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Roman House & Garden, 79 AD: Classical Interior Design

Fig. 1. Pompeii atrium reconstruction, House of the Vettii, Boboli Gardens, Florence, 2007 (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

If I weren’t only eight years old during the seven-month run of Ancient Gardens from Babylon to Rome: Science, Art and Nature in the Florentine Boboli Gardens in 2007, I probably would have bought a plane ticket just to see it. The reconstruction of the Pompeian house of the Vettii family caught my eye – a peristyle atrium and an almost modernist quad garden, planted with oxeye daisies and polyantha roses (Fig. 1). In envisaging the domestic lives of the ancient Greeks, we have very little go on – the sad state of ancient interior decor evidence can be blamed on the materials early civilisations favoured; maple, oak, willow, cedar, cypress, lime, and olive, all of which struggle to survive millennia. However, ancient Greek pot painting gives us a little illustrated inkling into furniture. The brilliant Andokides and Lysippides bilingual amphora, with one side red-figure and the other black, shows Hercules recumbent on a klinē, a couch-like seat used as early as the seventh century BC, enjoying grapes and wine (Fig. 2). The klinē legs, lightly decorated on the red-figure side with abstract ornamentation, hold a straight bed – the head-end raised with an ionic capital, a striped embroidered pillow propping up the left arm of the hero. The most common form of Greek seat was the diphroi, or backless stool, visible in the Parthenon frieze. Several fragments of a stool were discovered in a fourth-century BC tomb in Thessaloniki, once made of wood and silver foil. Many depictions exist in pottery, and indicate Minoan and Mycenaean inspiration, often with curved legs ending in animal feet.

Fig. 2. Andokides and Lysippides Belly Amphora, Feasting Hercules, 520-510 AD (Photo:

Ironically, as historians we must thank god for the catastrophes of Pompeii and Herculaneum, as we have slightly more information about the interior design persuasions of the ancient Romans – Vesuvius’s ash preserved wooden furniture, shelves, doors, and shutters in carbonized form. How to decorate your Herculaneum abode? If you were well-off, a small marble and mosaic table would brighten up a room (79 AD, held at the Naples Archaeological Museum) if not, a three-legged wooden stool would suffice, perhaps a klinē for relaxing on after work. My favourite small comfort found in the excavated remains of the Bay of Naples is the few wooden wall-racks for holding amphorae, in a building that was once a shop – the local off-licence, it seems. The House of the Vettii was excavated with almost all of its wall frescos intact – the decoration scheme was one of abundance, with frescos of Daedalus and Pasiphae, Dionysus and Ariadne, Hero and Leander, Pentheus and Dirce. This survival proves the level to which ancient Roman (and, theoretically, ancient Greek) homes would have been as richly decorated as their many other surviving arts.

Perhaps one of the most gorgeous interior design innovations that the Romans begun was the asàrotos òikos, or the unswept floor mosaic. Troupe d’oeil opus tessellatum creates the illusion of the detritus of a feast, as if the guests have fallen asleep in the early hours, leaving us to step into the room and examine the remains. Fruit stones, fish heads, bones picked clean, walnuts and seed cases – as well as an opportunistic mouse. My favourite example of this motif is from a villa on the Aventine Hill in Rome, now preserved in the Vatican Museum (Fig. 3). The asàrotos òikos seemed to have been understandably popular, with Pliny the Elder describing a famous example at Pergamon, now lost. They have a tongue-in-cheek satirical playfulness about them, while unsettling with the memento mori-esque permanent record of impermanence.

Fig. 3. Heraclitus, Asàrotos òikos mosaic, 2nd century BC (Photo: Vatican Museum)

Back to the Vettii reconstruction, how accurate is the garden? We know both Greeks and Romans to be avid horticulturalists – gardening has been a tradition since the beginning of civilisation, with the sixth century BC Mesopotamian gardens of Babylon. Ancient Greek and Roman gardens tended to be less ostentatious, more religious and practical, with origins in the sacred groves on the nymphs, satyrs and gods. Plants were grown in aid of specific deities; oak for Zeus, Myrtle for Aphrodite, laurel for Apollo. Ancient Greek literature is awash with the symbolic meaning of growing plants: moly in the Odyssey (now attributed to perhaps be the humble snowdrop or the Syrian rue) Medea’s poisonous aconite, Adonis’s posthumous red anemone, Athena’s olive tree, the Asphodel meadows of the underworld… however, archaeologically speaking, there appears to have been no gardens of any sort in pre-Hellenistic Greek homes. Roman decorative gardening appears to be one of the few art forms not wholly inspired by their Greek forebears, appearing first after Roman encounters with the Hellenized East. The Persian-inspired Gardens of Lucullus on the Pincian Hill at the edge of Rome seemed to have been the earliest example, planted around 60 BC – and nothing has changed it seems, with contemporary authors describing it as a place of peace and tranquillity, a refuge from urban life. The Ancient Gardens exhibition drew me primarily by way of the seductive consideration of the domestic lives of early civilisation. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the omnipotence thrust upon the early Greeks and Romans by modern society, and forget the most wonderful element of studying the classics – the discovery that the ancients weren’t really that different from us at all.

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