From the year of his birth in AD 62, Pliny the Younger was brought up with an appreciation of beautiful gardens. Pliny the Elder was the author of Historia Naturalis, a vast encyclopaedia in thirty-seven books concerning natural history in all its phases. He even covered the subject of how paths should be made. The commander of the Roman fleet at Pompeii, he lost his life when he went ashore on a rescue mission after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ad 79. Pliny the Younger inherited the family’s estates near Rome and at the Tiberinum Villa in Tuscany, some 70 kilometres north of Rome, he established the first known lawn. The terraced gardens there covered about 10 hectares and included a hippodrome, plus various theme gardens. The grassed area was a horseshoe-shaped sheltered walk which surrounded the garden’s central features. In a letter written by Pliny to an associate, he described the lawn as a walkway enclosed with ornate evergreens shaped in a variety of forms. In another part of the garden was a small area of ground shaded by four plane trees, in the centre of which was a fountain overflowing a marble basin. This was used to water both the trees and the grass.
In medieval Europe grass was used to provide a basis for sheltered bowling greens – remarkably similar to the covered walks at Tiberinum. Indeed, the word ‘lawn’ did not appear in English until the mid-sixteenth century, and at first it meant just an open clearing in woodland. Thus, in both respects, Pliny might well have established a recreational lawn hundreds of years earlier than anyone else in Europe.
Extracted from A History of Gardening in 50 Objects by George Drower