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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Natural World Art: Frescoed Wall from the House of Livia

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Frescoed Wall from the House of Livia

Frescoed Wall from the House of Livia
Artist / Origin: Roman artist
Region: Europe
Date: ca. 1st century BCE
Period: 500 BCE – 1 CE
Material: Mural
Medium: Painting
Dimensions: L: 19 ft. (5.90 m.)
Location: Museo Nazionale Romano (Palazzo Massimo alle Terme), Rome, Italy
Credit: Courtesy of SCALA/Art Resource, NY/Photo by Liciano Romano

A peristyle courtyard was a popular feature of ancient Roman villas.

Surrounded by a covered walkway, this interior garden space was sometimes set at the back of a house, but more often at the very center, where it provided much needed light and ventilation. Gardens frequently included small sculptures and fountains in addition to a diverse range of plant life. During the early imperial period, gardens also became popular motifs for murals painted on the walls of villa interiors.

An 1863 excavation of the house of Livia Drusilla (58 BCE–29 CE), wife of the Emperor Augustus, in the Roman suburb of Prima Porta uncovered a series of four magnificent frescoes decorating the walls of an underground triclinium, or dining room. These illusionistic wall paintings are filled with images of exotic birds and a variety of flowers, plants, and trees. The flora and fauna were, in fact, depicted in such great detail that scholars have been able to identify many of the species represented. Among the vegetation, for instance, are strawberry trees, oleander, Italian cypresses, date palms, and English oak. These images were surely intended to provide visual entertainment for guests and likely contributed a sense of comfort and openness to the subterranean space. However, it has also been suggested that this natural imagery functioned on a symbolic level as well.

One of the most abundantly represented plants in the so-called Garden Room is the bay laurel, a type that held special significance for Livia. In the ancient world, Livia’s house was known as the Villa ad Gallinas Albas (House of the White Hen). As related by Pliny the Elder (23–79 CE) in his Historia Naturalis(Natural History), when Livia was newly betrothed, a white hen holding a laurel branch in its beak dropped into her lap. The event was interpreted as an omen of good fortune, laurel being not only a symbol of peace and victory, but also, as an evergreen, associated with virtue and immortality. Livia supposedly planted the branch, which eventually yielded an entire laurel grove on the Prima Porta estate. Augustus was also closely linked with the laurel tree, using it frequently a symbol of his reign, which brought unprecedented peace and prosperity to Rome.

Additional Resources

Clarke, John R. The Houses of Roman Italy, 100 B.C.–A.D. 250: Ritual, Space, and Decoration. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991.

Farrar, Linda. Ancient Roman Gardens, rev. ed. Charleston: History Press, 2000.

Kellum, Barbara. “The Construction of Landscape in Augustan Rome: The Garden Room at the Villa ad Gallinas.” Art Bulletin 76.2 (June 1994): 211–224.

MacDougall, Elizabeth Blair. Ancient Roman Villa Gardens. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1987.

Reeder, Jane Clark. The Villa of Livia Ad Gallinas Albas. Providence, RI: The Center for Old World Archaeology and Art, Brown University, 2001.

Rozenberg, Silvia. Enchanted Landscapes: Wall Paintings from the Roman Era. London: Thames & Hudson, 1994.

Von Stackelberg, Katharine T. Roman Gardens: A Cultural History. London: Routledge, 2009.

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