Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.05.03

Annamaria Ciarallo, Gardens of Pompeii.   Los Angeles:  J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001.  Pp. 73, 139 colour illustrations.  ISBN 0-89236-629-X.  $24.95.  

Antonio Varone, Eroticism in Pompeii.   Los Angeles:  J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001.  Pp. 115, 105 colour illustrations.  ISBN 0-89236-628-1.  $24.95.  

Reviewed by Phyllis Pray Bober, Bryn Mawr College
Word count: 657 words

Translated from Bretschneider publications, these two volumes represent a new series on ancient life pictorially designed as eye-catchers in the Getty Museum book store. They permit one to judge that individual volumes must vary widely in interest for any audience that is not popular.

C's presentation of Pompeian gardens divides her material under four rubrics: "Indigenous and Introduced Species" (under which medicinal plants and those for wreaths and garlands are considered), "The Landscape" (plants for textiles, weaving and dyeing), "Urban Vegetation" (an overview of the richness of Pompeian gardens, confirming literary descriptions of villas and the like, with a side glance at perfume in daily life), and "Essential Cultivation" (wheat and flour, olive oil, grapes and winemaking). Actual text is very slight, embedded in illustrations in full colour with extensive captions, but six pages of plant lists of species present in the Vesuvian area, based on identification of pollens, woods, seeds and fruit as well as descriptions by ancient authors, is a useful addendum; those depicted in Pompeian frescoes are printed in bold. Because recent books on the subject "recapitulate all the preceding ones" C's bibliography is limited to a single work by Jashemski (The Gardens of Pompeii, New Rochelle, 1975, 1993), articles in the exhibition catalogue, Homo Faber, Milan, 1999, and her own publications, including Orti e giardini di Pompei, 1992.

The volume on eroticism in Pompeii is a very different offering; within a similar format but less self-conscious design, the text is more substantial, less a recapitulation than an argument. From an introduction that points out the gulf separating our sensibilities in matters erotic from those of ancient Romans who "knew neither the doubt of sin nor the prurience typical of our age," V. moves to a first section discriminating the Non-Erotic from his chapters to follow, i.e. apotropaic and parodic or ironic depictions of the phallus. Erotic manifestations are subdivided into public displays (banquets and performances by actors, mimes, 'strip-tease artists', even gladiators, whose brawny ferocity might arouse Roman matrons), those in the private realm, and finally, ritual forms in the religious sphere.

V.'s material is not exclusively Pompeian, since he supplements inscriptions from the site with liberal applications of erotic poetry, above all Martial's. He also goes farther afield, to the Rhone Valley, for example, where a number of terracotta applique medallions provide analogies to some of his illustrations or confirm "how mirrors were actually used as instruments to arouse the libido" (pp. 86-7). In one instance these are used together with other representations of erotic scenes that might be concealed behind little doors, like famous tabulae by Greek masters, to supplement his argument concerning the hedonist pleasures of the owner of the House of the Centenary. Here his hypothesis concerning a cubiculum designed to enhance erotic play by an arrangement that allowed interchangeable pictures of amatory artifice to be 'projected' through an aperture from its antechamber serves as a prelude to a section on voyeurism and exhibitionism.

The final section on a divine sphere of fertility festivals and ritual must necessarily close with reading the frescoes of the Villa of the Mysteries. V.'s interpretation of this famously debated rendering is deceptively straightforward and advances nothing to conflicted readings of its Dionysiac theme. He does not even take a stance on the question of the identity of Dionysos' companion--Ariadne or Semele.

In various places and photographic scale in the volume, the famous Farnese sarcophagus in Naples is reproduced in whole or in detail of its Bacchic nocturnal festival of libidinous Pans. V. misreads the female Panisk who masturbates with an ithyphallic herm as male; he would undoubtedly be beguiled by knowledge of the admiration the sculpture elicited during the Renaissance, when it was displayed at San Marco, the church attached to the Roman palace of Venetian cardinals (and at least one pope, Paul II), and where this particular detail inspired a charming bronze plaquette by Riccio owned by the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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