Great Rooms: Livia’s Dining Room in Rome

ColorTherapy

I haven’t offered anything under my Great Rooms series in so long that I forgot such a thing existed. So for your consideration: Livia’s dining room.

This is the villa of the wife of Emperor Augustus, ca. 30 B.C., and may have been part of her dowry upon marriage. It was discovered in the 1500s and attributed to Livia much later; excavations have been ongoing. Also, it was believed to be a summer residence because several of the rooms were subterranean — the earth would keep them cool.

Anyone interested in any of this history should go immediately rent I, Claudius (don’t touch the figs). But picture this: you’re the wife of the emperor and standard bearer of good taste, so what else would you have adorn your dining room but an elaborate garden in fresco?

At first, you may think this a bit crude compared to the frescoes of the high Renaissance, but look again. The way the leaves and flowers torque and fold are incredibly sophisticated in terms of shape, gesture, value and color — this wasn’t any artists first time at bat. There’s an ambiguity to the sky/ground relationship that renders the room haunting and mysterious, yet quiet moments of whimsy keep the mood light. It’s been noted elsewhere that the rendering of horticulture is quite specific, though here my notes fail me. Suffice it to say, I’m impressed.

As per museum notes, Livia started the trend for garden frescos in dining rooms for the following centuries. You can sit on the benches here and almost imagine a dinner of wild boar and grapes.

MORE INFO: Palazzo Massimo, Rome

- Mark Chamberlain, interior and decorative painter