Despite the simplicity of its design (or perhaps because of it), the birdbath has outlasted the Roman Empire and become an iconic fixture of suburban gardens and lawns today.
Actually, whether the ancient Romans invented birdbaths is questionable.1 However, there is abundant evidence that they used them. Archaeology reveals that this Mediterranean culture, which popularized bathhouses for its citizenry, in fact constructed wash stations for its avian visitors. (The Romans’ fascination with bathhouses and birdbaths seems like more than coincidence.)
Buried under the Ashes
The concept behind the basic birdbath goes back at least a couple millennia. In areas near Mt. Vesuvius, excavations have unearthed these garden ornaments along with artistic depictions of them on walls. For example, archaeologists have noted marble remnants of birdbaths among the first-century ruins of Herculaneum.2 Also, in nearby Pompeii and Oplontis, teams have located villa paintings of birds perched on and around birdbaths. The above illustration by J.M. Landin is based on an ancient Roman fresco.
One of the most impressive paintings from this period comes from Pompeii’s Villa Livia. It’s a wall fresco that features numerous avifauna—an oriole, magpie, sparrows, and pigeons, among other species—congregating throughout a lush garden of plants and flowers.3 The setting’s centerpiece, a basin-shaped bowl atop a pedestal, is unmistakable. That the object is shown with so many feathered creatures leaves little doubt that we’re looking at a birdbath.
Many birds bathe to maintain their feathers. They, of course, also use the water from fountains and basins for hydration. Illustrations of birds drinking at birdbaths are a theme of ancient classical paintings. While most are idyllic, such as those in a fresco from the Villa of Poppaea at Oplontis,4 a few are not. In one mosaic from Pompeii, a bird sits along the rim of a birdbath, lowering its beak, as two other winged neighbors, possibly parrots, gaze below in the vicinity of a small, skulking feline.5
Birdbaths and Beyond
Throughout history, birdbath designs have ranged from the small and simple, like the short-pedestalled basin (along with a pair of doves) illustrated on the ceiling within the fifth-century Galla Placidia mausoleum in Ravenna, Italy,6 to the large and lavish designs found in palace courtyards. Besides traditional elevated versions with the slender base, those that rest on the ground or hang are also common.
Today’s ornaments are made from a much wider variety of materials, including marble, granite, metal, concrete, terra-cotta, and glass. Some modern versions are even equipped with heating features to prevent winter freezing.
Overall, though, the birdbath is “timeless” in its design. Not much generally separates the ones in your neighbors’ lawns from the fare of ancient Roman villa gardens. Very little, of course, other than a span of two thousand years.
- Many cultures preceding the ancient Romans may have discovered and used similar versions. Due to the relatively unsophisticated design work required to make a functional birdbath, the idea may have originated from unattended pottery, particularly wash basins, that attracted thirsty birds. Imagining such instances is not hard. After all, Pliny records in his Natural History (book 36, chapter 60) that Sosus, a Greek artist of second century BCE, had composed a mosaic painting that included a dove drinking from a basin-like vessel.
- Bowe, P, DeHart, MD. Gardens and Plants of the Getty Villa. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications, 2011. p. 61.
- Mackey, E, Bernstein, R. “Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples.” Museum Associates / Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2009: http://www.lacma.org/eduprograms/EvesforEds/PompeiiandtheRomanVillaEssay.pdf.
- Bowe, P. Gardens of the Roman World. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications, 2004. p. 96.
- Engels, DW. Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat. New York: Routledge, 2001. p. 98.
- Note that the Galla Placidia mausoleum hyperlink (via University of Columbia) provides an interactive, 360-degree view inside the structure.