Augustus, Italy, Roman art, Roman Frescoes, Roman villa, Rome

When in Rome… visiting the House of Livia on the Palatine Hill

I recently wrote on the series of special events that took place in Rome last year in celebration of the 2000th anniversary of Emperor Augustus’ death. My last post focussed on the ‘House of Augustus’ (see here) and today I will concentrate on the ‘House of Livia’ in this follow-up piece.

The House of Livia, Palatine Hill, Rome.
The House of Livia, Palatine Hill, Rome.

First excavated in 1839, the house has been attributed to Livia on the basis of the name IVLIA AVG[VSTA] stamped on a lead pipe on display on the left-hand wall of the tablinum. The two-storey house, built around a central atrium, was decorated with advanced “Second Pompeian Style” wall paintings, reflecting the sophisticated taste of wealthy Romans. The remains of the house are reached by a sloping hallway whose floor is covered with a black and white geometric mosaic leading into a rectangular atrium.

Plan of the House of Livia
Plan of the House of Livia

The best preserved section of Livia’s House consists of a rectangular atrium and three relatively large adjoining rooms (a tablinum and two side rooms). Each room was painted with a mythological subject and its floor decorated in black and white geometric mosaic.

The tablinum of the House of Livia, also known as the "Room of Polyphemus".
The tablinum of the House of Livia, also known as the “Room of Polyphemus”.

The central room (the tablinum), also known as the “Room of Polyphemus”, was the most richly decorated. Each of its walls had a large mythological picture in the middle, set in a large columnar frame. The mythological picture on the back wall, now totally illegible, showed one of the earliest representation of the story of the monster Polyphemus and the sea nymph Galatea. It depicted Polyphemus immersed in the water with a young Cupid riding on its shoulders pursuing the nymph Galatea as she rides a sea-horse (hippocampus).

Detail of wall painting on the back wall of the tablinum.
Detail of wall painting on the back wall of the tablinum.

Around the central panel are backdrops of illusionistic architecture and small panels with ritual scenes.

Detail of fresco on the back wall of the tablinum.
Detail of fresco on the back wall of the tablinum.
Detail of fresco on the back wall of the tablinum.
Detail of fresco on the back wall of the tablinum.

The mythological scene on the right-hand wall of the tablinum is still partly visible. Here Mercury is depicted rescuing the mortal woman Io, who had been changed into a white heifer by Zeus in order to disguise his affair with her. Io is facing her guardian Argus while Mercury, arriving from the left, is about to free her.

The tablinum with the mythological scenes in the center of both walls.
The tablinum with the mythological scenes in the center of both walls.
Mythological scene depicting Mercury rescuing the mortal woman Io, who had been changed into a white heifer by Zeus in order to disguise his affair with her. Io is facing her guardian Argus while Mercury, arriving from the left, is about to free her.
Mythological scene depicting Mercury rescuing the mortal woman Io, who had been changed into a white heifer by Zeus in order to disguise his affair with her. Io is facing her guardian Argus while Mercury, arriving from the left, is about to free her.
Detail of fresco on the right-hand wall of the tablinum.
Detail of fresco on the right-hand wall of the tablinum.

The decoration on the right-hand room is characterized by luxuriant festoons and garlands of fruits, flowers, branches and leaves. A yellow frieze running along the top the frescoes was filled with scenes of everyday life in Egypt (camels, sphinxes and a statue of Isis can be seen).

The right-hand room of the House of Livia, characterized by luxuriant festoons of fruit and flowers.
The right-hand room of the House of Livia, characterized by luxuriant festoons of fruit and flowers.
The decorations on the left-hand room show winged fantasy figures, human and animal, ending in elegant plant tendrils. The decorations on the left-hand room show winged fantasy figures, human and animal, ending in elegant plant tendrils.
The right-hand room of the House of Livia, characterized by luxuriant festoons of fruit and flowers.

The decorations on the left-hand room show winged fantasy figures, human and animal, ending in elegant plant tendrils.

The left-hand room of the House of Livia.
The left-hand room of the House of Livia.
 Fresco detail in the upper zone of the left-hand room with winged females figures, perhaps Victories. The triclinium (dining room) is remarkable for its delicate decoration. Each wall was given an elaborate design of illusionistic architecture featuring a large picture of a sacred and rural landscape in the centre.
Fresco detail in the upper zone of the left-hand room with winged females figures, perhaps Victories.

The triclinium (dining room) is remarkable for its delicate decoration. Each wall was given an elaborate design of illusionistic architecture featuring a large picture of a sacred and rural landscape in the centre.

The triclinium (dining room) decorated with an elaborate design of illusionistic architecture featuring a large picture of a sacred and rural landscape in the centre.
The triclinium decorated with an elaborate design of illusionistic architecture.
Fresco detail in the right wall of the triclinum depicting a sacred and rural landscape.
Fresco detail in the right wall of the triclinum depicting a sacred and rural landscape.

A relatively simpler architectural scheme with imitation veneer adorned the walls of the atrium and the vestibulum.

The vestibulum with imitation veneer adorning the walls.
The vestibulum with imitation veneer adorning the walls.
Wall painting fragment alternating wide black and narrow green panels framed in red and bordered above and below in yellow bands.
Wall painting fragment alternating wide black and narrow green panels framed in red and bordered above and below in yellow bands.

Following the extensive conservation effort, a visit to the House of Livia and Augustus can now be booked with Coopculture.it or at the Arch of Titus entrance to the Forum. Tighter restrictions on the number of visitors who can access the site at any one time have been put in place since September 2014 and you will need to book to join the 2pm English tour which runs on Saturdays, Sundays and bank holidays. The guided tour lasts 75 minutes and accommodates a maximum of 20 people. However, if you call the Coopculture call center (+39 06 399 67 700), you may join a smaller group albeit without a guide (in our case 8 people). A member of staff will  escort you to the site and will remain with you for the duration of the visit (about one hour for both Augustus and Livia’s houses). Combined ticket for the Palatine-Roman Forum / Colosseum (valid for one entrance in the two sites for 2 consecutive days) or the Archaeologia Card (valid 7 days) have to be bought to get access to both Imperial houses.

Related post: When in Rome… visiting the House of Livia on the Palatine Hill

7 thoughts on “When in Rome… visiting the House of Livia on the Palatine Hill”

  1. Hello I’m a PhD student in Archaeology at Sorbonne University and the House of Livia is my subject. I would like to know where did you find the plan you show at the beginning of your article. Thank you. Valentina

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