The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality/Houses and Monuments of Pompeii: The Works of Fausto and Felice Niccolini/Domus: Wall Painting in the Roman House/The Social Life of Painting in Ancient Rome and on the Bay of Naples

By Kuttner, Ann | The Art Bulletin, June 2007 | Go to article overview

The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality/Houses and Monuments of Pompeii: The Works of Fausto and Felice Niccolini/Domus: Wall Painting in the Roman House/The Social Life of Painting in Ancient Rome and on the Bay of Naples


Kuttner, Ann, The Art Bulletin


KATHERINE M. D. DUNBABIN The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 308 pp.; 16 color ills., 120 b/w. $85.00

ROBERTO CASSANELLI, PIER LUIgI CIAPPARELLI, ENRICO COLLE, AND MASSIMILIANO DAVID Houses and Monuments of Pompeii: The Works of Fausto and Felice Niccolini Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002. 224 pp.; 270 color ills. $75.00

DONATELLA MAZZOLENI AND UMBERTO PAPPALARDO Domus: Wall Painting in the Roman House Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2004. 416 pp.; 350 color ills. $150.00

ELEANOR WINSOR LEACH The Social Life of Painting in Ancient Rome and on the Bay of Naples Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. 361 pp.; 12 color ills., 212 b/w. $99.00

Roman (art) histories are forensic, as it were; they must reconstruct the body of a dead culture from pitifully mangled remains. These four books explore that randomly preserved evidence to appraise the Roman domestic designed environment and the social behaviors and needs that shaped it-and that includes acculturated movement and looking-with Roman eyes and desires. Apparent in all is the interplay between textually derived history and artifact, elements that depend each on the other to convey what the other record cannot, of itself, tell us. Such an enterprise, to which Katherine Dunbabin is a worthy heir, has especially engaged scholars since eighteenth-century explorations revealed towns on the Bay of Naples buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. The book on the Niccolini brothers directly addresses the impact of that early modern archaeological scholarship that still has much to teach us in its graphic and narrative strategies, via the early excavation of Pompeii. But one can also see, in the books of Eleanor Leach and of Donatella Mazzoleni and Umberto Pappalardo, how the fact of Pompeii, like a neutron star's gravitational force, consistently deranges the orbits of projects aimed broadly at Roman realities.

What is a Roman domus? In Roman usage, domus pertained alike to the dwelling and to the human clan living in it. Romans imputed an identity between patrons and their significant public displays, the monimentum; a domus could be a monimentum, too. Roman historians considered the description of houses and domestic behavior natural to serious biographical appraisal. Human activity was assorted under the binary otium / negotium, which mixes "public and private" at home and outside it. Heads of household brought negotium, activities civic and economic, inside their houses; otium, or "offduty" time, culture, add pleasure were cultivated at home and in public spaces. The distinctive Roman phenomenon of villa life on extraurban estates combined possibilities for ever more elaborate leisure activity and seclusion with the intensive production of wealth. Governance of dependents was staged not at back doors but in spacious front halls, atria, by clientes who freely, or by constraint (for freed ex-slaves)) owed activity to dominus and domina. In turn masters protected clients (clientes); like friends (amici), clientes were allowed visual access deep into the house and, in the mansions of the great, physical access to inner garden courts and atria even without the presence of heads of household: Atria also served otium: they were encircled by living quarters (cubicula) and salons for relaxed congregation and decorated to the limits of the owners' means. House religion assisted both hierarchy and sociability. Images in all media of ritual as festival-typically, rural and Dionysiac cults led by women, pendant to the public imagery of male, civic religions-pervaded decoration. Atria and slaves' quarters housed altars for the genius of the pater familias and the guardian spirits, lares and penales, individual to every household. House lararia were depicted on street facades, pendant to the lares and penales shrines of neighborhoods and of the urbs Roma, to draw passersby into wishing the owner good luck.

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