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Dionysiac frieze, Villa of Mysteries, Pompeii

Dionysian Cult Cycle (?), Villa of Mysteries, before 79 C.E., fresco, Pompeii, Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(music) ("In the Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy) Male: We're outside of the city walls in Pompeii in the Villa of Mysteries. Female: This is called the Villa of Mysteries because of this room that we're looking at. It's a very mysterious room painted with figures engaged in something that we really can't figure out entirely. The frescoes that we're discussing in this room exist in this large villa overlooking the sea, filled with other frescoes from different periods of Roman wall painting. Male: So many of the houses in Pompeii are eclectic in their styles. They incorporate styles from one period, but then a new room perhaps is constructed or renovated and a new style is added, so it's a bit of a mix. Female: Just like you might have a bathroom in your house left over from the 1960s. Male: This villa had one's large windows that looked onto the sea, but if we look toward the sea now, it's actually very distant. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius added a tremendous amount of shore to the coastline and the Villa of Mysteries is now quite a distance from the beach. Female: It's quite a luxurious villa. Roman wall painting is fresco, it's painted directly onto wet plaster. Male: And these are true fresco, or what the Italians call Buon fresco. But the ancient Romans also sometimes added secco fresco to the top. In other words, the underlayer was a mixture of lime plaster that was basically stained with a kind of water color that wouldn't remain on the surface, but would actually stain the full depth of that new plaster. Once that had dried, sometimes finishing touches would be added with what is called secco fresco, or dry fresco. Female: The colors are still very deep. We see reds, greens, purples and blues. Male: These may not have originally been quite as deep when the excavations were first taking place. This particular fresco cycle had oil and wax added to it to help preserve it, but it actually darkened the color. Female: The room is entered through a very small door and it has two windows, so that adds to the sense that this was a room that had a special purpose. Male: There's been a lot of debate about what these figures depict. These are large-scale figures painted on three walls that we think depicts a Dionysian cult ritual. At this time, what we call mystery cults, which were religions that came from the east, were not entirely okay. The state religion was still the only official religion that was allowed. Female: Right. If you were involved in something like a Dionysian cult or another eastern cult, you had to keep it somewhat secret. Let's start by looking at the figures closest to the doorway where one would enter. Male: We see a woman with her hand bent against her hip. She is fully dressed and has an aristocratic air to her. She seems literally to be entering in from the doorway. Female: She wears a veil and pulls the veil down around her shoulder and chest and because of the veil, we think that she is a bride. Male: In fact, we think that this entire ritual that's being rendered on these walls is about mystical marriage to the god Dionysus. Female: He appears on the next wall. Male: Before we get to him, we see a small child, a boy, who's stark naked and seems to be reading intently from a small scroll. We think that this is some sort of liturgy, some sort of ritual. Female: Behind him is a seated female figure, and then next to her, another female figure who seems to be carrying something which we really can't identify. Sometimes figures are grouped together, but then other times, figures are alone and seem to be very much in their own world. Male: There is a sense of continuous space, though, and continuous time. They could be going about their own activities independent of each other. Female: When we look toward the feet of the figures, we see a ground that they're standing on. We have a sense of illusion of space. This division of the wall into horizontal bands and the creation of an illusion of space is part of what we consider second style wall paintings. This is different than the flatness that we saw in the first style. Male: Characteristic of second style wall painting, it is as if the room itself is architecturally extended. It's as if this wall breaks out and there's enough room on a platform for these figures to stand on. But this is unusual in that we have such a dense freeze of figures and at this scale. Female: That's right. In the next scene we see a group of figures around a table who are involved in some kind of ritual it seems, although it's very difficult to identify exactly what. Male: Some art historians have suggested that this is a kind of cleansing ritual. You can kind of see some sort of liquid being poured onto a table top, there's a drape that's being lifted up. The figure who's facing away from us, look at the way that one of her hips pushes over the stool that she sits on. There's a bravura illusionism that's extraordinarily successful, and even though her back is facing towards us, we are engaged with her. We are looking towards that table almost the way that she is. Female: We have a sense of psychology of emotion, of individuality. The seated figure seems to be looking toward a standing, drunken figure who we've identified as a silenus, or a drunken, older, satyr figure. Male: Satyrs hung around with Dionysus and everybody drank a lot, so no surprise there. Female: Yeah, he looks quite tipsy. Next to him are three figures. Male: Most people are struck by the one figure of the three that is standing. She seems shocked. There's a kind of recognition, but also a kind of surprise. Female: And fearfulness. Male: And fearfulness, absolutely. Of course that entire upper body is framed beautifully by that cloak that billows in back of her. It's picked up the wind and look at the way it turns in space, light and shadow are used exquisitely in order to construct that volume in back of her. Female: She moves toward the right, but she looks back to her left, so there's a sense of reacting and moving away. Her left hand, her left forearm is foreshortened. Male: Her expression, looking over to the back wall, bridges that gap as we seamlessly move over the corner of the room without even realizing it. This is really thoughtfully conceived. Female: She seems to be reacting to a mask held up by a figure on the next wall. Male: That's a young figure standing above another silenus. Now we're at the back panel where Dionysus sits and we can see he is absolutely drunk. Female: When we think about Dionysus, we think about unbridled pleasure that's indicated in his body as he lounges across the lap of Ariadne, his mortal lover. Male: He's got his own staff draped over him, but look at the way that the body's beautifully articluated almost completely nude, to his drape is just falling away. But it's the way in which his body's absolutely relaxed. This is not the way the Greeks or the Romans represented their athletes. Female: But we do see often images of Dionysus in this pose; sleeping, dreaming, reclining, drunken, awakening Male: I love the way that Ariadne, a mortal, her hand is over his shoulder. There's a kind of intimacy there. He is enjoying himself. Female: And as we move toward the right, we see a kneeling figure who is unveiling something under a purple cloth that has just been removed from its case that's on the ground. Male: Right. Some would call this a basket of some sort. Art historians have spent a lot of time trying to determine what exactly is there. Many people think it's a fallace. One art historian has suggested it might be a rendering of Mount Vesuvius which is visible from just outside this house. Female: Next to that we have a winged figure who's foreshortened moving towards us, but looking over to her left. She's whipping a figure who's kneeling across the next corner. Male: The winged figure's body has this wonderful torsion as she reaches back in order to really get a good strike with that whip. So just like the back left corner, the artist, whoever it is, and we don't have a name, has been able to bridge that corner seamlessly and we know that the velocity of that whip will move our eye right over to its victim. The woman's back is exposed, her head is down in the lap of a woman who seems to be comforting her. Female: Beside them, another woman who is nude and seems to be dancing. Male: Look at the elegance of this figure and the way that her drape creates a crescent that frames her body just beautifully. Female: We have figures who are in groups together, comforting each other or enacting something together, and then a figure who is isolated or seems to be somewhat separated from that group. Male: The scene is then interrupted by a large window and concludes with three figures on the right. We have a small, angelic figure, a kind of [pootie] that seems to be dancing. Female: And then another figure who's seated, who's doing her hair, being helped by a standing woman. Perhaps she's already gone through the ritual and is a bride of Dionysus or perhaps she's the next initiate, we really don't know. (music) ("In the Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy)