House of the Marine Venus, Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum of Naples in Naples. c. 79 CE. Fresco.
This fresco was found on a panel of the exterior peristyle of a wealthy household, a public space where the men of the house might receive business clients or entertain guests. Venus appears over life-sized, as she rises out of the ocean on a half shell. Flanking her are small, nude boys, one riding a dolphin on her right and another appearing behind the shell by her feet. The boy on the dolphin holds a staff with a flag across his shoulders with fabric draped over his left shoulder. The boy at Venus’ feet is winged and appears without drapery. His placement at the feet of Venus and his wings indicate he is most probably Eros, a member of Venus’ entourage in Roman myth. A similar figure has been identified in the fresco cycle at the Villa of the Mysteries, also in Pompeii and also religious in nature (Kleiner 43).
Venus is shown with a typical Pompeian hairstyle as seen in other frescoes, such as the wife of Paquius Proculus, with curled strands framing her face and a head band to push the rest of the hair back out of sight. Her jewellery consists of a single strand gold necklace, bracelet and anklets with little ornamentation. These are also typical of the jewellery seen in Roman portraits at Pompeii. It would seem that Venus has been depicted in the guise of a wealthy Roman woman. While it was common for Greek men and women to have their portraits completed in the guise of a god or mythological character, in Roman art at this time it was less commonly done and certainly it was rare for a Roman woman to be depicted naked. Rather it is more likely that this Venus is not a veristic portrait of a particular Roman lady, but is shown in the costume of one in order to enforce her connection to the Pompeian community.
While this Venus has many ‘Pompeian’ features, it should be noted that her presentation on the half shell and the drapery that floats above and around her creating a canopy, has strong roots in Greek art. In fact, this fresco is thought to be based on a Hellenistic painting, possibly the birth of Venus as painted by Apelles which is mentioned in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (Grant 61). Recreations of Greek paintings in other medium were certainly popular in Pompeii as demonstrated by the Alexander mosaic which depicts Alexander the Great at the Battle of Issos, and was originally painted by the Greek Philoxenos in the late fourth century BCE (Kleiner 36).
It appears that the Venus Anadyomenes is a mixture of older Hellenistic art and Pompeian sensibility. This rendering of Venus as a contemporary Pompeian women shows the patron’s desire for a connection to the Greek artistic legacy, if not religion as well, while not just revering it as a bygone institution but updating the subject matter so that it was relevant for their contemporary society. Later Roman artistic tradition often coupled veristic portraiture with idealist bodies, although this is most commonly seen in the portraiture of important Roman males (Christ 24). Venus was the Roman patron goddess of sexuality and Eros was her helper who brought sexual desire to men and women who prayed for their help. This is just on example of a female being connected with sexuality in Roman culture. The fact that Venus induces and controls sexual desire and potency brings agency to the seemingly passive figure on the half shell. Also her helper, Eros, hides behind her making it clear that she is the one in control. In this example, female agency is not immediately clear to the viewer through the image. Rather the frame of Roman religion, which intimates that a woman rising out of the sea and accompanied by a young winged male represents the goddess of sexuality, when applied to this image implies the agency of the female.
House VII, 2.6, Pompeii. c. 13 CE. National Archaeological Museum of Naples in Naples.
As a sign of wealth and status, commemorative portraits were often painted in Pompeii upon the marriage of a couple (Kleiner 149). This fresco depicting Paquius Proculus and his wife was completed as a mural painting in their home and the medium adds an air of permanency to this union, as fresco requires the image to literally become part of the wall it is completed on.
The medium of buon fresco is composed of pigment suspended in water and then applied to wet lime plaster. Once the pigment and plaster dry, they become part of the structure of the building. The nature of this technique requires that the artist works quickly and only in small patches called giornata (Pierce 40).
In addition to the image in buon fresco, a layer of secco fresco is often applied for touch-ups and to fill in details. Secco fresco is less stable than buon fresco and is known to flake (Pierce 40). This instability is a result of the pigment being suspended in a binding medium and then applied to dry plaster, forming a layer of paint on top of the plaster rather than a fusion of paint and plaster. The plaster was created by mixing lime with sand and water for the under layers and marble dust for the top layers. Some frescoes had up to seven layers of plaster applied before the paint layer was begun (Kleiner 41). The fact that marble was used in the preparation of the surface, as well as the amount of time that a fresco would have taken to execute indicates that the patron must have been wealthy to afford such decoration.
