The Domestication of Desire: Ovid's Parva Tabella and the Theater of Love
Beauty is momentary in the mind--
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
-- Wallace Stevens, "Peter Quince at the Clavier"
During the summer of 1986, I traveled to Italy for a seminar at the American Academy in Rome on Roman art in its social context. 1 Putting objects together with words as complementary expressions of social reality was a new experience for a classicist who had hitherto confined her wondering to words alone. For years my imagination had been occupied by Ovid, the poet exiled in A.D. 8 by the emperor Augustus in the most notorious case of literary censorship from antiquity. Our seminar's sober vocabulary of "decorative programs" and "realia" often seemed very remote from the deceptively insouciant sparkle of Ovid's poetry.
One day, in an experience familiar to many visitors to Pompeii, our bedraggled group of unsuspecting pedants wilting under the summer heat was ushered into a small dark room off the kitchen of the House of the Vettii by a happily leering guard. When the flashlights clicked on to the display of explicit erotica painted on the walls, apathy was no longer a problem, although equanimity was (Figure 7.1). The House of the Vettii was not a lupanar, a brothel (literally, a wolf den), but a private villa, richly decorated with mythological wall paintings, owned by two wealthy men ( Mau 1902: 321-22, 508); the purpose of their little room near the kitchen-- whether cook's bedroom ( Archer 1981: 63) or camera d'amore for the entertainment of guests ( L. Richardson 1988: 325-26)--defies conclusive explanation. In our classes on Roman wall paintings, no one had ever touched on this particular scheme for the decorative program of a Roman villa.
A week later, in the tranquil retreat of the Academy library, I came across a passage in Ovid's Tristia2, one of the poet's sad songs from exile to the emperor Augustus, which seemed to speak directly to the mystery of the little room off the