Botanic analysis of Livia’s villa painted flora (Prima Porta, Roma)

Article (PDF Available)inJournal of Cultural Heritage 4(2):149-155 · April 2003with 552 Reads
DOI: 10.1016/S1296-2074(03)00026-8
Abstract
The frescoes of Livia’s villa at Prima Porta, Rome, are the most famous representations of Roman gardens. The painted flora is analyzed from the scientific viewpoint and previous identifications are critically discussed. Here, 24 different species are described, giving information on the taxonomic, and phytogeographic position. Most of them belong to the spontaneous elements present in the Mediterranean forests, maquis and grasses of Southern Italy, such as Arbutus unedo, Laurus nobilis, Nerium oleander, Quercus ilex, Quercus robur gr., Cornus mas, Myrtus communis, Phyllitis scolopendrium, Viola reichenbachiana, Chrysanthemum coronarium, Anthemis cotula, or widely cultivated, such as Cupressus sempervirens, Cydonia oblonga, Pinus pinea, Punica granatum, Papaver somniferum, Rosa centifolia, Phoenix dactylifera. A symbolistic purpose of the pictures is also clearly evident.
Original article
Botanic analysis of Livia’s villa painted flora (Prima Porta, Roma)
Giulia Caneva *, Lorenza Bohuny
Dipartimento di Biologia, University of Roma Tre, viale Marconi 446, Rome 00146, Italy
Received 11 February 1999; accepted 15 September 2002
Abstract
The frescoes of Livia’s villa at Prima Porta, Rome, are the most famous representations of Roman gardens. The painted flora is analyzed
from the scientific viewpoint and previous identifications are critically discussed. Here, 24 different species are described, giving information
on the taxonomic, and phytogeographic position. Most of them belong to the spontaneous elements present in the Mediterranean forests,
maquis and grasses of Southern Italy, such as Arbutus unedo,Laurus nobilis,Nerium oleander,Quercus ilex,Quercus robur gr., Cornus mas,
Myrtus communis,Phyllitis scolopendrium,Viola reichenbachiana,Chrysanthemum coronarium,Anthemis cotula, or widely cultivated, such
as Cupressus sempervirens,Cydonia oblonga,Pinus pinea,Punica granatum,Papaver somniferum,Rosa centifolia,Phoenix dactylifera.A
symbolistic purpose of the pictures is also clearly evident.
© 2003 Éditions scientifiques et médicales Elsevier SAS. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Roman frescoes; Roman gardens; Painted flora; Botanical iconography
1. Introduction
Livia’s villa at Prima Porta in Rome is located within an
archaeologicalareaofmultiformstructureandisdedicatedto
a variety of functions. Its toponym is drawn from an arch,
which in ancient ages was considered the very entry point to
the city for people coming from the North. Actually, it is
supposed to be a fragment of an aqueduct leading to Livia’s
villa and was mistaken to be one of the gates of Rome only in
the early 13th century, that being the time of the first testi-
mony of this new denomination. Up to then, the area had
been named ad gallinas albas after the legend of a prodi-
gious event, related by Pliny, of a white fowl holding a laurel
branch in its beak falling from the talons of an eagle down on
Livia Drusilla’s lap, later to become Octavian Augustus’
wife.Followingthediviners’order, the emperor kept the fowl
and its offspring, then planted the laurel which soon grew in
a dark sacred grove and its branches would make the wreaths
crowning the emperor’s head to celebrate his triumphs.
From 1863 on, a successful campaign of excavations has
been carried out in this area and in the neighboring territory
called Saxa Rubra because of the reddish color of the tuf-
faceous stone ridge bordering Via Flaminia. Those excava-
tions brought extremely precious finds to light, including the
very famous statue of loricate Augustus and a marvelous
underground rectangular room (11.70 × 5.90; 5.16 m high at
the center of the barrel vaults) with frescos on the four walls
looking like a blooming garden (Figs. 1 and 2)[1].
