EV­ERY­THING IN THE GAR­DEN’S LOVELY

All About Italy (USA) - - Content - Jenny Scott

Twenty-year old Livia Drusilla must have con­sid­ered her­self lucky. Born in 58 BC into a wealthy noble Ro­man fam­ily - beau­ti­ful, in­tel­li­gent, mar­ried with a son and an­other on the way, ev­ery­thing in her life was pro­ceed­ing as it should to all in­tents and pur­poses. How­ever destiny had other plans for her. De­spite be­ing six months preg­nant with a sec­ond son, a chance meet­ing changed her life for­ever. She caught the eye of the Em­peror Au­gus­tus who it is recorded, fell in love with her on the spot. Au­gus­tus was the great nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar who ap­pointed him his heir in his will. If you val­ued your life you didn’t ar­gue with the Em­peror. Livia’s hus­band Tiberius Claudius Nero - no, not that one - agreed not only to a rapid di­vorce but also to give Livia away when she mar­ried Au­gus­tus. Fol­low­ing that shock dou­ble whammy, he van­ished in a puff of smoke, never to be heard of again. Au­gus­tus di­vorced his much older sec­ond wife Scri­bo­nia on the day she bore him a daugh­ter, Ju­lia. She and his first wife Clau­dia’s marriages lasted only two years apiece. Both unions were for purely po­lit­i­cal rea­sons, per­fectly nor­mal for the times. The em­peror mar­ried Livia in 38 BC, shortly af­ter the birth of her son - it was to be third time lucky for him. Their child­less mar­riage lasted for 51 years un­til Au­gus­tus’s death at the age of 75. Livia out­lived him, dy­ing at the ripe old age of 86. Con­sid­er­ing the aver­age life span at the time was 50 to 60 if you were lucky, their joint longevity was re­mark­able. To­wards the end of her life Livia’s steely char­ac­ter came to the fore as she schemed and plot­ted with a ruth­less re­solve to en­sure her son Tiberius be­came the next em­peror. Au­gus­tus and Livia’s Rome town house sur­pris­ingly not a grand palace de­spite them be­ing the most pow­er­ful cou­ple in the known world

- is near the Tem­ple of Apollo on the ex­clu­sive Pala­tine Hill above the Fo­rum where the Ro­man elite lived in lux­ury, sur­rounded by ser­vants, beau­ti­ful gar­dens, pools and foun­tains. The house can be vis­ited to­day. Livia was a good man­ager of house­hold af­fairs. She was un­os­ten­ta­tious in her dress and man­ner, treated her in­fe­ri­ors with con­sid­er­a­tion and even made clothes for her pow­er­ful hus­band. Au­gus­tus learned to trust her judge­ment, re­ly­ing on her ad­vice in­creas­ingly as the years passed by. She be­came the quiet in­flu­en­tial power be­hind the throne and was given the hon­our of be­com­ing the first Ro­man woman to have a coin minted with her im­age on it in 16 BC. Livia was un­doubt­edly Rome’s very first First Lady. Upon her mar­riage, Livia brought her fam­i­lies’ coun­try villa at Prima Porta as part of her dowry. It’s about nine miles north of Rome - a day’s jour­ney in those times. Built on a hill with com­mand­ing views over the Tiber val­ley, the villa was called Villa ad

Gal­li­nas Al­bas - villa of the white chick­ens. The rea­son for this cu­ri­ous name be­ing that Livia had a dream where an ea­gle dropped a pure white chicken car­ry­ing a lau­rel branch in its beak into her lap. Sooth­say­ers pro­nounced that she should al­ways keep a flock of white hens at the villa and plant a lau­rel grove in the mid­dle of the gar­den. This she did. The lau­rels, which she tended her­self, grew so vig­or­ously they were used to make tri­umphal wreaths for the rest of Au­gus­tus’s reign and in­deed for gen­er­a­tions to come. Both she and Au­gus­tus clearly en­joyed gar­dens and the out­doors. Most of the villa’s bed­rooms lead onto a court­yard or di­rectly into the gar­den which was pro­tected on three sides by a pil­lared por­tico, leav­ing the south­ern view un­hin­dered look­ing out across the Tiber val­ley the hills be­yond. The ef­fect is no longer as im­pres­sive as its im­me­di­ate sur­round­ings are rather built up to­day. This open liv­ing style is a very early ex­am­ple of the in­te­gra­tion of land­scape, gar­dens and ar­chi­tec­ture into one har­mo­nious whole, echoed in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury by ar­chi­tects such as Frank Lloyd Wright with the in­te­gra­tion of his Falling­wa­ters house in Penn­syl­va­nia built in 1935 where the gar­dens and the im­me­di­ate land­scape be­came part of the de­sign, in­te­grated into his global ar­chi­tec­tural con­cept.

