The Villa of P. F. Synistor
The frescoes from Bosco-reale, an area about a mile north of Pompeii, are among the most important to be found anywhere in the Roman world. Boscoreale was notable in antiquity far having numerous aristocra-tic country villas. This tradition endured into the lime of the Bourbon kings, as is attested by the region's name, the "Royal Forest," which implies that Bosco-reale was a hunting preser-ve. The villa was discovered in late 1900 and excavated by Vincenzo De Prisco on the property of Francesco Vana. The paintings were cui from the excavated ruins, framed in wood, and then put up at auction; most. of them went to the Metropolitan Museum, some remained in Naples, and others ended up in the Louvre and museums in the Netherlands and Belgium. Like so many excavations of the period, this one was far from scientific and left much to be desired. The existing clues concerning the villa's ownership in antiquity are fragmentary indeed, and it is riskyto base theories of ownership on brick stamps and graffiti, bui alI that survives points to the villa having been built shortiy after the middle of the first century B.C. One piece of evidence, a graffito, indicates that the first auction of the villa took piace on May 9, A.D. 12. There were at least two owners during the first century A.D. One was named Publius Fannius Synistor, as is known from an inscription on a bronze vessel found in Room 24. The other owner bore the name Lucius Herennius Florus; this fact was determined from a bronze stamp found in the villa and now in the Metropolitari Museum. Although we know the names of later owners, no evidence enables us to identify the villa's originaI owner or the man who commissioned the frescoes. For the sake of convenience, the villa is ordinarily referred to as that of Fannius. The surviving paintings are extremely fine examples of the late Second StrIe, the most renowned example of which is the Republican peri od decoration of the so-called Villa of the Mysteries at Pompeii. Throughout the frescoes from the villa at Boscoreale there arevisual ambiguities to tease the ere, including architectural details painted to resemble real ones, such as rusticatedmasonry, pillars, and columns that cast shadows into the viewer's space, and more conventional trompe l'oeil devices like three-dimensional meanders. In and around the fanciful architecture ofthe villa's Bedroom M, for example, objects of daily lite were depicted in such a way as to seem real, with metal and glass vases on shelves and tables appearing to project out frolli the wall. Cumulatively, these trompe l'oeil devices reveal the Republican owners' evident pleasure in impressing their guests at this com fortable summer retreat. In 1964 excavations began on the site of a villa known as Oplontis, in the modern town of Torre Annunziata, near Naples. The excavations, which continue to this dar, have shed much light on the school that is in allikelihood responsible for the villa of Fannius at Boscoreale. The frescoes at the villa of Oplontis include fanciful colonnades, rustic settings developed with improbably complex architecture, and various other subjects and decorative schemes also found at Boscoreale. Oplontis has much to teach us about the decorative traditions of this period, since unlike the remains of so many other villas in the region, it is well preserved in its originaI context. Oplontis is particularly illuminating about the decoration of Boscoreale's Room M, which was a bedroom (cubiculum nocturnum) in the villa. This bedroom, which had a sitting room (cubiculum diurnum) to the south, is exceptional for the degree of detail in its painted scenes, which are combined with actual architectural features to create a very playful atmosphere. Above the richly painted walls of imagined rustic architecture was a stucco ceiling. Oplontis presents a useful parallel "ot for the landscape scenes of Boscoreale's Cubiculum M, but for the peristyle that opens out to those scenes. Both villas share the scheme in which red Corinthian columns with floral vines winding around them support a narrow entablature decorated with shields emblazoned with the so-called Macedonian starburst. No less instructive is Pompeii's Casa del Labirinto, which bears a very close relation to Boscoreale in scaleas well as in decorati ve detail. The landscape scenes with villa architecture, in particular, are quite similar to those of Bedroom M at Boscoreale. Bedroom M is especially enlightening for modern viewers because it provides a particularly vivid picture of Roman luxury. The walls of the bedroom are painted in such a way as to conceal the fact that they are walls and to make them appear as views of the grounds of the villa - or an idealized version of the villa. The centers of the east and west walls are divided from the side sections by the splendid red columns.Between the columns we see, on the leftside, a shrine known as a syzygia, which consists of a short entablature supported by two pillars. In the shrine's center stands a goddess holding a flaming torch in each hand. The shrine is walled off from us and shrouded below with a dark curtain, as if to keep us away. To either side of the shrine are views of the entrance to a fantastic country villa. The centrai portaI, which is double-doored, is as ornate as the remainder of the architecture and is apparently inlaid with tortoiseshell. The architecture that spreads out beyond it is vast and complex, and at the very top the farthest extension of the villa's high enclosure wall is visible (cover). The complex is best understood as a pastiche of balconies, towers, and buildings rather than a literal image of a particular architectural scene. Bedroom M exhibits an impulse to fantasy that is very telling about the taste of the originai owner. The Second Strie, in generai, and the painted configurations of such walls as these, in particular, developed out of an early Hellenistic painting strie, as the Tomb of Lyson and Kallikles near Lefkadia in Macedonia demonstrates, but this room is very much the vision of a late Republican landowner with grandiose