Orchid Mania in Ancient Rome
Thorough examination of ancient artifacts revealed that the ancient Romans were big fans of orchids. Orchids had been widely depicted in the public art of ancient Rome for many centuries, and they started losing popularity with the emergence of Christianity, probably because they were seen as a symbol of sexuality.
Ancient Italian Artifacts
A botanist from the University of Rome, Giulia Caneva, worked with a few graduate students to identify plants that were depicted in ancient Italian artifacts. She assembled a database of Italian paintings, stone carvings, and textiles that had representations of plants in them, and she began to match the depicted plants with real plants that were found in the region. She managed to identify about 100 Italian orchid species in the artifacts, and some of the depictions date back much further than previously thought.
Back to the Beginning
Scholars had previously spotted reproductions of orchids in Italian paintings from the 15th century, but Caneva and her team found that orchids were depicted in stone carvings that date back to 46 B.C., when the Temple of Venus Genetrix was established by Julius Caesar. Additionally, there are depictions of three or more orchids on the Ara Pacis, a stone altar that was commissioned by Augustus in 9 B.C. Orchids were probably selected to express the altar’s theme of fertility, civic rebirth, and prosperity after conflict.
According to Caneva, the popularity of orchids as a subject in Roman public art began to decline with the rise of Christianity in the 3rd and 4th centuries. However, orchids became widely featured in art again during the Renaissance.
Interested in learning more about the history of orchids? Check out another related blog post, here.