Project 5: Street Design and Decoration in Roman Italy

Via dell’Abbondanza in Pompeii, © Jackie and Bob Dunn
Via dell’Abbondanza in Pompeii© Jackie and Bob Dunn


WP5 examines the decoration and architectural design of streets and their façades in the cities of Roman Italy between the 2nd century BC and the late 1st century AD. Previous programmes of research dedicated to these subjects have analysed individual aspects of the streetscape in isolation or focused on particular activities connected to the street. In Pompeii, for example, we know much about the distribution of public fountains, shrines and even façade graffiti across the city. The routes that carts and other wheeled vehicles followed have been analysed and reconstructed. But rarely and only in very limited contexts have the decorative elements of the street been linked with the actions and activities that it hosted. The aims of this work package are (1) to connect these disparate strands of research to produce a more holistic picture of Roman street life in the late 1st century AD, and (2) to explore how the decorative ensembles that framed it developed over the previous three centuries.

In terms of the research agenda, these two themes pose a number of practical and theoretical challenges. For the period under consideration, Pompeii and Herculaneum comprise the primary body of evidence for decorative aspects of the streetscape. But unlike Campanian domestic contexts, where wall paintings, sculpture (both architectural and free-standing) and other interior design elements have often been well-preserved, façade decoration survives less frequently. From a diachronic perspective, the Vesuvian cities are no less problematic: because the AD 79 levels are in good condition, stratigraphic excavations below the surface of streets and sidewalks have seldom occurred.

In an effort to respond to these issues, WP5 is employing a range of quantitative and qualitative research approaches. A database is being constructed to record the details of those decorative and architectural features of façades that have survived, as well as those that were identified upon excavation but have since disappeared. The database is connected to a GIS, so that the results can be mapped and explored cartographically. This “big data” approach is supplemented by three case studies, each examining a particular Pompeian neighbourhood. These micro-historical analyses permit a more detailed exploration of the relationship between the individuals that produced streetside décor and the people that viewed it. The “public relations” goals of an elite homeowner and a shopkeeper were quite different, for example, and their decorative choices responded in kind.

The two-pronged approach to the project’s primary goal is complemented by a comparative study of streetscapes that explores temporal shifts in architectural and decorative schemes. While Pompeii and Herculaneum remain central to this secondary analysis, the scope of inquiry is also broadened considerably in an effort to include other cities that present well-preserved road systems. Paestum and Ostia represent obvious candidates for this type of investigation, but particular focus is being directed towards sites like Norba—a town founded in the middle years of the Roman Republic that was already considered to be “extinct” by the 1st century AD (Pliny HN 3.31). Although it is not possible to reconstruct many elements of façade decoration at such smaller sites, fundamental questions about the architectural development of Roman streets and street networks can be addressed.