There is a rose garden on the Aventine Hill, Il Roseto di Roma which is on an interesting site. In the 3rd cent BC, it housed the Temple of Flora but in 1634, it was converted into a Jewish cemetery. Three hundred years later, in 1934, the cemetery was moved and the area became referred to as the Jewish Garden. In 1950, the municipality of Rome decided to create a rose garden to showcase existing and new species of roses. In deference to its past, it was designed in the shape of a menorah with its seven branches forming paths and is now home to over 1,000 species of roses. As rose gardens go, I’ve seen better but many of the roses were already on their way out when we visited early in June so perhaps we did not catch it at its peak.
What I found fascinating was the history and descriptions of the roses. In Roman times, roses became a symbol of wealth and grandeur and vast quantities were brought into Rome from Egypt and the Middle East. One type of rose was described as the one Heliogabalus might have used during his dinners. Apparently, Heliogabalus or Elagabalus was a Roman emperor who attained power at the age of 14 largely through the machinations of his aunt who put out the rumour that he was the son and rightful heir of the emperor Caracalla who had just died. Needless to say, Heliogabalus was not capable of ruling and furthermore led a life of considerable depravity, some would say he was likely deranged. Legend has it that he once invited his worst enemies to a lavish dinner. They suspected that something was afoot but the emperor was in such a jovial mood and the atmosphere was so festive that they soon relaxed and partook of the vast quantities of wine and food on offer. When the night progressed to the point where many of the guests were in a drunken stupor, all of a sudden rose petals began to float down from above. The light shower of petals became a torrential downpour and many of the guests suffocated to death. Murder by flower petals!
Last week, we went to an exhibition of works by English painters of the Aesthetic Movement. The paintings were from the private collection of Perez Simon, among them many paintings by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. It turned out that Alma-Tadema was fascinated by the tale of Heliogabalus and the rose petals and painted the scene in his studio in Paris. The painting is about 4 feet high by 7 feet wide and was the highlight of the exhibition. Not a great photo and you will find better images on the web but you can see Heliogabalus lying on the table wearing a golden dress. It is a beautiful painting and the rose petals look velvety and so real that you feel like touching them and you can almost imagine the perfume. Had I not been to the rose garden the week before and heard about Heliogabalus, I would have just thought of how pleasant it must be to have rose petals floating down on you. Instead, the painting is actually quite horrific when you know what is happening.