How the discourse around roses changed

You may think that roses have always symbolized courteous romance, but art history describes their smuttier private life. Consider the pouting red blooms in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Venus Verticordia,’ which the art critic John Ruskin considered so obscene that he refused to continue his friendship with the painter. Ruskin admired the execution when he first saw ‘Venus Verticordia’ in Rossetti’s studio in 1865 but later reviled the crude suggestiveness. ‘I purposely used the word “wonderfully” painted about those flowers,’ he later wrote to Rossetti with deep concern. ‘They were wonderful to me, in their realism; awful – I can use no other word – in their coarseness.’

Ruskin’s anxiety reflected a common understanding of the red rose as a symbol of lust. The Victorian period witnessed a fad for floral symbolism, and multiple books were published to define the ‘language of flowers.’ The red rose was deemed scandalously sensuous. The association persisted into the modern world. According to a well-known rumor, the enigmatic ‘Rosebud’ of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane alluded to a private joke. William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for the character of Charles Foster Kane, used it as the codeword for the pudenda of his mistress, Marion Davies.

The link between roses and lewdness extends like a taproot back into the classical world. In the poetry of Sappho from the sixth-century BC, there are references to planting roses at the shrine of Aphrodite, goddess of love and sexuality. Aphrodite and her Roman equivalent Venus are therefore usually accompanied by velvety-petalled roses when they are represented in art, as you can see in Botticelli’s ‘Birth of Venus’ and Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino.’

Ancient Greek poets such as Sappho and Anacreon inaugurated the association between roses and love. But in the hands of Roman historians, roses became linked to decadence, immorality, and rampant sexual desire. This reflects a more widespread Roman cultural obsession with roses, which they farmed in the flushed fields of Egypt and Spain and imported on an industrial scale. Our modern transnational flower industry is no different. As many as 250 million roses are harvested for Valentine’s Day from climate-controlled farms in Colombia, Kenya, and the Netherlands and delivered at the perfect moment in their lifecycle to customers across the globe.


Publication date:

Receive the daily newsletter in your email for free | Click here

Other news in this sector:

Sign up for our daily Newsletter and stay up to date with all the latest news!

Subscribe I am already a subscriber