BMCR 2005.02.17

Casa della Caccia antica (VII 4, 48). Häuser in Pompeji, ed. by Volker Michael Strocka, vol. 11

, , Häuser in Pompeji. Munich: E. Wasmuth, 1984-c2004. 12 volumes : illustrations (some color) ; 49 cm. ISBN 3803010322 €128.00.

As impressive as it is to see, this eleventh folio in the Häuser in Pompeji series is difficult to handle and read, making this reader wonder why, exactly, it has taken this antiquated, awkward format. Like the super-size folio format, the conception of the series is old-fashioned. The authors must submit to a predefined program that privileges raw description of the structure and its decoration over the interpretive strategies now accepted by scholars who study ancient houses and their decoration. That said, the authors — especially Penelope Allison, who has the lion’s share of the work here — have done an admirable job in pushing as far as they could beyond the constrictions of the boiler-plate given them by the editor and the publisher.

Excavated between 1832 and 1835, the Casa della Caccia antica attracted many nineteenth-century writers and artists, who provided the rich but often unreliable documentation of architecture and wall paintings that are now difficult to understand because of plaster and paint losses. The authors’ work is to set the record straight, providing faultless documentation for every surface of the house.

In the first major division of the book, “Description,” (15-57) we find for each room first the description of the structure and floors by Sear, then the description of the wall plaster by Grave and Allison, followed by Allison’s description of the wall paintings. Frank Sear’s task — to describe every wall and floor — results in the most mind-numbing reading in the book. I am sure that his painstaking narrative — where the protagonists are mortar, stone, brick, and plaster — resonates with some reader somewhere, but I cannot comment on it.

Nevertheless, for each wall and in each category the authors provide valuable information: references to previous illustrations, prior documentation, and literature (bibliography). Sear is responsible for the book’s second division, “Architectural Analysis,” (58-61) where he proposes four building phases: late 2nd century BC; mid to late 1st century BC; AD 62-71; and AD 71-79. He concludes this brief section with the rationale for the excellent graphic reconstructions of the house (figs. 45-48).

Grave’s section on plaster analysis, although brief (62-65; figs. 25-31), makes two new points: that variability in plaster type does not always signal a chronological sequence because plasterers often used different plasters on the same wall, distinguishing, for example, water-proof areas from painted decoration. Second, he establishes that the post-AD 71 painters of the house used Egyptian blue pigment — whether imported or locally made — for the important decoration in tablinum 11.

Penelope Allison’s main work is to describe and analyze the wall paintings. Her full and impeccably researched section, entitled “Analyses of the Wall-Painting” (66-86), demonstrates what rich results can come from attentive, extended analysis of iconography and typology (66-80). Particularly valuable are the lists of comparanda for each iconographical theme, organized, like the “Description” section, room by room and wall by wall. Iconographical themes found on the walls of the Casa of the Caccia antica include: the Seasons; Theseus and Ariadne; Pasiphae and Daedalus; Lucifer; Vesper; Nilotic landscapes; Cupids hunting; Achilles on Skyros; Danae and the golden shower; Leda and the swan; Aphrodite fishing; the great Hunt scene; Polyphemus and Galatea (two versions); “sacral-idyllic” landscapes; Apollo and Branchus; and Artemis and Actaeon. It is not possible to do justice to the sophistication and bibliographic command Allison brings to the discussion of these iconographic themes. I can only praise her thoroughness in listing parallels throughout the Vesuvian region for each theme. She also questions how combinations of these themes might constitute the programs studied by von Blanckenhagen,1 Thompson,2 Leach,3 and Bergmann.4

In her investigation of the painters (80-83), Allison opens up the important question of painters’ workshops at Pompeii. She identifies the hands of four painters, sometimes working side-by-side in the same room, and concludes: “Since writing this text, more than fifteen years ago, I have come to the conclusion that the term ‘workshop’ is inappropriate to describe the workforce organisation needed to decorate a Roman house. I now believe that the expression ‘decorators’ team’ would be more appropriate in this context” (80, n. 570). In several other places Allison has detailed this argument, most notably in the symposium volume dedicated to the question of painters’ hands and workshops published in 1995.5

Establishing a chronology for the wall paintings is a relatively straightforward matter. The best evidence is the discovery, in 1983, of more than 70 coin impressions in the plaster of the north wall of atrium 2 that date the decoration of this wall to between A.D. 71 and 79. Meyer-Graft’s plaster analysis establishes that all the plasters associated with the extant decoration were applied in a single decorative program (an opinion shared by Grave’s independent analysis). Combining the dating terminus furnished by the coin impressions with the plaster analysis, Allison concludes that a single team of decorators carried out the decoration in fauces 1, atrium 2, tablinum 11, triclinium 12, ala 13, cubiculum 14, exedra 18, peristyle 16, and triclinum 17 between A.D. 71 and 79. This dating places the iconographic themes that Schefold thought to be Neronian squarely in the period of Vespasian, and demonstrates that a variety of Fourth-Style painting schemes, including the Panel Style and the scaenae frons design, were not successive but contemporaneous.6

The illustrations are abundant and demonstrate clearly why careful reconstruction is needed. For the west wall of cubiculum 14, we see three nineteenth-century watercolor reconstructions, each proposing a different center picture (figs. 157-159). Fig. 157 gets it right, showing the picture, removed to the Naples Archaeological Museum, of a standing Danae receiving Jupiter’s shower of gold from a winged Cupid. One artist used the in-situ center picture from the north wall, of Venus fishing, to fill in the blank, whereas the other used the painting of Leda and the swan from the south wall. The reconstruction drawing — like all the drawings in the volume at a scale of 1:20 — incorporates all available information.

