BMCR 2012.11.55

Nani in festa: iconografia, religione e politica a Ostia durante il secondo triumvirato

, Nani in festa: iconografia, religione e politica a Ostia durante il secondo triumvirato. Bari: Edipuglia, 2012. 215. ISBN 9788872286463. €50.00 (pb).

Chissà? My iconophile bet is that the miraculously rescued reception-room frescoes painted into a brilliantly executed mini- frieze from an obliterated triumviral/proto-Augustan Ostia mansion, ‘Casa dei Bucrani’, will become a popular fixture in Roman Art publications, once brought into broad circulation. The presentation under review is in some respects all too finalized a production, but the prospective full archaeological account will soon mark the début proper. Meantime the glimpse offered in this lavishly illustrated and affordable, but chaotically ill-designed and -proportioned, ouvrage has its part to play in attracting attention (and valorizing the project, a cooperative venture between Ostia and Lyons, Univ.II).

Patronal forewordage ushers us into two informative tours. First, orientation within ‘The Historical Context’ (the editor’s turn: pp.15-24): a catch-up on Ostia, the Schola di Traiano built over the house on our site, its later-long-term-attested but possibly Republican association with a leading local branch of Fabii, and a posited date of 40-30 BCE for frieze, oecus, re- styled domus; second, colour-plates splashed round ‘The domus dei Bucrani and the decorative system of the oecus dei Nani’ (Thomas Morard and Thibault Girard: pp. 25-47; an essential scheme supplied later at p.105).

Thereafter Jean-Marc Moret takes over, reserving what he does best for the postlude, ‘Curtain-fall: “Popular” Art and Hellenistic Tradition’ (pp.163-77), where he delivers on the instantly compelling intensity of the frieze’s splay of riotous spatiality, mobility, synaesthesia, inclusion of the viewer…He could have stood back a little more and set off the ‘sequential art’ design-values of the (whole, rhythmed/rhymed) picture-plane against the visually masterful physiognomy of the (individualized) cast members more emphatically.1 But his account here of the organized chaos of depth/scale/detail, between proudly two-tone up-front figures, mostly in three-quarter view with torsion, expressive limbs and loud faciality, and the rudimentary schematic outlines out back-and-above, gets to the heart(-and-)beat of this theatre.

The strip has all the dynamics of the whole Fraggle Rock crew in an episode starring puny-legged topheavy ‘Gorgs’, with exaggerated Spitting Image/Sebastian Krüger-style Rolling Stones caricature heads worthy of any numismatic superman (one row of non-smiley-faced burghers on the run and another of engaged spectators, puffing trumpeter, and two heroic nudes, one rubber-lips hunk demanding sex and one muscleman hulk; neat profile juxtapositions with Caesar heads, figs. 52~53, 61~62). In the background, in a second idiom, a cohort of ghostly soldiers line up as (giant, impossibly bone-idle) ‘Doozers’. And to deter us further from plumping for any single general identifier for the figures, any viewer will be struck by the third chief register and its midget population of extra-lifelike ‘Fraggles’ (robed priest (?) and sundry women: blowing on embers, serving-wench, party-girl, turbaned nude negotiating with hunk). One haunted grim desperado-cum-hot-coal- eyed-demon resembles the beaky ‘Theseus’ caricature from the House of Menander bath and the cartoon ‘Gorgs’ slightly resemble some of the egghead ‘pygmies’ from oecus 11 there, but I was reminded most of a Pompeian ‘Priapus among the Pygmies’.2 Certainly the Ostia frieze rounds out a distinctively complex cartoon art idiom in fully realized form. Just as certainly, this idiom has about as much to do with nanotechnology as it does with somatic dwarfism.3

