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Celebrating spring

A pilaster capital featuring a floral relief engraving. - click to view larger image
Rome, Italy, about 118–128 CE, marble, 48 x 56.5 x 8.5 cm, 1805,0703.278. © The Trustees of the British Museum, 2018. All rights reserved

This year, as the National Museum of Australia hosts Rome: City and Empire, on loan from the British Museum, we have been reflecting on some of the parallels between Ancient Rome and Canberra.

Each year, the capital city hosts a celebration of spring during a festival known as Floriade, located on the shores of Lake Burley Griffin.

Warm weather and new growth is certainly something to celebrate after a long, cold winter — the Romans themselves welcomed the arrival of spring with an annual festival which they called Floralia, named after Flora, the ancient goddess of flowers, blossoming plants and crops.

On this special occasion and others, Romans wore wreaths and garlands made from flowers and leaves. Floral wreaths could be festive — flowers were associated with rebirth and fertility — while wreaths of oak and laurel could symbolise gods such as Jupiter and Apollo, as well as military victory.

Statue of a priestess with a damaged face, right hand and left arm missing. - click to view larger image
Probably from Atripalda (Campania), Italy, about 25–50 CE, marble, 215 x 85 x 45 cm, 1873,0820.741. © The Trustees of the British Museum, 2018. All rights reserved

Workshops

When you first enter the exhibition Rome: City and Empire, one of the most striking objects to catch your eye will be a large, white marble statue of a woman draped with a veil wearing a laurel wreath. This is a rare and striking statue representation of an elite woman who may be Livia, Augustus’s wife.

To bring a Roman twist to the Canberran Floriade festivities, the National Museum hosted two workshops on ancient wreath and garland making in the greenhouse.

Children and their families made stunning floral headpieces and oak wreaths under the guidance of Valeria and Lynn from Florever Florist in Dickson. Children learned about the history of wreath and garland making in ancient Rome, and the significance of this practice.

A group of people are gathered in a marquee tent. They are sitting around long wooden tables and participating in an activity involving flowers and other materials. There is a banner for the Rome exhibition in the background.
Children and their families attending the Floriade workshop

The natural world

The Romans celebrated the natural world through landscape design and art — just as we do today. Throughout the Roman empire, trees, plants and flowers were prized in both indoor and outdoor contexts.

Elite Romans decorated their villas with landscaped gardens in peristyle settings, and painted the walls of their houses with depictions of lush, overgrown settings.

Rome: City and Empire includes a number of Roman reflections on the natural world, such as two wall paintings from Pompeii featuring birds and foliage, and a fragment of fresco painting with acanthus detailing from Nero’s Golden Palace in Rome.

There are timeless and modern qualities to these works which remind us of the connections between this ancient civilisation and the present. The public programs accompanying the exhibition, such as the Floriade wreath-making workshops, endeavour to animate such connections.

More family activities are available through the Rome summer school holidays program, weekdays 7–11 and 14–18 January 2019, with two sessions daily 10.30am–1pm and 2–3.30pm. Children will be able to make a Roman laurel wreath, help complete our Roman bathhouse mosaic and enjoy our chill-out zone. During the morning sessions they will also be able to watch our artist, Byrd, create a cardboard chariot. Costs apply.

Rome: City and Empire is on show at the National Museum of Australia until 3 February 2019.

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