Ancient Villas in Rome

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Patriarchs in ancient Rome built villas to enjoy the tranquility of the countryside. Villas were often found in secluded areas far away from the hustle and bustle of the region, according to ancient Roman literature. (2017, Vanessa Bezemer Sellers) Various driving factors fueled their desire for such an environment; for example, some built villas for protection, while others built them for spiritual reflection and retreat, both of which they derived from their temples. Others built villas to get away from the city or to demonstrate their social status. However, all these villas had something in common, and that is the fact that they were built for leisure. Evidence that such dwellings were built for recreation is seen in ancient Roman litertature and in the archeological remains of villas built in prehistoric times. For example, the remains of Villa Adriana show evidence of pools, fountains, baths and landscaped gardens; in turn, this reveals that the villa was built for leisure. This paper will focus on how the designers and inhabitants of Roman villas interacted with natural landscapes and what this tells us about ancient views of leisure.

Descriptions in ancient Rome literature can also be used to gain an understanding of the architectural plans of most Villas. For instance, Pliny Younger describes his villas in his poetic rants hence giving readers an idea of what life in the villa felt like. In his descriptions, Pliny the Younger mentions that villas had green gardens, which were complemented by verandas and arcades which allowed the inhabitants to interact with the natural surroundings. Further, the villas constituted gigantic gates at the entrance of the villas, vintage statutes, water fountains and green gardens. The gigantic gates at the facade of the villas led to a verandah which was commonly known as the atrium whereby the area above the corridor was left open. Most entrances always had a shrine next to them which was a symbol of the strong faith and beliefs of the Romans. The water fountains were a source of water for the entire households. The high ceilings were made of apertures which allowed in the light that lit up the statues mounted beneath. Interior decorations and mosaic painting was also a common feature in the villas (McDowall 2017, 1)

During the construction of the Villas, Ancient Rome designers were keen on constructing villas that accommodated nature. By so doing, the architects chose strategic locations for the Villa. However, the architects put different factors into consideration when drawing the designs; these factors depended on the villa’s location. For example, villas along the seashores had to take into consideration the ability of the inhabitants to view the scenic views of the lake. Therefore, the architects placed different rooms such as grottos and storages underground so that the rest of the rooms would be at the top (Vanessa Bezemer Sellers 2017, 1); in turn, this raised the position of other rooms so that they are overlooking the sea, creating splendid views of the Sea. Similarly, the architects also included balconies into the structures of villas to allow for viewing. The same case applied to Villas that were built on hilltops; the designers and architects placed the most important rooms and balconies strategically so that they overlooked the countryside below the hill.

The cascading waterfalls at the Chiswick House are perhaps the best example of designers interacting with natural landscapes. They left the cascading waterfall untouched and constructed the Villa to overlook the waterfall (Gardens, On & us 2017, 1). In this way, the designers displayed their ability to interact with natural landscapes.

Villa designers also interacted with nature by tapping into natural resources. For instance, in the design plan of most architects was a pool of water, which was located at the center of the atrium. The pools main purpose was to trap rainwater and act a water storage facility. Other than that, the architects also left the columns along the atrium uncovered to allow for light to enter into the rooms that were adjacent to the atrium. (McDowall 2017, 1) In that same line, they also used patches of the translucent roofing so as to allow in natural lighting into the Villas. Further, in one of his writings, Pliny the Younger describes how a specific room had pipes beneath the floor which used steam generated from the heat of the sun to maintain normal room temperatures. This shows how the designers took advantage of the untapped energy from the sun to maintain normal temperatures during the cold seasons.

Villa Inhabitants’ Interaction with Natural Landscapes

In the search for their tranquility, ancient Roman inhabitants came up with different means of bringing in nature into their luxurious villas. For instance, they planted flowers inside the villa in order to give the structure a natural feel. The spacious atriums which had dozens of columns around them were mainly covered by climbing plants and flowers. Further, the inhabitants of the villas planted lawns of grasses, flowers, trees, and shrubs on the grounds between the atriums and the corridors of the villas. Besides that, the inhabitants also used potted plants to decorate the entrances of their villas, and some could also be found along the corridors. The trenches found at Fish Borne villa give an idea of the kind of planting that took place in ancient Roman villas.

Also, the inhabitants ensured that the villa had nature gardens thus facilitating their interaction with the natural landscape. There were paths created in the middle of the gardens; the paths gave way for visitors and the inhabitants to walk around and enjoy their interaction with natural landscapes. The plans of the Chiswick house show such paths in the middle of the gardens. All in all, the fact that villa inhabitants owned gardens and also covered the villa with plants and flowers enabled shows how much appreciation they had for nature.

Villa inhabitants also interacted with natural landscapes by placing dining rooms beneath the roof apertures; this was a strategic location since it enabled them to take advantage of the natural lighting. Further, many inhabitants opted to build their villas next to the seashores to enjoy the fresh sea breezes that were brought about by the sea and also to enjoy the views. Pliny in one of his writing mentions how he enjoys his room which was by the side that overlooked the sea. A good example of such a structure is evident from the remains found next to Lake Gorda, in Northern Italy.

In addition, the owners of the Villas decorated their plain walls with paintings that depicted humans interacting with nature hence illustrating the Romans’ deep appreciation for nature. An example of such a painting was one in Pompeii which shows goddess Flora walking in a plantation of purple flowers. The realness and exact nature of the paintings gave viewers the idea that the person depicted is in a real garden. The painting is evidence that Roman villa inhabitants enjoyed interacting with natural landscapes.

