Visiting one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world was of course enlightening of its own accord. However, what I was not expecting to be impressed by (being new at that point to the good-humoured fatalism often encountered in Italy) was the lassez-faire manner in which colonising plant communities were allowed to settle of their own accord within the ruins themselves. This created beautiful pairings of 2000-year-old stone remains with discrete segments of colonising plants. In other areas the dominance was switched: larger tracts of meadows punctured by vestigial architectural features.
Perhaps most striking were the de facto galleries: cloistered rooms were each populated by a single rectangular section of annuals, perennials and grasses within what were once indoor spaces (but now lack their roofs). This created novel and self-organising versions of the classical garden archetype of the hortus conclusus. It immediately reminded me of Gilles Clement’s ‘Jardins du Tiers-Paysage’ for the roof of the Saint Nazaire Submarine Base, where colonising plants are wedged within disused architecture.
Whilst these micro-landscapes where interesting and beautiful, a more moving experience was entering the arena of Pompeii’s amphitheatre, where the scene above us was an infinite, yet harshly binary aesthetic: wedges of angular stone cavea (terraced seating) were set within broad sweeps of shimmering grasses (that had colonised those areas of seating that had decayed beyond restoration). As one’s eyes circled around the ellipse of stands from the centre of the stadium, there was an endless repetition of this sublime pairing of plant community and built environment.
Once the initial impact of the magnificence of this scene receded, I couldn’t help but feel that cosmic roles had for a second been reversed. Where previously humans had gawked at plants; exploited and objectified them, it felt like they were the thousands of waving botanical spectators rooted in the stands observing the handful of us tourists: awkward and overheated, drawn from the four corners of the earth like the zoological curiosities that Romans once sourced for gladiatorial contests in this very spot. Two shirtless, pale and overweight men waddled into the arena yelling in scouse accents about lion taming, and taking selfies, only further supporting this surreal theory. There is beauty in the absurd.