BMCR 2005.08.32

Domus: Wall Painting in the Roman House

, , , Domus : wall painting in the Roman house. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004. 416 pages : chiefly color illustrations, plans ; 34 cm. ISBN 0892367660. $150.00.

Lavishly produced, with unfailingly gorgeous color photographs, this volume joins a long list of coffee-table books on Roman wall painting. It targets already-familiar frescoes found in houses and villas buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, with the addition of several well-known examples from Rome. In short, the focus is a familiar one: Romano-Campanian painting comprising Mau’s Four Styles. It’s a big, beautiful book that uses special paper (textured, we’re told, to imitate the texture of the walls — although most of the walls are smooth to the touch). And there’s no doubt that Luciano Romano, the photographer responsible for the lion’s share of the images reproduced here — not to mention the printer — never hesitated to “bump up” the images using all the tricks of the digital age. If this makes the photos of painted surfaces that decorated the walls of Roman houses look like so many pretty pictures, it’s because bright flood lights and daring cropping have eliminated all the other visual information an ancient viewer would have gotten.

The books’ visual dazzle is also its limitation. The photographs undermine the thrust of the both introductory essays, for in very few instances are we seeing the wall paintings in their architectural contexts and rarely as an ancient Roman would: under varying conditions of light; screened by furniture, plants, tapestries, and human beings; seen in passing; contemplated from a banquet couch. Much scholarship over the past 30 years has attempted to address what might be called the functional variables of viewing Roman wall painting, and the strength of M’s essay is her emphasis on the subjective — if not to say poetic — dimensions of experiencing Roman wall painting. Not only do the photographs shrink from showing us what the frescoes look like in their architectural settings, we have almost no decorative ensembles that show how Roman wall painting worked together with a variety of paving techniques and stuccowork; and how fresco painting decorated a variety of surfaces, including ceilings, fountain-houses, gardens, temple platforms, palaestra walls, swimming pools, popular taverns, and shop facades. Painted plaster was everywhere, and not always lushly gorgeous.

What I expected, then, was that the authors of the two essays would put all this photographic eye candy in perspective. As an architect, Donatella Mazzoleni might provide a broader framework for the rituals of the Roman house and villa, bringing in questions of siting, ideology, and use of the interior-decorative spaces. Umberto Pappalardo, as a seasoned archaeologist and expert on Romano-Campanian wall painting, would then address the narrower questions of technique, dating, and scholarly interpretation. Both authors, although partly fulfilling my expectations, fell short — but for different reasons. M, for all her imaginative conjectures and theorizing, is too vague when it comes down to how wall painting functioned for an ancient viewer — whether in terms of spatial perception or in terms of ideology. Pappalardo’s essay, although it address some of the basic questions a non-scholar reader might have, leaves others dangling.

M is refreshingly up-front about attempting an ahistorical, synchronic analysis that will appeal to the direct experience of wall painting in architecture. She proposes a menu of interpretative strategies offering “… a few ideas to contemplate …: the skin of the house; the house inside a house; the play of the senses; nearness and distance; time, the mirror, and mystery; paradise; fictions of fictions; theaters of power; and delirium and repression” (23). For the reader undaunted by this dizzying smorgasbord of approaches, M offers many fresh insights of varying value for the target audience. This audience, to be sure, is not the seasoned scholar but the novice wanting to go beyond the regimented tour that defines most experiences of the house and its decoration at the archaeological sites.

It is to M’s credit that she devotes a large section of the essay to the spatial layout of the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Rome — even though her demonstrations of the “celestial and terrestrial orientations” of the streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum are debatable. For Rome, M’s reliance on an old source, Joseph Rykwert (1956), gives an odd antiquarian flavor to her representation of the city’s layout and its religious and social meanings.1 She concludes that Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Rome are: ” . . . three great ‘first landscapes’ against which and in the context of which we must imagine both the real spaces and the imaginary sense of continuation in the illusionistic spaces of the architectural-pictorial complexes discussed in this book” (20).

It is with mixed success that M tries to connect the fictive spaces of illusionistic wall painting with the orientation of houses — claiming, for instance, that the Houses of the Faun, the Labyrinth, Polybius, and the Tragic Poet contain the most significant examples of painted decoration because they’re entered from the south on the uphill side of the decumanus. Their long axes put the sea and the late morning light behind the viewer and Mt. Vesuvius in front of her. Houses like that of the Vettii and of Lucretius Fronto, entered from the cardines, have spaces that seem “turned around” (21).

