ESTATE HISTORY
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ESTATE HISTORY

ESTATE HISTORY

ESTATE HISTORY
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This estate, near Prima Porta (the first gate of Rome) once belonged to Livia Drusilla and Augustus, first emperor of Rome. In the nineteenth century, it was purchased by Bernard’s ancestors, Marchesi Silj di Sant’Andrea di Ussita. Bernard’s mother, Anna Silj, played among the archaeological ruins, as a child. Now the Imperial villa, with a small museum, is under the aegis of the Italian State and can be visited. Livia’s nature frescoes, among the most important in the world, are conserved at the Palazzo Massimo museum and the great statue of the Prima Porta Augustus is conserved in the Vatican Museums.

 

 

These gardens have witnessed some world-shaping events, from the Etruscans, the beginning of the Roman empire with Livia and Augustus, the end of the Roman Empire with the Lateran Treaty of 1929, the advent of Christianity with the arrival of emperor Constantine in 320 AD, and Britain’s contribution with the Shepherd’s Monument and stewardship of the Treasure of Jerusalem, inherited from Admiral George Lord Anson.

 

Now, the tradition is kept alive by proprietors Bernard and Eleonora Anson Silj. Regularly, the couple convenes a community of Romans that Bernard has named Cenacolo, who meet in the tradition of Livia’s own Cenaculum of 38 BC, which included the likes of Virgil, Horace and Ovid. The magic of place is lent by the mix of history, myth, art, story-telling, story-mapping and ethno-botanical lore. The villa and its gardens transmit the lived life of Rome, through the ages.

 

Our zero km products, and commitment to local artisans, our comfortable way of sharing this Roman legacy, provide for an intimate and unique access to a sustainable and ancient way of life.

In the mid-nineteenth century, my Italian family, the Marchesi Silj di Sant’Andrea di Ussita purchased the one-time estate of Livia. They passed the harvest season in a rather gloomy Neo-Gothic castle – Castello Silj – next to Livia’s imperial villa, “Villa di Livia”. As a child my mother used to play in this imperial garden but it was expropriated in 1973, as a national heritage, through the efforts of the Soprintendenza of Rome. In a well-known drawing of the finding of the so-called “Prima Porta Augustus,” you can see a 15th century tower of Orlando, which is similar to the Saracen tower my mother moved to when she married Hugo Anson, my English father. Just across the road, still on family land, stands the triumphal arch of Constantine, where Constantine camped his army in 312 before the battle that decided Christianity. This is the rich fabric of these lands and gardens that have witnessed millennia of history, so powerful as to enter the legendary and mythical sphere.

 

The architectural complex and garden, where I live is the Etruscan section of Livia’s estate, now called Villa Anson Silj; the farmhouses (and guest houses) are home to myself, my wife, and two sons. This property, too, has its fascination, for the entire area north of Rome was once Etruscan territory. An ancient people, conquered only eventually by the Romans, the Etruscans imbued Roman culture with many traces still visible today. Originally of Anatolian origin, the Etruscans were deeply bound to the earth as well as sea, and were avid traders. According to local legend, the property I now inhabit, Villa Anson Silj, was once called Lemniscati, the Etruscan oracle consulted by Livia.

In an extraordinary moment that has become lore the whole world over, this whole area – from Lemniscati (Villa Anson Silj) to Villa di Livia – became the birthplace of Rome’s most famous ancient dynasty—the Julio-Claudian clan that ruled the empire for some decisive and extraordinary generations.
It was here, at Lemniscati, that Livia reputedly came to consult the oracle concerning the prodigy of the white hen “Ad Gallinas Albas,” which is the founding legend of that Julio-Claudian dynasty and one of the pillars of what we think of as ancient Rome. The legend has it that Livia was sitting in her garden one day, when an eagle flew over from Africa and dropped a snowy white hen on her lap. The hen was quite unscathed and carried a laurel twig in its beak. People paid a lot of attention to signs in those days and Livia rushed over to Lemniscati to ask about the meaning.
What the oracle called for was to put the white hen into production – and from the first egg would come the name of the next ruler in Rome. Livia was additionally instructed to plant the laurel in her garden. The resulting laurel grove, which you can see at the archaeological site of Villa di Livia, produced the imperial crowns and also the laurel wreaths, for the poet laureates, which – in that period, 38 BC – included the likes of Virgil, Horace, Propertius, and Ovid.
Livia was a consummate hostess, manager, and director of villa, farm, and city palace, not to mention spouse of emperor Augustus and mother of Tiberius. Her circle of literati, which gathered in the famous underground dining room in the villa at Prima Porta, was called Coenaculum.
My ancestors revived this custom in the early twentieth century, in an informal way, and in 1949, officially founded a group called Cenacolo, in tribute. This informal club was composed of writers, singers, philosophers, ambassadors, artists, archaeologists, lawyers, botanists, and people from all over the world and all walks of life.
The new Cenacolo, under the patronage of my uncle, Pio Silj, and artist Paulo Ghiglia, dedicated itself to reviving the art of conversation and intercultural exchange. Musical concerts, drawing lessons, theatrical performances, and many other conversations, light-hearted in form, but weighty in essence, ensued.

