BMCR 2007.01.18

The Insula of the Menander at Pompeii. Vol. II: The Decorations

, , The insula of the Menander at Pompeii. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997-2006. 4 volumes : illustrations ; 29 cm. ISBN 0198134096 $325.00.

Table of Contents

The Insula of the Menander at Pompeii, comprising 5 volumes when complete, is promising to be the most exhaustive and detailed examination of any property in the ancient city. Two volumes have already been published under the editorship of Roger Ling: The Structures (vol.I) and the Silver Treasure (vol. IV). The present volume, written by Roger and Lesley Ling (hereafter, L & λ examines the interior decorations that adorn the various structures that make up Insula I.10. It is not necessary to revisit discussions concerning the effectiveness in treating the insula as a unit rather than taking the more common approach of treating only individual houses, an approach that almost always tends to ignore smaller and less glamorous units. One can hope that more studies will take this comprehensive approach. The volume is divided into two main sections. The first (pp. 3-164) offers an analytical discussion of the decoration in each structure in the insula, followed by a short chapter on general observations and conclusions (pp. 165-172), while the second comprises a descriptive catalogue (pp. 176-299). The analytical discussion treats each of the 8 structures separately and hierarchically, that is beginning with the structures that exhibit the richest decorative elements and proceeding in descending order of importance. As L & L point out, this is preferable to discussing the structures in geographical order since it puts the quality and perceived importance of decoration in a comparative context. L & L thus naturally begin with their longest analysis, that of Casa del Menandro, followed in turn by Casa degli Amanti, Casa del Fabbro, I.10.8, I.10.1, I.10.18, I.10.2-3, I.10.6 and other units. L & L have produced a worthy companion to the series as a whole, as well as to more general areas of Pompeian studies.

The analytical discussion covers three main areas in a logical and consistent pattern. Under the heading “typology and chronology,” the decorations are discussed in chronological order by style, beginning with pavements and moving on to wall paintings and ceilings; all manner of decoration is analyzed: painting, mosaic, pavement patterns and stucco relief. The approach, then, is not room-by-room, but decorating-phase-by-decorating-phase, allowing the reader to get a picture of the unit during various periods of development. The generous use of comparative material from (primarily) other Pompeian structures also contributes to an understanding of the evolution of the various design elements. Instructive is the discussion of the Third Style wall-paintings in Rooms 8 and 9 of the Casa del Fabbro (pp. 133-137). A detailed description of the decoration, illustrated by both color and black-and-white plates, is followed by a discussion of dating that attempts to distinguish between Third Style phases, based on the work of Bastet and De Vos. An analysis of the features (red monochrome, the beginnings of perspective in Room 9, the peacock feather ornamentation in the upper zone of Room 8) leads to a comparison first with the Casa di M. Lucretius Fronto, and then with three houses whose decoration Ehrhardt links to that of the Casa del Fabbro, (Casa del Bell’Impluvio, Casa di M. Epidius Sabinus, Casa del Frutteto), and finally with the Casa degli Amorini Dorati. Largely on this comparative basis, L & L can place the decorations in Rooms 8 and 9 of the Casa del Fabbro in the latter years of the Third Style. In doing so, not only have they confirmed a date for the decoration in these rooms, they have also made a compelling argument to move the date of the Epidius Sabinus decorations closer to the time of those in the Casa del Fabbro. In most cases, the implications of the discussion go beyond Insula 1.10.

The second section of the analytical discussion centers on iconography, focusing on, but not limited to, mythological scenes. Again taking a chronological view, L & L detail and interpret the paintings, both individually and as part of a program within rooms (e.g, the Trojan Cycle in Ala 4 of the Casa del Menandro [pp.72-75]; the Perseus paintings in Room 15 of the same unit [pp.77-80]). While the discussion is standard, that is, it employs comparanda to place the paintings within the context of Campanian painting in general and explores literary allusions to determine the exact nature of the scenes, one should not be led into thinking that the conclusions are all standard. For instance, by comparing scenes of Paris on Mount Ida, L & L offer a solution to the problem of the fragmentary scene on the north wall of Room 9 of the Casa del Fabbro (pp. 142-144). Contrary to most representations of the scene, the Fabbro painting lacks the three goddesses, even though it has the traditional pastoral elements and Hermes; a window is inserted where one would expect to find the divine beauty contestants. However, it is noted that a similar scene exists in the Casa del Camillo, with goddesses absent, leading the authors to suggest that, rather than understanding the window as displacing the goddesses, the painting was originally L-shaped with no attempt to depict them. If such is the case, the Camillo and Fabbro panels belong to a subset of Paris on Mount Ida paintings, one that abridges the iconography of traditional scenes. In a similar way, L & L use Webster’s reconstruction of Euripides’ Andromeda to interpret the Perseus and Cepheus scene on the north wall of Room 15 of the Casa del Menandro (p. 80), suggesting that the meeting is subsequent to the rescue of Andromeda (a scene of which is found on the east wall) and allowing the viewer to read the narrative sequence in the room in a right to left fashion, as is done with the Trojan sequence in Ala 4. In addition, if we accept that the scene is based on a Euripidean version, it offers more support to the idea that the effaced figure opposite the portrait of Menander in exedra 23 is in fact Euripides (p. 85).

