Ovid’s Garden Project: Winterbourne House & Gardens

Garden 1Winterbourne Master

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.

HyacinthLily bulb

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.

Cornelian CherryBox

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.

Garden 2

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

Getting involved: The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life

It is a rare occurrence in modern life that people from different backgrounds and faiths sit down and talk openly about religion. And yet it shouldn’t be. While we live in a multi-cultural society with a myriad of religions, faiths, and beliefs often all living on the same street, I feel there is a distinct lack of understanding and communication between neighbours. In modern times our ability to learn and communicate can sometimes be stunted by fear of insulting, being politically incorrect, or even at times sheer ignorance. As such the Commission on Religion and Belief marks a welcome opportunity to break down barriers and talk honestly without the fear of sounding oblivious.

The Commission has been set up by the Woolf Institute to consider how, or even if, religion fits into British society and how it effects the idea of ‘Britishness’. I attended an event hosted by the University of Birmingham to get young people’s views on the subject. Never in my life have I sat around a table with such a varied group of people. Going round the table with the obligatory icebreaker all corporate events mandate was more like going round the history of the world as the multitude of backgrounds, occupations and beliefs were introduced. Around my table Sikhs, Hindus, Humanists, Catholics, Muslims, Evangelicals, and atheists represented a handful of the different standpoints around the room, but crucially we represented a cross-section of modern Britain.

It is easy to study a religion or the theory of a set of ideals but it is much harder to understand them and the meaning they hold in an individual’s life. One comment which stuck with me was from a Christian Theology student from Bristol who made the point that even within her Theology classes at university they only discussed belief; personal faith was never mentioned. I had never given much thought to this as I myself fail to find faith, but yet it was a distinction worth making as we discussed questions such as ‘The place of RE within schools’, and ‘To what extent we feel young people partake in religious traditions and what draws people to them?’.

The concept of Faith has taken on taboo qualities. In politics we have seen a backlash when David Cameron publicly stated his personal faith; socially Muslims have been victimised by the Islamaphobia hysteria, and on a worldwide scale wars are waged. But every person on the planet from remote tribes to the east end of London has faith in something—so should we feel ashamed to discuss it openly?

One reason I overheard over the surprisingly decent lunch was the fact that when we display our faith or discuss our beliefs, even within a calm academic environment such as the Commission provided, we were essentially disagreeing with every other person at the table. When we were answering these hugely complicated questions our responses could be boiled down to ‘I respect you but you’re wrong’.

As we laughed about this over perfectly golden chips I wondered if this point could be extrapolated to British society as a whole. Because faith is so personal and profound to each person, when learning about others it may take on an element of storytelling or even, as controversial as it may be to say, fiction. But by seeing differing faiths in this way, as accidental as it may be, prevents true understanding.

This may seem bleak but it is not, it is simply a reality of life. Just as a middle aged man without children cannot truly understand a young women’s experience of an abortion or the effects of war on a solider, I wonder can different religions have a complete understanding of the other religion on its own terms? ‘I respect you but you’re wrong’ may be at the root of what we are saying, but the Commission on religion and belief taught me that it is the branches of what we say which promote a shared knowledge and acceptance. By not having conversations with different beliefs we are effectively cutting these branches and allowing the rot of ignorance. As humans we can never fully know what it is like to be another person, we but we can empathise and communicate leading to a more accepting, educated and flourishing society.

Featured image

Jennifer Preston (1st year, Liberal Arts and Sciences) reporting on the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life (February 2015)