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the little house in Pompeii
held a grand illusion

By Judith Geary

colonnade around a peristyle garden
Had you awakened in it one morning in the first century of our era - in the triclinium, perhaps, after a late night of revelry - picked your way through the litter of bones and dropped napkins on the mosaic floor (remember that you're barefoot) and out onto the shaded colonnade; you might well have rubbed your bleary eyes in surprise. The colonnade extended around the four sides of the garden, of course. The columns were an eclectic style, smooth Pompeian red on the bottom where visitors' hands might soil them and fluted white above with simple Doric capitals. Nothing surprising about any of that.

From Irene's collection. The artist's signature is at the bottom left. - see also note at bottom of pageOn the far side of the peristyle, however, beyond a double row of columns just like the one on which you steady yourself, your gaze lights upon sunlit hills. You recognize the scene, surely, from picnicking on the slopes of Vesuvius or just wandering through a lazy afternoon.

the lady by the shrine, click here for another viewBut this house is in the midst of the city. Even if the builder had created an open colonnade instead of the usual high wall decorated with mythological figures or, in the case of larger homes, surrounded the garden with rooms; would other buildings not obscure your view? Could last night's Falernian have contained something besides water?

It seems there's someone to ask, after all. In middle distance you see another early riser. A young woman sits contemplatively by a pool in front of an elaborately decorated shrine.

You've covered only a step of the distance, however, when the mystery comes clear. The young woman is a bronze figure no higher than your knee. Her elaborate shrine, painted in shades of pink, turquoise, and cream and embellished with sea shells is no higher than your head. And the double colonnade with its view of the Neapolitan hills is a painted illusion.

view through a gateYou retreat from the morning sunlight, intending to take refuge in the quiet formality of the tablinum of the master of the house. You pass between the columns and through the doorway and into - not the large room you expected - but a space no more that two paces across, little more than a glorified hallway. Then you notice that the opposite doorway, the one that leads out into the atrium is larger in scale than the one you just entered from the peristyle. It's wider, its lintel is slightly higher, and even the columns on each side are larger in scale. You cross the atrium, checking to see if the pool is a regular rectangle, or, just perhaps wider, on the end toward the domus' entrance.

You pause to look back, considering, perhaps, whether to wake the sleeping doorman or risk rousing the dog by raising the bar yourself, and notice the roof seems high for such a small atrium. You look to satisfy yourself that you indeed understand why the details of the house were not as you expected them to be. For, whether you're familiar with Vitruvius' rules of proportion, or just a seasoned partygoer, you know how a Pompeiian house should be built. And why a domus that seemed of such majestic proportions when you arrived last evening, this morning appears quite small.

Plan of Roman domusPlan of Illusion HouseIn a proper Roman domus, the line of sight from the front door through the house is the longest the architect can manage. Usually that means that the guest, or client, has a view across the atrium with its central impluvium, through the doorway of the master's tablinum, his reception room or office, through a doorway or window across a colonnade and into the peristyle garden. There are prescribed proportions for everything from ceiling height to column size to width of the colonnade, and this house defies them all. The violations work together to create the illusion, from the front door at least, that the house is close to four times its actual size.

The house still exists. The small shrine still sports its bright pastel paint and seashell decoration; the small bronze maiden who sits in contemplation is perhaps a replica. The frescos on the garden wall are faded but still identifiable as a continuation of the colonnaded corner and realistic landscapes. It is on public tours of Pompeii, but isn't identified in any of my guidebooks, nor did the guide on either of my trips point out the unique features of the house. Nor is an explanation given with the great pictures of the same house I found on John Hauser's website.

What was this place? I imagine it as a high-class house of pleasure, the optical illusions of the frescos and eccentric proportions perhaps even more believable by the light of torches or the moon. But perhaps the purpose was more pedestrian. Vitruvius himself is credited with designing some of Pompeii's frescos--perhaps the one shown here which clearly makes use of his principles of vanishing point perspective, a technique that seems to have disappeared until the renaissance. Could this house have been merely a clever expression of someone's vanity?

Surely someone reading this will provide the answer...

possible Vitruvius designs

Links to Pompeii:
Tully and me VesuviusJudith Geary lives in Boone, NC where she is variously a writer, editor and adjunct faculty member at Appalachian State University. The material for this article was gathered during an independent visit March 9-17, 2001. She also is editor at High Country Publishers, Ltd.

Other articles by Judith Geary:
Big Changes in Ancient Rome
On the Palatine
In the Steps of Julius Caesar
Republican Roman Construction
Buildings of Artificial Stone 
Republican Roman Names

© Judith Geary 2001
Gladiator photo © Irene Hahn

A note to the mosaic photo: If a reader owns a photo of a—suitable to the text—wall painting or mosaic from Pompeii, contribution of same would be greatly appreciated, acknowledged, and where applicable, linked. You may e-mail irenesbooks@optonline.net


Ancient Rome as seen in the year 2001

for articles click here
by Judith Geary & Verda Ingle

Irene's Travelogue: Roman Germania 1999

gladiator image, click here for travelogue

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