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Pompeii: See it like a native


When a close friend of mine and architectural historian first moved to Miami from

Michigan not too long ago, and I drove her around what I thought were the more

colorful parts of the area of Little Havana, she suddenly interjected:   "But . . . where

are the women?"

The question, as she then went on to explain, had also occurred to her when she visited parts of southern Italy, "where all you could see," she insisted, "on street corners or cafes, were men!"

 In fact, speaking of Italy, when Mount Vesuvius erupted in the year 79 A.D., its volcanic ash and lava variously buried not only the women but the entire towns of Pompeii, Herculanum, and Stabiae along the Gulf of Naples. But a series of recent visits of my own to these archaeological areas have suggested to me that Pompeii itself has hidden something else from us all these years. And it may have to do with, well, the women!

 But only certain ones -- er, well, I will explain.

The Pompeian house paid special attention to what one could call its axis of vision -- the way, when one entered the space, one could see from the vestibule or "fauces" clear across the lovely atrium area with its charming skylight and all the way back to the main living parlor or dining rooms. Most often, too, as shown in the photograph below, traversing some dramatic alternations between dark and lighted areas, the axial vector would include a colonnade or the small niche or templar structure dedicated to the family "lares" or ancestor deities. For Pompeian families,  line meant more than a geometric or optic concept: it could mean familiarity or moral connection.  

But as early as the years 200 B.C., the fresco paintings and mosaic designs that were applied mural-like to these interiors  became just as important as the stones and beams used to construct the spaces themselves. Today's visitors to Pompeii, however, often do not see the Pompeian house in all its implications, even if they do enter those  houses that are open to the public and take in their atrium and garden structures with the axial intention just described!  (See Photo 2)

This is because most of the mural decoration (in mosaic and fresco) of this architectural world heritage site was either stolen or destroyed in the course of time or transferred for safekeeping to a museum-- for the most part, the grand rooms of the Museo  Archaeologico  Nazionale in nearby Naples. But more important, much of the uninformed tourism that arrives in Pompeii by the bus load will not insist on stopping by the Museum either because of the horror stories that abound about thieves and traffic in that great Italian port or, sadder yet, because they simply do not think painting and decoration have anything truly fundamental to do with the building of houses. But a careful walk inside the fresco rooms of the Archaeological Museum in Naples shows a Pompeian fascination or preoccupation with certain figures or symbols that is anything but worthy of dismissal. Archaeologists agree that beginning in the 200's B.C., Pompeian house owners began to embellish the walls of their homes with fresco paintings, stucco finishing, and mosaic designs meant to call attention to the wall surface much as we do nowadays when we hang pictures or attach trim on our own walls. , as a 2-dimensional surface, for example, as seen in this photo of a part of a wall. ( See photo 3) 

While this type of faux finish (called by art historians Style I) might conceivably have been chosen as a form of ostentation, it also underlined the physicality of the upright wall as a tectonic element, as a material character in the story of the house. Style I was followed by a more illusionistic level of decoration, where wall surfaces were treated in fresco or mosaic to create the effect that one was somehow viewing another  space inside it; for example, they would paint windows that were not really there, as well as columns, arches, and any other architectural form imaginable, as suited their fancy. This is called Style II, but in this approach the illusionist architecture, often paying close attention to issues of perspective and axonometric representation,  could include a wide array of human, animal, and godly figures either singly, in groupings, or in some sort of narrative context. These images, in short, punctured the wall's solidity and allowed one to see literally worlds beyond their immediate enclosures, ranging from lighthearted erotic  fantasies to high drama, even tragedy.

Again, as seen above, while the seemingly simplest of these painting types, Style I, involved the representation of faux marble or other building materials like simple ashlar, jade, or even gold or silver which were in some cases rare or economically out of the house-owners' reach, even the Style I finishes enhanced the home and gave it a sort of pedigree beyond what materially the house could actually afford. In this instance, the painted illusion on the wall area called attention to the building itself. But, in all cases, Pompeiian wall painting and design arguably transformed the house and connected it, if only in the realm of the intellect or the fantasy, with things, people, and concepts beyond itself: the palatial materials or vocabulary of fabrication; creatures from the sea, the forest, or even from more intimate gardens. There was also history, poetry, or mythology to paint into the house. It is as though the house established a sort of pedigree for itself by way of its visual linkage to figures like Ionic columns, Helens of Troy,  or to sacrificial Iphigenias. It so happens, however, that a careful review of the sort of dramatis personae of characters who figure in major or minor capacities in the painted frescoes left to us by that city gradually reveals what seems like a preferred vocabulary. (CLICK here, please, to see my list.)


And although as a commercially prosperous city of the ancient world in 79 A.D. Pompeii left for posterity its share of wall images covering the entire gamut of Mediterranean mythology, if one knows one's Helens of Troy, Iphigenias, or Jupiters ravishing young-boy Ganymedes -- their sources to be found even today in books and narratives by Homer, Ovid, Virgil, etc. -- there may be a curious omission.   In short, it became clear to me after one or two walks through the fresco rooms of the Museum in Naples, that none of those works depicted one of the most famous and standard narrative sagas of classical literature -- Homer's Odyssey --! Indeed, though one finds in Naples and Pompeii some representations of Homer's hero, Ulysses, they are from the Iliac epic (that is, The Iliad), not from the Odyssey per se.   For instance, I have not come across any figure of Odysseus' homecoming voyage to his longed-for Ithaka.  Why are there no signs of his wife, Penelope, anywhere in Pompeii? To paraphrase, then, my architectural historian friend from Michigan, “Where are the Odyssey and its women in Pompeii? Does this absence add a significant level of meaning to our understanding of this ancient place, and if so, just what?

