IN THE HOUSES OF POMPEII?
by Raichel Le Goff,
Coutauld Insitute of Art, London University - Seminar with Dr. Jas Elsner, 1995
I have been in the home of a man who collects 16th century Italian mythological
paintings. As he led me around the rooms he told me not about what events
where occurring in the pictures but about the beauty of the composition,
the forms, the colours and the skill of the artist. In one room there was
a sequence of canvases showing the twelve labours of Hercules which were
read in order from left to right as you walked around three walls of the
room. Each canvas contained a cartouche with lines in Latin from Apollodorus
which narrate the events taking place. The room was not dissimilar in size
from the oecus of the Theban myths in the House of the Vettii although
the individual images were smaller in dimensions.
I recently returned to this room and tried to imagine that these images were wall paintings in a Pompeian home and that I was not looking at them from a connoisseurial viewpoint, but from that of a spectator engaged in following a story. Whilst my cultural make-up is vastly different to that of a Pompeian spectator I understood how the opportunity to stand alone in contemplation before this mythography enables one to become totally immersed in the experience of visual storytelling. Ignoring the distraction of the verse lines I had concentrated on the rhetoric expressed by the figures themselves, yet the question did come to mind: if I was a Roman viewer would these images instantly recall familiar lines of text? Was the function of a Roman mythographical scheme of domestic decoration partly to act as a memory prompt, as Bettina Bergmann suggests?
In the first instance, the basic function of wall painting of any description is decoration. It fills a space on a wall that would otherwise be vacant. It therefore fills a space in the viewer's imagination that would otherwise not be stimulated if the wall viewed was blank. So the first function of a wall painting is to act as a stimulus to the viewer. It may only inspire an aesthetic reaction, but it also stimulates associations to other images seen and to textual images that exist via ekphrasis, to memories, to sensations felt and to those anticipated. When a visitor to the House of the Vettii stood in front of the Hercules strangling the serpents he would recall other depictions he had seen of the subject or recognise the subject from having heard or read the myth. Personal memories may be provoked by the sight of a startled woman and the naked struggling torso of an infant, or the viewer could be drawn to mimic the characters involved and feel astonishment, admiration or fear. Even the uninformed viewer is bound to react in one of these ways and question, what is happening? Why is the infant entwined by serpents?
Since this course is entitled The Last Day of Pompeii, in the limited
space this essay allows for discussion, I would like to restrict my examples
to the mythological paintings in The House of the Vettii. This luxurious
patrician dwelling furnishes us with an important example of what the taste
in domestic decoration was like in the late years of Pompeii. I choose
it not only because it appears to have been built after the earthquake
of 62AD, but it is one of the few houses left with most of its paintings
in situ. The owners of this house were the affluent freedmen Aulus Vettius
Restititus and Aulus Vettius Conviva, as we know from their bronze seals
found in the atrium and the election slogans on the walls outside. The
House of the Vettii is somewhat controversial not only in the imagery it
contains, but also since Mau labelled the Vettii 'vulgarians', writers
on Pompeii have tended to share the same subjective opinion. However,
the quality of the tripartite mythological scenes in what are commonly
called the Ixion room and the Pentheus room, suggest to me that either
the Vettii could simply afford to pay the best artist available and gave
him carte blanche over the decoration scheme or that they themselves, were
a little less uncouth than judged. It is also presumed by at least two
authors, that the Vettii had panel paintings, probably expensive copies
after Greek originals affixed to the wall of the large triclinium.
The Vettii were no different to their neighbours in Pompeii in their desire for interior decoration which emulated the pinacothecae of Roman houses. In this respect, mythological panel-pictures can be seen as functioning like a cultural vinculum to the capital where Greek art and culture clearly exercised a dominant influence upon the taste of private patrons in Roman Italy. The subject matter of surviving paintings in Pompeii is overwhelmingly Greek and a look at contemporary literature helps us realize the extent to which Greek myths formed an important and permanent point of reference in the Roman world. Virgil's Aeneid is a mythical epic about the distant past, yet it also held important messages about the present and the future to the Roman viewer. It is permeated with philosophical ideas inherited from the Greek thinkers, which Virgil writing at the beginning of the 1st century AD, interweaved with Roman history and Roman values. The geography, people and virtues of Italy figure greatly in this tale of the Trojan birth of Rome. The Julii family to which Augustus belonged, claimed to trace their ancestry back to Aeneas himself, so it seems that Virgil was giving voice to the non-Greek peoples of Italy sophisticated enough to wish to attach themselves to the great cycles of Greek legend. As Mau pointed out, we know that Virgil was carefully studied at school in Pompeii as there are frequent quotations from Virgil scratched on the walls. A line of the Aeneid (IX.404) appears as a prayer to Venus: Tu, dea, tu praesens nostro succurre labori.
