowers. Some of these flowers still clung to the branches of the trees we planted.
CornusThe fruits of this cherry tree were associated with the Golden Age when man lived in harmony with nature and the earth brought forth its fruits in abundance:

‘Content to enjoy the food that required no painful producing, men simply gathered arbutus fruit and mountain strawberries, cornel cherries and blackberries plucked from the prickly bramble’

– Metamorphoses 1.102

Work will continue as the weather gets warmer, next we’ll be planting anemones (anemone coronaria and anemone nemorosa) and potting lollipop bays and olives. Meanwhile, we are beginning to see the fruits of our labour as the spring bulbs start to emerge, promising the garden’s first flowers!unnamed


Ovid’s Garden: Box, Lavender & Lilies

After months of looking at empty garden plots with a prevailing mud-brown colour scheme, it was such a joy to plant some greenery which has brought some much-needed structure and colour to the garden. I also now have four fantastic students from the University of Birmingham working with me on the garden as part of a Liberal Arts & Sciences project I am running, who are helping to bring the garden to life.

The beds have been lined with box and we’ve planted lavender along the front border, which is looking very modest now, but will spread out in front of the box hedging as it grows to give a stepped effect. Like box, lavender is an evergreen, which will keep its silvery hue even in the dull winter months, and when its spikes of violet flowers appear in summer, their beautiful, distinctive scent will create a welcoming wall of perfume for visitors to walk through as they enter the garden.FINALThe name Lavandula comes from the Latin lavare ‘to wash’, as it was used to scent bath water and it was used by the Romans, as it is today, for its floral scent in perfumes and oils, and was also used for its medicinal and therapeutic properties.

We’ve also planted lilium candidum (Madonna lily) bulbs in the ornamental flower beds. Like lavender, this was a plant which was highly prized in antiquity and even grown in greenhouses to ensure availability all year round. Its strong, sweet fragrance made it a popular flower for use in oils and perfumes and ancient writers emphasised its medical attributes, listing numerous remedies that could be derived from both flower and bulb.

In narratives from Metamorphoses Fasti Ovid depicts Persephone, daughter of the goddess Demeter, picking these brilliant white lilies when she is abducted and taken to the underworld by Hades:

Proserpina, Ceres daughter, was there in the woodland, happily picking bunches of violets and pure white lilies’

– Metamorphoses 5.394

‘Abundant roses are gathered, and there are nameless flowers too. She herself gathers delicate saffron and white lilies’

– Fasti 4.443

An ancient fresco from the House of the Golden Bracelet in Pompeii depicts such lilies in bloom:
A Upload!It’s so exciting to see the garden take shape after all the work undertaken in the winter to implement the hard landscaping elements and create the plots. The rest of the plants for the garden have been ordered and will be planted soon, so the garden will continue to transform over the next couple of months and start to bloom come the spring!


Ovid’s Garden: Planting Narcissi & Hyacinths

Over the last few weeks we’ve been working on the hard landscaping of the garden: digging out the paths and filling them with a sub base of gravel, as well as putting edging around the beds and preparing them for planting.IMG_6442Today we were able to move onto the more exciting task of planting the narcissus and hyacinth bulbs, which will be the first plants to flower in the spring next year.

As described in my first blog post, each plant in this garden has been chosen for its significance in Roman poet Ovid’s works Metamorphoses and Fasti, where plants and landscape are interwoven throughout mythological narratives.Planting BlogThe bulbs we planted today represent two well-known myths of young men doomed to premature deaths, who were transformed into flowers which stand as lasting images of their fleeting lives and youthful beauty:

Narcissus poeticus – After spurning the love of all others, Narcissus is punished by the goddess Nemesis and falls in love with his own reflection, wasting away for love of himself and in death is transformed in a flower:

The body, however, was not to be found – only a flower with a trumpet of gold and pale white petals.

– Metamorphoses 3.509

Hyacinthus orientalis – Hyacinthus was a young man beloved of the sun god Apollo who was tragically struck down in his youth by a discus thrown by the god himself that rebounds and kills him. As a tribute to Hyacinthus’ youthful beauty, Apollo causes a flower to spring up from his blood, which bears the markings of his mourning.

