In his Historia Naturalis (Natural History), Pliny the Elder describes how Livia Drusilla – newly betrothed to Gaius Octavius, the future Emperor Augustus – was sitting in her garden in the countryside outside Rome when an eagle flew overhead. In its talons was a white hen which it dropped, the startled fowl landing in Livia’s lap with a sprig of laurel in its beak. The event was clearly an auspicious omen and after consulting the oracles, Livia planted the laurel – a symbol not only of victory and peace but of immortality and virtue too – which grew into a sacred grove from whose branches the crowns that adorned Rome’s champions were later fashioned.
The grove was situated on the Prima Porta estate some eight miles north of Rome where the Via Flaminia and Via Tiberina fork: the site took its name, “First Door”, from an arch of an aqueduct which told travellers they had arrived at Rome. There was an existing villa on the estate which was probably part of Livia’s dowry, and with the precipitate arrival of the fowl carrying its sign from the gods, the house was renamed the Villa Ad Gallinas Albas – the House of the White Hen – though it is familiarly known as the Villa of Livia.
The estate and villa were on a levelled hilltop from which Augustus and his wife could look out on Rome, the Tiber and the Apennines and offered the empire’s first couple a respite from both the heat and politicking of Rome.
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Livia was a formidable figure in her own right. She was pregnant with Drusus, her second son, when she divorced Tiberius Claudius Nero to marry Octavian in 38 BC (she was his third wife). When in 27 BC the senate elevated Octavian, heir of his great-uncle Julius Caesar, to princeps – “first man” – he changed his name to Augustus and became Rome’s de facto first emperor.
Livia acted as both an essential adviser and helpmeet as Augustus (reigned 27 BC-AD 14) fashioned the Pax Romana, a fabled era of peace and prosperity. Although at his death, thanks to her sometimes unscrupulous methods in dispatching his enemies and family rivals, opponents spread the tenacious rumour that she had fed him figs which she had smeared with poison while they were on the tree. Livia continued to guide Roman politics through her son Tiberius. She died in AD 29 and was posthumously deified by her grandson Claudius.
If Augustus boasted that “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble”, then his wife could make claims of her own about her country demesne. She expanded the existing structure and grounds into an idyllic realm with gardens and courtyards comprising half the domain, including one terrace surrounded by 150 columns. It wasn’t the real gardens, however, that were the villa’s most notable feature, but a fictitious one.
The villa was abandoned in AD 5 and was lost for more than a millennium: it was discovered in the late 16th century but its significance was missed, and it wasn’t until the excavations organised by Count Francesco Senni in 1863-64 that the identity of the site was understood. Among other material, the diggers unearthed the celebrated marble statue of Augustus – now known as the Augustus Prima Porta – that was based on a lost bronze, and other statuary representing gods and a head supposedly of Livia herself (all have subsequently disappeared). The most remarkable find though was not in marble but paint. The dig revealed a semi-underground room whose roof had collapsed but the walls were decorated with extraordinary frescoes showing a garden in full bloom, dripping with fruit and filled with birds.
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Other Roman murals show the natural world, but usually glimpsed through painted windows or between columns. The Garden Room murals, now in the Palazzo Massimo museum in Rome, took this trompe l’oeil tradition to new levels of illusionism. The gardens they show cover all four walls and are the most complete works of nature painting that have survived from antiquity.
Roman wall painting is traditionally divided into four styles, and it was during Augustus’s reign that, according to Pliny, an artist named Studius “first introduced the most attractive fashion of painting walls with villas, and landscape gardens, groves, woods, hills, fish-pools, canals, rivers, coasts”, which produced “a charming effect with minimal expense”. Who was responsible for painting Livia’s Garden Room is unknown, but stylistic differences show that more than one artist was involved.
The Augustan architectural writer Vitruvius described walls being prepared with up to seven layers of plaster, sometimes with sheets of lead inserted to block moisture, and a topcoat rich in marble dust to give a smooth surface before the artists set to work. They would paint quickly with both natural pigments and others refined from heating minerals, and as the plaster dried the colours became part of the walls. Touching up could be done a secco – on the dried walls. So a scheme such as the Garden Room needed careful planning.
The vaulted room – a triclinium (dining room), so named because the couches were laid out in groups of three – is 40ft long by 20ft wide, and built partly underground to protect it from the summer heat. As they ate, Livia, her family and guests were surrounded by images of bountiful nature so they could imagine themselves at ease in the most fecund of gardens, with the room seemingly opening up into a garden with paths, a wicker fence and a low stone wall with an abundance of greenery beyond. Here was a continuation of the gardens of the villa above, but even more fertile.
So accurate are the paintings that some 24 species have been identified, many of which were native to the Italian peninsula while others showed the reach of the empire. They represent a botanical catalogue, with everything from pines, firs, oaks and date palms to strawberries, chamomile, poppies and acanthus. As empress, Livia had a particular interest in plants, with some of her independent wealth coming from papyrus marshes in Egypt and palm groves in the Near East. Where the perfect illusion of the room is allowed to slip is that on Livia’s walls the seasons didn’t exist: here, everything flowers and fruits at the same time, as if an eternal spring and summer were hers to command.
At one point on the painted garden wall, a birdcage is carefully balanced, suggesting that the diners had live birds to accompany them as they ate – either in cages or flying loose around the room. And the frescoes’ painted birds are just as accurate as the flora, with 69 types from pheasants to finches.
There was something else at play too – the scheme was not simply a visual delight but full of references to the Augustan aurea aetas – golden age. Just as the peace brought by Augustus after the turmoil of the civil wars allowed poets such as Ovid and Virgil to hymn the calm delights of country life, so did the age’s painters. The artists of the Garden Room were explicit in their homage.
Laurel is shown in profusion, not just because of the nearby sacred grove but because it was the plant that linked Octavian to the god Apollo (he once dressed up as the god at a dinner that scandalised Rome) and became the symbol of the Augustan and later Julio-Claudian clans. Myrtle, meanwhile, was associated with Venus, the goddess of love (suitable for a betrothal home) and mother of Augustus’s ancestor Aeneas; the quince symbolises love and fertility; the pine was tied to Cybele, mother of the gods, a figure associated with Livia – mother of the empire – especially after her husband’s death. So while some guests would simply enjoy a luxurious visual jeu d’esprit, the more erudite among them could find hidden in the trees a dynastic programme that presented their host and hostess as responsible not just for the well-being of their family but of every citizen in the empire.
This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat