Ovid's Garden project: Winterbourne House and Gardens
As part of my PhD exploring the invocation of classical mythographer Ovid in Italian Renaissance gardens, I have been working in partnership with Winterbourne House & Gardens to recreate an Italian Renaissance garden based upon plantings inspired by Ovid’s botany, designed by acclaimed landscape designer Kathryn Aalto.
The purpose of this garden is to recreate the plantings of the past, enabling me to explore how Italian Renaissance gardens were designed to impart narrative, retelling ancient mythology through botany and its inherent symbolism. Each plant in the garden has been chosen for its significance in Ovid’s narrative and the Italian Renaissance garden, whether it had a practical or symbolic function.
Ovid’s Garden is contributing to the preservation and enhancement of a unique Grade II listed heritage site that attracts over 65,000 visitors a year. The garden is accessible to all visitors to Winterbourne and will function as living museum, bringing the past to life and enabling the local community to engage with university research, experiencing elements of ancient and Renaissance Italian gardens for themselves.
This semester, four Liberal Arts students, Alexandra Klein, Tayler Meredith, Eve Thomas and Zoe Emery, had the opportunity to get their hands dirty working with me on the garden project under the direction of professional horticulturists at Winterbourne. I ran teaching sessions on the influence of classical antiquity in Italian Renaissance gardens to give them an understanding of the project’s research context and impact. The students also learnt specialist horticultural skills through hands-on experience of design implementation and planting at a critical stage in the garden’s development. Whilst the hard landscaping had been completed, the site was empty and extensive planting needed to be undertaken for it to come to life in the spring.
Work began by lining the beds with box hedging, instantly transforming the empty, muddy plots into a structured garden. Box is an evergreen so it will retain its colour even in the dull winter months when most plants have died back, and as such, it was an important element of Italian Renaissance planting schemes. The structure was further enhanced by the addition of lavender along the front border and cypresses flanking the main entrance, both of which are evergreens. These plants add an important sensory element to the garden: the silvery lavender will yield spikes of aromatic violet flowers in the summer whilst the slender cypresses exude a spicy, pine scent, and the combination of the two will create a welcoming wall of perfume for visitors to walk through as they enter the garden. Cypresses have highly symbolic associations with death and mourning from ancient times, originating from the myth of Cyparissus who Ovid recounts became a symbol of mourning after being transformed by grief into the evergreen tree.
Two cornelian cherry trees have also been planted in the beds either side of the garden, which in late summer will bear glossy, ruby-red berries and in winter will be covered with clusters of brilliant yellow, star-shaped flowers, some of which still clung to the branches of the trees we planted.
Within the ornamental flowers beds we have planted damask and cabbage roses, which will fill the air with their sweet, musky scent when they burst into bloom in summer. Both are ancient cultivars, valued since antiquity and the Renaissance for the strong fragrance of their abundant petals. Bulbs and rhizomes have been planted also, which are beginning to emerge now that spring has arrived: hyacinths, poet’s narcissus, Madonna lilies and crown anemones will fill the garden with purple, yellow, orange and red hues when they begin to flower as the weather gets warmer. These flowers have been selected for their symbolic significance, representing young men from classical mythology, Hyacinthus, Narcissus and Adonis, who died premature deaths and were metamorphosed into flowers.
Much remains to be planted, spring seeds that will flower in the summer to enliven the garden with vibrant colours and fragrant aromas, as well as evoking stories, as they once did in ancient and Renaissance gardens. Violets, poppies, marigolds and saffron crocuses for the ornamental flowers beds; thyme, rosemary, marjoram, sage and borage for the herb beds, as well as lollipop bays and olives in teracotta pots lining the front path.
Work will continue on Ovid’s Garden throughout the spring, with an official launch event planned for summer 2016 to give the garden time to mature – dates and details will be advertised nearer the time.
Winterbourne is open every day of the week, entrance is free for students and it is only a 5 minute walk from the university’s main entrance, so why not go and see Ovid’s Garden for yourself?
For more information on Ovid’s Garden please visit the blog.
Research profile: http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/historycultures/departments/caha/research/postgraduateresearch/profiles/bay-miriam.aspx