Wednesday, 28 November 2012

First impressions: ROOM 13

House of Orpheus, room13's roof
Photo by V. Vitale, 2012

This little room has an access on space 16 and a large window on the garden. The room is very well preserved. The delicate decoration on the yellow and black background are still visible and the colours very bright. It is a shame that the room is now used as storage area. The plastic boxes where some finds are kept lean a bit carelessly against the frescoed wall. Moreover, these boxes are likely to become (if not already) the refuge of little animals (with all the unpleasant consequences).

This room was probably a bedroom, with a nice view on the garden (but not on the fresco, obviously).
The remains of a little roof above the window seems to be original. On the windowsill is displayed a stone ball. I do not know if it is ancient (maybe a relic of the Sulla’s civil war?) and if it has been actually found in the house.

The room is covered by a wooden roof reconstructed for display purposes. This  choice might have positively contributed to the good status of the frescoes.  I assume that the modern roof has been built according to the evidence of the ancient one. Even though the restoration can be considered a bit too invasive, I think it can prove its usefulness. According to the tourist I have interviewed and the literature about Pompeii, the absence of the roofs is one of the elements that make difficult (especially for a tourist) to see the Pompeian ruins as actual houses. 

House of Orpheus, threshold and floor
Photo by V. Vitale, 2012
Under this respect the site of Pompeii is quite different from the one in Herculaneum where roofs, doors and windows (often heavily restored) communicate the sense of domestic spaces that used to be lived by people.

The floor of this room shows a nice and well preserved mosaic in opus signinum and white tesserae. The geometric pattern can still be admired, but it has also been documented by Presuhn (who also published a copy of the room wall decorations).
The room has both a marble threshold that suggest the presence of a wooden door and a quite large window (for such a small room) with a pleasant view on the garden.

It is curious that the restored roof covers not only this room in the house of Orpheus but also the contiguous room that belongs to the House of the Scientists. Actually, this external room also shares an other wall with the House of Orpheus, exactly half of the renowned frescoed one. Does it mean that the two Houses used to be arranged differently? May have they been rearranged after the earthquake?

Presuhn's plan. The area in yellow highlights the
relationship between the House of Orpheus and
the House of the Scientists

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

First impressions: ROOM 18 (viridarium)

House of Orpheus, Pompeii
Looking north from the viridarium
Photo by V. Vitale 2012

Unlike other houses in Pompeii, the House of Orpheus has an almost proper perystilium. It was quite common (at least in Pompeii) pretending to have a big and expensive house arranging carefully the elements that people were able to see from the street or from the tablinum. It is not rare in Pompeii to see houses with just two or three columns, but placed in a way to trick the passers by and let them believe that they were looking at an entire colonnade.

It is not the case of the Houseof Orpheus. The owner was rich enough to afford two whole sides of a perystilium. The half colonnade is large enough (7 columns on two sides) to allow visual access to the garden from both the tablinum and the triclinium (that are on the same vertical line). Both the two spaces offer a view on the house’s most precious decoration (straight view from the tablinum, diagonal view from the triclinium).

House of Orpheus
Old undated photograph. Courtesy of Society
 of Antiquaries. Fox Collection
From pompeiiinpictures
The slightly diagonal arrangement of the entrance corridor may seem an oddity until it is not considered as an element of the visual line that passes through the atrium (with the fountain), through the tablinum, the viridarium and ends on the big frescoed wall. The fresco’s decoration with plant, birds and animals was very likely to interact graciously with the real plants (and probably real animals like little birds or butterflies) of the garden. Moreover, the painted water in the landscape was probably interacting, on a echoing game of real and fictional, with the water sprouting from the fountain. 

Today, the trees and the plants (mostly myrtle) grown in the garden make quite difficult to see clearly the architectonical elements in the garden. It seems to be a water feature in opus signinum running around the edge of the viridarium. 

Thursday, 22 November 2012

First impressions: ROOM 10 (+ 5 and 11)

House of Orpheus, looking west from room 10
Photo courtesy of Pompeiiinpictures
This room is very likely to be the triclinium of the house. There are no signs of the three couches that identify that kind of spaces. However, the room has a privileged view on the relatively large garden and colonnade. According to Pompeian conventions, the triclinium was usually arranged to offer the best view that the house could offer. Looking at the plan, the room could appear to be not centred with the garden.

However, we should bare in mind that the best view was a privilege of the main guest. Thus, the best view had to be maximised for the pleasure of the eyes of the main guest. Conventionally, the most important guest seated at the right edge of the central couch. From that position the view falls nicely on the main focus of the front fresco: the scene with Orpheus and the animals.

