Roman agrobiodiversity on show

by Luigi Guarino on February 17, 2008

So I was at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme to catch the Rosso Pompeiano exhibition, which was fine, and which I may blog about later, but details of two statues caught my eye among the permanent stuff on show — representing agrobiodiversity, of course. The statues are meant to symbolize different provinces of the empire. This one is supposed to be Thrace:

barley.JPG

I guess the cereal is barley, but why the poppy seed capsule? And this one is supposed to be Egypt:

pomegranate.JPG

Now, the caption said this is a pomegranate, and I can see why that should be, but isn’t there something wrong with the top of the fruit? Shouldn’t the remains of the sepals be sort of more upright? Check out various other representations of the fruit to see what I mean. Anyway, I can’t imagine what else it might be. Except perhaps an opium poppy, especially when you compare it with the obviously more weedy poppy in the other statue. But both capsule and seed are too big. Of course, the “poppy” held by the representation of Thrace could in fact be a small pomegranate. In any case, I don’t understand why barley should somehow represent Thrace and pomegranates Egypt. I’ll look into it. Someone somewhere is bound to have written a thesis on botanical symbolism in Roman art.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert February 17, 2008 at 4:12 pm

Very nice post. I’d say that the rendition of pomegranate is about as good as that of barley; clearly not a poppy; perhaps the petals got flattened during transportation to Rome? Pomegranate was important way back when in the Eastern Mediterranean; a pomegranate vase was found in Tutankamon’s tumb; it is an important ingredient of Jewish tradition. Seems that it was important enough for a statue.

The other one looks like a poppy all right. Not an insignificant crop. Hamentaschen anyone? After a cereal, what should the artist have chosen from Thrace? What was the competition? Olives? And poppy for seed or for opium? Or both? Apparently the opium as well as the flowers were important in Greek and Roman mythology (see this) article.

Would be nice to find that thesis.

Reply

Mary February 21, 2008 at 4:28 am

Damn, just today I was looking at some Renaissance herbals and the illustrations. But the database isn’t publicly available so I can’t point you there right now…ah–found a copy you can see!

The one labeled Malicorium and Balaustia in a text by Lonitzer has much more curled back sepals.

Maybe there were regional differences, or hydration, or…? Ok, I’m making that stuff up. Just such an odd coincidence that I was looking over this image earlier and came across this post.

Reply

Luigi February 21, 2008 at 9:45 am

Thanks, Robert and Mary. Still looking for that thesis…

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }