Art of Living Well – Antiquity to a Villa in Australia Today

Roman fresco with banquet scene from the Casa dei Casti Amanti (IX 12, 6-8) in Pompeii

In western society we are inheritors of a legacy from Ancient Greece and Rome that despite the passing of over 2500 years is still potent. Through their ideas the desire to capture the essence of fine living was born.

Today that art of living has evolved since the development of the domus in European antiquity to a residence in America and Australia, through a diverse and special mix of peoples and their cultures.

…’those who educate children well are more to be honored than parents, for these only gave life, those the art of living well’ *

Ancient Greek gastronomy developed out of a practice of sacrificing domestic animals to a variety of gods. Afterwards, as one would expect in a democracy, the carcasses were equally proportioned and sold at market. During the fifth century before the Christ event herbs, spices and honey were added to heighten taste.

Reconstruction of the Octagonal Room – Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea

As documented in the literature of this period, cookery was considered a very important skill, because the Greeks understood it to be one of the basic arts that sustained human life.

Romans of the first century embraced Greek ideas and art forms with great passion. Roman orator Cicero [106 BC -43 BC] believed that ‘to style the presence of guests at a dinner table’ lay at the heart of Roman civilised life ‘because it implied a community of enjoyment, a convivium, or ‘living together’.

Following the decline of the Republic and ascent of the Empirical system at Rome a shared meal became a vehicle for display, ostentation, rank, hierarchy and for flattering and influencing people, in a setting they could exercise the art of conversation.

Roman Emperor Nero (37-68) enjoyed fine living with great gusto. When he entered his just completed residence, the Domus Aurea (or Golden House, built in 64 AD, he is said to have proclaimed, as he gazed upon its many splendours, words to the effect, ‘now at last I can live as a human being’.

Author of a first century best seller Satyricon, Gaius Petronius (27-66 A.D.), was Nero’s advisor in all matters of luxury and extravagance (his unofficial title was arbiter elegantia).

He described guests arriving at a banquet as being requested to remove their shoes at the door, have their hands washed in iced water, no mean feat prior to refrigeration, while their toenails were trimmed to the sounds of a chorus singing.

Perhaps today we may consider that last just a little excessive.

We do know that Nero’s guests reclined, along with their host, on couches enjoying conversation and cuisine prepared by chefs, who achieved some fame.

His vast banqueting hall revolved in harmony with the rhythms of day and night, the ceiling opening to reveal the heavens as perfume and gifts showered onto guests.

The advent of Christianity created a challenge for those at the top because by now there was a well-established tradition of fine living throughout the Roman world.

The Apostle Paul struggled to attend gatherings where rich men and their friends were served different food and drink to those of a ‘lower status’.

It was a dilemma he felt he could not resolve so in the end he decided the wealthy had better eat privately.

Paul advised the Corinthians [1 Corinthians 8: 9, 10] when asked should they eat meat sacrificed to idols by suggesting they should be careful about exercising freedom of choice in case it became a ‘stumbling block to the weak’.

And, that if what he ate caused his brothers to fall into sin then for his part, he would never eat meat again.

Powerful words with a meditative deep inner meaning that reflect Paul’s strength of mind and purpose.

There is a huge gap of reliable documentation from the fall of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, when the demise of eating in a reclining position also came about, until about the fourteenth century in Europe.

Communal living by Christian monks and nuns meant communal eating, often to strict rules of silence, with an aim of feeding the soul.

Prolonged periods of peace also meant the aristocracy gentry and merchants could establish great houses in the countryside and along with it invented the concept of ‘eating outdoors’ or, having picnics.

This became something new and exciting as described by fourteenth century French nobleman Gaston Phoebus Gaston III of Foix and Gaston X of Béarn (1343-1391).

He summarized his life’s achievements: “I have delighted all my days in three things. The one is arms, the next is love, and the other is hunting.” He added, “There have been far better masters of the two former than I am.” Such humility, is definitely to be applauded.

For Kings and noblemen of the fourteenth century hunting was so much more than just a sport. It was a game of chance in which the thrill of the chase was far more important than the desire to put food on the table.

An artful aristocratic diversion, the hunt ended with man proving he held power and sway over the animal kingdom. A complex event involving strategizing for success with highly valued, well trained dogs and fighting fit falcons hunts were often held on religious days.

They started with a feast for breakfast, as well as an analysis of the droppings of the potential prey to ensure it was both fit and worthy to be hunted at all.