The natural area of Prima Porta lends itself to thought about botany and nature, and right from the start of my life here, I was fascinated by the flora of the region and the landscape narrative. I have read widely about the relation of nature and culture, influenced by the thoughts of James Frazer, Italo Calvino, Gaston Bachelard, Joseph Campbell, Lewis Carroll, James Hillman, Saint Francis, and Stefano Mancuso.
In 2010, I inaugurated a new version of the Cenacolo, which is open to new members of the Anson Silj Association. 
When studying plants and ethnobotanical meanings, stories were a good place to start, I felt. It is easier to relate to plants via Apollo and Daphne, or Pan and Syrinx, than through much botanical and scientific data. Plant lore, after all, stands on the high road of man’s primal impulses about habitat: the stars, the elements, the plants. This is the oldest form of psychology.
Our Cenacolo today is deeply committed to the study of the plants. We organize workshops with artists who have been able to study the newly identified plants in the famous fresco cycle now hosted at Palazzo Massimo, in central Rome. These new Cenacolo artists reinterpret the plants of the Gardens of Livia, once inhabited by a proto-Etruscan people, by Livia Drusilla, and now Villa Anson Silj.
We are looking for soul. We are looking for the greening, which is the deep healing power and transformative high intelligence contained in every leaf and bark, of every living plant.
But there is one pressing, outstanding, question, which now absorbs the Cenacolo today:
How do you actually speak to a plant?
And how do you hear a plant when it speaks to you?

Bernard Anson Silj


P.S. For the record, the Cenacolo has adopted a small flock of white hens (Leghorn whites) for the prophetic power, already known to Livia — and because they (we) can’t do without the fresh eggs.

Our garden
Our garden
OUR GARDEN
Our garden
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OUR GARDEN

OUR LEMNISCATI GARDEN

The story of our garden begins with Bernard’s mother (Anna Silj), as a child playing amongst the ruins and vegetation of Livia’s imperial garden, Villa di Livia, which was an extension of our own garden.

The name of the garden originates from the Greek island of Lemnos, where the Etruscan people made a pact with the gods and brought its talisman to Italy: a laurel branch, shaped like a figure 8, symbol of infinity and never ending beginnings. The oracle at Lemniscati was consulted by Livia, wife of emperor Augustus concerning the As Gallinas Albas prodigy, of a white hen and a laurel branch that were cast on her lap by an eagle, and which originated the Giulio-Claudian dynasty. The instructions of the oracle represent an initiation allegory into the mysteries of nature which resulted in Livia’s famous garden and famous frescoes, which generated the longest peace ever in recorded history (the Pax Romana).

 

The Lemniscati garden has witnessed many world-shaping events, starting with the Etruscans, the transition from Republic to Empire all the way to the age of contemporary art. They reflect at least fifteen great tales from history, legend, fairy tale, and myth, expressed through Bernard’s storytelling (archeological artifacts, features and installations). Lemniscati at Prima Porta is an eccentric,  counter-intuitive garden, which has spawned, now a world map of story gardens, which is healing in its nature.

LIVIA’S PLANTS

Livia, an initiate gardener had all her plants depicted in frescoes at Villa di Livia, which were eventually moved to Palazzo Massimo (Museo Nazionale Romano), for safekeeping. These are among the oldest surviving nature frescoes in the world, and one of the most important in the whole history of art. The frescoes represent 24 species, all of which are still growing in our gardens today. They have inspired projects dedicated to art, biodiversity, ethno-botanical lore and plant intelligence.