Finally, the authors examine the relationship between the decoration and the space and function of the unit (‘The House and Its Owners’). This section is primarily a social analysis, the conclusions of which are offered as suggestions owing to the intractable problems in identifying room function. In all, the analytical discussion offers a full accounting of the decoration found in each of the units in the insula. From here, L & L offer more general observations on the distribution of decoration throughout the insula (pp. 165-172), allowing for a micro-level look at possible socio-economic patterns. Certainly the conclusions are not terribly surprising, confirming that Menandro, Amanti and Fabbro are at the upper end of the decorative hierarchy in the insula. L & L also here offer thoughts on workshops; but while they offer possible links between the decorations in the insula and those elsewhere in the city, they conclude that the existence of common workshops must remain an open question.

The second half of the book is a Descriptive Catalogue (pp. 176-299). Unlike the chronological approach adopted in the first section, here the houses are treated in numerical order and we find an easily-consulted description of the decorative elements room-by-room in each unit. Each entry is accompanied with appropriate reference to illustrations and bibliography. It is factual, rather than interpretative, with an emphasis on measurements, color, materials and the state of preservation. This section is the equivalent of the gazetteer in the first volume and is designed to be consulted rather than read.

Of course, the importance of such a study exists not only in detailed description and interpretation, but also in documentation. This is especially true of the structures in Pompeii, many of which have not only lost much of their decorative elements, but are damaged beyond repair. A study of decoration should be amply illustrated, the visuals designed to accompany the text and allow readers to evaluate the descriptive and interpretative sections for themselves. In this regard, L & L do not disappoint; the volume is well-illustrated, containing 62 color plates, which comprise a fair cross-section of the material, and 138 black and white plates. Moreover, the book concludes with the Figure Section (pp. 323-541), beginning with 3 plans of the insula showing pavement decorations and wall painting according to style, followed by 176 drawings of the walls and embroidery borders. Almost all of the walls in the insula are documented by these drawings, in a scale generally of 1:3, 1:15 and 1:30. It is worth noting that the drawings were begun in 1978; consequently, they preserve features which have since disappeared. The detailed and faithful renderings are laudable, and the figures serve as a worthy complement to the descriptions. It is also noteworthy that the drawings go beyond reproducing only the figured scenes to include fragmentary walls and those lacking decoration (e.g., figs. 92, 95), embroidery borders, of which 155 different designs are reproduced (pp. 534-538), and stucco cornices (pp. 539-540). The Figure Section is, by itself, an important resource that will only increase in value as the structures themselves continue to deteriorate.

One of the strengths of the present volume is the chance it allows the authors to correct or amend ideas offered in the first volume and to address criticisms. While much of this is done throughout the analysis (e.g., redating the pavements in the Casa degli Amanti to the mid-first century, pp. 111-112; the possibility of pushing back the paintings in 1.10.6 to the time of the late Third Style, p.163), a postscript addresses, among other things, criticism of caution in the first volume (pp.173-175). Throughout, L & L do employ caution regarding conclusions, preferring that the data be accurately presented for future study (p. 172). But this is not to say that no conclusions are offered; rather there is a fair and judicious treatment of the evidence, well documented visually and accompanied by an airing of previous scholarship with a complete bibliography. Naturally, caution will not please every reader, but the material is presented in such a way that it affords readers the confidence to speculate. The generous use of comparanda, for instance, will allow for further study on workshops and individual hands as well as the continued refining of scene-types.

Three indices preceding the Figure Section (Rooms, Topographical, Names and Subjects) make navigation simple, and the book is laid out in a logical and usable fashion, generally free from errors. (I can only point to one typo: on p. 44, col.1, the note Fig. 171, No. 19 should refer to Fig. 170.) In terms of detail, description and documentation, the volume successfully presents the decorative elements of Insula 1.10; but more than that, it will profitably be used by anyone interested in Pompeian decoration, its development and its relationship to rooms and houses.