Livia's Villa at Prima Porta, 15km north of Rome, is frequently described as “ad gallinas albas” (white hens). This is a reference to the story that on the day of Livia’s marriage to Augustus in 38BC, an eagle dropped a white hen with a fruited laurel twig in its beak into her lap. She kept the hen for breeding and planted a laurel grove which provided the wreaths worn in Imperial triumphs. The laurel trees appear in the background of the frescoes.

Suetonius relates that the wilting of the trees was considered to presage the death of an emperor, and that at the death of Nero not only did the entire grove wither to the roots, but the whole flock of poultry died as well.

The Garden frescoes decorated a windowless, underground room (hypogeum) of considerable size, which was discovered in 1863.

The painted garden runs along all four walls of the hypogeum, which was perhaps used by the owners as a summer room.

The vast variety of plant species indicates a profound knowledge of ars topiaria, and at the same time underlines the artificial character of this genre of painting, which depicts a flowering evergreen garden without any real connection with time, as diverse species are shown in simultaneous and continuous flowering.

One can recognise firs, cypresses, pines, turkey oaks, holm oaks, and among the fruit trees quince, pomegranate, and palm, as well as oleanders, myrtles, and box-shrubs.

Birds in various poses are placed everywhere.

© Alexandra Walker | The Art of the Fresco, 59-61 Kensington High Street, London W8 5ED | Email