naso's song

that naso’s song may flower for all time


1 Comment

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.

Advertisements


1 Comment

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


6 Comments

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


5 Comments

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


2 Comments

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