Then the hunt was on. The glorious day ended with everyone joining together in a celebratory meal and fittingly Phoebus himself died, as he should, during a bear hunt.

Fifteenth century Florentine author and philosopher Marsilio Ficino 1433 – 1499 revealed his thoughts about a meal that it ‘embraces all the parts of man, for it restores the limbs, renews the humours, revives the mind, refreshes the senses and sustains and sharpens reason’.

Hatfield House 1Throughout the fifteenth century in Italy dining at table was strongly symbolic of a good society one in which strong social relationships were forged, ideas exchanged and mutual respect established.

In England by the sixteenth century the head of a powerful household sat at the head of his table facing a fanciful portal crowned with trumpeters who heralded the exact moment the food, led by the marshal of the hall carrying a white staff appeared.

At the grandest banquets, a household officer on horseback emerged from underneath a screen that protected guests from draughts from the doorway and rode into the hall to announce that dinner was served. What fun.

At Hatfield House, home of the famous Cecil family, the ornately carved screen was crowned with the Cecil crest and family motto Sero Sed Serio “late, but in earnest’, surely one of the best mottos of all time.

Its painted decoration and a great panoply of decorative devices had been plundered from Turkish rugs and old Medieval manuscripts imposing a visual richness.

If a house during the Tudor period in England, included a Long Gallery hung with portraits of the family, famous patrons or friends it was the mark of a settled and civilized house; an Elizabethan magnate could contemplate their character or otherwise be inspired by their virtues. Owning such a house became important to practicing the art of fine living.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century the French court changed its philosophy from an ideal based on chivalry to one of refined manners.

The most influential teacher of architects in France during this period was Germain Boffrand. He revealed ‘the character of the master of a house…can be judged by the manner in which it is arranged, decorated and furnished’.

By now the art of fine living embraced a well-planned sophisticated garden as well. At Vaux le Vicomte Louis La Vau 1612-70 [architecture] Charles Le Brun 1619-90 [interiors] and Andre Le Notre 1613-1700 [gardens] spent five years building a chateau designed by the three for the glory of one, their patron and illustrious client the Minister for Finances, Nicolas Foucquet.

It is at his Chateau, Vaux le Vicomte, that the French classical style was born.

Le Vau, Le Brun and Le Notre created this extraordinary ‘palace of the sun’ as described by the ancient Latin poet, Ovid for his patron, Apollo, The Sun King.

Here at last was the perfect place for a man of substance and his family to dwell; large, imposing, but not huge; with painted wood panelling, colourful carpets, painted illusionary ceilings, carved and gilded furniture, fabulous ceramics, superb textiles all made for the most splendid of man-made environments.

I know that when I visited to view its splendours I could have easily moved straight in. It was not over ambitious, but comfortable, cleverly disposed and in keeping with its times.

At Vaux le Vicomte Foucquet practiced the art of fine living well, eating his meat from a service that included a new fancy fangled invention called the fork, without fearing the accusation of depravity still associated with that practice only a few years earlier.

The publisher Charles de Sercy described Vaux’s gardens in 1652 as the place where ‘Foucquet made art and nature engage in a pleasant contest’.

The genius of Le Notre lay not only in his invention of a new style, but in his absolute mastery of a repertoire widely used, at least in its many parts.

It was bringing them together in a controlled harmonious form that was not only pleasing but also a perfect place in which to practice the art of seduction.

Vaux was built for the enjoyment of the countryside while not giving up the pleasures of the city…something England did not emulate at this time as they concentrated on building country houses for sport and display, rather than as a place to practice the art of conversation.

The Baroque style from Vaux le Vicomte became a potent force that influenced the whole of the western world when guided by Louis XIV, he began expanding his father’s hunting lodge nearby the village of Versailles using the combined talents of Le Vau, Le Brun and Le Notre.

The Kings of France lived in the chateau of Versailles, which became a centre for political life from 1682 until 1789. It is today an amazing place to visit with its some 2,300 rooms and over 60 staircases.

In its day it cost the equivalent price of what we would pay now for a modern city airport. It was an object of universal admiration in its time, enhancing French prestige on the world stage.

France’s appearance and way of life changed forever during the reign of Louis XIV the Sun King. Many great towns throughout France underwent metamorphosis and the landscape altered forever as Louis XIV devoted himself energetically to all his building projects. Today little remains of his other splendid palaces at Saint-Germain and Marly?

