Livia's Garden Painting at Prima Porta Term Paper

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Livias Garden

The Technical, Symbolic and Cultural Implications of the Garden Painting at Prima Porta

When Augustus evolved to take on the mantle of Octavian, uniting ruler of the glorious Roman Empire, his tenure would initiate a period characterized by an interest in reform, rebirth and the strict maintenance of peace-time conditions. His rule is one which, even today in historical reflection and through the lens of Roman mythology, reflects a high-water mark with respect to the cultural state of affairs. In some of the most well-known and singular pieces to come from this time and place, we are shown something of the combined public sentiment and self-declaration which preserved Augustus in a place of high regard to history. Particularly, in such works of art as were produced in close vicinity to the city of Rome from which he held a seat of sweeping and revered authority, there is an opportunity to observe some of the qualities which the Emperor pointedly sought to associate with his rule and the era there represented for Rome, Romans and the world under their purview.Download full Download Microsoft Word File
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TOPIC: Term Paper on Livia's Garden Painting at Prima Porta Assignment

This opportunity invites an assessment of the remarkable and unparalleled work, Livia's Garden Room at Prima Porta. Also referred to as the villa ad Gallinas Albas, the work is a wall mural that establishe the total visual presentation of a room hidden beneath the surface of the palatial capital of the modestly-sized Prima Porta. Occupying all four walls of an otherwise simple room without windows, it invites comparison to the experience of being in a garden or, perhaps more accurately, a grotto. (Lusnia 2001, 137) the most immediately striking aspect of the piece is its attempted inducement of certain tangible senses pertaining to the overarching peace and naturally majesty which are there portrayed. One of the greatest motives which we historians have adopted for the construction of the garden room seems to underscore the grace and beauty recommending the piece. Though it is today observable in the National Museum in Rome (Palazzo Massimo), the Garden Room had originally been discovered in the 19th century by archaeologists in the villa of Prima Porta, which "occupied the height dominating the view down the Tiber valley to Rome." (Wikipedia, 1) in its original context, its elegance would have been appropriate to both its time and purpose. The former would be that of Augustan triumph and the latter would be the gift that this place would represent to his bride, Livia.

Though much is obscured to us by the passage of centuries where the site was subjected to a sustained neglect, there is some sense of the cause for this work in the legend which surrounds the approaching marriage between Augustus and Livia. With the utmost of consistency, scholarly sources have focused in some aspect on the "relationship between the omen of the gallina alba, associated with the marriage of Livia and Octavian/Augustus and both the villa with its gardens and the underground chamber with its famous garden paintings." (Lusnia 2001, 137) Some focus in this discussion will be paid to the symbolic importance of the garden paintings within the larger context of both the villa and Rome at large. In all resonated a commonness of theme and practice, with the vegetation and greenness of the work finding direct reflection in the courts and public grounds stretching down the length of the Tiber River.

As will be further addressed also in this discussion, the fact of the geographical location of Prima Porta plays great importance in an assessment of the paintings once hidden there within. Contained as they were within the direct orbit of the Emperor's capital, the villas from Prima Porta to Rome were by purpose a visual reminder of the resource and rebirth of Augustan Rome. It is appropriate before fully examining the painting itself therefore to touch upon Prima Porta's reflection of this purposes. To this extent, Kellum (1994) provides a fitting contextualization to the discussion at hand. The text observes that "throughout the Augustan city, sacred groves and individual trees provided not only much-needed shade and urban punctuation, but also a living link with the purity of the city's primeval past, when 'once upon a time trees were the temples of the gods,' and at the same time they affirmed the continuation of the golden age that was at hand. Like man of the sculptures or paintings on exhibit with them, these natural wonders served as living unities of meaning within the Augustan system of visual communication." (Kellum, 211) it is thus that the painted works contained therein would reflect a greater purpose even as, to our eyes today, they reflect something quite artistically individual.

By the most basic and general description of the particular artifact, "the Garden frescoes decorated a windowless, underground room (hypogeum) of considerable size, which was discovered in 1863." (Walker, 1) the nature of the painting is such that it warrants consideration for technical, symbolic and cultural value. With regard to its technical implications, the piece would become an important representative work from the era of its conception. So known as the Second Style era of Roman wall painting, the movement encompassing this painting would be prominently indicative of a forward momentum in the technical representation of depth and realism. Hoover (2001) explains that "in the second style Roman wall painting, called the "architectural style," space extends beyond the room with various perspective ("illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat two-dimensional surface) devices. Roman artists came close to developing a true linear perspective." (Hoover, 1) This is certainly an observation which can be verified by the closer inspection to which we will here subject the piece in question, featured in Figure a below in its museum context at an angle featuring the door and portions of two intersecting walls.

Figure a: Door Wall of Villa Garden at http://www.artoffresco.com/03-History/03.6-rome/03.6-history-rome.htm

As seen here above, "the painted garden runs along all four wall of the hypogeum, which was perhaps used by the owners as a summer room." (Walker, 1) Indeed, this is characteristic of the manner in which we are left largely to speculate as to social or cultural implications of such a visual impression as the remarkable frescoes spanning the hidden room in Prima Porta. Though much of the discourse on these images concerns the semiotic value of the lush vegetation and the apparent aviary density of the Rome there depicted, there is little concrete information allowing us to say for certain what the use or intent of the room containing them. Still, we are given over to much speculation based on the enveloping impact of the murals, which cover floor to ceiling and, we must imagine in their original luster, were a chromatically captivating sensual experience. The implications of fertility, the sheer dominance of greenery and the fantastical presence of many species of birds altogether are featured in the legend surrounding the matrimony of Livia and Octavian.

So told, "an omen occurred at the time of Livia's marriage to Octavian: an eagle carrying a white hen with a sprig of Laurel in her beak dropped the bird unharmed into Livia's lap." (Flory, 346) in outcome, the legend tells, Prima Porta, which would witness the event, would thereafter become the site of a flourishing laurel grove and a multitudinous flock of fertile hens. The notions of reproductive fertility and of thriving plant life would be together affiliated with the notion of the Octavian rule, with the unity brought to Rome characterized as rebirth and as a flourishing ground soil for the promise of future generations. The association between the might and persistence of Rome and the iconographic appeal of its green imagery helps to give us some appreciation for the conceptual appeal of the mural indulgences due for discussion here.

If Livia was to take from the strange occasion of the white hen an indication as to her future fertility, or as to her impact on the future of the Roman Empire, so would this anecdote play crucially into the mythology which Augustus would work so hard to endorse. Here would be the recollection of symbols and impressions to suggest a close historical link between the emperor and the rooted primacy of the royal dynasty from which he claimed descent. To this extent, Flory (1989) would report that the story of Livia's omen has been characterized historically by scholars "as an example of how Octavian appropriated the laurel as a personal symbol during the triumviral period in order to imitate Julius Caesar and to surround himself with divinity given omina imperii." (Flory, 346)

The term omina imperii is an important principal to our discussion, perhaps pointing to the most important and compelling reasons for the persistence of symbolic entities such as the laurel, the bird and the garden in general. The themes of life and fertility, very much at play in the painting adorning the garden room, are also detailed with carefully selected garden and forest entities that bear close and inextricable connection to the persistence of… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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