The room has an elegant marble threshold that still shows the sign of a big door.
In this room are also still visible traces of the wall frescoes. The remains of the vivid colours allow to rebuild, partially, the decorative pattern of the fresco. (Preshun suggests a virtual restoration, but I have no means to assess his reliability). The lower part of the fresco still shows the main lines of delicate figures of birds (Phoenixes?) and plants.

House of Orpheus, room 10 detail
Photo by V. Vitale, 2012
House of Orpheus, room 10 detail
Photo by V. Vitale, 2012

Rooms 5 and 11 are other two very narrow passages, running at the sides of room 10, which is identifiable as the triclinium. At least one of them, if not both, might have been passages for slaves in charge of serving meals to their masters. Passage 5 is connected with both room 10, the atrium (room 1) and the perystilium.

First impressions: ROOM 4 (tablinum)

House of Orpheus,
threshold of room 4 (from atrium)
Photo by V. Vitale 2012
The large and elegant tablinum could be accessed from the atrium (by guestes and clients) and seen from the street (by passers by and neighbours).

The floor was decorated with a black and white mosaic. Unfortunately, it is not entirely visible anymore, so we do not know if there were more elaborate decorations in the middle of it. What can still be seen is the white background and a black double border.

Moreover, the mosaic clearly marks the change of use in the space. Even though there are no (more?) physical doors, a decorated threshold with a geometric pattern (always in b&w) identifies the passage from the atrium to the tablinum. 

House of Orpheus, plan by E. Presuhn
Representation of the view alignement
A similar feature, but with a different pattern, marks the end of the tablinum and the beginning of the garden. The garden itself appears to be not only an autonomous part of the house but also a scenographic background for the tablinum.

According to the conventional disposition of the rooms, the richest and most impressive features were always the most visible for an external (and even and accidental) observer. 
This explains why the tablinum is not at the centre of the house, but  it is visually aligned with the main entrance. The alignment can be more clearly seen on the plan published by Presuhn.

First impressions: ROOM 6

Room 6 is a relatively large room. Like room 3, it has three walls and there is no sign of a shutting door on the fourth one. The floor, that is unfortunately visible only in very small and damage bits almost entirely covered in dirt and pebbles, is very similar to the one in room 3. The similar decoration (cocciopesto with a white pattern) could point at a visual and structural relationship with room 3. However, the two spaces are not geometrically identical (or even remarkably similar). 

House of Orpheus, looking south from room 6
Photo by V. Vitale, 2012
On the contrary, room 6 shows quite a peculiar feature that I was not able to identify and that occupies almost half of the space. A ridge (high roughly 20 cm) goes along the room’s three walls and an additional feature (same hight of the ridge) closes the rectangular shape on the fourth side. 

To me, it looks to big to be a bed and too small to be a triclinium (moreover, room 10 with its view on the garden is much more likely to have been the triclinium). The potential view from the unidentified feature in room 6 is not particularly interesting. It includes part of the fountain, but without its visual interaction with the garden and the colonnade. It makes me think that it was more likely to be something to be seen than an observing point of view.
I have been suggested that it could even been a water feature, but I couldn’t find any actual evidence to support that idea.

In both the maps I have found, the feature is recorded and appears to be evenly vertically divided. However, that division is now no more visible on site. At least not to my archaeological-untrained eye.

First impressions: ROOM 3

On the south side of the atrium, going towards the tablinum, there is room 3. I couldn’t find any sign of the existence of a door (pivots etc...) but, of course, it does not mean that there wasn’t any.
Some bits of the floor made in opus signinum (or cocciopesto) are still visible and they show traces of a nice decorative pattern of white tesserae. There are no windows at all, but the room is open on the atrium. So far, I have no hypotheses about the use of this space. It looks like it is facing a similar one on the other side of the atrium (room 6). Is it possible that the two rooms were functionally or visually related?

First impressions: ROOM 1 (atrium)

House of Orpheus, south wall of the atrium
Photo by V. Vitale 2012

Room one is the big atrium. It gives light to the many rooms around it that often have no windows at all. Its doors appear to be quite tall. They are not very wide (about 115-118 cm) but, in my opinion, they give a sense of elegance end elevation to the all building.
The door on the south side of the atrium appears to be perfectly symmetrical with the door on the north side (entrance to room 7). Moreover it points out the relationship between the House of Orpheus and the little commercial-industrial complex confining with it (VI, 14, 18 and VI, 14, 19). Despite the fact that the relationship between the two spaces looks fairly evident, I haven’t found so far any explicit mention to that in the literature. 