…the blood which had spilled from the wound to the ground and darkened the green grass suddenly ceased to be blood; and a flower brighter than Tyrian purple rose rose the earth and took the form of a lily – except that its colour was deepest red where the lily is silver.

Metamorphoses 10.211-13

More of these flowers, whose heritage can be traced back to classical mythology, will be planted in the new year, including saffron croci, anemones, sweet violets, madonna lilies, opium poppies, damask roses and more, each with their own story to be told…IMG_6388


Wonderland Wanderings: The Gardens of Isola Bella, Lago Maggiore

View by NightMy first sight of Isola Bella was on our first evening in Stresa, as my sister and I walked along the lakeside, soaking up the warmth of the balmy dusk and watching the sun slip behind the mountains. The next day we made our way across Lago Maggiore on a little taxi boat that misted the view with its spray. From a distance the island seems to float serenely on the surface of the water like a tiered wedding cake. As the boat gets closer this impression is only emphasised when tall statues, white obelisks and pink roses come into view, festooning the tiers like filigree decorations.

Isola BellaThe gardens of Isola Bella were a labour of love. Count Carlo Borromeo commissioned them for his wife Isabella d’Adda, the namesake of the island and it took 40 years (1631-1671) to transform the craggy, uneven landscape into the stunning baroque gardens that gives the island its characteristic pyramid shape today.

You enter the garden through the Tapestry Room of the Borromeo Palace, which leads out onto a connecting courtyard where a statue of Diana stands over a lazily bubbling fountain pool. Two curving flights of stairs, darkened by ceilings of climbers, flank the goddess in her alcove, leading up to towering bay hedges, which deny any glimpse of the garden beyond and enclose the space, giving the impression the visitor is standing in a green-walled room, more hall than atrium. It is as if the garden beyond is a palace in its own right and Diana is receiving her guests in the hall, welcoming them into the her domain.

With the goddess presiding above the pool, one cannot help but think of another who encountered Diana in such a sylvan setting, as the layout vividly recalls the landscape described in the story of Actaeon, who wanders too far into the woods and stumbles upon the goddess bathing:

Diana's AtriumNow picture a valley, dense with pine and tapering cypress, called Gargáphië, sacred haunt of the huntress Diana; there, in a secret corner, a cave surrounded buy woodland, owing nothing to human artifice. Nature had used her talent to imitate art: she had moulded the living rock of porous tufa to form the shape of a rugged arch. To the right, a babbling spring with thin translucent rivulet widening into a pool ringed round by a grassy clearing. Here the goddess who guards the woods would bathe her virginal limbs in the clear, clean water. 

– Metamorphoses 3. 154-163

The virgin huntress is enraged when Actaeon is discovered and splashes him with water from her pool, transforming him into a stag who is hunted down and torn to pieces by Actaeon’s own dogs. Fortunately for us, Diana of Isola Bella was fully clothed and seemed welcoming, so we passed her without any such trouble, up one of the vine-covered staircases and through great iron-wrought gates shadowed by the branches of an enormous Camphor tree, into the Piano della Canfora. Cinnamomum camphor can grow up to 30m tall and this particular specimen is the largest in Italy, planted by Vitaliano IX Borromeo in 1819; camphor oil is extracted from its wood and its leaves are used in perfumery.

From the Piano della Canfora you step out onto a vast piazza, flanked by rectangular parterres, and are faced with the immense Teatro Massimo, a shell-shaped water theatre so imposing you seem to grow smaller and smaller as you approach – like Alice taking the ‘Drink Me’ potion, shrinking to enter Wonderland – until you stand dwarfed beneath and blink up at the figures silhouetted against the brilliant sunlight.

Theatro Massimo

The majority of the statues were made between 1667-1677 by the Milanese sculptor Carlo Simonetta. They  reach up to the sky or hold the weight of pillars on their backs, while others lounge in pebble-studded alcoves bordered by crimson hydrangeas and sprays of viburnum. At the pinnacle of the theatre is a rearing unicorn, symbol of the Borromeo family and taken from their coat of arms, ridden by a winged figure, representing Honour, or Love. Either side are statues symbolising Art and Nature and below is Verbano,  personification of Lago Maggiore, along with the rivers Ticino and Po flanked by shells and dolphins. The colossal statues at the sides represent the four elements: fire and earth to the right, air and water to the left.