Such familiarity with Greek mythology enabled Pompeians to be aware of any deviation from what they knew to be the 'normal' version in a pictorial representation of a myth. As in literature so in painting, a traditional theme or motif might assume a new meaning depending on the interpretation of the viewer.
Mythological painting in the Roman house also represented the status of the house to the exterior world. At face value, it was a display of skill that had been paid for by the owner of the house. It might have carried implicit references to fashion, degrees of wealth and high culture to other members of society. If, like Leach maintains, "the audience of Roman art was far less interested in pictorial illustrations with detailed allegiance to literary texts then modern audiences are", then such considerations as which fashionable artist had decorated the room and what aesthetic dimension did the pictures add to the house may have been important functions of mythological painting in the Pompeian home. Leach's argument is slightly in conflict to that of Bergmann who argues, "in the domestic sphere, the Romans' visual literacy and their creative use of pictorial signs and devices for certain cognitive operations have been underestimated." Bergmann would like us to believe that the small man in her computer image is a "cultured agent in the Roman creation of an ancestral past.", an educated person who is engaging in sustained contemplation of the mythological pictures in the House of the Tragic Poet in order to unlock complicated thought processes he has been privileged enough to learn.
In the The House of the Tragic Poet
(also called The Homeric House or The Iliadic House)
In complete opposition to Bergmann's hypothesis is Ling, who says that "correspondence in form was more important than correspondence in content". Whilst I do not deny that evidence shows balance in form was deemed important, it is obvious that careful consideration was also given to the theme and it is irresponsible to say one is "more important" than the other. In the House of the Vettii, the oecus (or triclinium) to the left of the entrance to the peristyle has pictures with subjects taken from the Theban myths; Amphion and Zethus, joint rulers of Thebes, bind Dirce to a bull to avenge their mother Antiope; Pentheus king of Thebes is assaulted and killed by the Bacchantes for not having permitted the introduction of the cult of Dionysos into the city; the infant Hercules, born at Thebes, strangles the serpents sent by Hera. Surely a coherent iconographical scheme? If Ling's argument is to stand, then it would not be necessary for any of the pictures to relate by theme.
In the oecus (or triclinium) which opens off the northern corner of the peristyle, the walls are frescoed with pictures depicting love between the gods and mortal beings. On the left wall Daedalus shows the semi-divine Pasiphae the model of the wooden cow he had made in order that she could consummate her love for a bull. The myth of Ixion is depicted on the back wall where he is bound with snakes to a wheel made by Hephaestos because he had tried to make love to Hera. Hermes, Hera enthroned and Isis are present while the cloaked woman can be identified as the imploring Nephele. The scene on the right wall shows Ariadne at Naxos, awakened by Dionysos whilst Theseus flees with his ship. The three scenes could also be linked by the notion of false love.
Singular episodes from mythology may have held special appeal to the houseowner and would fulfil the function of giving pleasure to that person each time he passed the image. Perhaps for this reason, the Ariadne and Bacchus episode is repeated in the cubicle to the left of the entrance opposite another panel depicting Leander swimming across the Hellespont to reach his beloved Hero. In the adjacent oecus there is a picture of the myth of Cyparissus, the young hunter transformed into a cypress for having slain the stag dear to Apollo, as well as Dionysos and Diana observing the struggle between Pan and Eros, Jupiter and Danae, and Jupiter and Leda. Many scholars have suggested that the paintings reflected the function of the room, i.e. lots of putti pouring wine and Dionysus in triumph would equal a triclinium. This is using painting to set the social context. However, given the above iconographical programme; a metamorphoses and the loves of the Gods, how would one say that this indicates the use of the room? Even with a coherent iconographical programme such as that in the Pentheus room, what is there to indicate room usage? It requires close examination of archaeological evidence to discern the function of a room, the clues hidden in pictorial representation alone cannot provide an answer. However, it is interesting to contemplate the room usage designated by archaeologists in connection to the images. Most texts discussing the Pentheus and the Ixion rooms refer to them as triclinium. Given this context, what can that tell us about the function of the image in the service of the Pompeian viewer? Presume that the Pentheus room is used for dining; were the images on the wall there as passive decoration, to create a colourful backdrop to the diners or did the content of these pictures figure largely as 'conversation pieces'. The crowning scene in this room is a vivid representation of extreme violence describing one of the most revolting passages known to us from classical literature (Euripides' BAKXAI , 1120-1136).