It was not too long afterwards when the Livia’s suburban
villa [2,3] was identified in the adjoining room and in the
overlooking ones that were dug up and brought to light little
by little. This identification was consolidated by sound docu-
mentation on this monument, the epigraphs unequivocally
referring to Augustus’ wife’s villa, and the walls of the
central nucleus in opus reticulatum going back to the last
republic style. A later discovery concerned a great deal of
restoration and re-intervention work in the course of the late
Julius-Claudius’ age, during the age of theAntonini and even
in the fourth century under Theodoric [4]. On the other hand,
because of the very high symbolic value attributed to a sacred
place to the memory of Rome, chosen by divinity to signify
the goodwill granted to the elected birth, the monument
would be paid the highest tribute by anyone claiming to be
the legitimate heir of such a noble descent.
Based on this reasoning, the actual dating of these frescos
is still rather controversial, although being almost definitely
oriented to the Augustan Age.
Thepictures were damaged by the action of water,of salts,
and very likely of microorganisms, producing some stretches
* Corresponding author.
E-mail address: caneva@bio.uniroma3.it (G. Caneva).
Journal of Cultural Heritage 4 (2003) 149–155
www.elsevier.com/locate/culher
© 2003 Éditions scientifiques et médicales Elsevier SAS. All rights reserved.
DOI: 10.1016/S1296-2074(03)00026-8
of damaged pictorial lm, thereby reducing the possibility of
nding some details. After an initial intervention following
their discovery, they were later detached and subjected to a
second restoration which was completed in 1953, in antici-
pation of their arrangement in the Museo delle Terme in
Rome; this works makes one doubt sometimes about the
correct interpretation in lling the gaps. A very recent resto-
ration has been performed on these pictures just before they
were moved last to the Palazzo Massimo.
As regards the botanic question, there are two old contri-
butions specically on the identication of the painted ora
[5,6]. Rather incomplete mention of this question can be
found in the extensive archaeological and historical litera-
ture, which, however, often refers to the above mentioned
authors. Another contribution to a historicalbotanical char-
acter was more recently published [7].
The comparative analysis of the proposed results points
out a few signicant discrepancies; moreover, the identica-
tion of the species represented appears sometimes to be
inaccurate or ambiguous, due to the trivial names used [6].
Therefore the aim of this paper is to make a botanical
review of the paintings and provide an updated list, from the
standpointofinterpretationaswellasformandnomenclature
of the subjects.
2. Methodology
The species represented have been identied based on the
most diagnostic morphological aspects, such as the general
habit of the plants, typology, shape, size and color of fruits
and owers, if present, and the morphology and layout of the
leaves.
Note, however, that while these aspects, as well as the
correct number of the single parts are more or less easy to
depict in real specimens, if the sample is picked up correctly
and in the right period of the season, this is not always
possible on painted or carved elements. This identication
becomes even more difcult when time-related damages are
added sometimes to the painters scant accuracy in his depic-
tion of plants.
Therefore, in the absence of accurate diagnostic elements,
a proposal of attribution has been put forth based on consid-
erations connected to the habitat and the likely frequency in
the adjacent natural contexts. When the interpretation was
too dubious or ambiguous, identication would be restricted
to a general level, taking care to clarify the reasons case by
case.
We also considered historical data, and in particular, the
Natural History[3] and the most relevant paleobotanical
Fig. 1.Particulars of a wall with Picea excelsa in the middle (Fot. Sopr.
Arch. D398414).
Fig. 2.General view of a painted wall of Livias villa (Fot. Sopr. Arch. D398456) (with Pinus pinea in the middle).
150 G. Caneva, L. Bohuny / Journal of Cultural Heritage 4 (2003) 149–155
information about the natural potential vegetation of the
Roman area [8].
Different oras were used for the denition of diagnostic
elements, iconography, ecological, biogeographic aspects
[911]. Nomenclature follows the Prodromo della Flora
Romana[12,13].
