Pliny the Younger (r. 61/62-113) was a man of many interests. Professionally, he made a career as a prominent lawyer, assessor and government bureaucrat, and he was interested in keeping up to date on the latest scholarly information that was relevant to those fields. In addition, he perused and mused over philosophy and science, writing about theories and phenomena to friends. He was also a great lover of literature and often went to public readings of poets, historians, or other noted public speakers who gave recitals for audiences. Instead of just listening, Pliny the Younger tried his own hand at composing poetry and aspired to gain a reputation as an orator and writer. Although Pliny could not keep up with his uncle, Pliny the Elder, or his friend, Tacitus, in literary achievements, Pliny the Younger did become immortalized by his preserved and published collection of letters, which remain in existence. As for visual forms of art, Pliny the Younger was fond of collecting bronze statues, especially statues of Roman emperors. He also took pride in his houses in Italy, and would happily, through his letters, give his pen pals thorough room-by-room tours of his abodes. Curiously, while he described his estates, Pliny the Younger revealed another interest or collection that he was crazy about. Although he never quite elaborated on the subject, Pliny’s descriptions of his own estates divulged that he was absolutely obsessed with box hedges.
Pliny the Younger was a wealthy man with several homes (and had box hedges at multiple of them), but it was at his Apennine Tuscan home that his box hedge mania was most evident. On the estate grounds, before reaching the villa, a visitor would quickly encounter the first of many box hedges along the pathways snaking through the fields. Speaking of the landscaped grounds, Pliny the Younger wrote:
“The center is quite open so that the whole extent of the course can be seen as one enters. It is planted round with ivy-clad plane trees, green with their own leaves above, and below with the ivy which climbs over trunk and branch and links tree to tree as it spreads across them. Box shrubs grow between the plane trees…At the end of the winding alleys of the rounded end of the course you return to the straight path, or rather paths, for there are several separated by intervening box hedges. Between the grass lawns here there are box shrubs clipped into innumerable shapes, some being letters which spell the gardener’s name or his master’s; small obelisks of box alternate with fruit trees…” (Pliny the Younger, Letters, 5.6).
Box shrubs carved into various symbols, words and obelisks along the estate grounds were not enough for Pliny. As a guest neared the villa and set eyes on the home’s wide colonnade, they would be greeted by a terraced sloping garden filled with more box hedges of different shapes and sizes. Much of the garden was walled off, but the walls too were accompanied by yet more rows of hedges. On this garden area, Pliny wrote:
“In front of the colonnade is a terrace laid out with box hedges clipped into different shapes, from which a bank slopes down, also with figures of animals cut out of box facing each other on either side. On the level below there waves—or I might have said ripples—a bed of acanthus. All round is a path hedged by bushes which are trained and cut into different shapes, and then a drive, oval like a racecourse, inside which are various box figures and clipped dwarf shrubs. The whole garden is enclosed by a dry-stone wall which is hidden from sight by a box hedge planted in tiers” (Pliny the Youngers, Letters, 5.6).
Therefore, in the colonnade garden and in the surrounding landscaping Pliny had sculpted box hedge animals, box hedge words, names and symbols, as well as box hedge obelisks and classic walls of hedge rows. In a similar letter about his Laurentine home near Rome, Pliny acknowledged further box hedges, stating, “All round the drive runs a hedge of box, or rosemary to fill any gaps…” (Pliny the Youngers, Letters, 2.17). He was definitely a man who liked his box hedges.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (The Bathing Pool, by Hubert Robert (c. 1733–1808), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET).
- The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.