Readers will be most grateful for the near-miraculous reconstruction of the hunt painting on the south wall of peristyle 16, now in pitiable condition. Based on Mastracchio’s drawing, Niccolini’s watercolor and careful on-site analysis, the volume produces an excellent shaded drawing (fig. 204). Equally impressive is the reconstruction drawing of the west wall, in even more ruinous condition (fig. 210). Here were two large elaborate sacryl-idyllic landscapes incorporating temples and porticus villas along the water. Noting the fact that both Egyptian and non-Egyptian elements occur here, Allison rightly questions the validity of the distinction first made by Helbig and later Rostovtzeff between Egyptian and non-Egyptian “sacral-idyllic” landscapes (76-77).

This volume, like the entire series, represents a kind of battleground between pure Archaeology and the interpretative strategies of the new Art History and Cultural Studies. On the side of Archaeology, we get painstaking, systematic documentation, wall by wall, room by room, according to a predetermined scheme for the Häuser in Pompeji series. On the side of Art History, we get Allison’s work on questions of iconographical programs, workshop practices, and systems of meaning — buried, unfortunately, within the boiler-plate. Is this the most effective way to understand the role of the house and its imagery in the lives of ancient patrons and viewers?

My other nagging doubt concerns the system of documentation. Although I recognize the need for accurate plans, elevations, and reconstructions of wall painting schemes, it seems to me that a range of digital technologies could add to the effectiveness of this project. Digital video and still photography, easily provided as a CD-ROM or DVD bundled with the book — or even standing apart as a web site — could provide much better documentation than black-and-white photographs and printed description. The archaeologist’s spoken commentary, accompanied by the video camera’s illustration, could preserve the remains more fully and make them available to future researchers. The only way to check Sear’s description is to visit the site, and as Pompeian garden crews and weather wreak rapid havoc on these old structures, what Sear saw in 1984 may not be visible in 2005.

What is more, video walk-throughs, showing both the actual state of the house and the house as restored in a three-dimensional, virtual reality model, could tell us much about how the imagery addressed the ancient viewer. A precedent for the virtual-reality model can be seen in the paper models carried out by Victoria I for Bettina Bergmann’s articles on the House of Tragic Poet,[[cf. note 4]] the House of Jason,7 and the garden complex of the Villa of Oplontis.8 These models are more than fanciful restorations; they are tools for understanding the ancient viewer’s relationship with the imagery in both perceptual and conceptual terms. Like the virtual models I am suggesting, they allow us to investigate the spaces where the mythological pictures, hunt scenes, and genre figures interacted with each other and with the viewer.

If we believe that the paintings in the Casa of the della Caccia antica had meanings for ancient viewers beyond the ability to identify the subject of a picture, it is not enough for us modern researchers simply to describe and list those subjects. We need an ampler investigative framework than that provided here that allows us to ask how the artists and the patron employed ensembles of decoration and figural subjects to create meaning. If we think of these ensembles as systems of communication organized for a specific set of architectural spaces, only a global, contextual analysis will allow us to begin to analyze them in terms that address the perceptions and understanding of the ancient viewer.


1. Peter H. von Blanckenhagen, “Daedalus and Icarus on Pompeian Walls,” Römische Mitteilungen 75 (1968): 106-145.

2. Mary Lee Thompson, “Programmatic Painting in Pompeii: The Meaningful Combination of Mythological Pictures in Room Decoration,” (Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1960).

3. Eleanor Winsor Leach, “Metamorphoses of the Acteon Myth in Campanian Painting,” Römische Mitteilungen 88 (1981): 307-327.

4. Bettina Bergmann, “The Roman House as Memory Theater: The House of the Tragic Poet at Pompeii,” Art Bulletin 76 (June 1994): 225-57.

5. Eric E. Moormann, ed., Mani di pittori e botteghe pittoriche nel mondo romano: Tavola rotonda in onore di W. J. Th. Peters in occasione del suo compleanno. Dutch School, Rome, 16-17 May 1994. Mededeelingen van het Nederlands Instituut te Rome 54 (1995): 61-298.

6. Karl Schefold, Vergessenes Pompeii (Bern and Munich, 1962), 99-139.

7. Bettina Bergmann, “The Pregnant Moment: Tragic Wives in the Roman Interior,” in Sexuality in Ancient Art, ed. Natalie B. Kampen (New York, 1996), 199-218.

8. Bettina Bergmann, “Art and Nature in the Villa at Oplontis,” in Pompeian Brothels, Pompeii’s Ancient History, Mirrors and Mysteries, Art and Nature at Oplontis, and the Herculaneum ‘Basilica,’ Journal of Roman Archaeology, supplement 47 (Portsmouth, RI, 2002), 187-120.