"In mangled shreds: with blood-bedabbled hands each to and fro was tossing Pentheus' flesh", a line of text that must have sprung to the mind of at least one possible diner in this room as he sat feasting on roasted meat, especially if we follow Bergmann's train of thought. Can this then be conceived as a witty almost sadistic jest on the part of the host? It surely seems to have some purpose other than mere decoration. If the Vettii had wanted simply to please the eye and rest the mind, why not decorate a dining room with insouciant sacro-idyllic landscapes?
It seems to be that the debate regarding the function of Pompeian mythological painting is divided between two extremes, represented at one end by Bergmann who wishes to see these pictures in an educational role and Ling at the other end, viewing them in a purely aesthetic role.
I can only go back to my own experience inside the Renaissance gallery of Hercules and say that for the owner, form mattered more than content and yet for I the visitor, the reverse was true.
Consequently I conclude that in the House of the Vettii, as in other Pompeian homes, it is left to the beholder to draw any parallels between him or herself and the mythological world depicted on the walls. Their main and basic function remains simply: to stimulate.
* B. Bergmann, The Roman House as Memory Theatre: The House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii, Art Bulletin, June 1994, Vol. LXXVI, No.2.
* Euripides, BAKXAI, Loeb, London 1979.
* P. Grimal, Dictionary of Classical Mythology, Penguin, London 1990.
* E.W. Leach, The Rhetoric of Space, Princeton, 1988.
* R. Ling, Roman Painting, Cambridge, 1991.
* A. Mau, Pompeii, Its Life and Art, London 1899.
* L.Richardson, Pompeii: an architectural history, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1988.
I can only go back to my own experience
A gynaeceum lies on the northwest side of the peristyleand the pictures there depict Achilles on the island of Scyros and the dunken Hercules about to seduce Auge who is washing her peplos. The large oecus which opens onto the peristyle next to the gynaeceum contains the often reproduced "cupids at work" frieze which culminates in a triumphal procession of Dionysos. Some of the friezes on the pilasters depict episodes relating to Agamemnon, Apollo, Orestes, Pylades and Iphigenia.
Ling conjectures that pattern-book of Iliadic scenes were widely criculated and copied during the late Republic.(107).
"Specifically Roman is the burlesque of the well-known figure composition of Aeneas fleeing from troy with his father Anchises on his shoulder and his son Ascanius at his heels. Dervied from a statue-group set up in Augustus's Forum in Rome, a copy of which was later installed int eh building of Eumachia at Pompeii, this composition appeared in a 'straight' version on the facade of the Pompeian shop IX 13, 5, together with a painting of the figure of Romulus which was evidently a companion-piece of the statues in Roman and Eumachia's building; (Ling, p.165)"
"By the Imperial period, a new Roman cultural identity had emerged, incorporating major contributions from greek literature, art and thought, but with indigenous elements too, and expressing an essentially Roman outlook. One has only to think of Virgil's Aeneid to appreciate the synthesis which was achieved." (p.3, Ling)
wall-painting must be tied up with room use -
thus Virgil's Aeneid is a celebration of Augustus' achievements.
House of the Vettii -
B. Bergmann, The Roman House as Memory Theatre: The House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii, Art Bulletin, June 1994, Vol. LXXVI, No.2.
Mau describes some of the mythological scenes in the House of the Vettii as "manifesting a taste little short of barbarous". A. Mau, Pompeii, Its Life and Art, London 1899, p. 322. The erotic paintings and statues throughout the house have also been responsible for the Vettii being typecast as boorish nouveaux riches. Regarding the infamous camera d'amore featuring pornographic paintings, Richardson contributes the following incredible observation, "One might gather that from the location of the room and the clumsiness of the paintings that the owners were a bit ashamed of it". L.Richardson, Pompeii: an architectural history, John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore 1988, p.325.
cf. R. Ling, Roman Painting, Cambridge, 1991, p.135 and Richardson sites evidence of remaining nails around the border of vacant picture spaces on the walls, that suggest they were on wooden panels. loc.cit. note 5, p.327.
cf. Mau, loc.cit. note 2. p. 486.
E.W. Leach, The Rhetoric of Space, Princeton, 1988, p. 9.
loc. cit. note 1. p.245
Art Historian Raichel Le Goff, the Vesuvius volcano in the background
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Pompeii and the Likes
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