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Empire: Painted Garden, Villa of Livia

Painted Garden, Villa of Livia, fresco, 30-20 B.C.E. (Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo, Rome) Plant species 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. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Ari Mendelson
    This painting looks in exceptionally great condition for an ancient painting. Has it been restored? If not, how was in preserved so well?
    (54 votes)
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  • mr pink red style avatar for user Michael Swearingen
    After the painting was complete, would the artist have used any thing to cover the painting as "sealant" as we might today to help preserve his artwork?
    (10 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user FinallyGoodAtMath
      This is a fresco, which means that the pigment was applied to the wall while the plaster was still wet. Then when the pigment dries, it is actually part of the wall. This is probably why frescos have lasted so long. For comparison, Leonardo's Last Supper is not a fresco. It is a mural painted on a dry wall.
      (12 votes)
  • leaf red style avatar for user Marisa Moolick
    How was this painting moved from the villa to the museum?
    (11 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user theworldismybookmark
    Am I correct to have interpreted this style of showing perspective to be very sophisticated for this time? I believe I heard that this was not common until the Renaissance. Was this technique once widely used but was then "forgotten" until the Renaissance?
    (10 votes)
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  • leaf grey style avatar for user SW
    From many cultures and different artists, i wonder what type of paint they used to make the room? From a type of plant? mineral? Or a animal?
    (5 votes)
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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Justin Murakami
    Are these birds and plants that are native to the area near Livia's villa, or are they fanciful or imports from other parts of the Empire?
    (3 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user merawaters
      These appear to be flora and fauna that could easily be part of the landscape around the area at the time. Recognizable trees include an oak (not sure of variety), pomegranate tree with Italian cypress in the background. Birds include what appear to be goldfinches, a white peacock and ravens or crows. All of these could have been from the area at the time, though the white peacock most likely came from India originally, perhaps through Africa and Egypt before arriving at a noble house in Rome.
      (5 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user Grant A Cole
    Does the birdcage in a garden with birds in abundant freedom all around serve to remind Livia of her lot in life? Not the lot she should have, but the lot that Caesar wishes upon her?
    (3 votes)
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    • old spice man green style avatar for user Addah Rosen
      Just wondering if we are reading too much into the interpretation, if any, of the bird cage? Could it not be that the artist was painting what he "sees" when imaging such a scene from memory and what he saw was a normal practice of "airing" caged birds that were normally kept indoors?
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Joanne Prince
    Does the acanthus plant still exist today?
    (3 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user Alex
    At , could that bird in the cage be an attempt to break or jar, if but momentarily, the freeness and coolness of the art work?
    (3 votes)
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  • mr pink red style avatar for user M. Pranav Rohit Kasinath
    Was this painted by one artist or is it possible that several artists were involved in painting it?
    (2 votes)
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Video transcript

STEVEN ZUCKER: It's a hot day in Rome, but the ancient Romans had figured out how to stay cool. BETH HARRIS: They did. We're in a room that reconstructs a room in the villa of Livia. Livia was the wife of the emperor, Augustus. There was a lovely summer house, a resort, of sorts. And in the villa, there was one room that was partially underground, dug into the rock. STEVEN ZUCKER: Which meant they would stay much cooler in the summer. BETH HARRIS: And we can really appreciate that today. STEVEN ZUCKER: But the sense of coolness would come not only from the actual temperature, but also from the decoration. BETH HARRIS: From the very cool colors that this room is painted in, what the artist did was paint an amazing illusion of a landscape, a garden, as though the walls were not walls at all, but views out beyond a fence, beyond a wall, with trees and bushes and fruits and plants and birds. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's as if the walls have literally dissolved, and this is the great example of the second style of Roman wall painting. BETH HARRIS: The first style was characterized by an attempt to recreate in paint and stucco the marble walls that we've decorated Greek palaces. STEVEN ZUCKER: A kind of faux marble, a kind of trompe l'oeil. BETH HARRIS: Exactly. Now here, instead of the illusion of marble, the artist has created an illusion of nature. STEVEN ZUCKER: And it's nature that spreads out all around us. And it's not a menacing nature. It's a beautiful, cultivated nature. It's full of playful birds. There's fruit in the trees. There are blossoms everywhere. BETH HARRIS: And there's light. The artist has used atmospheric perspective, so that the trees and the leaves that are closest to us are rendered more crisply than the vegetation in the background. STEVEN ZUCKER: The only real architecture that's represented is, as you mentioned, a straw fence, perhaps, within something that looks a little bit more substantial, in a pink-gray. The artist has used that outer wall in order to create a subtle rendering of perspective. And you can see that, as the wall reaches out in a couple of places to enclose trees that are just at the border. BETH HARRIS: So we see poppies and roses and irises and pomegranates and-- STEVEN ZUCKER: Quince. BETH HARRIS: So there's a real sense of variety in the plants, in the flowers, in the fruit, in the types of birds that we see, in the positions of the birds-- some with their wings stretched back, some sitting quietly, some in the sky. There's a real search for the variety of nature. My favorite part is on this one tree that is framed by that pinkish-gray wall. The branches move in exactly the haphazard way that a tree grows. And then there are places where we see light on the leaves and branches and other places where the leaves are in shadow. STEVEN ZUCKER: It seems as if, actually, there's a breeze that's come up. And it's blown some of those leaves over, so that we're seeing the more silvery underside. And then we get the darker shadows of the tops of the leaves. So there's this real sense of the momentary, and of this being a breezy, beautiful day. BETH HARRIS: Yeah, you can almost hear the leaves rustle in the wind. STEVEN ZUCKER: I think my favorite plant is probably the acanthus that grows up around a pine on one of the short sides of the room. And probably the other element that I find most interesting is that in this open-air space, there is perched precariously on that outer wall a bird cage. Now, throughout this entire room, there are paintings of birds that are free, and flying through the open sky. But here we have a bird in a cage. And it reminds me, as I stand in this room, that although these walls have dissolved, I'm still inside.