3. Results
The taxonomic interpretation of the painted ora led to the
identication of 24 different species belonging to 20 fami-
lies, plus an extra species for which only the family is re-
ported. The comparative botanical interpretation is also
showed in Table 1.
The oristic list below provides the following aspects:
updated name, synonyms, trivial name, structure as ex-
pressed by the biological forms, chorology and ecology.
Their presence in terms of frequency in the paintings and the
elements that led to their identication are also discussed.
3.1. Floristic list
3.1.1. Pteridophyta
3.1.1.1.
Aspleniaceae. Phyllitis scolopendrium
(L.) New-
man (= Scolopendrium offıcinale Swartz; Sc. vulgare Sm.).
Common scolopendria. H ros. Temperate circumboreal ar-
eas. It is found in moist woods, wells, caves, and shady and
damp sites. This species is repeatedly painted along the
perimetrical lanes. Diagnostic elements: leaves, character-
ized by a linear-lanceolate blade, bent downward.
3.1.2. Gymnospermae
3.1.2.1. Pinaceae. Picea excelsa (Lam.) Link (= Picea
abies (L.) Karsten; P. vulgaris Link).Spruce. P scap. North-
ern Europe and Siberia. Alpine species that is found in cool
stations. At present, it is a favorite for ornamental and forest
use. This plant is represented four times in each of the niches
overlooking the long sides (Fig. 2). Diagnostic elements:
general habit, disposition of branches and of acicular leaves.
On this basis, we agree with the rst interpretation [5,6] and
we consider incorrect the interpretation of white deal (Abies
alba Miller) [7] which would have been less exotic from the
phytogeographic point of view. Note that cones are never
represented and that specimens are young.
Pinus pinea L. Stone-pine, Pine-kernel pine, P scap. This
species is spread from the Mediterranean Sea to Southern
Europe; it is abundantly cultivated and is doubted to be
totally indigenous. Represented just once in the middle of the
right wall niche. Diagnostic elements: general habit and the
display of branches and fascicles of needles. Here, too, cones
are not represented and the specimen is young.
Table 1
Comparison among the various botanical identication
Möller [5] Gabriel [6] Penso [7] Present proposal
Abies excelsa =Picea excelsa Spruce = Picea excelsa Abies alba Picea excelsa
Acanthus mollis Acanthus sp. n.m Acanthus mollis
Arbutus unedo Arbutus unedo n.m Arbutus unedo
Buxus sempervirens or Myrtus
communis Box = Buxus sempervirens n.m Buxus sempervirens
Chrysanthemum Chrysanthemum carinatum Chrysanthemum sp. Chrysanthemum coronarium
Cineraria or Anthemis Leucanthemum sp. Chamomilla recutita ?Anthemis sp.
Citrus sp. n.m n.m n.m
Cornus sp. n.m n.m Cornus mas
Cupressus sp. Cypresses = Cupressus sp. n.m Cupressus sempervirens
Cydonia vulgaris=Cydonia oblonga Quince = Cydonia oblonga Malus domestica ?Cydonia oblonga
Hedera helix or Smilax aspera Ivy = Hedera helix n.m Hedera helix
Iris sp. Iris sp. n.m Iris sp.
Laurus nobilis Laurels = Laurus nobilis Laurus nobilis Laurus nobilis
Myrtle or Buxus Myrtle = Myrtus communis n.m Myrtus communis
Papaver somniferum Papaver somniferus n.m Papaver somniferum
Phoenix dactylifera Palm = Phoenix dactylifera et al. n.m Phoenix dactylifera
Phyllitis scolopendrium Phyllitis scolopendrium Plantago major ?
Plantago lanceolata ?Phyllitis scolopendrium
Pinus pinea Pine = Pinus sp. n.m Pinus pinea
Punica granatum Pomegranade = Punica granatum Prunus persica ?Punica granatum
Quercus cerris Oak = Quercus sp. n.m Quercus robur gr.
