Page images

described by Dioscorides, III. c. 19, 201. He distinguishes between the cultivated and the wild acanthus, the former of which is supposed to be Acanthus Mollis, Linn., the latter Acanthus Spinosus, Linn.

To the cultivated kind Vitruvius evidently refers, under the name Acanthus, in the account which he gives of the invention of the Corinthian capital by Callimachus. Any one may observe the exact identity of form in the leaves of the Acanthus Mollis and those of the Corinthian capital. He may remark the rich effect produced by the overlapping of the deeply divided segments, and the elegance with which the upper part of the leaf falls backwards. It is to be observed, however, that the works of the ancient sculptors and architects shew great varieties in the acanthus leaf, according as it is more or less sharp-pointed at the edges,


more or less deeply divided into segments, according also to the degree of its curvature backwards, the degree of overlapping in the segments, and the general fulness and luxuriance of the whole leaf. All these varieties might probably be copied from the brank-ursine in different states of cultivation. In the annexed figure, Lobel (Icones, 11. p. 2. Antwerp 1591) has represented it with an aspect very different from what it has in the richest candelabra and Corinthian capitals, but not unlike some of the varieties in ancient monuments.

Pliny, the naturalist, mentions the use of this plant in ornamental gardening3; and that it was highly esteemed for this

He is supposed here to refer to the Linnæan genus Acanthus, by Saracenus, Matthioli, Sibthorp, Smith, Sprengel,

Billerbeck, Schneider, Passow, and many


2 L. IV. c. I. p. 92, 93, ed. Schneider.


XXII. 34. s. 22.

purpose among the Romans, appears also from the younger Pliny's description of his Tuscan villa, where it was used in great abundance to adorn the parterres. Sir J. E. Smith thought (I apprehend, with great reason) that the Acanthus Mollis, Linn., was only a cultivated and very luxuriant variety of the Acanthus Spinosus 5. This fact, if admitted, may account for the praises which Pliny bestows on the acanthus of his garden, as "lubricus et flexuosus,"-" mollis et pene liquidus." If the plant was, by cultivation, gradually divested of its stiff and thorny character, it would be more admired, the more it became soft and smooth, spreading and flexible; and an enthusiast in rural decorations might easily perceive a similarity between its large glassy leaves and the curling waves of the sea. Nemesianus probably alludes to the same plant, when he represents a beautiful damsel plucking flowers in a garden, and filling her lap "with soft acanthus."

Hanc, cum vicini flores in vallibus horti

Carperet, et molli gremium compleret acantho,

Invasere simul.

Bucolica, Ecl. II. 4, 5.

The brank-ursine may probably be meant by Virgil (Ecl. iv. 20), where he mentions "the smiling acanthus " among favourite garden flowers; and to this herb, divested of its thorns by art and cultivation, Columella alludes, in an account of the varieties of the artichoke, which I shall have occasion to quote hereafter.

This plant was admired and imitated, not only by the architect, but also by the goldsmith, the brass-founder, the sculptor, and the painter. Diodorus Siculus mentions " a golden acanthus" (xovoouç aкavloç) as one of the ornaments of the magnificent chariot employed to transport the corpse of Alexander. The chariot was surrounded with a peristyle of golden pillars, and in the intervals between the pillars was the golden acanthus. Mys, a contemporary of Parrhasius at Athens, appears to have excelled in the minuteness and delicacy of the acanthusleaves, which he wrought in gold and silver :

Et Myos exiguum flectit acanthus iter.


Propert. III. 7.

The leaves of the acanthus often form the most elegant orna

[blocks in formation]

6 Vol. 11. p. 278, ed. Wesseling.

ment of the bronze lamps and candelabra of the ancients. In sculpture we have a familiar, and, at the same time, an exceedingly fine example in the Warwick vase, discovered among the ruins of Hadrian's villa, in which six magnificent acanthusleaves radiate from the top of the shaft, and cover the bottom of the capacious vessel placed on it. In other instances the leaves stretch upwards, so as to cover nearly the whole body of the vase. Sometimes a circle is drawn round the vase, about the middle, especially when its shape is tall rather than flat; and in this case the part above the circle, i. e. the upper half, is decorated with acanthus-leaves. Occasionally also the band of acanthus-leaves surrounding the upper part of the vessel is so nar

row, as to form a mere border beneath the margin. Another very elegant application of this leaf is seen in the handles, which are surrounded with acanthus, as shewn in the two different arrangements of it copied in the wood-cut from Piranesi's Vasi e Candelabri Antichi.

By attending to these varieties in the decoration of antique vases, as we actually see them in existing remains, we are enabled, I think, more clearly to comprehend some passages which I shall now quote, and which are loosely or incorrectly explained by the commentators.