A citizen couple, Paquius Proculus and his wife are fully dressed and bear the markings of educated and wealthy Romans, mainly the stylus and scroll and toga of Paquius Proculus. Although, or perhaps because they were man and wife, they are not shown in a sexual scene and there is no visual sign of their relationship aside from their physical proximity, which places the wife in front and very near her husband as they crowd the frame of the image.
The Roman wife is depicted on a light tan background, wearing a deep red dress. She wears a hair band, much like the Venus Anadyomenes, which allows loose curls to frame her face, while holding the rest of her dark hair back. She wears little jewellery and only a pair of drop earrings are clearly shown. She holds a stylus up to her pursed lips with her right hand and holds a writing tablet in front of her chest with her left hand. She sits with her body turned at an angle but her head is square towards the viewer. While her face is realistically modelled and care has been taken to show identifying details, such as her high cheek bones and her dimpled chin, the voluminous fabric of her cloak and dress drape so loosely off her body that her form is almost completely obscured. Both her and her husband are depicted in a half-length portrait which denies further identifying anatomical details such as height and build.
Further than the restriction of view, is that common ancient props have been included in the image as signs for the viewer. Kleiner notes that it was common for the middle class to include the stylus, tablet, toga and scroll in their portraits to indicate education and status, whether or not the couple actually possessed these things (149). In fact there is nothing personal or identifying about the couple from chin down, and it is only in the careful handling of their features that the viewer finds signs of individuality.
Paquius Proculus is shown to have a flat nose with upturned lips and a sparse moustache. His eyebrows are far apart and his forehead wrinkles as he stares out at the viewer. Another identifying feature is his ears which project noticeably outwards. Paquius wears a toga with one end slung around his neck to emphasis its presence. The toga was a visual sign in Roman society to indicate citizenship and status since the time of the Republic (Kleiner 52). In contrast to his wife, he holds his scroll in a passive manner, while she draws the stylus to her lips as if she has paused in her writing to contemplate what to write next. Paquius, on the other hand, holds the scroll still rolled up indicating that the viewer has not interrupted him in the act of reading. Perhaps this is due to the limits of space and convention. However, to take this examination one step further it should be noted that the act of writing, as a form of creation, is more active than that of reading to being with. Here the more active, creative pastime has been assigned to the woman, whether or not she actually partook in it in her real life.
In this fresco the willingness on the part of the patron to mix veristic portraiture with stock images is visible. Although the artist has been careful to faithfully render his subjects facial likeness, their bodies and the objects included in their portrait are used to more or less purely as signs for the viewer. They use stock symbols, such as the stylus, toga and scroll, to indicate the status, actual or desired, of the couple. They present themselves as educated, wealthy, important citizens in the most common way. The use of conventions, especially when mixed with more realistic elements, will again be examined as the representation of the female and her agency is explored in other images.
All the images that follow were owned or commissioned by the middle and upper classes who lived at Pompeii in the 1st century CE. Unfortunately, the home of the lower classes, with the exception of a few apartments over shops, have not survived. Michael Grant proposes that their homes were not sturdy enough to survive, and this seems a valid conclusion (Grant 51). In light of this, it should be noted that these selections were taken from the collections of the ruling faction in ancient Pompeii. A distinction has not been made about the identity of the patrons of these frescoes, as it is still very difficult to know with any certainty the owner of the surviving buildings. The exception is the tentatively name Paquius Proculus and his wife fresco. For the purpose of this study, however, it is enough to know that these images were commissioned by wealthy patrons which is evident through the very fact that their homes or bath buildings were well-built enough to survive the eruption and because the medium of fresco requires great skill, time and expensive material. Finally, this study employs the names of the paintings as given by the Naples National Archaeological Museum where available and more descriptive and ultimately pertinent information has been given in the images captions and analysis.
