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Feast of Pliny

The Villas of Pliny from Antiquity to Posterity

by Pierre de la Ruffinière du Prey
University of Chicago Press, 377 pp., $65.00

Among all the ancient Romans who ever lived, an earnest public servant named Caius Plinius Caecilius Secundus, or Pliny the Younger (c. AD 61–113), is one of the few who have offered posterity a glimpse of their personal lives. He has done so in a series of letters, most of them composed between 96 and 113 AD, and addressed to the people who made up his corner of the Roman Empire: his wife, his in-laws, his mentors, his protégés, his friends, and the emperor Trajan, with whom he enjoyed the peculiar kind of friendship an ordinary mortal might have with a person whose titles include “Lord God.”

In his own world, Pliny the Younger was an important man; he once held the consulship, the highest elective office in the Roman state, and he died on duty as Trajan’s special envoy to the troubled province of Bithynia (in modern Turkey), a sign of that sage emperor’s extraordinary trust. Pliny’s friends included the historians Tacitus and Suetonius. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, had been a renowned scholar. What makes his letters such fascinating reading, however, is neither his illustrious connections nor his references to the occasional startling event; it is the disarming immediacy of the man himself.

The limitations that kept Pliny the Younger from true greatness, either as a writer or as a statesman, are what make him such a companionable guide through Imperial Rome. Born in a provincial town of northern Italy, Comum (modern Como), and sent to Rome for advanced rhetorical studies and the beginnings of a career in law and politics, he never seemed driven by ambition, and hence he never suffered the agonies over the recognition of his genius that so mark the letters of another provincial boy who made good in the big city, Marcus Tullius Cicero. Pliny is no common man, yet his letters have a way of distilling situations so as to express their essential humanity, whether he is describing panicky neighbors caught in the eruption of Vesuvius, snooty patricians refusing to clap at a poetry reading, or stubborn Christians who cannot find it within themselves to burn a bit of incense to a statue of the Emperor.

Pliny’s letters are vividly written, and none of them more so than the two in which he describes his two favorite country houses: the Laurentine villa, a winter retreat at the seaside south of Rome, and the Tuscan villa, a remote summer place high in the foothills of the Apennines. We know nothing about when he acquired these properties, or about how many others he may have had (there were at least two others, both along the shores of Lake Como), nor, with one exception, do we have any idea what his role may have been in their design. That exception is a secluded suite at the end of a long covered hall in his Laurentine villa, which he describes as “my favorite, really my favorite…I put it there myself,”1 although it is unclear whether Pliny “put it there” as architect, as builder, or simply as the home-owner who commissioned the remodeling of his house.2 How little we know even this most affable of Romans!3

Pliny describes his villas in a way that is typical of his eminently social approach to correspondence; both letters are really invitations for friends to stay with him and share his delightful quarters. A congenital enthusiast, he tells how it feels to occupy each of the villas’ various rooms, or to move through their rambling successions of chambers, porticoes, courtyards, and gardens.

Deliberate efforts at temptation, Pliny’s letters about his villas have lost none of their charm over the succeeding centuries. His invitation to come and stay with him still holds out the promise of idyllic scenery, physical amenity, and a host who will treasure a judicious balance of companionship and solitude. Ever since the Renaissance, scholars and architects have made various attempts, so far with only partial success, to give Pliny’s villas more concrete form, scouring the countryside around Castel Fusano and Città, di Castello in search of their ruins at places that had acquired the name “Villa di Plinio.” More successfully, they have speculated about the villas in written essays, sometimes hewing closely to Pliny’s text and sometimes striking off into realms of fantasy. Pierre du Prey’s splendid new book traces the impact of Pliny’s villas on the visual imagination of architects from the fifteenth century to the present, acknowledging that few of their drawn ruminations are actually reconstructions in any strict archaeological sense. Hence he prefers to write of “restitutions” to convey the sense that these drawings, plans, and models, both reconstructions and fantasies alike, restore definite form to the suggestive impressions from Pliny’s letters, and sometimes also to the crumbled concrete foundations that may or may not mark the sites of the ancient author’s beloved haunts.

More than an antiquarian exercise, these Plinian “restitutions” get at the heart of what it means for city folk to dwell on the margins of the wilderness. Villas reflect the Romans’ ambiguous relationship with civilization as concretely as their naturalistic wall paintings. They longed to be in the countryside, but they longed at the same time to be surrounded with the comforts of society. In form villas might range from modest farmhouses to miniature cities, with race tracks, hall-courts, and baths. They might hover a few paces from a city wall, like the so-called Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii, a working farmstead with extensive storerooms, or anchor the outer limits of the Empire, like the villas of Roman Britain, whose owners may have been Roman in name only. Their point, however, was always the same: to retreat from city life in order to gain perspective on it. Seeking out a property for his friend the historian Caius Suetonius Tranquillus, Pliny remarks:

There is indeed much about this property to whet Tranquillus’s appetite if only the price suits him: easy access to Rome, good communications, a modest house, and sufficient land for him to enjoy without taking up too much of his time. Scholars turned landowners, like himself, need no more land than will suffice to clear their heads and refresh their eyes, as they stroll around their grounds and tread their single path, getting to know each one of their precious vines, counting every fruit tree.4

Pliny’s own standards for a villa were considerably more lavish. His Laurentine villa was a seaside winter retreat situated close enough to Rome for him to reach it by nightfall after a day’s work in the Forum. His Tuscan villa, on the other hand, offered genuine retreat from Rome:

The countryside is very beautiful. Picture to yourself a vast amphitheatre such as could only be a work of nature; the great spreading plain is ringed round by mountains, their summits crowned by ancient woods of tall trees….Below them the vineyards spreading down every slope weave their uniform pattern far and wide, their lower limit bordered by a plantation of trees. Then come the meadows and cornfields….It is a great pleasure to look down on the countryside from the mountain, for the view seems to be a painted scene of unusual beauty rather than a real landscape, and the harmony to be found in this variety refreshes the eye wherever it turns.