Theocritus, describing a cup or bowl of Ætolian manufacture, first gives an account of the figures within it, and then says of the outside

Παντᾶ δ' ἀμφι δέπας περιπέπταται ὑγρὸς ἄκανθος.

The pliant acanthus is expanded all around the cup. Idyll. 1. 55. The scholiast explains ἄκανθος thus: Εἶδος φυτοῦ ἀκανθῶδες χαμαίζηλον, εἰς μῆκος ἐξανθοῦν λίαν. This agrees with the plants of the present class, which are ' prickly;' they may be called 'low,' as the leaves rise immediately from the ground, and they "send out a tall spike of flowers."

In Virgil, Ecl. 111. 45, Alcimedon makes two cups of beechwood, and "surrounds the handles with soft acanthus :"

Et molli circum est ansas amplexus acantho.

Virgil has here translated the above line of Theocritus, but deviates from his original so far as to express a different conception of the way in which the acanthus was applied. In Theocritus it covers the whole outside of the vessel; in Virgil only the handles. Both of these ideas we now see realized in the remains of ancient art; and as similar works must have been familiar to both these poets, there seems no reason to question the originality of their descriptions.

Ovid (Met. XIII. 682-701) describes a magnificent vase, the outside of which was covered with figures composing a mythological story. All this part was "of ancient brass" (antiquo ære), i. e. bronze. The poet adds,—

Summus inaurato crater erat asper acantho.

We are therefore to suppose a band of acanthus-leaves wrought in gold, and placed beneath the margin, so as to form a border round the top.

It may be remarked, that in all vases, as well as in the capitals of Corinthian pillars and other ornaments, the rib of the brank-ursine leaf is always placed perpendicularly, or in the direction of the axis of the object which it decorates, or radiating from that axis. This is agreeable to its natural position and mode of growth.

Beautiful examples of the border of brank-ursine leaves, used to form beads and mouldings in sarcophagi, altars, and other specimens of sculpture, may be seen in Piranesi.

In the paintings of the baths of Titus at Rome we often see the brank-ursine in the graceful arabesques, and in many instances combined with parts of animals. Two paintings, representing Apollo and Pomona, are especially deserving of remark. In each the border of the square picture is formed of leaves of brank-ursine, which are so shaded as to seem moulded on a semicircular bead.

The brank-ursine was quite unfit for making crowns or wreaths to place upon the head; nor could much use be made of it for the garlands, which were hung in front of temples, or used on other festive occasions. Nevertheless, among Sir T. Lawrence's collection of architectural casts in the British Mu

7 Description des Bains de Titus, Pl. 20, 21.

seum, we see a representation of a large festoon of this kind, in which brank-ursine leaves are used to encompass the two extremities of the festoon, by which it is suspended. This may explain the design of the damsel in the verses above quoted from Nemesianus, who represents her gathering 'soft acanthus ' together with garden flowers. I have described another very beautiful example of such a festoon in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, article SERTA.


THE GENUS SPARTIUM.-Linn. (Diadelphia Decandria. Nat. Order, Papilionaceæ.)

Several species of the genus Spartium are armed with thorns and prickles. Spartium Spinosum, S. Villosum, S. Horridum, belong to this class. They have a strong general resemblance; so that they might doubtless be included under the same denomination, and they are all common in Spain, Italy, Greece, and the Archipelago. I shall endeavour to shew that these plants were known to the ancients under the name Acanthus, and hereby to throw some light upon passages which have hitherto been misapplied to the brank-ursine.

In the Lexeis Attice of Moris, we find it expressly stated, that the same plants, which in the Attic Greek were called Ασπάλαθοι, were called in common Greek "Ακανθαι.

Ασπάλαθοι, Αττικῶς· ἄκανθαι, Ελληνίκως.

But it is generally agreed among classical botanists, that the 'Aoráλaloç of the ancients is the Spartium Villosum of Linnæus, a specimen of which, preserved in Sir J. E. Smith's Herbarium, is exhibited in the annexed lithograph. Dr. Sibthorp found this species everywhere in Greece and in the isles of the Archipelago, where it still bears nearly the same name, being called Σπάλαθος, Ασπάλατος, οι Ασπαλαθεία. Sprengel supposes the term to include Spartium Horridum also 10.

We first find the term 'Aoráλaboç in Plato De Republicâ11. Giving an account of the torments of the wicked in another state, as conceived by a native of Pamphylia, he describes some of the sufferers, who, having had their hands and feet

[merged small][merged small][ocr errors][merged small]
« PreviousContinue »