|Close up on the sculpted detail of the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace), 13 BC to 9 BC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
By David Malakoff, ScienceNOW
Turns out the early Romans were wild about orchids. A careful study of ancient artifacts in Italy has pushed back the earliest documented appearance of the showy and highly symbolic flowers in Western art from Renaissance to Roman times. In fact, the researchers say, the orchid’s popularity in public art appeared to wilt with the arrival of Christianity, perhaps because of its associations with sexuality.
The fanciful shapes and bright colors of orchids have long made them popular with flower fanciers, and today they support a multibillion-dollar global trade. The flowers also have a symbolic value that spans many cultures due to their resemblance to both male and female sexual organs; the flower’s scientific name —Orchis — derives from a Greek word for testicles. But while the biology and ecology of orchids has gotten plenty of attention from researchers, there are few studies of its “phytoiconography,” or how the flower has been used symbolically in art.
A few years ago, botanist Giulia Caneva of the University of Rome (Roma Tre) set out to change that. Working with several graduate students, she began assembling a database of Italian artifacts, including paintings, textiles, and stone carvings of subjects including vegetation. Then, the team began the painstaking process of trying to identify the real plants the artists had copied.
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