To censor these works on political or religious grounds would not be sufficient as it would be difficult to separate the sexual images from the non-sexual images this way. King Charles VII could not argue that these works were to be condemned on religious grounds, although some of the images clearly display pagan subject matter, such as Venus and satyrs as related to Dionysus, to do this would be to condemn almost all the objects found at Pompeii. Religion in Roman times was woven so completely into everyday life that even tableware was decorated with mythic or religious figures. Also the largely inclusive polytheistic nature of Roman religion meant that even the thresholds of homes had religious meaning, as seen in the worship of Janus, and so even the ruins would be considered obscene on moral grounds.
To ban these images on political reasons would also create a difficult division. On first purvey, these images do not make any political claim and seem to reinforce patriarchy, as women are treated as visual and sexual objects to be enjoyed by males. Also all the images considered below were created by private patrons and do not portray any direct political statements. No political agenda is put forth by the images and attitudes towards women were not so different in Pompeian times than they were in King Charles VII’s era.
On moral grounds, however, divisions became clear. The public display of a private act, that of sexual intercourse, was decided to be immoral and likely to corrupt the gentle souls of women and children. On these grounds, King Charles VII doomed these images to the museum’s basement or lock boxes where they would rarely be seen. At a time when pornography was jsut beginning to emerge as a genre and even a word, this crucial judgement was symbolic of prevailing attitudes and a sign of things to come.
Pompeii is a very unique archaeological site. Not only has it been excavated more than once, something rarely possible in a field where the process literally destroys as it discovers, but it is also one of the most complete find sites in terms of ancient material culture. This is, of course, due to its sudden destruction in 79 CE by the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius. The volcanic ash that covered the city and killed its remaining inhabitants, also preserved all of the day-to-day items and house decor in situ which are often lost or largely degraded in most archaeological sites. The fact that Pompeii was destroyed in such a short period of time and so thickly covered in ash and lava it was almost impossible for survivors of the eruption to return or for future generations to build there means that the ancient material did not undergo the usual renovation and change that continued habitation normally brings (Özgenel 3).
With the exception of minor disturbances, the site at Pompeii stood more or less exactly as it had that fateful day in 79 CE until it was uncovered again in 1748 under the direction of King Charles of Bourbon (Özgenel 11). Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre, a Spanish military engineer and captain, was in charge of surveying a site for a summer palace, gardens and fortress close to Naples (Özgenel 10). The site at Herculaneum was discovered first and soon Alcubierre was leading treasure hunting expeditions and digs in order to fill the palace of King Charles VII. There were many complaints about Alcubierre’s early archaeological methods, they were reported to be haphazard and dangerous. There were several accidents on the site, including tunnel collapses which hurt workers and affected the modern houses above and surrounding the sites (Özgenel 12). Aside from structural issues, the air quality was also extremely poor with many workers, including Alcubierre, got sick from the toxic volcanic ash that was disturbed during excavation but work continued to push forward anyways (Özgenel 12). The main objective was to recover ancient treasures for King Charles VII, which led to careless excavating because when one site proved unfruitful it would simply be filled back in and Alcubierre’s team would move on to a more likely place (Özgenel 14).
Aside from physical problems in the excavation, there were also issues with the management of artefacts. At this stage in the history of archaeology, there was no formal training or guidelines. Excavators like Alcubierre followed their instincts and the wishes of their patrons. This led to artefacts being discovered and removed from their find spots with little concern for provenance. Also once an artefact was discovered whether or not it would be displayed was decided by the king whose palace in Naples was the first museum for Pompeian material culture. One example of monarchical censorship, are the so-called erotic frescoes of Pompeii. It is reported that when the king viewed them with his wife and daughter, he was offended and ordered that they be relegated to the basement of the museum and largely remained there, although they have been made accessible again in 2000. The erotic frescoes that remain on-site were covered with lock boxes and in order to view the painting one must meet the criteria: be male, of age, and able to pay the small fee.
The reason for this censorship is that the king felt the images were inappropriate for the gaze of his wife an daughter, that these images may shock, or worse corrupt, them. The basis of this fear is in fact the root of pornography legislature in the modern world.