The cou­ple’s large gar­den was full of ev­ery imag­in­able plant avail­able at the time, in­clud­ing apri­cots, ap­ples, peaches, plums, pomegranates, figs and olives. Sue­to­nius, a con­tem­po­rary his­to­rian, recorded that they “pre­ferred por­ti­cos and groves to stat­ues and paint­ings”. Livia had a small pri­vate gar­den out­side her bed­room where she grew medic­i­nal herbs. Could her use of them be a clue to her long life? Au­gus­tus im­proved the villa, which was al­ready spa­cious and el­e­gant with its painted walls, coloured mar­ble and mo­saic floors, frag­ments of which can be seen to­day. In ad­di­tion to its sum­mer use, it was de­signed to be an all­weather re­treat with un­der floor heat­ing, ther­mal baths and pro­tected pri­vate win­ter quar­ters. The villa fea­tured three vaulted rooms, built half be­low ground to keep its oc­cu­pants cool dur­ing the scorch­ingly hot sum­mers. They had dec­o­rated stucco ceil­ings of which frag­ments re­main. The din­ing room would have been fur­nished with low di­vans for guests to re­cline on with ta­bles be­fore them as ser­vants bought in end­less plat­ters of food such as chicken – not those lovely white ones surely – a va­ri­ety of meats, eggs, olives, veg­eta­bles, fruit, fresh or dried and wine, in­vari­ably di­luted with wa­ter. It was con­sid­ered vul­gar to drink it neat. One es­pe­cially tasty morsel served as a starter was dormice dipped in honey rolled in poppy seeds. Din­ner par­ties could last as long as eight

hours. No won­der they needed those di­vans. The Din­ing Room, which seated up to 16 peo­ple at a pinch, fea­tured one of the most beau­ti­ful and charm­ing Ro­man mu­rals ever dis­cov­ered. Depict­ing a gar­den scene com­plete with birds, flow­ers and fruit, all flow­er­ing and fruit­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously for max­i­mum ef­fect. Iris, ole­an­ders, roses, vi­o­lets, pop­pies, acan­thus and chrysan­the­mums bloom in uni­son. Cre­ated be­tween 30 – 20 BC, run­ning right round the room, par­tridges, doves and goldfinches fly amid the sun-lit trees or feed on the fruits. A goldfinch is trapped in a small golden cage placed on a wall. The painted gar­den is sur­rounded by a picket fence with a bound­ary wall in the back­ground. Dis­cov­ered in 1863 it was even­tu­ally re­moved and re­stored and is on view at the Palazzo Mas­simo Mu­seum in Rome. Well worth a visit for the mu­ral alone. It’s a pity there isn’t a re­ally good fac­sim­ile in the ac­tual room at the villa - due to a lack of funds need­less to say.

The villa was ex­tended and re­stored over the next four cen­turies, adding bet­ter heat­ing sys­tems, baths, sau­nas and cold rooms, fash­ion­able larger re­cep­tion rooms and a swim­ming pool be­fore be­ing aban­doned and looted in the 5th cen­tury. The re­mains of the villa were first un­earthed in the six­teenth cen­tury. Se­ri­ous ex­ca­va­tion work did not take place un­til 1863 when apart from the gar­den mu­ral, an im­pos­ing statue of Au­gus­tus was dis­cov­ered, now in the Vat­i­can mu­seum. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists con­tinue to work on the villa to­day. Sur­rounded by a pleas­ant park, Livia’s villa is open to the pub­lic on Thurs­days and Fri­days 9.30 – 1.30 Ad­mis­sion is free. If you don’t have a car, catch a Roma Nord train from Pi­azza Flaminia to Prima Porta. Af­ter vis­it­ing the villa and its lit­tle mu­seum, fol­lowed by a walk in the park you might well feel like a bite to eat. If you do have trans­port, Il Grot­tino at Via Tibe­rina, Pian dell’olmo is a rus­tic trat­to­ria serv­ing sim­ple Ro­man dishes made from fresh lo­cally sourced in­gre­di­ents. Clas­sic Ro­man food at its best the likes of which Au­gus­tus and his Livia might well have en­joyed in that beau­ti­ful din­ing room more than two thou­sand years ago. No dormice dipped in honey on the menu – you’ll have to look fur­ther afield for that sought af­ter del­i­cacy.

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