That ‘dwarfs’ aren’t on show rather detracts from Moret’s section on ‘Antony’s Dwarfs’ (pp. 137-62), which exhaustively pursues themes of anti-Antony sarcasm and dwarfs in Hellenistic court-culture (esp. ‘grylloi’) before entwining them as ideological markers of tyrannical luxury and bridging from cranes in the frieze background to Ptolemaic-Cleopatran- Egyptian othering of Antony and the freaks he fetched from Syria, according to Philodemus, De Signis IV, col.II.17. His section on ‘Ostia, Rome, Tibur: Hercules Victor and the Pirates’, pp. 109-35) no less exhaustively works a particular version of ‘Hercules and Cacus’ identified by Moret as one frieze scene in, with Mediterranean sea-lanes protection and associated Italian cult, with Sextus Pompeius, with the prime colleagues of the Fabii running Ostia, and then back to Tiberside and the Porta Trigemina glimpsed in the same scene, plus navalia and ship-prows among the elaborate mouldings of the oecus. These sections help Moret’s remaining, gigantesque, essay, ‘The Festivals of the Dwarfs’ (pp. 49-108) bulk up his interpretative venture to 128 pages (of 181) supported by 1,170 often weighty footnotes, as well as providing the governing interpretative pitch for the frieze; which is, of course part of the campaign for kudos and backing for the archaeological project on the whole domus, already a decade into the struggle for support and achievement. Before confiding the (realistic?) dream of flanking the Farnesina in the Palazzo Massimo, Angelo Bottini (‘Presentazione’, pp. 9-11) accurately puts up-front that Moret’s labours amount to provocation: ‘…to be eventually refuted, will require no less scholarly input’. Simply put, this is indeed Moret’s booklet.4

To get to grips with the frieze, readers must start by working between figs. 12-18 with their subjoined outline-drawing versions which number the figures (pp. 34-47) and the essential Appendix (‘Brief Description of the Figures of the Frieze’, pp.179-81) which subjoins bare identification of the figures keyed to that numbering, working from left-to-right, to barebones précis of what Moret makes of each strip in the series of seven surviving ‘scenes’ as he has identified them, with the illustrations following suit. The schematic diagram on p.105 noted above shows that ‘scene 7’ is all that has been rescued from the southern wall, adjacent to ‘scene 1’ which begins the left-to-right sequence through ‘scene 5’ along the western wall, with ‘scene 6’ immediately round the corner on the north wall. As well as the bottom metre (and a half) of décor still in situ on the east wall (fig. 8), several fragments of frieze survive therefrom, to be glimpsed on the mock-up ‘reconstruction’ of the entire east wall provided in figs. 9-10. The elaborate set of ornamental mouldings above the frieze (40cm. high, at 3+m. from the floor, with the ceiling at 4+m.) is described in detail by Morard and Girard, but the mock-ups only go as high as the band with paired theatre masks flanking open-shuttered spaces for a depicted ‘pinax’ each. One flaw in the primary strip of illustrations (figs. 12-18, with accompanying numbered outlines) is that they are unsized and to different scales (between 1:5 and 1:8); but you can work out for yourself that of an original band working round a room of 10.5-by-4.5 metres (minus that doorway, say 25m. or so?), we are looking at pieced-together remnants that add up to just around 2.5m. (south) and 50cm. (north), but most all 10.5m. of the west wall: so we can feel confident that the minimal spacings allotted between non-adjacent chunks in the reconstructions used for the photo-strip are well-founded, and we aren’t, for example, missing all that much.

A ‘new art historian’ scanning/moving round south-west-north to track this parergonal, supplementary, microscape on- high could scintillate plenty on these tableaux:

(7) Cranes wade in swampland, demon lowers above steer, hunk lifts right arm, leaning shield on his leg, in front of triple arch with Corinthian columns, nude shield-carrier legs it after the herd bolting gardenwards.

(1) Visitors enter stage-left carrying a container-full into the laundry/dyers where someone reaches for clothes hung on the dryer.

(2) Next door’s hostelry spans from woman rousing hearth, with loaf, jar store, and oven behind, below suspended/flypast male-genitalia-bird; on past a couple of onlookers, a tiny sign over a deepfield door with horse refusing to be tugged even one pace further, tray-toting waitress beside basket-carrying servant, dog, inviting cocotte, seated customer and spread; to reach procession entering through door to-right headed by somebody in a tall cap fetching along a fowl, then another, toting shield (?).

(3) In the room ‘proper’, before straw hut, procession of men plus potbellied pig and then bull run-for-it looking behind them, stretching, beckoning, calling the human stampede on clean across the scene; to debouch finally (about to trip over?) on prone corpse strewn along foreground baseline wedged on his chin in full face.