Well cursed as an extravagance when it was under construction, and accused of having ruined the nation at the time of the revolution, the chateau at Versailles stands today as a monument to French achievement and the many milestones reached in its historical and cultural journey.

Over the years since it was finished the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles has reflected many great moments in the history of the world. At the time Colbert, Louis’ 1st Minister and master of ceremonies used it to launch the Royal Mirror Company.

Its success gave considerable momentum to the glazing industry in France and increasingly the public became aware of the decor possibilities of a mirror. They enhanced the art of living well.

Despite all of the work Louis was to complete at Versailles it was always called le Chateau, (which means Gentleman’s seat) never le Palais, remaining the home of a young man, grand without being pompous, full of light, air and cheerfulness just like a large country house.

According to the Oxford Dictionary the term enlightenment means to be free of prejudice, ignorance or superstition. Grand Tourists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe were busy discovering the ruins at Rome and an expansion of knowledge revealed that ancient artists and writers had been accustomed to free expression, with religion and honour paramount to society’s daily existence.

This revelation affected the social and moral values of many European societies who were travelling in ever increasing circles in ‘search of the truth’. They began striving for aesthetic perfection wanting to emulate a new ideal; classical perfection.

As a result small temples in a landscape became focal points for those wanting a place of ease and repose.

By the turn of the nineteenth interiors as described by Jane Austen in her novels, presented an image of a sublime world. China, glassware and silverware displayed the family coat of arms proving to those who sat at table with you that your lineage was not only important, but also could be traced to ancient (the inference was more important) times.

Simple white starched linens with drawn thread work were surmounted by elegant vases made of glass, filled with fresh flowers picked from the garden loosely, but consciously arranged and placed on great tables. These were made from the new rage timber, mahogany with their elegantly fluted legs inspired by the columns from a Greek classical temple.

Women’s dresses emulated Greek statuary although some, endeavouring to appear like the goddesses on Greek temples by wetting their dresses, succumbed to pneumonia… because by now death was preferable to not being seen as part of a fashionable scene involved in the art of fine living.

William Morris (1834-1896) self-professed leader of the modern movement said ‘If I were asked to say what is at once the most important product of Art, and the thing most to be longed for, I should answer, a beautiful House’.

Building a house in the country made to appear as old and as venerable as the countryside itself, was what everyone was striving for.

If you couldn’t build one you clamoured to be acquainted with those who owned a wonderful old pile.

The aim was to affect an invitation to join a country house weekend where the art of pleasure was a very serious business and the art of fine living practiced with confidence and style.

‘Life without industry is guilt, and industry without art is brutality’ said English author and art critic John Ruskin 1819 – 1900.


He resented social injustice and the squalor that was a direct result of the ‘greed is good’ mentality that accompanied the unbridled capitalism of the Industrial Revolution. His influence on the next generation of artists and craftsmen who led the way toward establishing Le Style Moderne was to be profound.

The agricultural depression of the late nineteenth century removed land as the chief source of wealth in England and by 1901 the money to pay for a country house had to be made in urban centres of trade or, somewhere else in the Empire, like Australia, where the English style and way of life had been transported.

ColefaxandFowler3World War 1 marked a great divide in the age of the moderns bringing artists face to face with an alternative; either a clean sweep or hope of a reformed society, or alternatively the retention of a privileged art in the service of an elite and moneyed class.

After WWII a focus on art and design coming together again was rejuvenated. At Sydney, the unofficial capital of Australia, a quiet revolution in the art of living well has meant that its interior designers have finally come into their own.

Stunning textiles instead of paintings are appearing on the very best walls. Smart eye-catching antique carpets are teaming brilliantly with wide plank nailed timber floors.

Despite the GFC, storm and tempest, floods and fire most owners remain optimistic. Good old Petronius, with his eye for detail and best in life, would have loved the whole concept of a one stop shop and having access to the fabulous design resources we have today.

During the last decade those who have set the scene for an art of fine living have reinterpreted late nineteenth century European Modernism with great enthusiasm, making it appear all brand new.

Great interiors today are innovative, convenient, comfortable, aesthetically pleasing, technology savvy and above all energy efficient.

Sustainability, recycling and quiet elegance have become hallmarks of an interior that will both inspire and nurture its occupants, so that they can enjoy an art of living well.

The Block in Melbourne

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015

*Quote by Aristotle (384 – 322 BC)


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