Pliny approached the description of his villas as he once must have experienced them: in “harmonic variety” (what the Romans called, in Greek, poikilia), when he wandered from space to space, environment to environment, each stopping place carefully crafted to heighten some particular aspect of nature and art: silence, noise, water, openness, seclusion, trees, columns, flowers. Du Prey adopts the same organized sense of wandering, a bold risk for a scholarly book, but it works. he pursues themes rather than geographies or chronologies, jumping from ancient Rome to the nineteenth-century Crimea to twentieth-century California in search of “The Four Cardinal Points of a Villa” (which belong not to the magnetic compass but to the human psyche, ideas like “openness and movement,” “house and garden”). Pliny’s own wanderings within his country properties played similarly free with space and time, leavened as they were by his thoughts, his readings, and the landscapes his rooms sought to enhance by an infinite variety of framings.

In his villas, Pliny could have it all: his books, his ball games, his friends, and at the same time he could marvel at unspoiled vistas (which to his mind might mean a landscape dotted with other villas), and enjoy them in silence. Country houses brought wealthy Romans a sense of communion with the stern agrarian ancestors to whose conservative morality they attributed the steady growth of their empire. For them, the villa’s moment of balance between nature and culture became all the more poignant because it was so fragile, and so temporary, and their own distance from rusticity was so complete. Pliny remarks that during his leisurely stays in Tuscany,

Some time is given over to the tenant farmers—not enough from their standpoint—whose rustic complaints lend luster to our own literary pursuits and such urbane concerns.5

By “urbane concerns,” this vacationing pillar of Roman society meant a life of enviable literary leisure. He would pass his days in Tuscany by rising at dawn to spend the next three or four hours writing, an activity accomplished by dictating to a secretary. A brisk walk in the garden or along his covered portico would consolidate his ideas, he would dictate again and then go for a drive.6

After a short sleep and another walk I read a Greek or Latin speech aloud and with emphasis, not so much for the sake of my voice as my digestion, though of course both are strengthened by this. Then I have another walk, am oiled, take exercise, and have a bath. If I am dining alone with my wife or a few friends, a book is read aloud during the meal and afterwards we listen to a comedy or some music; then I walk again with the members of my house-hold, some of whom are well educated. Thus the evening is prolonged with varied conversation, and, even when the days are at their longest, comes to a satisfying end.

Ensconced in luxurious surroundings, attended at all times by solicitous slaves, Pliny used his abundant time to participate in public life, to study, and to write. He had been trained all his life to do so. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, had been a fanatic for efficiency, who scolded his nephew for walking when he could have been riding in a litter while a slave read to him; “according to him I need not have wasted those hours, for he thought any time wasted which was not devoted to work.”7 Pliny senior, by the time of his death at fifty-five (he was asphyxiated as he tried to rescue victims during the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79), had filled 107 papyrus volumes with his published writings, of which only the thirty-seven that comprised his Natural History survive, a vast compendium of facts about matters animal, vegetable, and mineral.8 Characteristically, the Natural History includes a history of sculpture under its discussion of stone—not quite equating the work of Phidias with that of Spartacus breaking rock in a quarry, but not entirely sensitive to art either.

  1. 1

    amores mei, re vera amores: ipse posui.” Letter II.17. This and all subsequent citations are taken from Pliny: Letters and Panegyrics, 2 volumes, translated by Betty Radice (Loeb Classical Library/Harvard University Press, 1969).

  2. 2

    Nor is it clear that these distinctions necessarily had meaning in a slave society where a battalion of servants carried out even trivial tasks for their masters. However, the ancient Roman architectural writer Vitruvius notes that some wealthy Romans acted as their own architects and contractors, as did the emperors Nero and Hadrian.

  3. 3

    We know, for example, neither the date of his birth nor the date of his death, and virtually nothing of his first two wives.

  4. 4

    I.24.

  5. 5

    IX.36: “Datur et colonis, ut videtur ipsis, non satis temporis, quorum mihi agrestes querelae litteras nostras et haec urbana opera commendant.” The translations of Radice (“the boorishness of their complaints,” p. 157) and James Ackerman (“boorish quibbles,” p. 37) probably give too negative an emphasis to the adjective “agrestis.”

  6. 6

    Letter IX.36.

  7. 7

    Letter III.

  8. 8

    His other works, cited in Letter III.5, included Throwing the Javelin from Horseback (one volume), The Life of Pomponius Secundus (2 volumes), The German Wars (20 volumes), The Scholar (3 volumes: an oratorical handbook), Problems in Grammar (8 volumes: “This he wrote during Nero’s last years when the slavery of the times made it dangerous to write anything at all independent or inspired”), A Continuation of the History of Aufidius Bassus (31 volumes). He also bequeathed his nephew 160 scrolls of miscellaneous notes.

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