View from the TopTwin flights of stairs lined with terracotta pots of rounded box lead up to a vast, empty terrace, 37m above the the level of the lake. Bare and stark comparison to the rest of the gardenscape, with the sun glancing off the stone beneath your feet, it is a desert in the centre of this lush oasis. When you look out across the lake the reason for its emptiness becomes clear as your eyes are filled with Lago Maggiore in all its breathtaking beauty and the terrace fades into the background: it is merely Borromeo’s banquet table, serving his guests with a feast for the eyes. The rose-wreathed terraces sloping down towards the lake guide your eyes South across brilliant blue waters to Stresa stretched out along the headland; to the West the haze-covered Mottarone mountain rises skywards among the Alps, and to the East is Isola Madre, the largest island on the Borromeo Gulf.

It is not hard to imagine lavishly dressed guests at one of the Borromeo’s parties, surveying lake, shore and mountains with from this high and heady vantage point in the evening light, dizzy from the climb and tipsy from fine wine, drinking in a view that allows the beauty of the outside world to be enjoyed from the comfort and safety of rose-scented gardens.

Tower of the WindsIt was hard to leave the top terrace, but the promise of a closer look at the sumptuous garden below beckoned and we walked to the East side of the garden overlooking the Parterre delle Azalee, which in spring is blanketed with the great clusters of white azaleas and snowy drops of fuscias, but in summer is dominated by immaculately manicured hedges of yew, holm oak, bay laurel, holly and box in bold shades of green. Above stands an aviary full of chattering lovebirds and a shady walk walled with lemon trees in terracotta pots border the spectacular view over the Lombard coast and offer a temporary reprieve from the riot of colour found elsewhere in the gardens.

 HibiscusA belvedere leads to the South of the garden, its walkway flanked by stunning hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa sinensis, which only flowers for a single day) and a medley of blazing scarlet blooms entice you along the path through the octagonal Torre dei Venti, leading to the Giardino d’Amore.

As you step into the Giardino d’Amore the first glimpse offered is an understated one, you cannot yet see the tranquil waters of the lake stretching out into the distance or the ten magnificent flower-strewn terraces towering above. Instead, you are faced with an unassuming wall of espaliered lemons and the crisp scent of citrus intermingled with the warm headiness of jasmine boasts of the garden’s glory and beckons you in.


SeasonsStanding beneath the terraces one is again reminded of a tiered wedding cake, but as well as festoons of pink roses, oleanders and hydrangeas wreath the pyramid, edged by box and cone-shaped yew trees. The statues that were faceless from a distance can now be recognised as the four seasons, each identified by the plant they bear that flowers in season, evoking Ovid’s vivid description:

…youthful Spring with her wreath of flowers,
Summer naked but for her garland of ripening corn ears,
Autumn stained with the juice of trodden clusters of grapes,
And icy Winter, whose aged locks were hoary and tangled.

Metamorphoses 2. 27-29


The crowning glory of this garden, however, are the starry Nymphaea, exquisite waterlilies of reds, yellows, pinks and whites sitting elegantly on the shining surfaces of mirror-like ponds, confident in their bright beauty, not unlike Isola Bella herself.

Making your way out of the garden through the Torre della Noria and along the west side of the pyramid, another olfactory feast awaits: espaliers of citrus trees cling mural-like to its base, lining the wall as far as the eye can see, their fresh and zesty scent pervading the warm air. These golden fruits would not look out of place on a fresco and are reminiscent of those depicted in the Garden Room fresco of Livia’s Villa at Prima Porta (pictured at the top of the blog). Green and gold pomelos, sunshine yellow grapefruits, gigantic lopsided lemons and tangy citrons climb the side of the pyramid, including the strongly aromatic Citrus limonimedica ‘Florentina’ and ‘Maxima’, whose fruits can weigh up to 3kg.