Quercus ilex Oak = Quercus sp. n.m Quercus ilex
Rosa sp. Rosa damascena n.m Rosa centifolia
Viola selvatica Viola salvatica n.m Viola cfr. reichenbachiana
n.m Perwinkles = Vinca major n.m ?
n.m Oleanders = Nerium oleander n.m Nerium oleander
n.m Viburnum tinus n.m Viburnum tinus
n.m = not mentioned.
151G. Caneva, L. Bohuny / Journal of Cultural Heritage 4 (2003) 149–155
3.1.2.2.
Cupressaceae. Cupressus sempervirens
L. Com-
mon cypress. P scap. This tree, originating from the Eastern
Mediterranean Sea, has been introduced into Italy since very
ancient times and is abundantly cultivated. The plant is fre-
quently represented mainly in the background and never
plays a dominant role. Diagnostic elements: the column-like
bearing and the overall habit are highly characteristic.
3.1.3. Angiospermaedicotyledons
3.1.3.1. Fagaceae.Quercus ilex L. Green oak. P scap. A
typical plant of the Mediterranean area representing the
dominant arboreal element. Diagnostic elements: thick dark
foliage,simpleellipticalleaves,generalhabits,althoughstyl-
ized on the whole. Fruits are never represented. Therefore,
the identication itself is uncertain, being proposed more by
reasons of likelihood than by the peculiarity of the elements
represented.
Quercus robur (group) (among the species here included,
the characteristics similar most are those of Q. robur and Q.
petraea). Oak s.l., P scap. It is commonly found in Southern
Europe, however, in different species. A single specimen is
drawn at the middle of the central niche on the left side.
Diagnostic elements: Fruits are not observed here, but the
general habit of the plant, along with the presence of obovate
or oblanceolate, lobe-incised leaves, and the dark colored
bark, all seem to lead to the identication of this group of
oaks. The latter characteristic would suggest ruling out the Q.
cerris [6]; however, this plant is not more accurately identi-
able at a specic level due to the absence of more distinct
elements, mainly the shape of glands and cupules.
3.1.3.2. Lauraceae.Laurus nobilis L. Bay, laurel. P caesp.
Typically Mediterranean element, it is found in sunny sta-
tions (sites), although preferably with edaphic moisture. It is
largely cultivated as an ornamental element. This species,
although rather frequently painted, is among the background
elements of the garden. Diagnostic elements: the species is
never represented as blossoms (very small yellow owers)
nor with its fruits, but is easily identiable by the general
habit and the morphology and display of its leaves (simple,
elliptical shape, dark green).
3.1.3.3. Papaveraceae.Papaver somniferum L. (incl. P. al-
bum Miller; P. hortense Husenot; P. offıcinale Gmelin).
Opium poppy. T scap. Euro-Mediterranean element, widely
cultivatedfor ofcial, aromatic, and decorativepurposes. The
plant is present among the second-rank elements of the gar-
den. Diagnostic elements: the herbaceous plant is repre-
sented as a blossom and it is rather clearly identiable be-
cause of the morphology of the corolla (four large rose petals
with a dark-stained base).
3.1.3.4. Rosaceae.Rosa centifolia L. Cabbage rose. P caesp.
It is a derivation of the Gallic Rose. Diagnostic elements: the
habit of the plant, the general morphology of the owers (ve
petals brightly red colored), along with some considerations
of historical character [14] lead to the exclusion of a Damask
rose as proposed by Gabriel [6].
Cydonia oblonga Miller (= C. vulgaris Pers; Pyrus cy-
donia L.) Quince-tree. P scap. This plant originates from the
Middle East and is largely cultivated for its edible fruit.
Diagnostic elements: several specimens alternating with
pomegranates are depicted in the foreground, right behind
the marble fence bounding the garden. The leaves are not too
delineated, but the presence of fruits with their very typical
shape and size (big yellowish sub-rounds pomes) makes the
identication a certainty.