As interesting as this idea is, M fails to develop it in any systematic way, leaving the reader hanging. In an effort to include in her analysis of orientation the few rooms rescued from the Roman villa found under the garden of the Farnesina in Rome, M is content to contrast the black triclinium with the white exedra. Each, she says, is “… a perfect aesthetic/climatic machine … one to handle a winter landscape, the other for … the bright white light of summer” (22). It is hard to imagine a more subjective way of interpreting these rooms, especially with no information on the whole plan of the building and its siting.

One of M’s most satisfying analyses of the relation between built space and the fictive space of wall painting is that of the House of the Labyrinth. Under the rubric of “Near and Far” she describes the axial views articulated by paired column into five spatial planes. The culmination of this experience is, of course, the famous Corinthian oecus, where the artist echoed the real colonnade with Second-Style perspective that seem to open up behind the planes of the walls. Using the axonometric drawing by Ludovica Bucci de Santis and Simonetta Capecchi, M demonstrates the play between built and fictive spaces. But this is certainly nothing new, and we find no reference to the many scholars who have contributed to the discussion of the views in the Roman house and villa; nor, indeed, to work on the relation of wall paintings to both architectural container and to the viewer.2

Nevertheless, fresh formulations abound. I disagree with the statement that mosaic “… never dematerializes the surface that supports it” (sometimes it does, e.g. the asarotos oikos or “unswept floor” image). Her observation, however, that the vestibule of the House of Polybius, with its First-Style imitation of marble blocks and carefully-constructed false doors is a “house inside a house” is original and thought-provoking.

The Villa of Poppaea at Oplontis furnishes M’s prime example for “play of the senses.” Unfortunately M assumes that one entered the villa from rooms or spaces to the south of the atrium. Current investigations by the Oplontis Project (charged with the definitive publication of the villa), have uncovered evidence that the mosaic pavements continued to the south of the Sarno Canal, where they extend about two meters. But there will never be any further evidence, for the canal, constructed in 1590, cut off the entire south part of the villa, and construction of a mill and later a pasta factory removed all other evidence.3 Yet M’s description of the trompe l’oeil architecture, unfolding like a labyrinth, is properly evocative, especially as she characterizes it as “growing in every direction.”

In “Time, Mirror, and Mystery” the author asserts that the Villa of the Mysteries had two entrances — one for the domestic area at the “rear” of the building on the northeast, the other from the southwest facade. Vitruvius tells us that the proper entrance is from the street at the northeast, since the villa suburbana reverses the sequence of the in-town domus to proceed: fauces, peristyle, atrium, tablinum.4 The other feature M overinterprets is the so-called lararium, known to be a late addition and called a lararium without foundation. M’s appeal to see the Villa of the Mysteries articulated not only in the terrestrial and celestial orientations of the site, but also as “… linked, in function and design, to the elements of Earth and Fire” fails to convince.

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of M’s essay surfaces under the rubric “Paradise,” where she lumps together the paradeisos with the quite different genre of garden painting (an ambiguity only slightly clarified in Pappalardo’s essay). The paradeisos paintings at Pompeii (e.g., the garden of the House of Lucretius Fronto; the viridarium of the House of the Ceii) properly represent — in fresco — a wild animal park of the kind Hellenistic dynasts (and the Roman élite) could afford. Paintings whose subject is the garden replete with plants and birds have a quite different resonance, as the work of Wilhelmina Jashemsky and others has amply demonstrated.5 Somehow M wants to make garden paintings like that of the Villa of Livia at Primaporta into a womb — a pregnant one at that — a place where time and the world began (30-32). Her poetic expressions, however evocative, overdetermine the interpretation of the room.

M’s discussion of Fourth-Style painting (although never named as such) hones in on the fact that the center pictures appear between curtains (the so-called Tapestry Manner): thus we get the pictures in the House of the Tragic Poet imitating “… a famous Macedonian habit of Alexander the Great’s successors, Cassander and Ptolemy. During military campaigns, these princes decorated the sides of their battlefield tents with paintings.”(33) The Collegium of the Augustales at Herculaneum becomes a “theater of power” both because of its terrestrial and celestial orientation and its juxtaposition to the Basilica (33-34). The Domus Aurea is the locus for the last of M’s binaries, “Delirium and Repression;” M’s method is so free-form that it sees what it wants to see — in this case the intersections of space-carving and solar orientation, of reality and the imaginary.