Ancient Roman Views of Leisure

The inhabitants and designers of Roman villas utilized the natural landscape in different ways. The only similarity is that their interaction with nature was aimed at ensuring that the villa was luxurious. This interaction with nature teaches us a lot about ancient views on leisure. For instance, we learn that leisure played a central role in the lives of the ancient human beings. Many philosophers of the ancient world, including Aristotle and Epicurus, accord leisure as an important component of life (ACKERMAN, 1995 p.9). Leisure included simple pleasures as well as time for intellectual reflection. This section will evaluate the findings of how ancient Roman villa designers and inhabitants interacted with natural landscapes; this will enable us to determine what the ancient views on leisure were.

The villa was an ideal location for the Romans to spend their leisure time. Wealthy Romans preferred time in the villa since it balanced the elements of city life with those of the countryside. City life was characterized by sophistication, control, competition, and status while countryside life was linked to the enjoyment of nature and living a simple life (MARZANO, 2007 p.80). James Ackermann, a scholar of history, wrote about Roman villas; in his writings, he was able, to sum up, what life in the villa meant for the Romans. According to Ackermann, the villa can only be understood in the context of the city; in other words, villas did not exist autonomously, but they were meant to counterbalance the values of urban life. The relationship between the villa and the city is pivotal for us to understand how villas impacted on roman leisure.

Literature by Roman poets and scholars provides more evidence regarding the constant tension between countryside values and the Roman city life. From the literature, we learn that the villas ranged from hedonistically luxurious villas to nostalgically simple ones and well-run country estate villas. The poem ‘getting away from it all’ by the poet Horace is a great example of literature explaining the relationship between the city and the countryside. In the poem, Horace tells us that he loved retreating to his villa in the countryside where he and his friend could discuss important matters without interruptions from the people living in the city (ACKERMAN, 1995 p.9).

Another poet, Statius, mentions that the villa was not only a place of leisure but also a place of retreat from the ruling regime. During the time of Statius, the ruling emperor did not treat roman elites kindly and hence it was unwise to build your villa in the imperial capital (ACKERMAN, 1995 p.9). Pliny the Younger also characterizes life in the villa in many of his letters; it is clear from what he wrote that he valued his time at the villa. At the villa, he felt relief since he was free from the demands of Rome and hence he had time to concentrate on productive intellectual pursuits.

Most villas were built in the countryside or on lake shores away from city life thus highlighting the fact that ancient Romans considered time away from city life a luxury. However, Roman elites were required to attend private and public events such as sports in the city so that they could interact with other people in the spirit of public concord (Toner, 1995, p.127). As such, most Romans felt an obligation to be present at public events including games and executions. Even so, the Roman elites were inclined to be dismissive and judgmental in regards to Romans in lower social classes whether it was during work or play. For this reason, roman elites felt that it was necessary to preserve time and space where they could indulge in other forms of leisure that differentiated them from the commoners.

The style of leisure that an individual engaged in was key to establishing an upper-class identity. For the Roman elites, the villa provided a form of leisure that could only be afforded by high ranking individuals. The villa was associated with peace and quiet as well as time for the civilized Romans to engage in literary pursuits and intellectual exchanges. Even so, the villa did not provide a total escape from the life in the city. Most villas had numerous social demands such as mass entertainment which was usually noisy (HUSKINSON, 2015 p.250). Further, some villas were constructed close to amphitheaters used for entertainment; this was done to allow for visits and also for the inhabitants of the villa to view games from a safe distance. Viewing games from afar reinforced the inhabitant’s sense of calm.

Conclusion

Therefore, according to the ancient views, leisure is a combination of peace, calm and quiet away from the city life. Leisure is also seen as a distinguishing characteristic between common people and the wealthy, educated Romans. As such, to achieve a luxurious life, roman elites had to ensure that they spent time in a serene environment; more so, the experience had to be unique in that common people could not afford it.

In conclusion, the inhabitants and designers of Roman villas interacted with natural landscapes to facilitate leisure. For instance, villas were built on hilltops or seashores which enhanced the feeling of calmness. The villa also had unique and luxurious additions such as fountains, pools, and baths which could not be afforded by the common people. Further, villas incorporated landscaped gardens into their design thus facilitating the enjoyment of nature. Strategically placed balconies also promoted the enjoyment of nature by the inhabitants of the villa.

References

ACKERMAN, J. S. (1995). The villa: form and ideology of country houses : with 213 illustrations, including 71 drawings. London, Thames and Hudson.

Gardens, H., On, W., & us, S. (2017). Explore Gardens South. Chiswick House & Gardens. Retrieved 2 December 2017, from http://chiswickhouseandgardens.org.uk/house-gardens/the-gardens/explore-gardens-south/#cascade

HUSKINSON, J. (2015). Roman strigillated sarcophagi: art and social history. Oxford, Oxford Univ. Pr.

Marzano, A. (2007). Roman villas in Central Italy. Leiden [u.a.]: Brill.

MARZANO, A. (2007). Roman villas in central Italy: a social and economic history. Columbia studies in the classical tradition, v. 30. Leiden, Brill.

McDowall, C. (2017). An Ancient Roman Villa – A Cultural Ideal of Rural Life Pt 2. The Culture Concept Circle. Retrieved 2 December 2017, from https://www.thecultureconcept.com/an-ancient-roman-villa-a-cultural-ideal-of-rural-life-pt-2

TONER, J. P. (1995). Leisure and ancient Rome. Cambridge, Polity.

Vanessa B. G. (2017). The Idea and Invention of the Villa | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Retrieved 2 December 2017, from https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/villa/hd_villa.htm

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