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La villa romaine de Boscoreale et ses fresques

July 2015 (119.3)

Book Review

La villa romaine de Boscoreale et ses fresques

Edited by Alix Barbet and Annie Verbanck-Piérard. 2 vols. Pp. 608, figs. 342, color pls. 52. Éditions Errance, Arles 2013. €69. ISBN 978-2-87772-469-2 (paper).

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During the years 1900–1902, excavations on privately owned property in the area of Campanian Boscoreale unearthed remains of a substantial Late Republican villa with wall decorations in what Mau was already calling the Late Second Style. The richness of the find and the ambiguity of jurisdiction occasioned fierce and often acrimonious debate until, with a cluster of five substantial pieces given to Naples “by way of a tax” (2:60), the remaining lot was sold at auction in Paris in 1903 with the largest shares bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the owner of Chateau Mariemont. The dispersion of frescoes from one and the same room among different locations has posed difficulties for study or understanding of the villa in its entirety. This comprehensive, multiauthored volume deriving from a conference held at Mariemont in 2010 attempts to compensate for the dispersal by the fullness of a presentation bringing together for the first time all decorative segments, including even small fragments owned throughout Europe. As a kind of conservators’ showcase, the volume celebrates the often dazzling work of restoration conducted by numerous museums. Digital reconstruction makes it very much a production of the 21st century.

The publication comprises two volumes. Volume 1 contains a brief story of the excavation and sale of the paintings (given in much greater detail in vol. 2), followed by factual accounts in two divisions, a room-by-room description of the villa, and a second descriptive sequence for the wall paintings. The final section is an album of reconstruction proposals, beginning with a plan of the villa color-keyed to the current locations of the frescoes.

The chapters (Thèmes) of the discursive volume 2 deal with “Discovery and Excavation” (ch. 1); “Iconographical Questions” (ch. 2); “Reconstructive ‘Propositions’” (ch. 3); Campanian villas as comparanda (ch. 4); restoration programs within the several museums (ch. 5); and consequences of the 1903 sale, also keyed to museums, and another album based on photographs (ch. 6).

In her introduction, Verbanck-Piérard of the Royal Museum of Mariemont calls on readers to appreciate the totality of the villa decoration, noting how the disproportionate attention given to the large figurative frescoes has disadvantaged the nonfigurative frescoes. Citing points made by Agnès Rouveret concerning the visual interactions of large- and small-scale components of decorations, she directs attention to Second Style painting in all categories from megalography to orthostate panels, whether plain or festooned with garlands of fruit or of pine. Stefani’s chapter on the excavation brings the evidence of written documents into her narrative of the discovery, controversies, and the sale and introduces the 1901 monograph by Barnabei (La villa pompeiana di P. Fannio Sinistore: Scoperta presso Boscoreale [Rome]) in his efforts to prevent deportation of the frescoes, which many authors in this volume cite as the one previously available source of information on the whole content of the villa. Grimaldi positions the villa historically within the topographical context of the Pagus Felix Suburbanus as colonized by the Sullan military elite, for which newly discovered tombs inscribed to members of the gens Cornelia give additional evidence. Bergman tracks some dispersed objects of material culture and compares them with painted images.

Three iconographical essays in chapter 2 deal with the large-scale decoration of Rooms H, M, and G, commonly discussed in studies of the Campanian Second Style. In discussing the figured friezes located above the doors in the separated Naples/Mariemont walls of the summer triclinium, Bragantini alludes to Macedonian motifs behind the ennobling subject matter of a heroic hunt scene and Centauromachy. Sauron sets out to “cure” the malady of confusing interpretations surrounding the human figures in megalographic Room H with a historical/mythological allegory pertaining to the defeat of Perseus by Aemilius Paulus, complemented by the story of Perseus and Andromeda. Like Grimaldi, he considers the topic suited to the interests of the proprietor, who, as a member of the Sullan military elite, may even have participated in the late Macedonian War. Rouveret calls on the rhetoric of ekphrasis to mediate the large-scale theatricality and detailed intimacy of the New York cubiculum (Room M).

In chapter 3 (“Proposals for Restoration”), Barbet reconstructs the peristyle walls, placing the winged genii of Paris and Amsterdam as guardians of the doorway leading into the large-figured megalography, while Beacham, in a generously illustrated essay, explains how the work of the King’s College visual reconstruction laboratory in modeling both Oplontis and Boscoreale helps us to understand spaces and their deployment in the functional and social uses of the villa.

