Roman Garden Murals - Part I

© Philip Jessup



Detail from Garden Mural, House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii
10 Dec



On the morning of August 24th, 79 A.D., a hail of ash and pumice from the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius rained down on a multi-level residence in Pompeii, home of a merchant, his wife, and their two small children. To escape they huddled beneath a staircase — the boy didn’t quite make it. The other child, straddling her mother’s legs, was incinerated as she tried to stand up. Husband and wife, clenching their fists, were thrown back by the intense heat, their bodies contorted into boxers’ positions. The family was then rapidly entombed by ash. Brilliant garden landscape murals painted on the walls of a room in the back of the house, the exedra, also vanished beneath the volcano’s debris.

Plaster casts of a family from House of the Golden Bracelet

Plaster casts of a family from House of the Golden Bracelet


The wife was wearing an elaborate golden bracelet weighing almost two pounds, so the dwelling has come to be known at “The House of the Golden Bracelet”. We assume the owner was a successful merchant, due to hundreds of gold coins found under the wife and the presence of a shop front facing the street. 

Excavation of the house began in 1958. Archaeologists were able to make plaster casts of the merchant’s family, which are now housed in the British Museum in London. The excavation also uncovered the garden murals, which opened onto a formal garden installed in the backyard and the hills beyond. On three floor-to-ceiling walls of the exedra thickly planted garden was revealed, a profusion of plants and birds drawn with scientific precision, a birdbath, herm posts supporting heads of Greek mythological characters, and theatrical masks hovering in the sky.

In 79 AD Pompeii was a commercial center with a population of 23,000 that sold olives, fruit, beans, perfume, woolen cloth, fish sauce, and wine to the noblemen from Rome who occupied the many summer pleasure villas built alongside the mountain slopes overlooking the scenic Gulf of Naples. The town was supplied fresh water by three aqueducts and had three public baths, exercise courts, inns, restaurants, and two theaters, one with a capacity of 5,000. 

Garden Scene  in the  exedra , House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii

Garden Scene in the exedra, House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii

The exedra murals were originally part of a sophisticated multi-media environment that included a water fountain, statuary, and mosaics in an adjacent room, all of which opened onto an exterior garden, the hortus, which had a view of the countryside. All these elements combined in an installation to create an idyllic, illusionary nature refuge for the owner and his family. 

Stressed from the bustle of commerce and civil strife and fighting periodically enveloping the region, the merchant, probably wearing a Greek rather than Roman toga, would retreat to the room, possibly accompanied by a slave, and lie on his side propped up by his elbow on a long reclined chair overlooking the exterior garden.  

Queen Victoria’s watercolor reconstruction of the garden installation

Queen Victoria’s watercolor reconstruction of the garden installation


Greek art and literature were in vogue. While reclining the owner might read a play about Orpheus, who charmed beasts into passivity with his music, or the Greek Philosopher Epicurus, who believed pleasure was an inherent good. 

It’s not hard to image the appeal of this architectural garden installation as a refuge to rest and recharge. The murals surrounding the merchant created an illusion of an even wider expanse of nature emanating from inside the house. It offered the family beauty, peace, and moral inspiration in the form of Greek references to mythology and drama. The installation was a moral as well as a natural landscape. 

It had another purpose, too. The immersive reproduction of nature elevated the family’s social status, emulating similar architectural features they might have glimpsed at the enormous villas of noblemen to whom the merchant catered. (Most of these villas were destroyed or are now under water.) The garden and the exedra murals could be seen from the back of the house by neighbors, customers, competitors, and local politicians who passed by. This couple saw themselves as literate, culturally enlightened citizens, and they wanted others to see them that way. 

The three landscape murals are remarkable. While it is sad that Pompeii was destroyed and hundreds of families died, these and other murals survived when buried. We are lucky to have public access to them now in the National Museum of Naples.

Reconstructed  exedra , House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii

Reconstructed exedra, House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii


The Pompeii painters strived for accuracy. Specialists were likely hired to paint distinct features of the mural such as birds and plants. Working as a team they achieved a sense of light and shade in the rendering of plants and their leaves. Three-dimensional depth was achieved by painting foreground plants in great detail while leaving background plants more indistinct. 

Audubon would have admired the care and fidelity with which birds were drawn. A barn swallow, turtledove, wood pigeons, a golden oriel, and a blue rock thrush are all clearly identifiable by their colors and anatomical features.  

Whether in Roman times or today, a faithfully reproduced garden landscape offers the viewer a portal into nature, bestowing a relaxed state of mind, emotional calm, retreat from stressful relationships, and aesthetic pleasure. Edmund Wilson (see previous post) might have said such a response is innately human, given that our prehistoric ancestors lived on the land before ever building towns and cities. Our genes remember. 

Claude Monet,  Blue Water Lilies (Nymphéas bleus),  Musée d’Orsay

Claude Monet, Blue Water Lilies (Nymphéas bleus), Musée d’Orsay


It is not surprising that many painters and photographers have been drawn to gardens for inspiration. Claude Monet’s 250 oil paintings depicting his water lily gardens at Giverny, France are certainly an outstanding example. If you have ever visited Monet’s Water Lilies installation at the Musée de l’Orangerie in Paris, you were no doubt overcome by the beauty of one the largest panoramas of landscape art in 20th century art, giving the “illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon and no shore” to quote Monet. (Visit this famous panorama virtually—see below.) 

Diagram of Monet’s Giverny Gardens

Diagram of Monet’s Giverny Gardens


Monet rented the house in 1883 in a village situated on the Seine north of Paris and later bought it once his paintings began selling. He loved flowers and planned the garden so that complex color combinations would bloom throughout the year. Japanese influence was evident in the design of the arched bridge over the lily pond. 

