Mary Keen

Recent gardening books

The late Paul Getty has left gardeners a surprising legacy. Gardens of the Roman World by Patrick Bowe was published in America last year by Getty publications and the copyright belongs to the J. Paul Getty Trust. Did our run-of-the-mill publishers miss a trick here? I imagine the proposal for a book about Roman gardens cannot have grabbed many editors. Picture them at the Frankfurt Book Fair muttering, ‘dead language, nothing to see, no stunning perennial borders, just a job lot of broken columns …’ I hope they are all now eating hats and humble pie. The generosity and imagination of Paul Getty and his advisers have enabled Frances Lincoln to bring out an English edition of this beautiful book (£35). Go to your nearest bookseller and open it carefully at page 56, where the fresco of Livia’s garden room can be seen. Livia was the wife of Augustus, who started life as Octavian, but changed his name after he defeated Antony at Actium and became Emperor of Rome. Livia was his second wife. She has a reputation for being a powerful woman and a plotter, because she made sure that her son Tiberius succeeded his stepfather. But the home life of Augustus and Livia, in contrast to that led by Antony and Cleopatra, seems to have been modest. The perpetual reminder of peace and plenty that they chose to live with on their walls is one of the most beguiling evocations of a garden, of what it feels like to be in a garden, that I know.

In the foreground are orange trees growing in a flowery meadow. In the distance, olives and cypresses shimmer and everywhere there are birds, flying or perching in branches. Livia’s fresco is now in the Museo delle Terme, near the station in Rome. Like many of the best things in Italy it always seems to be shut or ‘in restauro’ whenever I have tried to see it recently, but the illustration is almost as good as the memory of the real thing.

There are other frescoes, many from Pompeii, showing arbutus trees hung with strawberries and easily recognised flowers among the grass.

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