Three comparanda essays in chapter 4 treat diverse issues. In his essay on “scaling,” Clarke discusses the techniques and circulation of painters’ outfits, showing some rough architectural practice sketches uncovered during his work at Oplontis and comparing details of three pedestal deities to show an interrelationship between the Oplontis painters and those of the M cubiculum at Boscoreale. Reporting on reopened Villa dei Papiri excavations, Esposito regrets the damage done by 18th-century tunnel digging that produced some pictorial fragments, which the full plan developed by his investigation allows him to position within proper contexts. The two antelope come from the atrium; the monochrome landscape fragment belonged to a series of such panels in the orthostates of an ala, while half a life-sized female torso beside a column is evidence for a lost megalography. Everything places the villa within the complex of Campanian Second Style ensembles comparable to Boscoreale and Oplontis.

Moormann’s essay on the Villa Terzigno brings a critical perspective to bear on the interpretation of a megalographic room comparable to Room H in its array of figures separated by columns. Although exhibited in various traveling mostre since 2003, the room is not widely known. Papers published by three scholars able to study the figures at close range agree in calling them mythological, but with divergent interpretations. Without rehearsing his own interpretation, Moormann takes exception to Stroka’s association of his Trojan War reading with the “rising star” of Octavian—a theory scarcely needing refutation because it can self-destruct on its own sheer illogic. With specific mentions of other iconographical studies claiming political allegory, he cogently demonstrates their improbability to make the point that scholars ought not to inflate the importance of their studies by extraneous claims of significance unrealistically disproportionate to the political consequence of Pompeii or Campania.

Chapters 5 and 6 take up the paintings separately in their respective museum contexts, but with different emphases. The technical chapter 5 deals with the differing remediation processes applied in four situations as appropriate to the kind of damage suffered. The one concentrates on pigmentation; the other focuses on chemical treatment in some detail. Barbet replaces backing panels that had split three orthostate segments in the Louvre. Meyers’ account of the work and campaign at the Metropolitan Museum discusses the techniques of fresco painting with an analysis of the kinds of damage suffered by the frescoes from debris and pyroclastic flow.

Roger and Mathieux provide a detailed account of the Paris sale on 8 June 1903, including replicas of the purchase records and a chart of the distribution. Their narrative cites numbers to show that 15 of the pieces from the original excavation remain unaccounted for. Subsequent essays focus on placement as well as restoration, showing how often museums have moved their panels from one display situation to another. Verbanck-Piérard relates the history of the Mariemont collection from sale and first installation to the exposition of 2010. A particularly felicitous selection of pieces from several rooms of the villa allows for a large-scale appreciation and opens the way for iconographical interpretation, which Verbanck-Piérard presses to its limits with claims that each ensemble is keyed to one of the deities in the decoration. A reader may withhold judgment as to whether the Dionysiac images suspended from the rich fruit garlands in the exedra of Room L actually relate to active cult practices or whether the New York cubiculum means to represent a grotto of Diana, but one must allow that a Roman revitalization of Greek sources witnesses the erudition and sophistication of the owners.

Among others, Barbet explains the intervention of the Hellenist Theodore Reinach, who bought paintings for his Villa Kerylos, modeled after Greek houses on Delos. Stefani explains the efforts made by the Boscoreale Antiquarium to create an ambience for the display of material objects including mosaics and the inscribed bronze vessel from which comes the name of Synistor as proprietor, adding some words on the difficulty of maintaining security. A final chapter gives the history of Boscoreale itself as a Vesuvian settlement and a tour of the imitative frescoes in the “palace” of Vincenzo de Prisco, the official most responsible for the scandalous sale. This album differs from that of volume 1 in presenting actual photographs, each one with a note indicating its present museum location.

For libraries and scholars, the particular value of the collection lies in its exposure of hitherto unknown or little-noticed material. With its abundant photographs and reconstructions, the volume admirably succeeds in constructing a virtual unity to familiarize the reader with spatial and decorative interrelationships throughout the villa.

Eleanor Winsor Leach
Department of Classical Studies
Indiana University

Book Review of La villa romaine de Boscoreale et ses fresques, edited by Alix Barbet and Annie Verbanck-Piérard

Reviewed by Eleanor Winsor Leach

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 3 (July 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1193.Leach

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