LemonsAs if this was not enough, to the left is the Viale di Ponente where pomegranates and palms frame the Western view and lead to a path of rare and exotic plants: breadfruit, coffee, cacao, gum, endangered ferns and finally an exquisite rare orchid behind glass, suspended in mid-air.

But even as you exit the gardens through a greenhouse walled with tufa and lake stones, bursting with tropical plants, it is the striking citrus trees and their intoxicating scent that clings to you and seems to follow you out, or at least, you wish it did.


Cherry Trees & Cherry Torte

Sour Cherry

Sour Cherry (Prunus Cerasus)

It has been a fantastic year for cherries in Britain and we are enjoying a bumper crop thanks to a cool spring followed by a gloriously sunny summer, which has meant the trees blossomed later and the fruit ripened in ideal temperatures. In Britain the majority of edible cherries come from the sour cherry (Prunus cerasus) or the wild (or sweet) cherry (Prunus avium).

Cherries were probably introduced by the Romans to Britain at the beginning of the 1st century and there is a legend that old Roman roads are marked by wild cherry trees grown from the stones Roman soldiers spat out while marching along them!

Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas)

Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas)

Ovid writes of only one type of cherry: the cornelian cherry (Cornus mas), which is not part of the Prunus family, as our sweet and sour cherries are, but a deciduous shrub that produces small yellow flowers in winter and edible glossy red or yellow cherry-like fruits, the taste of which is best described as a combination of a cranberry and a sour cherry. These cherries are pictured as part of the abundant golden age (Met. 1.102), they are among the foods Philemon and Baucis served to the gods (Met. 8.665) and are promised to Galatea by Polyphemus if she becomes his lover:

With your own fair hands you will pick the most delicious of strawberries growing under the trees,  the cornel berries in autumn.

– Metamorphoses 13.828

Whilst the cornelian cherry featured in Italian Renaissance gardens, it was cultivated for its ornamental value rather than its fruit, because of its vibrant yellow winter flowers. Instead sour and sweet cherry trees were grown for their fruit and Scappi calls specifically for visciola cherries in his cherry torte, a variety of black cherry which comes from the Prunus creasus species which in Italy has been used for centuries to make Vino di Visciole, a sweet, ruby-red dessert wine.

To prepare a visciola cherry tourte
Get visciola cherries, cook them in a little butter over a low fire, and strain the thickest part of them. Have ground marzipan paste ready, fresh egg yolks and mostaccioli, the amount of each at your discretion. When the filling is made up, have a tourte pan lined with a sheet of dough made from egg yolks, butter, sugar, rosewater, salt and fine flour, put the filling into it…

– The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book VI, Recipe 128

IngredientsCherry Ingredients

500g shortcrust pastry
500g cherries
100g butter
2 egg yolks
250g marzipan
50g biscotti, crumbled


  • Pre-heat the oven to 180°C and lightly grease a tart tin
  • Roll the pastry out to about 3mm thickness on a lightly floured surface, then line the tin and prick the base with a fork
  • Cover with baking paper and fill with baking beans and bake for 10 minutes
  • Remove the baking beans, crumble the biscotti mixed with the egg yolks and spread over the pastry base, bake for a further 5 minutes, then allow the pastry shell to cool
  • De-stone the cherries – this sounds much simpler than it is! If you have a fancy de-stoning gadget, you’re sorted, but I use a paperclip bent into an S shape to hook the stones out. This is tricky at first, but you soon get the knack for it and it leaves the cherries with only one hole, whereas de-stoners poke the stone out from one side through to the other and make the cherries loose their shape more than the paperclip method. Either way, the process is very messy and the juice gets everywhere, so be warned!De-Stoning
  • Sautée the cherries in a saucepan with butter for about 5 mins until juices begin to run, but the cherries still have their shapeSauteeing
  • Roll the marzipan out to about 5mm thickness and cut to size and place over the biscotti crumbsBase & Marzipan
  • Arrange the cherries over the marzipan – this is best to do when the cherries are still warm, as they melt into the marzipan slightly and don’t roll about when you’re trying to place themArranging Cherries
  • Brush the remaining juices over the cherries and serveCherry Tart

