Civilised garden or fantastical wilderness?
These frescoes from the ‘Garden Room’ of the so-called ‘Villa of Livia,’ date to the first century BCE and this room is generally thought to have been painted in around 20 BCE. The room itself was half submerged and was most likely part of a wider system of underground corridors (used as promenades when the sun was too hot outside). It is also very likely, due to its sumptuous decoration, that this room was used as a dining room where the Roman villa owner would host social feasts and dinner parties.
The frescoes of this room have generally been interpreted as an illusionistic rendering of a realistic Roman villa garden; however, with the Roman love for spectacle and myth in mind, it is tempting to argue for a much more imaginative interpretation. What happens if we look at these frescoes through a mythological lens instead? There is, of course, an initial impression of illusionism and realism here, when a viewer first enters the room, but this is where the effect ends. On closer inspection, the illusionism very quickly breaks down and these frescoes become much less “real” and quotidian than they initially seemed.
The first, perhaps obvious, point to make is that as a viewer gets closer, the distant landscape does not of course get any clearer. The art of representation gets in the way of the realities of nature and perspective. The effect, instead, is that the abstract ‘background’ becomes even more dominant in the viewer’s visual field. The brushwork of the background is strikingly ill-defined in comparison with the detail in the foreground, and this distinction is not gradual (as one would expect in a real perspective view) but rather sudden. The viewer soon realises, as they look closer at the frescoes, that there are in fact only one or two layers of flora and fauna rendered in detail before the depiction trails off into indefinite sketchiness.
The perspective of this room is just one of the ways in which the initial civilised image of a realistic garden is broken down by subtle effects that undermine the illusionism. There is something unstable and strange about the landscape depicted here, something that is far from reality and that undermines the safe familiarity of a real garden. Von Blanckenhagen and Alexander nicely summarise this effect:
‘Out of elements that have the appearance of realistic renderings of real things to be recognized and indeed easily recognizable, the painter has built up an entirely unreal world.’
 Von Blanckenhagen and Alexander, 1990: 30.
This image is in the Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.