BMCR 2002.07.18

The Villa of Livia Ad Gallinas Albas. A Study in the Augustan Villa and Garden. Archaeologica Transatlantica XX

, The Villa of Livia Ad Gallinas Albas. A Study in the Augustan Villa and Garden. Archaeologica Transatlantica XX. Providence, RI: Center for Old World Archaeology and Art, 2001. 137. $50.00.

1 Responses

[[For a response to this review, see BMCR 2002.08.09.]]

The author of the volume under review, Jane Clark Reeder (henceforth, “R.”), aims “to attempt an integration of the architecture and iconography” (p.7) of Livia’s villa at Prima Porta, also known as the villa ad Gallinas Albas. In her introduction, R. proposes to show a 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. Such a study is welcome since much scholarship has focused on the paintings in isolation (or on the equally famous statue of Augustus now in the Vatican Museum). Unfortunately, R.’s work is weak and has editorial problems.

In the first three chapters (“Construction of the Villa and the Problem of Dating”; “The Terminology of the Grotto”; and “The Architectural Typology”) R. describes at length other scholars’ arguments on the date of the villa, grotto typologies, and the date and function of the underground chamber at the villa. One of her main points is that the paintings of Livia’s underground room represent a view from a grotto, which depends on her novel interpretation of the “fringe” at the top of the paintings in the underground room at Livia’s villa.1 R. would have a stronger case for her view that it represents a stalactite-rimmed grotto (rather than the edge of a thatched roof) if she had mustered a series of comparable examples. Since M. Gabriel, upon inspection of examples of similar depictions at Pompeii, had earlier dismissed identifying this feature as a rocky edge, R. needed to demonstrate her case.2

In the remaining three chapters (“The Stuccoes”; “The Twin Topoi”; and “The Iconography of the Stuccoes”) R. correctly assumes a connection between the garden room, its decoration, and the rest of the villa (especially the laurel grove), but she does not bring anything substantially new to the discussion. Much of what R. offers about the importance of the omen of the gallina alba and the symbolism of laurel in Augustan contexts, with particular attention to Livia, has already been proposed by M. Flory.3 But more importantly, B. Kellum’s 1994 article on the garden paintings has already placed these landscapes in a rich Augustan context linking them to the pastoral symbolism of the poets, victory iconography, and the notion of rebirth.4 If substantially new ground has been broken in this present work, it is not apparent.

Among the lesser problems of this book is its paucity of illustrations. The author’s main thesis is grounded in the visual iconography of the paintings and stuccoes, yet she provides no illustrations for any of the comparanda discussed in her text. Figures 1.7, 1.9, and 1.10 (masonry and pavement details) were not as crucial nor helpful to the author’s arguments as illustrations of the paintings in the Palatine Houses of Livia and Augustus or the Marlborough cameo might have been. Other difficulties include numerous typographical and/or editorial errors, most notably the consistent misspelling of “Aula Isiaca” as “Aula Isaica.” In the bibliography, titles of works are not italicized, and several entries are incomplete or incorrect. In general, R.’s methods of citation and formatting are careless (for example, using first Arabic then Roman numeration in citations of classical authors).

By far the most problematic aspect of the book, however, seems to involve uncredited quotations. It appears that several passages were lifted directly from two Italian articles (on pp. 94, 98, 101-2).5 In each case the passage has been translated but presented with neither quotation marks nor footnote to indicate a direct borrowing. Take for example on p. 94 where R. says: “That lucus originally meant a clearing was suggested by the oldest available document, the archaic agricultural prayer reported by Cato ( Agr. 139) concerning the ceremony at the moment of a cutting of a tree. It was a question of an expiatory sacrifice to the divinities to whom the trees were sacred on the occasion of their cutting to create the clearing.” Compare that with remarks from the article by Coarelli: “Che lucus significhi originariamente radura si ricava da quello che è forse il più antico documento cui si possa risalire, l’arcaica preghiera contadina riportata di Catone a proposito delle ceremonie da compiere al momento di un taglio nel bosco … [Coarelli has text of the prayer] … Si tratta dunque di un sacrificio expiatorio alle divinità sconosciute cui sono sacri gli alberi, in occasione del taglio degli alberi stessi per creare una radura.”6 Such carelessness weakens all that R. argues in this book.7


1. H. Lavagne, Operosa Antra. Recherches sur la grotte à Rome de Sylla à Hadrien, Rome: École Française de Rome, 1988.

2. M. Gabriel, Livia’s Garden Room at Prima Porta. New York: NYU Press, 1955: 7-8.

3. M. Flory, “Octavian and the Omen of the Gallina Alba,” Classical Journal 84, no. 4 (1988-89) 343-356; and “The Symbolism of Laurel in Cameo Portraits of Livia,” MAAR 40 (1995) 43-68.

4. B. Kellum, “The Construction of Landscape in Augustan Rome: The Garden Room at the Villa ad Gallinas,” Art Bulletin 76 (1994) 211-224. Note that R. cites the volume number incorrectly in her bibliography.

5. F. Coarelli, “I luci del Lazio: la documentazione archeologica,” and C. Ampolo, “Boschi sacri e culti federali: l’esempio del Lazio,: both in Les bois sacrés: actes du Colloque international (Collection du Centre Jean Bérard, 10), 1993.

6. Coarelli, op. cit, p. 47.

7. The book may be ordered online at