3.1.3.5. Buxaceae.Buxus sempervirens L. Ordinary box. P
caesp. This sub-MediterraneanAtlantic element is present
in broad-leaved thermophile woods and is cultivated as an
ornamental plant. Diagnostic elements: general habit, small
simple leaves, dark green in color. Its identication may be
somewhat doubtful and is also sometimes mistaken for
myrtle. A blossom specimen depicted next to the pine-tree
appears to be identiable to this species.
3.1.3.6. Violaceae.Viola cfr. reichenbachiana Jordan ex Bu-
reau (Viola sylvestris Lam.) Sylvan viola. H ros. This species
is present from the Siberian regions to Europe, including the
Mediterranean area. It is found in broad-leaved woods and
oak woods. Diagnostic elements: this species is repeatedly
depicted along the garden paths, and in most representations
is seen with no owers; thus, the diagnostic elements are
limited to the leaves, which appear with a cordate-reniform
blade, and are depicted on creeping or upright stems. The
binomial Viola silvatica [5] (wrongly written as V. salvatica)
should be denitely ruled out, since it does not exist in the
scientic nomenclature and probably means only wild
viola.
3.1.3.7. Myrtaceae.Myrtus communis L. Myrtle. P caesp.
This is a strictly Mediterranean element and an integral part
of the species typical of the maquis. It is cultivated as an
ornamental plant as well. Diagnostic elements: in the ab-
sence of owers and fruits, typically peculiar of this species,
its identication among the shrubs can be somehow uncer-
tain. The representation in the garden on the whole of a few
shrubs with sessile, elliptic-bladed opposite leaves favored
this identication.
3.1.3.8. Punicaceae.Punica granatum L. Pomegranate. P
scap. It is an element of Middle East origin cultivated both as
an ornament and for its fruits. Here, it is playing a highly
relevant role among the elements of the garden, where it is
displayed alternating with quinces. Diagnostic elements: its
identication is certain by the typical morphology of the
fruits (large berries, of a yellow-reddish color when ripe,
which open up showing the many edible seeds), often repre-
sented at full ripeness.
152 G. Caneva, L. Bohuny / Journal of Cultural Heritage 4 (2003) 149155
3.1.3.9. Cornaceae.Cornus mas L. (Male) cornel. P caesp.
A species of South-European-Pontine origin, it is a typical
element of sub-Mediterranean broad-leaved woods. Due to
its very hard wood, it was used widely in ancient ages, e.g., to
make tools and javelins. Diagnostic elements: the morphol-
ogy and layout of the leaves identify a few shrubs.
3.1.3.10. Araliaceae.Hedera helix L. Ivy. P lian. This sub-
Mediterranean and sub-Atlantic element is found in thick
woods and shady sites characterized by a certain degree of
moisture. Since ancient times, it has been cultivated as a
climber (creeper) to cover walls and as a decorative element
because of its persistent foliage of a deep green color. Here, it
is sporadically represented. Diagnostic elements: shape of
the leaves, habit of the plant.
3.1.3.11. Ericaceae.Arbutus unedo L. Strawberry tree (Ar-
butus). P caesp. It is a typical Mediterranean element occur-
ring in maquis and acidophilic ilex woods. Diagnostic ele-
ments: small tree with typical fruits shaped like big red-
wrinkled cherries, which are very appetizing to birds, as
evidenced here, too.
3.1.3.12. Apocynaceae.Nerium oleander L. Oleander. P
caesp. It is a typical element of the Mediterranean area where
it is found to grow spontaneously along the gravelly stream-
beds. Likely to have been cultivated since ancient times for
the ornamental effect of its owers, here it is often depicted
among the shrubs of the garden fences. Diagnostic elements:
it is often identiable by its typical owers and the shape and
disposition of the leaves.
3.1.3.13. Acanthaceae.Acanthus mollis L. Brank-ursine
(Bears breech). H scap. It is a spontaneous element in the
Western Mediterranean basin, cultivated as ornamental since
the old ages. Here, only two plants are represented at the base
of the two central trees over the two short walls. Diagnostic
elements: the habit of this herbaceous species and the typical
morphology of its wide leaves are a good diagnostic element.