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  In her seminal text, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (2008), Cambridge classicist Mary Beard warns, "absence of evidence does not  indicate evidence of absence," and her archaeological maxim is certainly worth considering. But I have also thought that the absence of all things Odysseyan in Pompeii's household images might be comparable to those faceless, white plaster casts of victims once sees now in glass cases throughout the dig, belonging to the humans and animals who did not manage to escape the city on August 24, 79 A.D.  Pockets of forms -- empty forms --  left by those Pompeian residents, dogs, even donkeys, who perished and were buried by the hot ashes,  and that we gape and awe when we walk by some of the glass display cases in the city today. Since the extremely high temperatures and ash of the eruption had all but disintegrated the flesh and bones of these and other organic forms of life in the town -- it took the ingenious archaeological thinking of Giuseppe Fiorelli in the 1800s to of filling in those voids in the ash with plaster or gesso, to "see" and to show us their body of evidence! 

Basically, then, the reader of this essay by now is probably challenging me to do something "a la iorelli" with the missing family of mythological -- Odyssean -- characters in Pompeian paintings and mosaics . . . . At this point, can I produce anything concrete out of the fact of this missing storyline from ancient times? Why the silence regarding Odysseus and Penelope?

The whole other side of Homer, leading up to and including the Trojan War -- Achilles, Agamemnon, and Helen of Troy -- are everywhere,  as a visit to the Museum in Naples quickly shows. And there are plenty of references to Bacchus, Ariadne, and Theseus, in connection with the famous stories of the labyrinth of Crete, to convince us that Pompeian house owners valued somehow their houses' connections with these story cycles.

Last but certainly not least, figures of Venus as well as hundreds of erotic situations involving either her or her son Cupid also show a very permissive aesthetic code, by our standards, in the town's homes and temples. But is this the same Venus -- or Aphrodite -- of the Homeric Odyssey ? Is it feasible, based on the existing frescoes we see in Naples or in publications of Pompeii, to think that everyone in the town agreed to not ever commission a painting of Odysseus's tearful reunion with either his son Telemachus or his wife Penelope for one of their triclinium dining rooms or alcoves? As a symbol of domesticity or faithfulness, moreover, ouldn't a scene of Penelope's knitting and un-knitting the famous shroud have been just the Pompeian thing? Why not?  In fact, considering Pompeii's proximity and political subordination to Rome, as its colony, from 80 B.C., what does it mean that in the "Room of the Aldobrandini  Marriage" of the Vatican Museums one can see today a series of large, stunning wall frescoes from the 1st century B.C. found in a villa of Rome's Esquiline Hill -- all of them illustrating episodes from the Odyssey, for example, concerning the witch Circe, the hero's battle with the Lastrygons, and his most famous encounter with the song of the sirens? In addition, like that of Naples, didn't Pompeii's history connect it to the seafaring peoples of Magna Grecia -- the Greeks -- who colonized those regions of what was then Italy as far back as 600 or 700 B.C.? (Italian legends about Hercules' founding not only of Herculaneum but also Rome, abound, so the Greek connection is historically a solid one, even if only on the level of myth and fantasy, which, of course is also were painting drew from anyway.)


If there is an answer I can give it comes in the form of a question: Do you think the content and nature of the Iliad VS. the Odyssey is something that can be thinned out into one sentence, Wikipedia style, to provide a suitable explanation?  The closest I have come to making sense out of this was when I recently visited Pompeii in the company of two young lovers of mythology, Allegra and Ethan Hill, of Miami, 13 and 11 years old, respectively, who went to the site with their parents and me eager to understand all the fuss made about Pompeii through time. At one point at the end of the full-day walk through the streets, houses, and forum areas, and after I challenged young Ethan to paint his own stage set for a scene from Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, based on the ruins of the  Temple of Isis in Pompeii (Mozart is known to have been inspired there to compose his work), Allegra pointed out that there was something half comical- half tragic about the place that reminded her of the storyline in Strauss's opera, Ariadne aux Naxos, where a group of players who want to put on a performance of the tragic abandonment of Ariadne by the hero Theseus end up having all their seriousness trashed by the arrival on the scene by a group of comedians who have anything BUT tragedy on their minds. The result, as Allegra told us that day, is that the tragedy  of Ariadne's high art arias and sentiments are made light of and transformed by the comedic bawdiness of the other players.

It occurs to me that in Pompeii something like this took place and the recurrent appearance of Ariadne and Bacchus, in fact, bear this out, somehow lightening up the tragic preludes of devastation that we associate with the place. One of the most interesting bits of Wikipedia-type knowledge that I gathered about Pompeii in my travels, is that when it was made a colony by Rome in the year 80 B.C., under General Sulla, the place name was legally changed to Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum -- and the word "Veneria" had to do with the traditional affiliation of the town with a cult of the river goddess Mefite, whom Romans called La Venere Fisica.  Physical Venus.  

This opens up some new doors of conversation here. About a sort of rebelliousness and originality in the way Pompeii probably acted towards Rome and maybe also towards the cultural baggage of their time. Although when one compares the Iliad and the Odyssey, the latter seems to be the comic epic, maybe Pompeian sensibilities were so mightily capable of truly building their city on a unique axis of vision that seemed to be one thing but that was indeed another, that they did just that. They transformed the Iliad into an Odyssean celebration of homecoming and left the Odyssey to fend for itself in the mondane world of the obvious fantastic. For the Pompeian, there seems to have been a wonder, indeed, about physicality that defied any fantasy and that made out of the tragic a comedy of art and illusion that is what the great Pompeian frescoes and mosaics are all about.


Pompeii : a city of Bacchus, a city built and painted with the magic of theater.

Photo 3
Photo 2
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