In 1880, during the construction of the Tiber embankments near Villa Farnesina in Trastevere, a very interesting discovery was made: large fragments of a luxurious residence from the reign of Emperor Augustus were excavated. It is a fascinating building: breaking with the typical architectural layout of the Roman “domus” (and with its canonical sequence of rooms: vestibule-atrium-tablinum-peristyle), reminiscent of the more refined suburban villas of Roman patricians. Its location on the very bank of the Tiber must have been captivating.
Was the villa owned by Agrippa and Julia, daughter of Augustus?
The dominant hypothesis is that the villa belonged to a prominent figure of the early empire: Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. At one time, he was the right hand of Emperor Augustus, man “No. 2”. He accompanied Octavian (future Augustus) from his early youth – Agrippa stayed with him in Apollonia when Octavian learned about Caesar’s death. It was in the narrow circle of Octavian’s closest friends from that period that decisions were made that set the direction of history. August did not trust anyone later as he did his companions from the time of his studies in Apolonia. Agrippa never failed Augustus.
Augustus gave Agrippa his own daughter (Julia) in marriage. His dynastic plan was simple: having no son, he had to look for another way to transfer power and make sure it did not slip out of his family’s hands. He hoped that his daughter Julia would provide him with a male heir. Agrippa, as the son-in-law of Augustus, was to guarantee the emperor the highest loyalty. If Augustus had died before Agrippa, he would have taken over the state as a kind of regent for the grandson of the first emperor. Ultimately, however, the reign would pass to the son Julia was to give birth to Agrippa, a descendant of Augustus. Power had to stay in the family…
If the villa on the Tiber belonged to Agrippa, it is very likely that Julia, the heroine of the book I am currently writing, also lived there. Honesty towards you makes me stipulate that according to some older hypotheses, the owner of the villa was a certain Clodia – a prominent aristocrat from the last years of the republic, and according to the latest: Lucius Arruncius – a rich aristocrat from the times of Augustus. Agrippa as the owner is supported by the fact that right next to the house Agrippa built a bridge named after him (next to the Ponte Sisto that still exists today), and nearby were later the huge gardens of his daughter, Agrippina the Elder – the same ones that later entered the imperial domain and where later, the Circus of Caligula and Nero was built, and where, centuries later, the Basilica of St. Peter…. In turn, the hypothesis with Arruncius is supported by an argument in the form of nearby wine warehouses, which once belonged to the Arruncius family.
As an aside, I’m wondering if anyone has explored the possibility that all three hypotheses are true? Clodia lived before Julia and came from the gens Claudia, to whose other branch belonged Julia’s first husband – Claudius Marcellus (August’s nephew). Can you imagine, then, that the estate somehow passed from Clodia to Julia via Marcellus? On the other hand, when after Agrippa’s death, Julia fell into disfavor with her father, the property could pass to one of the Arrutians, because this family reappears in the pages of history for decades after Julia’s death…
Why on the Tiber?
Interestingly, this area of Rome in ancient times was not particularly prestigious. Moreover, the proximity of the Tiber exposed the villa to regular flooding. Someone was building such an expensive house in such a place, showing his surroundings: “I don’t care that building here is a risk. I can afford. Such is my whim!” In other words, the owner of this property must have been filthy rich. This is one of the reasons why I am in favor of attributing the villa to Agrippa, who, as “man number 2” of the Roman empire, amassed an unimaginable fortune.
What has survived?
The villa was huge and exceptionally beautiful. Unfortunately, only its lower, south-eastern part, a kind of basement, survived until the 19th century. From the walls discovered in 1880, it can be concluded that the more representative part of the residence was located above. While the lower floor was quite low and dark, the upper one probably allowed the use of a series of porticos, where one could enjoy the view of the flowing river and the representative buildings of the Campus Martius located on its other bank. Especially the central, semi-circular portico must have made a special impression on visitors to this place.
What is left of the villa today? First, the bad news: the villa was completely destroyed immediately after its discovery due to the regulation of the Tiber riverbed and the construction of quays.
The good news is that not everything is lost: a large part of the frescoes found at that time were removed from the walls, thanks to which they can be seen today in Palazzo Massimo Alle Terme in Rome. This is no ordinary exhibition. For the needs of the frescoes, the layout of some rooms was recreated. So we can see the frescoes on the walls as in the times when Agrippa and Julia lived in their magnificent residence in Trastevere. Original stucco fragments were placed on the vaults, and fragments of mosaics on the floors.
Looking through the photos, you will surely be delighted with the vivid colors and finesse of the details of the frescoes painted in the so-called. II and III Pompeian style. Colorful interiors make a great impression. But I wanted to draw your attention to something completely different, which is often completely overlooked. In addition to the eye-catching rooms, the villa on the Tiber River also had a series of corridors with a much calmer decoration – delicate female figures were painted on the cream (formerly white?) walls holding green garlands interspersed with flowers in their hands. The most interesting, however, is what is above. The upper part of the fresco was crowned with a frieze, the charm of which can only be understood when approaching the wall: charming scenes depicting life in the ancient world were painted on a narrow strip: we see grazing animals, dogs barking at cows, fishermen pulling their nets, a merchant following a slave to the market, a man greeting an incoming ship. These frescoes are painted in a completely different way than the magnificent paintings decorating the rest of the villa and shown in Palazzo Massimo. The figures are drawn with only a few brush strokes, using one paint. Although they are devoid of any details, it is impossible to take your eyes off them. Maybe it’s because of the realism of the scenes expressed in the fresco? Maybe because they do not show dramatic mythological scenes, but a picture of an ordinary day? Or maybe because the posture and clear gestures give the impression of life, which is hard to find in carefully painted, but studied figures from other, more sophisticated frescoes? These paintings captivate with idealized peace, a kind of ancient idyll.
I encourage you to look at these frescoes: we can look at them as if they were postcards from a world long gone. The world of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and Julia – the unruly daughter of Augustus.