3.1.3.14. Caprifoliaceae.Viburnum tinus L. Guelder rose. P
caesp. Strictly Mediterranean element, it grows spontane-
ously in termophylous evergreen woods. Occasionally
painted among the vegetal fences. Diagnostic elements: this
plant appears recognizable and distinguishable among the
background elements due to the owers typically arranged in
corymbose white cymes.
3.1.3.15. Asteraceae.Chrysanthemum cfr. coronarium L.
Yellow chrysanthemum. T scap. It is a typical Mediterranean
element,spontaneouslygrowinginwastelandsand cultivated
elds. It is often to be found among the foreground owers of
the garden fence. Diagnostic elements: the typical whole-
yellow ower heads with dentate elliptical ligules make this
plant easily identiable, at least on a generic level.
Anthemis cfr. cotula L. Foul chamomile (dog-fennel). T
scap. It is an Euro-Mediterranean species that is found in
ruins and uncultivated environments. Like the preceding one,
it is often to be found among the foreground elements of the
garden. Its identication, however, is not that certain because
within this family, there are different species with a similar
morphologyof the owerheads(e.g.,Leucanthemum,Matri-
charia).Yet, based on the diagnostic elements available, this
seems to be the most likely species.
3.1.4. Monocotyledons
3.1.4.1. Iridaceae.Iris cfr. (ower de luce). G rhiz. Diagnos-
tic elements: the identication of this species, often to be
found along the garden paths, is rather critical, even on a
generic level. One diagnostic element is the peculiar mor-
phology of the upright and attened leaves, longer than the
scape, the latter being of rather a small size. Flowers are
represented just once and appear not easy to identify.
3.1.4.2. Palmae.Phoenix dactylifera L. Date palm. P scap.
This plant is typical of the sub-tropical regions of the Old
World and has been cultivated since ancient times, mainly in
the Southern Mediterranean areas, for ornamental and fruit-
bearing purposes. Diagnostic elements: several young palms
are reproduced among the background elements of the gar-
den and are easy to recognize by the typical columnar mor-
phology of the culms on which apex is seen the characteristic
tuft of long pinnate leaves. There are no fruits and the plants
never play a relevant visual role.
There is the last species, the identication of which is very
uncertain. However, based on a series of morphological char-
acters, mainly concerning the shape of petals, the identica-
tion of this species belonging to the family of Liliaceae
would seem reasonable. However, the atypical and varying
number of owery pieces makes this proposal rather
doubtful.
As for chorology, most species are strictly Mediterranean
and Euro-Mediterranean. Also present are a small number of
plants from the Eastern Mediterranean basin, Minor Asia and
from temperate regions. Some others belong to Western
Mediterranean area or to the warmest regions.
Date-palm and spruce indeed have different geographical
origin, sub-tropical regions (cultivated in the warmer areas),
and Euro-Siberian regions (typical Northern alpine element),
respectively.
From the standpoint of phenology, the plants here repre-
sented show no seasonal consistency, in that some species are
represented in the habit of spring, like poppies, roses, and
daisies, while others are depicted in the habit of autumn, like
quinces, pomegranates, and strawberry trees.
From the standpoint of taxonomy (Table 1), it can be
observed that the identication proposed by Möller [5]
leaves out a few species that are clearly distinguishable, such
as Nerium oleander and Viburnum tinus; also, he does not
dwell on blooming herb species. The interpretation of the
presence of citrus fruits (Citrus sp.pl.) with reference to the
153G. Caneva, L. Bohuny / Journal of Cultural Heritage 4 (2003) 149155
garden of Hesperides seems to be motivated by theoretical
more than actual purposes. With this respect, it should be
pointed out that for historical and phytogeographic reasons,
the famous mala aurea in the Hesperidesgarden clearly
could not possibly be orange trees, which came from the East
much later: rst, the bitter orange tree with the Arabs, and
then, the sweet orange tree with the Portuguese colonies.
