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Classical Architecture at the National Arboretum

Ancient World

Classical Architecture at the National Arboretum

Picture of the National Arboretum


By Neda Helena Jeny, Ph.D.

Once again, my blog will be about Washington, where once again I spent a few days sightseeing. When I arrived there in July, the first place I visited was the National Gallery; I trusted that there would be, as ever, some fascinating temporary exhibition. And there was—about eighteenth-century French paintings in the United States. Who would have thought that Joseph Bonaparte, the elder brother of Napoleon and sometime king of Spain, was instrumental in introducing French art to America once he lost his throne and came to New England? I enjoyed the exhibition, as I enjoyed returning to the old sights I know so well—but now I will speak of something else.

This time, just before departing, I decided briefly to visit something that, I believe, is not among well-known attractions of Washington: the National Arboretum, a few miles northeast of the Capitol. Indeed, I myself found about it quite accidentally. I was more lucky than I knew.

I have seen many fine arboretums and botanical gardens, each remarkable in its own way, but the National Arboretum, apart from the beauties of nature, has something of special interest to a classical student. All over the Western world, where once Greeks had their settlements and Romans built their empire, there are scattered innumerable ruins of ancient temples, theaters, baths, and other public buildings—or even palaces and private mansions. Sometimes no more than a few columns are left, and yet, standing alone in a landscape, they can leave a lasting impression. Even now, after more than twenty years, I remember the magnificent sight of the Doric columns of the ancient temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, rising against the azure of the sky and the Aegean Sea below, nor do I think that anybody who has seen them can easily forget them. (Lord Byron, for one, was so impressed that he left a graffito on a column—an additional boon for tourists today.)

But to find something like that in the National Arboretum? And yet, there it is: a group of perfect Corinthian sandstone columns next to a small square pond. There is no wall or roof, just columns, dominating the landscape as the temple of Poseidon still dominates its promontory—but how did those columns get there?

Actually, there is no mystery. It is written on a plaque that once they were part of the Capitol portico, but then they were replaced by marble columns and transferred to the National Arboretum. And so even there, in a place dedicated to the beauty of nature, I unexpectedly found a bit of classical heritage, inspired by ancient Greeks. Yet why should I be surprised? Classical culture, even today, permeates our Western civilization; time and again I have found bits and pieces of it in even more unexpected places.

But the National Arboretum has also something that is not part of Western culture—the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, dedicated to the Oriental art form that we know as bonsai. It consists of several pavilions and walled bonsai gardens, where, in no more than half an hour, I learned a great deal about the art of bonsai: for one, this art form started in China, where it is called penjing, and I was amused to find that one speaks of bonsai trees not as being cultivated, but „in training.“ And that is not all. In the museum there is on display a Chinese study, full of marvelous artifacts in wood and stone, whose opulence and elegance might be envied by any Western scholar.

Still, the best part were the miniature trees themselves, a superb collection of national treasures, for so they have been declared. Fifty of them (one for each state) were a gift of the people of Japan for the Bicentennial, carefully and lovingly packed and then transported across the ocean. Each has its own beauty, but perhaps the most memorable is the oldest: a pine tree that sprouted on Miyajima, an island of such beauty that Japanese call it the Island of the Gods; then, three centuries later, by some miracle it survived the bombing of Hiroshima, along with the other bonsai trees and the people of the house. In 1976 its owner (descendant of the man who had picked it, brought it home, and started its „training“) donated it to the United States as „The Peace Tree.“ Truly, a tree with a history! Yet how many other bonsai trees have their stories to tell?

I have seen, occasionally, bonsai trees, but only when I saw a multitude of them did I realize their variety and refinement. Most tourists have heard about the fabled cherry trees of Washington, but how many have heard about those tiny marvels of nature helped by human ingenuity?

Maybe I should say, Oriental ingenuity. For, once again, the sight, rewarding as it was by itself, also made me think… but more of that in my next blog.


Neda Helena Jeny
Dr. Neda Helena Jeny is a native of Croatia who received her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and her M.A. in Classics from Johns Hopkins University. She has taught literature and Latin at the college, high school, and middle school level, and has translated books from English into Croatian and vice versa. She is currently teaching Latin at Kellam High School in Virginia Beach, VA.



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