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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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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.