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Insula of the Menander at Pompeii. Vol. 2, The Decorations

July 2007 (111.3)

Book Review

Insula of the Menander at Pompeii. Vol. 2, The Decorations

By Roger Ling and Lesley Ling. Pp. xxi + 541, figs. 314, color pls. 62. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2005. $325. ISBN 0-19-926695-6 (cloth).

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This fourth volume to appear of a projected five-volume set focuses on the interior decoration, including wall and ceiling paintings, stucco reliefs on ceilings, and all patterned pavements, especially floor mosaics, of the eight principal houses that make up the Insula of the Menander (Regio I.10) at Pompeii. Previously published volumes include studies on the structures (vol. 1 [1997]), objects found (vol. 3 [2007]), and the silver treasure (vol. 4 [2001]). The final volume will discuss wall inscriptions. The purpose of the project, begun in 1978, is to survey and record all structures within a single neighborhood and to analyze and interpret the remains of the houses as they developed over time rather than as they were in August of 79 C.E. Prominent among the houses studied are the Casa del Menandro, Casa degli Amanti, and Casa del Fabbro.

The authors structure the book essentially in two parts: an analytical discussion of the decoration of each house in the insula, and a descriptive catalogue. The latter discusses houses in numerical order, presenting a minutely detailed and straightforward room-by-room description of the decoration generally as extant in 1998. The analytical section, however, proceeds hierarchically, from the most elaborately decorated house, the Casa del Menandro, to the least impressive. Within each house, the Lings first discuss rooms with floor decoration, then those with painted walls and ceilings. Numerous figures, floor plans, and both black-and-white and color plates augment the discussion. Three figures are fold-out drawings; a few others that extend across two pages should have been. Although the text contains black-and-white photographs, generally of fair to good quality, placing the figures and floor plans at the back of the book makes it awkward for the reader to follow the text. The color plates are excellent. Also included is a bibliography, list of abbreviations, and three helpful indices. The book is well constructed but of a larger size than volumes previously published in the set.

The analytical discussion looks at the decoration for each house in terms of its typology and chronology, its iconography, and its relationship to the house and the owner. The Lings’ expertise on painting and mosaic styles shows on every page, both in their close attention to detail in distinguishing among the various styles and in their use of comparanda from other houses in the insula, in Pompeii, and elsewhere to place the paintings and pavements in their proper chronological and architectural setting. They carefully situate the iconography of figured decoration within the appropriate genre and show how it reflects or differs from standard motifs. The Lings go beyond mere description to interpret or reinterpret scenes, for example, in the Casa del Menandro, the Vergilian allusions in the scenes of Troy painted on the walls in the ala (72–5), and the Nereid scene in the tablinum (75–6). Generally, the Lings talk of decor “privileging” one room or rooms over others and so forming a hierarchy of rooms that can, from the elaborateness of the decor and its motifs, lead to informed guesses at the function of the room. They are at their most speculative in drawing conclusions on the tastes and interests of the owners from the richness or style of the decor. So, for example, the figural decorations of the Casa del Menandro, characterized by the Lings as “innovatory,” “unique,” and unparalleled (92–3), imply that the owner during the period of the Second Style was a “complex personality” with an individualistic taste in the “comic and exotic aspects of Hellenistic art” (103), while the owner during the Fourth Style period was a man of literary interests, particularly epic and drama (103–6).

Looking at the insula as a whole yields some interesting conclusions (165–72). So, for example, nearly all houses contained some wall painting in most of their rooms. Evidence for an active restoration program is implied by the fact that most extant wall paintings are of the Fourth Style painted after 62 C.E. A predilection for a decor with a distinctly architectural bent seems clear from the fact that the two most important houses, Casa del Menandro and Casa degli Amanti, had preserved their Second Style painting while adding Fourth Style decoration. And, finally, the Lings recognize some unique and pioneering elements, such as Second Style Nilotic scenes of boating pygmies, a grove of trees with birds as a primary theme, and black figures in silhouette in floor mosaic. Fourth Style innovations include a frieze painted in imitation of stucco reliefs.

Serial publication of individual volumes in a set over a considerable length of time has its drawbacks. Reconsideration of conclusions reached in volumes published earlier is unavoidable, but it can be a source of confusion. So, for example, the Lings date pavements in Rooms 10 and 11 of the Casa degli Amanti (111–12) later than that given in volume 1 (208, 211). The authors use technical terms without explanation and date pavements and wall paintings stylistically rather than chronologically. Implied in this is the assumption that the reader is well acquainted with the vocabulary and date ranges of the various styles or has easy access to volume 1, where the definition of terms and dating criteria are summarized. Inclusion in this volume of a glossary providing the definitions and chronological relationships would have been helpful. And, finally, since floor plans in volume 2 lack the designations for underground Rooms A, B, and C of the Casa del Menandro, discussed on pages 6–7, one must refer to volume 1 (73) to distinguish among them.

Criticisms noted above in no way detract from a work that is impressive for its learned and detailed discussion and the generosity and quality of its illustrations. Its focus on an entire neighborhood rather than an individual house sets a standard for future works of this kind. Scholars will profitably consult this work time and again, though its expense may restrict its ownership primarily to institutions.

Robert I. Curtis
Department of Classics
Park Hall
University of Georgia
Athens, Georgia 30602

Book Review of Insula of the Menander at Pompeii. Vol. 2, by Roger Ling and Lesley Ling

Reviewed by Robert I. Curtis

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 111, No. 4 (July 2007)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1113.Curtis

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