pretensions who seeks to impress the viewer with the scope of his imagined grounds. There is little to be learned about ancient religion in this room, since divinities serve chieAy as part of the landscape. Images of gods, satyrs, and fishermen are not meaningfully distinct. An urban sophisticate like our villa owner was more concerned with displaying emblems of wealth than in appeasing gods in whom he may not have fully believed; the educated Roman middle class was superstitious but agnostic. Ampler confirmation of this agnosticism may be found in the villa's largest room, that described as H on the plano (The elements preserved from that room are divided among the Metropolitan, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, the Louvre, the Musée Royal et Domaine de Mariemont in Belgium, and the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam.) Room H was about twenty-five feet square, with decoration consisting ofeight main painted scenes that showed a figure or group of figures. Each scene was separated frolli the next by a painted column, which acted almost as a frame. This set the decorative scheme apart frolli that of the Villa of the Mysteries or some years earlier, in which the columns afe behind the figures and thus do not interrupt a narrative continuum. Here the artists preferred to separate each mai n panel, as indicated also by the separate shrine paintings and architectural motifs in the upper zone above each panel. In the center or the north wall was an image or Aphrodite joined by a diminutive figure of Eros. To the left was Dionysos reclining on Ariadne's lap, and on the right were the Three Graces, in their familiar late Classical pose. On the west wall were, frolli south to north, a false doorway, an elderly bearded man leaning on a walking stick, and a pair of figures, one seated and one standing, with a shield between them. The figures have been variously identified and may be either mythological or historical. The east wall featured three paintings now in the care of the Metropolitan. These are, frolli north to south (leftto right), a citharist and a girI, a man and a woman (both seated), and a single image of a woman bearing a shield. As on the other side of the room, the single figure was in the panel interrupted by a doorway-this one not false, but actually lead- ing out of the room, proving thatthe painted decoration conformed to the exigencies of the room's architecture. The scenes in Boscoreale's Room H derive from the Greek tradition of megalographia, or large-scale painting, about which so much was written in antiquity; Apollinarius of Sidon, Petronius in the Satyricon, and Vitruvius alished light on the use of megalographia in a Roman villa. Copies of famous paintings of the past evidently appealed to the owners of these homes. Although it seems likely that at least three of the panels in Room H allude to historical figures or personifications associated with Macedonia and Asia, the remainder cannot be brought together in a unified context. Thus, while there are some undeniable associations among three scenes, the others afe paintings of divinities and what is probably a portrait of a philosopher. The illustrated reconstruction of the room, undertaken for an exhibition in Essen at the Villa Hiigel, gives a better idea of the relative importance of each major scene. The room may bave served as the primary triclinium, or dining room. This suggestion has met with criticism by some who argue that dining rooms were usually smaller; the sa me scholars believe that Room H was reserved for the celebration of a cult, perhaps that of Aphrodite. Yet several of the painted figures are open to interpretations that diminish the possibility of an association with a culto For example, the painting of a man leaning on a walking stick is thought by some to be a portrait ofthe philosopher Epicurus and therefore unrelated to the worship of Aphrodite. Other suggestions have included the philosophers Zeno, Menedemos of Eretria, or Aratos of Soli, as well as King Kinyras of Cyprus. Thus, the picture gallery in Room H reveals the villa owner's interest in the painterly forms of the late Classical and Hellenistic periods, but the presence of unrelated figures that appear to be adapted from historical and mythological paintings in a room that was in alI likelihood the focus of gastronomic, rather than rcligious, ritual suggests that there was no veiled meaning in the room's decoration, but rather an overt one: these are images that attest to the cultivation of the man who entertained there. It was the custom of Campanian villas at this ti me to decorate the periIstrIe with copies of classical statuary, and we may assume that this villa at Boscoreale was no exception. Boscoreale's paintings of gods, philosophers, and kings may bave been arranged in the same somewhat haphazard way that statues of such subjects adorned the exterior of a villa, as in the case of the Villa of the Papiri at Herculaneum, which has very recently heen reopened for excavation. The message we receive from this late Republican villa is that displays of wealth were best accompanied by symbols of the Greek pasto By appealing to the forms of Hellenistic art, which were as much in vogue in late Republican villas as were classical traditions, the Roman patron signaled his appreciation of a classical heritage and, incidentally, invited lengthy treatises of modern scholars in search of his true decorative intentions and sources. His intentions were almost certainly not complicated; Room H is a display of erudition rather than a hall devoted to worship. His sources were, at this pivotal time in Roman history, near the lime of J ulius Caesar's death and the end of the Triumvirate, more firmly anchored in a past civilization than in the present. This approach to interior decoration stood in stark contradiction to the political values of the Republic,officially suspicious as it wasof Greek tradition, and was to be upset in the succeeding reign of the emperor Augustus. Under Rome's first emperor was born the Third Strie, best exemplified by the villa at Boscotrecase.