Back in my student days, I was much more interested in Greek history, culture and archaeology than I was in that of the Romans. As a consequence that I am almost too embarrassed to admit, although I now spend a fair amount of time in Italy, I have never been to Rome. Nor, until last week, had I ever been to Pompeii, but a decision was taken to rectify the latter situation before both of us were simply too ancient and creaky to manage the high kerbs of Pompeian pavements without mishap.
We spent a couple of days in Sorrento, where the main occupation of the natives appears to be popping out of shops and threatening the unwary with citrus products. The view from our hotel bedroom, and from the terrace above it, was quite wonderful,
the weather was warm and sunny, and the only disappointment was that the local museum was closed on a day when not only the tourist information office but also the notice attached to its own gate said it should be open – so far, so characteristically Italian.
We then caught the ‘Circumvesuviana’ train back up the coast of the Bay of Naples to the little town of Ercolano, ancient Herculaneum, which of course was, like Pompeii, destroyed in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE.
The excavated site is much smaller than that of Pompeii, partly because it was buried in solidified lava and mud, which made for heavy going, but mostly because the town of Resina (renamed Ercolano in 1969) was on top of it. Pompeii, by contrast, though buried in ash to a depth of 25 metres, has not been much built over, and shifting the compacted ash was apparently easier.
The history of the rediscovery and excavation of both sites is a fascinating one: but today I want to look at this little picture, on a wall in Herculaneum.
Like so many small Roman fresco paintings, it sits in a painted frame on a dark background, and its subject is a bird sitting on a counter and pecking at some cherries. This pretty little image raised all sorts of questions. What sort of bird is it? Why were small images like these placed in ‘frames’ – were they in imitation of easel paintings hung on the walls (none of which, as far as I know, have ever survived from the ancient world)? Were framed frescos a poor man’s substitute for easel paintings? Why were many of them so small? Why were so many interiors painted in dark (‘Pompeian’) red, or black? To what extent did the revelation of ancient frescos discovered during the Renaissance rebuilding of Rome influence the fresco painting of the period, with its ‘romanesque’, symmetrical architectural motifs? Did Roman or Renaissance ‘bird and fruit’ motifs influence William Morris’s ‘Strawberry Thief’ design?
Well, I think it’s a grey partridge (Perdix perdix), the red feathers around the face being the clincher. Cherries had been known in Rome since the wars against Mithridates VI of Pontus in the first century BCE: specifically, a cultivated sweet cherry is claimed to have been introduced by the Republican general, scholar, millionaire and gourmet Lucius Licinius Lucullus, one of whose splendid villas was on the coast not far from Naples. (Incidental fascinating fact: partridges may well like cherries, but the newly hatched young can feed only on insects, graduating to seeds after about ten days.)
Birds and fruit appear as motifs in Pompeii as well: a sparrow pecking at something …
cranes in the Villa of the Mysteries,
where you can also see what appear to be a pigeon and a parakeet with some walnuts.
A mosaic floor shows three pigeons, one apparently tugging a string of pearls out of a jewellery box;
And a picture on a white background shows a pair of birds with cherries (of which the skins catch the light) and either apples, pomegranates, or possibly medlars.
I’ve found some useful leads to improve my ignorance about Roman painting, though not (yet) any suggestions as to why they preferred to have the interior walls of their houses so dark (Pompeian red wall-plaster being a diagnostic of residential buildings all over the empire). But it’s difficult not to believe that the decoration of (for example) the sixteenth-century Palazzo Grimani in Venice (where Giovanni Grimani, Patriarch of Aquileia, displayed his archaeological collection), with symmetrical displays of classical motifs and an abundance of birds among twisting foliage, doesn’t owe something to the discovery under ground of the surviving walls of Nero’s Golden House in Rome, which were visited by painters including Raphael and Michelangelo.
As for William Morris, I realised after the first flush of enthusiasm that his stylised bird patterns don’t have much in common with these quickly painted, naturalistic little creatures – but a (very large) piece of applied art at Pompeii might show a distant kinship: watch this space!