Contemporary perceptions of the natural and built environment, as well as ideas about nature and art, were intertwined with the architectural and decorative trends of the early imperial period. This seminar examines the ways in which the transformation of the natural and built environment and contemporary perceptions of it, as well as ideas about nature and art, related to the new architectural and decorative mannerisms of the period. I explore the architectural design of early imperial Roman villas, the cultivated landscapes around them, and their literary and visual representations to address the ways in which ideas about and the idealization of landscape contributed to the creation of a novel language of architecture and landscape architecture. Many studies recognize the importance of natural scenery in the Roman period. However, they deny the existence of the concept of landscape in this period due to the potency of the genre of historical landscape in art historical discourses. Recent discussions have challenged traditional accounts to Roman landscape by offering a more archaeologically nuanced analysis of the visual representation of landscape. I build on these developments to tackle the ways in which developments in architectural design were intertwined with notions of landscape.
The Romans’ ideas about and the idealization of landscape found architectural expression in luxurious villas. Whether they were leisure retreats or agricultural farms, these villas offered a canvas on which ideas about landscape could not only be explored but also tested out. In their portrayal of wild, cultivated, and designed landscapes, the poems, letters, and agricultural treatises of the late Republican and early Imperial period read like exposés of architectural design; they seem to delineate blueprints of villas—rustica, urbana, suburbana, and the like—rather than fully realized designs. But it is in the luxurious country-house residences themselves, primarily conceived as leisure retreats, that ideas about landscape were fully explored and shaped. Their interiors were elaborately embellished with water-features and sculptures, and were filled with views of painted and actual landscapes; the perforated architectural bodies of the villas opened up their spaces to engage with the enclosed gardens and the natural interior scenery; their sprawling architectural structures responded to the landforms around them; and the visually potent connecting elements of this fluid architecture marked the villas’ position in the landscape. In designing for luxury, Romans engaged in a sophisticated interplay of architecture and landscape—an interplay that Renaissance architects discovered and reinvented, and which persists to this day.
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