Project 1: Decorative principles in Roman houses

Fresco in the Domus Aurea in Rome
Fresco in the Domus Aurea in Rome puplic domain, source


The PI-Project (WP 1) will investigate principles of use, content and function of decor from the 2nd century BC to the late 1st century AD on the basis of selected examples of late Republican and early Imperial residences and houses.

Several houses will form respective bases for detailed analyses of all four decorative programmes (‘styles’). A first survey suggests the following selection: for the first style, the Casa del Fauno at Pompeii and the casa Sannitica at Herculaneum, for the second style the villa of Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale and the Villa of Poppaea at Oplontis, for the third style the Casa di Lucretio Frontone and the Casa dei Dioscuri, for the fourth style the Casa dei Vettii, the Casa di Meleagro, the Casa di Menandro, the Casa del Citarista, all at Pompeii, as well as the domus aurea at Rome.

For the above contexts, the first step is to reconstruct the structural-architectural layout, as well as the decorative configuration, as precisely as possible. This is to be achieved through the study of all available specialist literature on these structural complexes (some of which is highly heterogeneous in nature), as well as an assessment of the preserved remains in situ. The structures in situ are to be documented by digital photos which form the basis for reconstruction models (via PhotoScan Pro). In addition, an analysis of old engravings and water colours in the archives at Naples and Paris will be necessary to reconstruct lost paintings. For the houses at Pompeii, it will be also useful to consult the cork model in the National Museum at Naples that represents the ruins of Pompeii soon after their excavation. 

This work is to result in the creation of 1:20 scaled ground plans in which the positions of frescoes, floor surfaces and wherever existent ceilings or larger installations (altars etc.) will be marked. For decorative features that cannot be identified in situ (e.g. the oscilla of the Casa del Citarista, or furniture), original contexts are to be discussed critically in order to possibly include them in the contextual analyses. All architectural and decorative elements are to be recorded systematically on room data sheets (in the form of a filemaker database). Objects without precise context that can be assigned to a specific house with certainty are to be listed separately. Small finds (coins, stamps, ceramics) will not be included in WP 1, as they would far exceed its scope (see also work package 2). On a case-by-case basis, existing or newly created 3D-reconstructions may be drawn on in order to ascertain spatial considerations.

The fact that at the point of their destruction in AD 79, houses across the Bay of Naples displayed forms of decoration resulting out of several reconfigurations, poses a methodical challenge. It means that the final period of occupation always presents a palimpsest of all previous phases of use. For each house studied, it is therefore necessary to identify the coexistence of new and old sections, i.e. to assess the complexity of the residential compound in question. This allows an evaluation whether some parts of houses were ‘modernised’, i.e. decorated in the latest fashion, more often than others, and whether there were parts of houses which maintained the atmosphere created by earlier decorative programmes. In this, it is crucial to bear in mind that not all instances of redecoration are due to purely aesthetic considerations, but may have been the result of structural necessities.

The evaluations of this WP begin with the smallest unit analysed. For each house, the decor elements are first discussed on a room by room basis. This will include a documentation of the characteristics of each room (access points, windows, possibilities of locking the space etc.). At the same time, it will include an assessment of what forms of decor take which position within a room, and how they interrelate. Different strategies of reference seem likely: material and size, the use of similar pictorial schemata or uniform framing elements, even use of thematically similar content across different media – to mention but a few. At the same time, there may be very different modes of interaction with the given space: the staging of decor or decor elements on an enclosed wall, the use of imaginary views of architectural elements or gardens, employment of light and water as aesthetical elements etc. These detailed analyses will form a basis that can allow the project to address the issue of principles of organisation of decorative elements and, through this, the principles of agency of decor. In this it is important to assess the relationship between aesthetic devices and content-related information, i.e. the interplay between aesthetics and semantics which produces the atmosphere of a room. It is expected that decor elements are capable of creating ‘homogenous’ ambiences or room moods, within which individual elements are matched with one another. It is equally possible, however, that decor elements can create a high degree of heterogeneity and variety in order to keep the eye busy, in order to entertain. The project will study the extent to which these observations reflect strategies of room design typical for certain periods.

In a next step, decorative strategies are studied comparatively for entire houses. This involves the question of social actors involved, as this part of the project investigates prototypical actions that may be assumed for certain parts of the house. As such, it poses the question which contexts of action led to the perception or cognition of decorative ensembles and, consequently, their situational accentuation. At the same, this part of the WP will assess the forms of movement that may be assumed within a domestic context. Only through the reconstruction of these will it be possible to reconstruct how decorative ensembles interacted with one another, literally step by step.

At the time of destruction, some houses in Pompeii were more modern than others. The study will purposefully select houses in which one style of decoration occurs prominently. This will make it possible to tentatively reconstruct different phases of decorative systems within methodological limits and lead to some understanding of which decorative principles were favoured in specific historical phases. The WP aims to reconstruct the development of Roman domestic tastes within the framework of an overview of decorative principles. This historical perspective of life clearly requires that further datasets be related to the case studies, in order to undertake a social contextualisation of individual observations. The most substantial datasets in this are, of course, found in the final phase of domestic decorations at Pompeii, at the very point of its destruction.