Gardens: An ancient world of doves and roses: Before they had gardens in Pompeii they filled rooms with beautiful jungle frescos. Rosie Atkins sees them on show in London

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The Independent Online
IN SUMMER it is very easy to feel trapped in a city when you haven't got a garden. The people of Pompeii had the answer 2,000 years ago: if you wanted a garden, you just had one painted on your living-room walls. Colefax and Fowler should take note.

Real gardens became a part of life in Pompeii with the construction of an aqueduct in 4BC. This brought enough fresh running water to the bustling Italian city to feed ornate fountains in small courtyards and the larger gardens of multi-terraced villas, graced with statues and trimmed with low boxwood hedges.

This horticultural decadence did not find favour with Pliny the Elder, a rather puritanical military man. He longed to return to a time 'when a garden was in itself a poor man's farm'. He did not live to see it: he died while trying to evacuate the inhabitants of Pompeii when a cloud of volcanic ash fell on the city at 1pm on 24 August, AD79.

Herculaneum, on the other side of Mount Vesuvius, was completely swallowed up by the lava flow, but Pompeii was shrouded in a cloud of toxic dust which entombed the 2,000 inhabitants in their homes.

Over the centuries, around 450 gardens have been discovered in Pompeii - public parks as well as small private atriums. But it was not until 1979 that archaeologists unearthed a sumptuous suburban villa, built on the western slopes of the city, with a relatively undamaged room where each of the windowless walls was painted, from top to bottom, with a luxurious jungle populated with birds and fountains.

This amazing frescoed room, along with a spectacular fountain made from sparkling glass-paste mosaic and shells, and more than 200 exquisite pieces of household impedimenta from Pompeii, has been travelling the world in an exhibition for the past two years. The exhibition, 'Rediscovering Pompeii', already has attracted 60,000 visitors to the Accademia Italiana in London, and it is being extended until 2 August.

This is not an exhibition aimed at gardeners, but anyone interested in plants will be fascinated by the familiarity of the flowers and shrubs that grew in the gardens of Pompeii 2,000 years ago. The beauty of the frescos' dream landscapes, where the plants all flower at the same time, is astonishing.

Their choice had less to do with floral display than with allegory and mystical power. Appearing on each wall are the evergreen strawberry tree Arbutus unedo, symbol of eternity, and the sacred laurel Laurus nobilis, associated with wisdom and immortality. Viburnum tinus, the plane tree Platanus orientalis, and the periwinkle Vinca major, were included for good luck. Lilium candidum and a tangle of roses represent love. The roses, tied neatly to a bamboo cane, are recognisable as Rosa gallica 'Versicolor', and their presence throws light on rose-growing in ancient times, which was always thought to be limited to single-colour varieties.

Poppies - Papaver somniferum - which brought sleep and oblivion, feature with violets, the flower of weddings and of Aphrodite. Even in this imagined paradise, the ubiquitous bindweed Calystegia silvatious, symbolising the ephemeral, spreads its terrible tendrils.

Among the profusion of plants are an amazing assortment of birds: magpie, swallow, wood pigeon, nightingale, jay, oriole, thrush, blackbird, partridge and dove. Many of these birds, which also have symbolic significance, would never have been found in the same place at the same time. But once again the artist called the tune.

While this tiny room reveals its owner's love of nature, continuing excavations at Pompeii should soon reveal more about early Roman gardening techniques. Dr Anna-Maria Ciarallo, the first full-time botanist on the site, has already started work mapping out one of the gardens. By identifying its plants from the imprint left in the volcanic dust, and studying the pollen and seeds, she hopes her work will one day lead to the authentic replanting of some of the gardens of Pompeii.

Anyone planning a day in London could conveniently combine 'Rediscovering Pompeii' with an exhibition called 'Oriental Gardens', which has just opened at the British Museum. The tragic story of Pompeii is familiar; the history of gardens in the Far and Near East less so.

This exhibition is based on illustrated manuscripts usually hidden away in the British Library. The exhibits give an insight into the development of gardens in Turkey, China, Japan and South-east Asia, and into the way they have been influenced by wars and trade over the years.

The rigid geometry of Persian and Indian gardens was designed to impress when viewed from raised pavilions or battlements. Closer to, they had a sensuality which made them a perfect backdrop for wondrous feasts and elaborate entertainments.

Every April in Istanbul, Sultan Ahmed III would hold a festival in honour of his favourite flower, the tulip. In 1730 he held a moonlit banquet, illuminated by torches fastened to the shells of tortoises which trundled through the tulip beds and along paths.

The Mogul Emperor Jahangir, who ruled in India until 1627, also took his pleasures seriously - but he was pretty hard on his staff. He had the thumb of one gardener cut off because he had felled the wrong tree.

Symbolism is as much part of Far Eastern gardens as it is in those of Pompeii. Chinese horticulture managed to embrace such concepts as a Pavilion for Questioning the Plum, and the crazy pool in the Tanzhe temple outside Peking. There, guests had to compose a line of poetry as a wine cup floated by; if they failed, they had to pay the forfeit of drinking the wine.

The drawing of a man supervising his servant giving his books their annual airing in a garden called 'The almost non- existent garden' also stretches the imagination.

Unfortunately, the little exhibition is placed in one of the British Museum's busy thoroughfares. The Japanese exhibits were difficult to see because the area had been invaded by a large group of Japanese students, who took turns to be photographed beside a statue of Shakespeare. They left without giving the scrolls illustrating their horticultural heritage a second glance. Pliny the Elder would have been dismayed.

'Rediscovering Pompeii', Accademia Italiana, 24 Rutland Gate, London SW7, open every day from 10am-6pm, 8pm on Wednesday. Admission: adults, pounds 5, children under 12, pounds 2.50.

'Oriental Gardens', British Museum, Great Russell Streeet, London WC1. Open 10-5pm and 2-6pm on Sundays. Admission free.

(Photographs omitted)

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