(4) Watched by that parade of blank ‘Doozer’ troops and diminutive attendant (?), that squatter ties a lace; a veiled figure files after the robed and turbanned (?) priestly (?) figure who stares intently into the glittering helmet he proffers; after lacuna isolating cattle to rear, solid civic crowd of worthies onlook gravely from right; but immediately behind them one, likely two, trumpeters face away right, blowing their horn, before shield leant on column base (?).

(5) Closing the west wall line-up, enter shield-carrier behind speeding character splaying hands before him, galloping horses, another shield-carrier or so; one woman stoops, hugs, kisses child, another, dress-top ripped away, lifts high, kisses, baby, while from right, someone stretches hands towards her, before crowd of figures including one grounding (? grounded?) shield, another removing greaves (?).

(6) Muscle-rippling rockstar tries magnetizing bare-backed will-she-won’t-she nudie round the corner.

Yes, richly rewarding pickings.

In Moret’s closure-infested hermeneutic, priest staring into the helmet he embraces becomes a Salian because his headgear supposedly resembles that of the Villa Borghese Mosaic showing ritual from the Mamuralia (fig. 19). Where the masks above (fig. 11) help supply ipse nitor galeae claro radiantis ab auro (Ovid, Met. 13.105, of dead Achilles’ prize armour…), and so one from any number of Armorum Iudicium plays, for my thought-bubble the identification launches a Festival complex, Mars’ March-focussed with associable others, ‘scene’-linkage:

(1) Artificum Dies-(2) Liberalia-(3) Poplifugia-(4) Quinquatrus/Armilustrium-and-Tubilustrium-(5) Intervention of the Sabine Women. Flanked south by (6) (demon, hulk, Gate, herd) Cacus and Hercules; north by (7) (hunk-and-wanted-female) Mars with Anna Perenna.

To the anticipated cold eye of ultrascettismo, ‘Hercules-Cacus’ is difficult but possible, the rest more or less desperate; certainly there is no iconographic basis.

The marvelous recovery of the discarded hacked plaster buried in an Augustan make-over as rubble to raise floor-level by that 1-1.5m. margin, and their recomposition jigsaw-puzzle-style, will make an amazing saga; and proper estimation of the contents of the oecus dei Nani within its whole version of Casa IV.5.16 on Main St. down to the Porta Marina will become feasible.5 Soon, let’s hope.


1. See Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics. The Invisible Art (1993, New York), esp. p. 91.

2. See John R. Clarke, Looking at Laughter. Humor, Power, Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.-A.D.250 (2007, Berkeley-Los Angeles-London), Fig. 62, Plates 14-15, with pp.135-43, and Roger Ling, Roman Painting (1991, Cambridge), p.166. For the ‘Priapus’, see J. Marcadé, ROMA/AMOR (1965, Geneva-Paris-Munich), p.65 (unhelpfully, ‘(fresco). Museum of Naples’).

3. Contrast, for example, the repertoire of dys-proportion collected in Alexandre G. Mitchell, Greek Vase-Painting and the Origins of Visual Humour (2009, Cambridge), cf. esp. pp.235-6. The Ostian figures are rightly differentiated from Disney in the books’ adland blurb and, more to the point, from Red or indeed any art-historical iconography of dwarfs in The Curtain-raiser: the Art of Depicting Dwarfs, Domingo Gasparro, pp.13-14).

4. All this learning, and no index.

5. Prequel in B. Perrier (ed.), Villas, Maisons, Sanctuaires et Tombeaux tardo-Républicains. Découvertes et Re-lectures Récentes ( Actes du colloque international de St. Romain-en-Gal en l’honneur d’Anna Gallina Zevi, 7-9 febbraio 2007) (2007, Rome); on-line, Stella Falzone, ‘Luxuria privata. Edilizia abitativa e arredo decorativo a Ostia e a Roma in età tardo-repubblicana’, Bollettino di Archeologia On-Line Special Volume : Rome 2008 International Congress of Classical Archaeology Meetings between Cultures in the Ancient Mediterranean, pp. 59-73, at 66-9, is available at