When in Rome…

Livia’s Garden Fresco

Last summer, Rob and I were on a mini-break in Rome with my parents. On the last day, we arrived at the station far too early for our train back to the airport. Spotting a museum across the street, we decided to pop in to kill some time, but the museum (the Palazzo Massimo) turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. On the ground floor was a fine collection of Roman portrait sculpture, and three breath-taking Greek bronze statues from the 5th century BC (any one of which could have been the highlight of a museum in its own right). Things got even better upstairs, with one of the finest collections of classical statuary I think I’ve ever seen (much better than the monotonous corridors of the Vatican Museum), each lit and displayed to perfection. But the real highlight for me was the next floor up, which was devoted to Roman frescoes, including an entire room covered on all four walls in life-size paintings of a garden, from the villa of Livia (58BC-29AD, wife of the Roman Emperor Augustus, which was located just outside Rome.  Walking into the room containing Livia’s garden fresco really was like stepping back 2,000 years: I could feel the calming effect of the lush, naturalistic planting, and almost sense Livia, Augustus and their dining guests there with me in what would have been their dining room (helped by the fact that this stunning museum seems to be little visited, and I had the room to myself).

The artist has depicted many different plants stylistically, but also accurately such that they are identifiable (although the garden is idealised in the sense that not all the flowers and fruits would be present simultaneously in real life). The design elements that garden designers strive to achieve today stretch back at least 2,000 years, and are clearly present in the design of this garden. For example: rhythm (for instance, the repeated niches in the wall, each containing a coniferous tree), unity (all the elements working together to create an harmonious whole, achieved through repetition in the planting and the marble wall and latticework fence running along the whole composition), proportion (the Romans certainly knew a thing or two about this), contrast (for example, the spiky, architectural shape of the palms contrasting with the elegant, conical cypress trees and the sprawling mounds of the fruit bushes) and balance (the same visual dominance of plants on both sides of the composition). Even with their limited selection of available plants compared with today (or perhaps, thanks to it), the artist has designed a planting scheme to perfection.

Livia's garden fresco. Detail of a quince tree Cydonia oblonga and red flowers of Rosa gallica var. officinalis (the apothecary's rose).

The golden fruits of a quince tree Cydonia oblonga and red flowers of Rosa gallica var. officinalis (the apothecary’s rose).


Livia's garden fresco. Detail of Rosa gallica.

Detail of the roses, with golden stamens visible in the centre of the flower.


Livia's garden fresco.

On the left, a stone pine (Pinus pinea) occupies a niche in the garden wall, with bear’s breech (Acanthus mollis) growing at its base. To the right, birds feast on the fruits of a strawberry tree (Urbuts unedo) and pomegranate tree (Punica granatum) which groans with fruit. Further to the right is an Italian Cypress (Cupressus sempervirens) and a young date palm (Phoenix dactylifera). Flowers depicted in the foreground, just behind the wall, are yellow chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium) and red Rosa gallica var. officinalis (the apothecary’s rose). Depicted in the background are box (Buxus sempervirens), laurel (Laurus nobilis), common myrtle (Myrtus communis) and Cornelian Cherry (Cornus mas). In front of the wall along the garden path, are early dog violet (Viola reichenbachiana), hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium), and Iris.


Livia's garden fresco. Detail of Norway spruce (Picea abies).

Growing in another niche in the wall is a Norway spruce (Picea abies), flanked by a quince on the left and a pomegranate on the right, with more yellow chrystanthemum growing up behind the wall.


Livia's garden fresco. Details of flowers including poppies and violets.

Left: Another strawberry tree, date palm and quince, with more yellow chrysanthemum. Right: detail of Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) and  Anthemis cotula (foul chamomile) poking over the wall and, in front of the wall, Viola reichenbachiana with flowers just visible.


The experience reminded me of another encounter with a Roman garden fresco, at the British Museum’s Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition in 2013, where the fresco from the house of the Golden Bracelet was displayed. In this garden, sculpture is beautifully integrated into the planting, including a fluted basin containing a bubbling fountain and a pair of hanging theatrical masks.

Garden fresco from the house of the Golden Bracelet in Pompeii. Detail of fountain and pigeon.
Photo by Stefano Bolognini, Wikimedia Commons


Garden fresco from the house of the Golden Bracelet in Pompeii. Detail of flowers including Lilium candidum (Madonna lily), oleander, poppies and rosa mundi.
Photos by Stefano Bolognini, Wikimedia Commons

Again, the plants are accurately depicted and include several additional species to those listed above, including Rosa gallica var. officinalis ‘Versicolor) (the beautiful red and white striped Rosa mundi), Oleander (Nerium oleander), Madonna lily (Lilium candidum) and giant bindweed (Calystegia silvatica): all so evocative of these beautiful ancient gardens that I vowed to include them in my own garden, which was beginning to take shape at the time (the bindweed being already present!), along with other plants widely depicted in Roman art such as Vitis vinifera (grape vines, to be grown on a pergola, also a feature of Roman gardens), Ficus carica (figs), Malus domestica (apples), Olea europea (olives), and Prunus persica (peach).

Nerium oleander 'Tito Poggi' and Vitis vinifer 'Seyval Blanc'.

Nerium oleander ‘Tito Poggi’ and Vitis vinifer ‘Seyval Blanc’ bring a touch of ancient Rome to Camberwell.


Lilium candidum (Madonna lily) growing in my garden.

The beautiful, waxy flowers of Lilium candidum (Madonna Lily) which has been cultivated for millennia and fills the garden with what is in my opinion the finest scent of all lilies in early summer. They thrive in a sunny spot on the gravelly soil in my garden.

Punica granatum (pomegranate) flowers and fruits in my garden.

A young pomegranate bush produces lovely orange, tissue paper-like flowers followed by young fruits, though the fruits drop off while still young. I am hoping this is because the plant is still young, and I will get pomegranates once it is a bit more mature.


  1. Your blog is a delightful find! I appreciate its mix of anecdote, observation and scholarship. I stumbled across it while searching for a roman depiction of an oleander sappling such as I planted in my own garden on Friday morning. Palazzo Massimo alla Terme museum is on my list for my next dreamed-of visit to Rome.

    • Thank you so much for your kind comments. I’ve been quite busy with work lately, but will hopefully be posting more in the coming weeks…

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