If M’s essay errs, at times, on the side of evocative rhapsodizing, Pappalardo’s suffers from a lack of thematic cohesion. This is not to say that the individual subsections fail to inform the reader who is innocent of the modern scholarship on the topics discussed: how Roman houses and their decoration aspired to royal ideology; how to make a fresco; the four Pompeian Styles; subjects of wall painting; the garden; the First and Second Styles and Greek culture; the Third and Fourth Styles and fantasy; representations of religion; the diffusion and revival of Pompeian styles. Rather, they stand in uneasy relation to each other. An odd excursus under the heading “Subjects and Evolution of Wall painting at Pompeii” begins with a long (unillustrated) description of the early Second-Style painting of the sanctuary at Brescia, then segues — unaccountably — to: “The use of illusionistic painting to decorate walls was an ingenious invention of the Romans used to express their new status with relatively modest expenditure. Nonetheless this illusionism also had an impact on all later mural painting in the West, as we can see in the architectural background of Raphael’s School of Athens” (45). Well, yes — but quod est demonstrandum.

Two unusual interpretations drew my attention. It may be true that the yellow frieze in the House of Livia on the Palatine “recalls the natural color of papyrus,” but most scholars explain it as a representation of monochrome marble wall reliefs (e.g., triclinium 14, Villa of Poppaea at Oplontis). And characterizing the Odyssey landscapes as “fictive windows” that open onto illusionistic landscapes seems to miss the point: that we are looking, not through windows, but at spaces opening up between the piers of a ficitive porticus or cryptoporticus. What is more, long ago Peter von Blanckenhagen offered a more lucid account of their composition and meaning that P could have easily and briefly conveyed to his non-specialist readers.

Ludovica Bucci de Santis’s appendix, “On the Reconstruction of the Spatial Representations in Certain Roman Wall Paintings,” provides some useful notes on how to make drawings that represent the spaces “behind the wall” in Second-Style perspective paintings. The book’s bibliography is adequate for a general book, although light on English-language sources.

When one considers what a book like this costs both the producer and the consumer — and the paradox that the books’ slick design ends up canceling out the very nuances of interpretation and expression that the authors of the introductory essays espouse — my only question is (once again): Why is the Getty Museum translating and re-publishing this sort of book — big on the glitz, slim on the scholarship?6


1. Joseph Rykwert, The Idea of a Town: The Anthropology of Urban Form in Rome, Italy, and the Ancient World (Princeton, 1956); now, however, revised: The Idea of a Town: The Anthropology of Urban Form in Rome, Italy, and the Ancient World (Cambridge, MA, 1988 [1976]).

2. Heinrich Drerup, “Bildraum und Realraum in der roemischen Architektur,” Roemische Mitteilungen 66 (1959): 145-174; Daniela Corlaita Scagliarini, “Spazio e decorazione nella pittura pompeiana,” Palladio 23-25 (1974-76): 3-44; Lise Bek, Towards Paradise on Earth: Modern Space Conception in Architecture, a Creation of Renaissance Humanism. Analecta romana Istituti Danici, suppl. 9 (Rome, 1980); John R. Clarke, Houses of Roman Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250: Ritual, Space, and Decoration (Berkeley, 1991), 1-77.

3. See the website of the Oplontis Project. Recent demolition of the pasta factory has left a gaping hole, several meters below the original level of the villa and extending about 20 meters to meet the modern street farther south.

4. Vitruvius, De Architectura 6.5.3.

5. Wilhelmina Jashemski, The Gardens of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the Villas Destroyed by Vesuvius, 2 vols. (New Rochelle, 1979-); Ann Kuttner, “Looking Outside Inside: Ancient Roman Garden Rooms,” Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes 19 (1999): 7-35.

6. See my review of Roberto Cassanelli, Pier Luigi Ciapparelli, Enrico Colle, Massimiliano David, Houses and Monuments of Pompeii: The Works of Fausto and Felice Niccolini (Los Angeles, 2002), in Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.05.