Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Frescoes in the Dovecote

One night at a dinner just after we first arrived in Roma - almost four years ago now - the conversation turned to Museums and which was the favourite. Without missing a beat my friend Joe recommended the Massimo and that was quickly seconded by three other people at the table. And it is a view I have came to share; last week was my umpteenth visit to the former Jesuit Seminary, just across from Termini Railway Station, that houses the sculpture, fresco and coin collection of the National Museum of Roma. The entire collection is spread over three sites and is one of the more important in Roma. It also holds one of my favourite pieces of Roman art the Boxer.

The jewel of the fresco collection is the dining room from the Villa of Livia, the beautifully preserved testament to the art of the Augustan Age. But equally fascinating are the stucco work and frescoes from the Villa Farnesina that have been newly displayed in celebration of the Museum's 10th anniversary. But for me the most delightful set of frescoes is the recently added fragments from a 1st century columbarium relocated from their original site in Villa Doria Pamphili, Rome's largest park.

This first-century columbarium, or burial chamber for cinerary urns, was excavated between 1838 and 1922 in the park lands surrounding Villa Doria Pamphili. The photo shows the frescoes and niches as they were in situa during the period of excavations. Many of the fragments have been moved to the Museo Massimo
Given its function the term "columbarium" is rather whimsical and speaks more to design than function. When excavations were made in the 1840s the resemblance to the tiered niches of dovecotes was noted - columba being the Latin for dove - and the name stuck. The structures themselves were designed for the storage of funeral urns - cremation being the norm in Rome of the time - and to maximize space in a crowded urban area. Burials of any sort were not allowed within the walls of ancient Rome so catacombs, cemeteries and columbaria were located in areas surrounding the city or across the Tevere. St Peter's is built on the site of a cemetery that can still be visited - three levels below the current church; beyond the walls of the city the lava rock landscape is riddled with catacombs that make modern building excavation both risky and problematic. Various columbaria around the city have been found and excavated but very few are open to the public for viewing so the transfer of these fragments to the Massimo gives the opportunity to see a type of Roman art not often available.

Often the scenes were simply those of the life left behind and that continued on amongst the living - a hilltop picnic, a farm yard or an idyllic market scene. Perhaps the scenes held a significance for the family that owned the niches or those who were members of the burial society that is lost to us today.
The columbaria were funded by collegia or funeral societies - a common practice in Italy to this day - the not inexpensive costs of construction and decoration being shared by members. A monthly payment ensured that those in good standing would receive a proper and respectful burial with all the required rites. The structures were simple tiers of niches but the walls were adorned with brightly coloured, simple - and quickly sketched - scenes of daily life, animals, birds and the legends of mythology.

Birds were a favourite subject in frescoes, both in homes and burial chambers; perhaps it is the idea of the freedom of flight being analogous with release from the body. Or more likely the desire to bring the outdoors in - as with Livia's garden dining room.

There were as many beliefs about the afterlife in Rome as there were religions - and there were many of both! The general feeling was that the dead, living in their tombs, could in some undefined way influence the fortunes of the living. So it was deemed wise to err on the side of generosity in the way of gifts and offerings to the deceased - just in case. Celebrations and feasts in the tombs, cemeteries, columbaria and catacombs were frequent and often very elaborate. In many ways akin to today's observances on All Souls' Day.

The Trials of Hercules seemed to be greatly favoured as a subject - despite what that dreadful 60s cartoon series may have suggested the hero was no great friends of centaurs - in fact in the top fresco he does combat with Acheloos for the hand of Deianira. The second fresco would seem to indicate that the man with the bow and arrow has Minevra on his side guiding his hand.
Cremation was the chief burial rite until the mid-3rd century when inhumation became more common. The dead were cremated on a pyre and often personal belongings were burned with them. The ashes were then placed in a container - often an urn but cloth bags, gold caskets and marble chests were also commonly used. Each container had it own nidus or "pigeon hole" with an inscription naming the person and occasionally their achievements.

These little satyrs are obviously ignoring any warning they might have been given by their mothers about not teasing the animals. And it could just be me but at least the one taunting the hippo reminds me of the old Monty Python taunt: I fart in your general direction!

Roman frescoes have come down to us in relatively good condition, the colours often still vibrant, the shading subtle and the details crisp. This can be attributed to the method of painting employed: Buon fresco or real fresco. It accounts for the simple - almost cartoon like - deft strokes of the brush as the artist raced against time to finish before the lime plaster dried.

Water colours painted quickly into the drying layer of plaster required a deft hand in a bit of a race against time. I am constantly surprised at the small details and shadings in something like the simplest bunch of grapes or figs.

16marzo - Sant'Eusebio
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David said...

Crikey - must go back and see those. Every bit as fascinating as the frescoed garden of 'Livia's Villa'. Thanks so much for the detail as ever.

yvette said...

Lucky you! And before you leave Rome, say hello to Antinoüs for me, he's still picking grapes, and his delicate dog is sharing this peaceful rite.. Thank you for these beauties, I have to come back to Rome soon..Your sweet description makes a change from this terrible 'aujourd'hui'...

Buy Final Fantasy XIV Gil said...

say hello to Antinoüs for me, he's still choosing vineyard, and his sensitive dog is discussing this relaxing ceremony.. Thank you for these ladies, I have to come returning to