The Fresco at Villa of Livia Prima Porta

Our blog takes a look at one of the most popular Roman frescoes located at the villa of emperor Augustus’ wife, Livia Drusilla from circa 39 BCE. The Garden Room Frescoes have been moved from the villa and were reinstalled in the Palazzo Museum.

The Garden Room Fresco

Livia’s Triclinium (Dining Room)

In the villa, there are three vaulted subterranean rooms, and the largest was Livia’s triclinium, dining room, and features a panoramic fresco of an illusionistic garden with different species of flora and fauna. The fresco depicts various trees, plants, and fruits as well as birds and insects. The room measures at 40 feet long and 20 feet wide with a barrel-vaulted ceiling and no other representations of architectural features or frescoes, thus placing its onlooker “outside,” given the completely natural landscape.

The Discovery of the Villa and Fresco

The ruins were discovered in 1598, but the frescoes were not discovered until the archaeological excavations in 1863-1864. The frescoes themselves are dated to the second half of the first century BCE. In the 1800s, the villa belonged to the Convent of Santa Maria in Via Lata, and the four panels of the Garden Fresco were detached from the villa and placed in the Palazzo Museum in the 1950s. The villa itself has since undergone more excavations in 1970 and 1995.

Outside View

What is a Fresco?

Generally, a fresco is a technique of mural painting in which pigments are applied to lime plaster, resulting in a mural’s permanent placement in the wall. There are different types of frescos that vary in the number of layers that are applied to plaster or how the pigments are applied. Frescoes have been dated all the way back to Ancient Egypt circa 3500-3200 BCE, but the frescoes found in Ancient Rome are typically known as buon frescoes. This technique refers to when pigments are mixed with room temperature water and applied on a thin layer of wet plaster, as opposed to mixing it with lime water or lime milk.

What is in the Garden?

There are four types of Roman wall paintings, and the Garden Fresco seems to use influences from the second type, known as Architectural. While it does not contain any architectural elements, it does create a realistic viewing space of the garden with great accuracy. The lowest stone on the wall contains two fences with a thicket of foliage to give the mural a sense of depth. Some of the plant species identified in the fresco include umbrella pine, oak, red fir, quince, pomegranate, myrtle, oleander, date palm, strawberry, laurel, viburnum, holm oak, boxwood, cypress, ivy, acanthus, rose, poppy, chrysanthemum, chamomile, fern, violet, and iris.

Other Highlights of the Villa

Perhaps the most notable find in the villa, other than the Garden Fresco, is the full-length portrait statue of Augustus Ceasar, Augustus of Prima Porta. That statue is about 2 meters tall and weighs 1000 kg. This marble statue is thought to be a copy of a lost bronze original and is currently on display at the Vatican Museum.

Augustus of Prima Porta found at the Villa
Augustus of Prima Porta

Conclusively, Ancient Rome is full of countless artistic treasure, and planning a trip to museums in Rome can be overwhelming because there is so much to see. However, certain works are essential representatives of Roman history and art. For your next trip to Rome, keep an eye out for some of these examples of antiquity and put the Palazzo Museum on your itinerary.

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Rebeccah Swerdlow

Rebeccah has loved arts and museums for as long as she can remember. From a young age, she has seen much of the world and its treasures and perspectives. She has always loved learning about other cultures, so she decided to pursue an undergraduate degree at Loyola University Maryland with a double major in History and Art History, with a focus on Ancient Greece and Rome. While finishing her degree, she completed a research fellowship and was published in the Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies. She has volunteered at her local historical society and the Baltimore Museum of Art and worked in her university gallery. She then received her Master’s degree at the University of Delaware in Art History where she also worked with curatorial teams for exhibits at the Winterthur Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts as well as the university’s gallery. Rebeccah has frequented museums and galleries in the DC area for years. When she isn’t in a museum, you can find her working in the library of the Naval Historic and Heritage Command while earning her certification from the Society of American Archivists. Rebeccah values history, culture, and learning with the highest degree.
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