Rediscovering a lost garden – and some amateur dramatics
Peter Wiseman, University of Exeter, discusses his forthcoming article ‘Maecenas and the Stage’, which is due to be published in Papers of the British School at Rome later this year.
The city of Rome is an endlessly fascinating historical subject. I first explored it 54 years ago, fresh from Oxford on a scholarship at the British School at Rome. In those days one still saw Viva il Re! graffiti on the walls (the Italian republic was only sixteen years old), and a signorina in her black headscarf would sit side-saddle on the back of her young man’s Vespa or Lambretta. I’m old enough now to see my own youthful self as witness to yet another historical stratum in the unending palimpsest of Rome.
I was (still am) a traditional text-based classicist, but that formative year at the British School helped me begin to understand how archaeologists work, and the city offered object lessons all round me. In the Forum, it took me a long time to get out of the habit of consciously thinking away the Arch of Severus and the Column of Phocas, and get my head round the idea that the classical literature I was brought up on – say, Cicero to Tacitus – belonged to only a very limited period in the long history of the site.
There was nothing to help me visualise the ‘gardens of Maecenas’ (horti Maecenatiani), though of course I knew about Maecenas himself via Horace, Virgil and Propertius. The great imperial estates, like the aristocratic villas that succeeded them, had disappeared under the modern city in a way that left nothing to stir the visual imagination. After 1870, when Rome became the capital of the kingdom of Italy, chaotic building development laid waste most of the high ground that had once been the Esquiline: the degree of this destruction is made astonishingly visible in the photographs of J. H. Parker (see the image above for an example), which show some of the ancient remains before they disappeared. As Rodolfo Lanciani put it sadly,
“the villas have disappeared, their magnificent ilexes have been burned into charcoal, their great pines used for timber, their hills or dales cut away or filled up to a dead level, and their deliciously shady avenues destroyed to make room for broad, straight, sun-beaten thoroughfares.”
In 1962 the streets that were new in his time were already pretty shabby, and no casual observer could guess that one of those filled-up ‘dales’, thirty or forty feet beneath the traffic on the Via Merulana, had been the idyllic retreat to which Maecenas’ poet friends were allowed privileged access.
Now, however, inspired by Chrystina Häuber’s new monograph on the works of art discovered during the building boom, I’ve reassessed the literary sources on Maecenas’ estate, including the surprisingly neglected elegy supposedly delivered at his funeral. In ‘Maecenas and the Stage’, forthcoming in this year’s issue of Papers of the British School at Rome, I show how he used the estate for music and dance, including mythological charades that featured himself in the roles of Bacchus, Hercules in drag, and even Jupiter in love with Ganymede. Though the evidence is textual, the argument starts from an archaeological find. I hope it shows how every type of information has to be properly taken into account in the never-ending exploration of the past of the eternal city.
Peter Wiseman’s full article will be published in volume 84 of Papers of the British School at Rome in October 2016.
Image: Parker collection no. 3185: ‘Excavations 1874, part of the great agger and wall of Servius Tullius with houses of the first century built up against it and into it.’
Photo reproduced courtesy of the British School at Rome.