As I’ve mentioned before, I am very dubious about cooking summer fruits, much preferring them raw, so I was pleasantly surprised  that sautéing the cherries in butter did wonders to their flavour. Raw, they were already juicy and sweet without a hint of bitterness, but sautéing gave their flavour a much deeper intensity and they took on a bolder, almost fortified quality. This made me feel that perhaps Scappi missed a trick with his recipe and a boozy ingredient wouldn’t have gone amiss…proof that recipes are made to be tinkered with, even Scappi’s! Boozy or not, this is a great summer dessert, you can’t go wrong with cherries and marzipan and when make it again I intend to add a generous splash of amaretto!

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Mint & Elderflower Fritters and the Misfortunes of Menthe


Elderflowers from the European Black Elder (Sambucus nigra)

Late spring brings elderflower. Every year my Mum makes countless bottles of elderflower cordial, but the fact she is annoyingly generous with it and always giving away bottles to people combined with my family unrestrained greed for it means that our supplies rarely last until the autumn, but it does sustain us through the long and lazy hot summer days. Whilst elderflower is making a seasonal appearance in this post, it is mint that takes centre stage…Ovid reveals the origin of mint with a reference to the story of the nymph Menthe in the lamentation of Venus before she transforms her beloved dying Adonis into an anemone:

Persephone, you were allowed to alter a woman’s body, Menthe’s, into fragrant mint: shall the transformation of my hero, of the blood of Cinyrasbe grudged to me?

– Metamorphoses 10.728


Mint (gen. Mentha)

According to Strabo, Menthe was a Cocythian nymph who was seduced by Hades, only to be discovered by his wife, Persephone who trampled her underfoot as she transformed into the pungent herb, mint. As well as being used in funerary rites, mint was an essential element of kykeon, the drink used by initiates in the Eleusian Mysteries (you can pop over to Circe’s Kitchen for the kykeon recipe). Because of its numerous gastronomic and medicinal properties as well as its use in ritual, mint was a favourite herb in the Roman garden and remained a popular garden herb in the Italian Renaissance.

For Scappi, mint wasn’t just to be used as a flavouring or accompaniment to dishes, but as a food in its own right, the case for which is proved by his fritters recipe:

To prepare fritters.
Get a pound of fine flour, two ounces of cooled melted butter, two ounces of sugar, two ounces of rosewater, a little saffron, salt, eight eggs and a beaker of goat’s milk, with all that make up a batter like well beaten glue. Let it sit in the same pot in a warm place for a quarter of an hour. Beat it again. Make fritters of it in the way described above. In that mixture you can put elderflower or mint and marjoram.

– The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book V, Recipe 137

Ingredients Ingredients

100g flour
25g melted butter
25g sugar
1 egg
splash goat’s milk
drop rosewater
pinch saffron
5 elderflower heads*
5 mint stems
oil for frying

* elderflower usually blooms from the end of May to mid June (depending on the weather) – the flower heads should be collected fresh when the buds have just opened and no bitter smell can be detected


  • Heat some oil in a frying pan
  • Rinse the elderflower heads and trim the stems, but leave them long enough to hold whilst frying
  • Combine the flour, melted butter, sugar, milk, rosewater and saffron and beat together until it forms a batter, then fold a beaten egg white into the mixture
  • Dip the elderflower heads one-by-one into the batter and hold by the stem in the oilFrying
  • Fry until the batter is crisp and golden, then immediately dip into caster sugar and place on a piece of kitchen rollFritters
  • Repeat with the mint leaves, leaving them on the stem and serve immediately for optimum crispiness!Final

I REALLY loved these, they were unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before and the only thing I can compare them with is the crispy fried texture of churros, but with a wonderfully aromatic hit. The cool, freshness of the mint worked so well in the warm, crunchy batter and the leaves darkened to a rich green as they fried and crystallized beautifully. I was worried the frying would cause the delicate taste of the elderflower to be lost, but if anything it preserved it and the gently floral, aromatic flavour complimented the crisp sweetness of the fried batter perfectly.

I really recommend people try these – they are so simple to make, plus they look and taste truly fantastic!