Sunday, 11 November 2012

Orchidmania - Roman-style

Orchid fever is not restricted to the Victorians.

The Romans were crazy about orchids as well. A study of ancient Italian artifacts has predated the earliest documented appearance of orchids in Western art from Renaissance to Roman times.

Researchers claim the orchid’s popularity in public art appeared to fade with the arrival of Christianity, possibly because of its sexual association. Orchid fanciers have linked the petals and pseudo-bulbs to male and female sexual organs. Orchis is Greek for testicles, as everyone knows.


Botanist Giulia Caneva of the University of Rome (Roma Tre) assembled a database of Italian artifacts, including paintings, textiles, and stone carvings of subjects including vegetation. Her team then set about identifying the real plants the artists had copied.

The portrayal of Italian orchids – about 100 species – appeared much earlier than expected. Academics had observed the flowers in paintings from the 1400s, Caneva and her students discovered that stone carvers were reproducing orchids as early as 46 BCE. At this time, Julius Caesar had instigated the Temple of Venus Genetrix in Rome, and at least three orchids appear among many other plants on the Ara Pacis, a huge stone altar erected by the emperor Augustus in 9 BCE. Flowers emphasised the altar’s theme of civic rebirth, fertility, and prosperity following a long period of conflict, Caneva says.

However, orchids vanished from public art as Christianity held sway the third and fourth centuries, as the pagan and sexual symbols were eliminated. With the arrival of the Renaissance, however, orchids reappeared, as a symbol of beauty and elegance. Kristin Nicole Edrington is a jewelry specialist in Alexandria, Virginia, and examined the rise of orchid imagery in high-end jewelry made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

According to the article, the discovery that Roman artists also favoured the flower confirms that ‘orchidmania is nothing new, and was such a big thing even back in the day’.