Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Villa of Mysteries

I love to travel and always read the travel inserts in the newspapers. So when I spotted an article about Pompeii and the "Villa of Mysteries" (which I'd never heard of and wasn't anything to do with actual travel) in The Independent I read on.

I thought it very interesting so copied the article and found some photos for your enjoyment.

At one end of the room, opposite the main door, the first thing you would have seen as you walked in was Dionysus, sprawling semi-naked in the lap of his mother, Semele – or maybe his wife, Ariadne (the female figure only partly survives). This divine couple is clearly the centrepiece of the whole composition, with its exotic cast of characters.

Leading up to the pair is a relatively stately procession: a woman carries a loaded tray, while looking out to catch the viewer's eye; a group of women cluster around some kind of container.

Yet, as the figures get nearer to Dionysus, things become decidedly stranger. Next to the figure of young Pan playing his pipes, his female partner (a "Panisca") appears to suckle a goat;

A satyr, one of Dionysus' mythical followers, holds up a cup into which his friends gaze intently; and the woman seems to start back in horror – but at what?

The answer to that question is probably to be found on the other side. For here a woman kneels as she begins to reveal something beneath a dark cloth (a phallus, it is usually imagined), while the winged demon whips the bare back of a girl who buries her face in her companion's lap. Just next to her, a naked woman dances and plays the castanets.

What on earth is going on? And what kind of room was it that these images decorated? Perhaps, as the Villa's title has it, the frieze is meant to depict an initiation into the cult of Dionysus: hence the revelation of the phallus, and the flagellation. But the room is one of the showrooms of this large house, opening on to a portico with a panoramic sea view. So this would be a scene intended as an elegant backdrop to dining and entertainment. Others have preferred to see the painting as an allegory of marriage and the preparation for a wedding. The bride has been identified as a young woman shown seated to the right of the main door and the central couple. On this interpretation, Dionysus and his wife, Ariadne, would symbolise the divine nature of marriage.

The truth is that we do not know exactly what is depicted here. Indeed, part of the pleasure of the frieze is the way that it repeatedly plays with our ability to decode it. But there is a surprising sting in the tail. One reason for the impact of this frieze is the way that it envelops anyone who steps into the room. Another is the sheer lustre of the deep red background, against which the figures are set: "Pompeian red" at its loveliest. This colour, however, cannot entirely be attributed to the original artist. When the paintings were first uncovered, they were so badly affected by damp that unsightly salts leeched through the paintwork. In order to remove the salts, petroleum wax was carefully and repeatedly rubbed into the painted surface. That memorable sheen is, in other words, a 20th-century creation.

Apparently it's the most famous painting discovered in the buried city of Pompeii – indeed the most famous surviving anywhere in the Roman world – the curious frieze that covers the walls of a large room in the Villa of the Mysteries, a substantial property just outside the boundary of the ancient city. Painted in the mid-1st century BC, a series of almost life-size figures that has become the modern icon of Pompeii, copied on to thousands of posters, ashtrays and fridge magnets.



Hermione said...

I know that women are not allowed to see some of the paintings at Pompeii, and I always figured that there must be whippings depicted, among other erotic images.

Thanks for sharing, Ronnie.


Daisychain said...

oh, MY!!!
Great investigative skills, Ronnie! xxxxxxx


I wonder if Emperor Augustus (well known as a submissive) had any rooms with special wall paintings, in Rome, that are now lost to us?


ronnie said...

Hermione - Your welcome. I'd heard that but not sure if it's still the case now.

Daisy - Just an interesting article I spotted, well I thought it was.

Prefectdt - Oh I'm sure there were.

Thank you all so much for stopping by, appreciate it.


redxxx said...

interesting to read. Pompeii is on our list to visit. As you know,we love travelling.

ronnie said...

Thanks Red. I hope you do make the visit and let us know all about it.
Have you been to Rome? I've been so luck to visit many wonderful cities and Rome blew me away.


redxxx said...

Hi Ronnie: Been to Rome, and many other cities on a couple of Mediterranean cruises, that also were a transatlantic ending in Florida, our home state.
Loved Rome, and just about every other place we stopped.

dublin.paolo said...

The 'Villa of the Mysteries'....what a wonderful and intriguing place it must have been Ronnie.

What is going on in those images indeed?

I did a little further investigating and came across this....

"Dionysus is the ancient Greek god of wine, wine cups, wineskin, grapes, and fertility. A major figure of Greek mythology, his cult was linked to ritual madness, joyful worship, ecstasy and carnivals....on this website...(

It gets more interesting don't you think?