Several reasons, instead, are in favor of identifying the fruit
trees as quinces (Cydonia oblonga)[15].
Thoroughly incomplete and most of all unacceptable for
most of the proposed binomials is Pensos identication [7]
only describing eight species, of which the following are
judged to be incorrect: Abies alba (mistaken for Picea ex-
celsa), Chamomilla recutita (cfr. Anthemis), Malus domes-
tica (cfr. Cydonia oblonga), Plantago major, P. lanceolata
(cfr. Phyllitis scolopendrium), and Prunus persica (cfr. Pu-
nica granatum).
The identication by Gabriel [6] is, instead, basically
correct, though somewhat incomplete, with the only excep-
tion of Vinca major, which appears not to be reasonable.
Furthermore, among the proposed binomials, the following
different species are suggested: Chrysanthemum carina-
tum = Chrysanthemum coronarium; Rosa damascena =
Rosa centifolia; and Viola salvatica = Viola reichenba-
chiana.To avoid any ambiguity, a few terms expressed by the
author in a common nomenclature are given here a precise
denition: spruce = Picea excelsa; pine = Pinus pinea; oak =
Quercus ilex and Q. robur gr.; palms = Phoenix dactylifera.
Although not formally dened, other names referred to are
not ambiguous, i.e., laurels, myrtles, oleanders, their genera
corresponding to a single species.
4. Conclusions
Beside the scientic problem of accurately dening the
typology of the plants represented, an attempt should now be
made toward decoding the message underlying the decora-
tion. It is no doubt unlikely for a place of such a high value
and signicance that nature would be represented as a mere
description of an idyllic and bountiful landscape; or as an
ornament to satisfy a mere esthetic enjoyment. The careful
and orderly sequence of trees, plants, and birds no doubt
hides a key which might not only help reading but also be a
fundamental support that cannot be renounced.
As preliminary remarks for a critical evaluation of the
symbolic signicance of the paintings, the results achieved
on particular items can be summarized and pointed out as
follows:
The ora does not look very rich as a whole and its
elements appear as a repetitive trend.
Most species are autochthonous, while the exoticele-
ments generally originate from the Eastern Mediterra-
nean basin or paleotropical regions, only in one instance
is a northern species clearly present.
The species represented lack a seasonal consistency, in
that some are depicted as in springtime while some
others are in autumn.
The naturalistic description of the species is not rigor-
ous, their identication often being made on a few diag-
nostic elements, e.g., trees and shrubs are often identi-
able through their fruits.
The layout of the plants does not appear to be casual:
some species are given special emphasis, which is some-
times attained through their location on a visual plane,
some others through their more or less evident recur-
rence.
The depiction of the garden rules out any anthropomor-
phic representations (statues, hermae, etc.). The only
built up elements are the marble balustrades and incan-
nunciate, these being thatches made with reeds, bow-
ers so to say. Nature with its painted plants and birds
commands the whole scene.
Consequent to the considerations above, it would appear
appropriate to review some of the interpretations of these
paintings only from a descriptive and illusory point of view,
while a symbolistic purpose is clearly evident. With this
respect, note that Förtschs thesis [16] is the only one explic-
itly advanced to identify in the plant sequence a precise
pattern of glorication of the fecundity of the Augustan
aurea aetas.
Starting from the present botanical identication, we sug-
gested[17] that this thesis should be revised better in the light
of the symbolism that can be associated to the more relevant
species and to the aforementioned considerations.
Acknowledgements
We are grateful to the Archaeological Bureau of the Mu-
seo delle Terme (Dr. ssa Barbera) and of Palazzo Massimo
(Dr. ssa Sapelli) and to the Central Bureau of the Ministry for
Cultural Heritage (Dr. ssa Di Mino), for their support in the
analysis of the pictures. We are also grateful to the CNR
(Com 15) for the nancial support in the study of botanical
iconography in the Roman archaeology.
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