After Monet’s death in 1926, the estate and gardens fell into disrepair and weren’t restored until 1977. We are fortunate that The Met Museum commissioned American photographer Stephen Shore to document the restored gardens at Giverny. On multiple trips over five years, Shore deployed his large format camera and lovingly captured the seasonal color, light, and rampant growth of the plants. In his understated way, Shore’s images manage to convey the communion with nature that Monet must have felt as a painter surrounded by so much unkempt beauty. 

© Stephen Shore,  Giverny Series  (2000)

© Stephen Shore, Giverny Series (2000)


The garden murals in the House of the Golden Bracelet were painted 1,900 years before impressionism swept France and were undiscovered during Monet’s lifetime. Though unconnected historically they seem like artistic cousins in their riotous, colorful, impressionistic style. 

Perhaps what they have in common across the millennia are the painters’ desire to nudge the viewer into communion with a natural world more vast than his or her own, composed of sky, water, trees, flowers, and birds. What better place to do this than in a garden. Wilderness was untamed, dark, and dangerous. A planned, orderly garden offered a safe haven, an escape from strife in the outside world, a place where one could be alone with exalted beauty. 

Perhaps only second to Ansel Adams, Paul Strand (1890 – 1976) and Edward Weston (1886 – 1958) probably did as much to elevate landscape photography in the U.S. to a fine art as anyone. I fell in love with their landscape images very early on. Both were also prodigious making portrait, architectural, and semi-abstract, modernist images.

Strand is renown for his sweeping surveys of specific places: Cape Cod; the Outer Hebrides; the Po River Valley, Italy; and Egypt. Each conveys his humanistic understanding of the specific locale: farm fields, seas shores, hills, town people, and the homes where they lived and died.

Strand turned to his garden to photograph late in life. In 1949, he left the U.S. and settled in Orgeval, outside Paris, during the Red Scare era when many of his friends were being investigated as Communist collaborators by Joseph McCarthy’s House committee. 

© Paul Strand, Looking Toward Alisans, Willow, Winter, 1964, The Aperture Foundation

© Paul Strand, Looking Toward Alisans, Willow, Winter, 1964, The Aperture Foundation


Strand photographed his modest Orgeval garden over a period of two decades up until his death in 1976. I’m particularly drawn to the late fall and winter images when the messy “bones” of bushes and plants are stripped of their leaves, flowers, and berries. Diffused light filters through the open canopy, and the barest features of nature and its complexity are revealed. Joel Meyerowtiz, himself an accomplished color photographer, wrote a tender essay introducing these images to viewers. 

In my mind’s eye I see him standing at his garden, door. The season is changing, and he steps out to look at what the familiar terrain has in it today that it didn’t have the day before. This is a garden he has walked in for years, and he seems to find more and more to look at within its enclosed space every time he enters.

The closest thing we have to a wild, reconstructed garden in Toronto where I live is the gorgeous wetland at the Evergreen Brick Works. Located in a ravine near downtown along the banks of Mud Creek, the site was excavated many years ago for its clay deposits, raw material for into bricks manufactured on the site. The large quarry that was left has been filled and turned into a productive wetland with water diverted from Mud Creek. Its shores were planted with native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers. Most tourists don’t know this beautiful place is just a 20-minute taxi ride from Rogers Centre, home of the Blue Jays . 

@ Philip Jessup,  Algae Pool , Toronto Brickworks (2004)

@ Philip Jessup, Algae Pool, Toronto Brickworks (2004)


I photographed the above algae pond in winter 2004, one of a series on Toronto’s ravines that was later exhibited at the Brick Works (my first photography exhibit) and published in Canadian Geographic Magazine

It was a damp day just after a snowfall that I was traipsing around the wetland. No one was around. The red berries hanging over the intense green algae pool on the edge of the wetland caught my attention, and I set up my tripod and Mamiya 7II camera and captured the image on Fuji Velvia 50 film. An hour earlier, the branches would not yet have been covered in snow. An hour later, the snow would have melted, since the temperature was just above freezing. Luckily, I was in the right place at the right time.

If we look around as photographers, we can find wild but garden-like landscapes that provide an immersive experience in our own backyard! As Paul Strand said: “The artist’s world is limitless. It can be found anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet away. It is always on his doorstep.”

Next post: An extraordinary Roman garden mural commissioned by Livia, wife of Emperor Augustus. 


House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii, Garden Scene, 1st century BC - 1st century AD. Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompeii, Ufficio Scavi, Pompeii, Photography by Luciano Pedicini

Plaster casts from the House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii © Trustees of the British Museum

Tommasina Budetta, ed., Il Giardino: realtà e immaginario nell’arte antica/the garden, reality and imaginary in the ancient art, accompanying the 2005 exhibit at the Museo Archeologico della Penisola Sorrentina “Georges Vallet”, Nicola Longobardi Editore (2006)

Claude Monet, Blue Water Lilies (Nymphéas bleus), Musée d’Orsay (1916-1919) via the Google Art Project

Stephen Shore, The Gardens at Giverny: A View of Monet’s World, Introduction by John Rewald, Essays by Gerald van der Kemp and Daniel Wildenstein, Aperture 183, 2000)

Paul Strand, The Garden at Orgeval, Selection and Essay by Joel Meyerowitz, The Aperture Foundation



Nature inspires us because it is sublime. It puts our selves into perspective. We are part of something very big. But today nature is vanishing. Rapidly. I’ve started this blog to explore how painters and photographers, including myself, have expressed their love of nature in their art. Maybe what we do as photographers can lead to actions that help shift the tide in favor of beauty.

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