Unlike many other rich houses in Pompeii, the House of Orpheus has no business area in the traditional sense. It looks as if the owner didn’t want to show any explicit connection with the business. On the other hand, the big door leans directly to the commercial area, and part of the house was visible (with the doors open) from the little commercial/industrial complex. 
The high door on the south side of room 1 also suggests the existence of a second door, symmetrical to the other door on the north side of the atrium (entrance to room 8). The former is no more open, but it is easy to see where it used to be. 
So far, I have no means to say if it has been closed before or after the excavation.

First impressions: ROOM 0 (entrance)

The house of Orpheus is presently closed to the public, probably because of the fragility of the surviving frescoes (progressively detaching from the masonry, possibly due to humidity and infiltrations).

House of Orpheus, looking west from the entrance
Photo by M. Amodio, 1850-60. Fratelli Alinari Collection
The house is not huge but still quite big, definitely above the average of a Pompeian dwelling. It is not situated in the very centre of the city but it is still close enough to the latter to be considered the residence of a quite rich family.
It has a relatively wide entrance with a pronounced slope, going up. This is the place where the Mosaic of the Guard  Dog used to be.
It was probably the first thing that visitors and passers by were supposed to see. But I will write more about the mosaic and its context later.
The entrance’s corridor is not straight. This is not strange in Pompeian houses and could be a strategy for the architect to lead the gaze of the observer towards the most important features of the house and to highlight their best qualities.
From the street, the view included the mosaic and, going up, the beautiful and very well preserved impluvium: white marble, a nice ridge, many details, a central hole that suggests a fountain, a marble pedestal that could have held a decorative element or an other water feature (possibly both). Behind the pedestal, there is what looks like a well, also made of elegant white marble
At the back of the water feature, the gaze falls on the large tablinum and the garden. Nicely framed by the entrance to the garden, it is possible to see the famous fresco with Orpheus and the animals. Probably, more than the mythological scene, the observer from the street was invited to look at a combination of real and painted natural elements: plants, birds and the water sources. The decorative element that might have been placed on the pedestal could have been another element of this part real and part illusional scenography.

According to my perception, the architectonical structure looks very harmonic and well balanced.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012


I have taken a first photographic documentation of the site with a small compact camera (Casio 10 Mpx). The quality of the outcome is not refined enough to be used as a source for the model’s texturing. Moreover, the camera only produces valuable pictures when the light conditions are very good. 
However, I am not interested in modelling and texturising the House of Orpheus how it is now (it could be relevant, for example, for conservation purposes). I am more interested in observing the architectonic features and try to understand why the different spaces of the house were organised in a certain way and what possible uses they might have allowed. Thus, my photographs have more a documenting purpose, to help me remember and visualise the characteristics of the different spaces of the house.
If I will need more detailed pictures in a future development of my project I will use a more suitable equipment.

Plan of the House of Orpheus
Courtesy of Pompeiiinpictures
Plan of the House of Orpheus
Emil Preshun

To organise and catalogue my pictures I have used, as a starting point, the numerical naming convention I have found in the map of the house available on the website pompeiinpictures.
As the website states, the map is only a reference to browse the pictures of the online collection. For this reason the map shows few inaccuracies (many rooms have “regularised” shapes, some features are omitted etc...). 
After I had already started my cataloguing, I have found a more detailed plan, published by Emil Preshun in Pompeji. Die Neuesten Ausgrabungen (available on
However, having measured the house on site with an electronic distance measurer (Bosh DLR130) I am thinking of designing a new plan with Adobe Illustrator or, as my supervisor suggested, directly with 3D Studio Max.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Orpheus and the Dog

Mosaic of the Guard Dog.
Pompeii, House of Orpheus VI, 14, 20
From British Museum website

My first idea was to choose the object and the related building to model and unify according to the results of my preliminary interviews. However, being the BM exhibition forthcoming, I could not ask the visitors (or potential visitors) which ones were the most relevant artefacts on display.
I have decided to start from the items highlight on the museum website and, among them, I have focused on the “Mosaic of a Guard Dog” from the House of Vesonius Primus (also known as The House of Orpheus).
My choice was based on the following criteria:
- I have a better knowledge of the Pompeian cityscape than the Herculaneum one. Having a limited time to complete my project, I thought it was more sensible and effective to maximise my previous experiences,
- I wanted to take hard measurements of the chosen building and it was easier for me to receive a permission for Pompeii,
- The artefacts that will be displayed are not yet in the British Museum. It was unlikely to receive special permission from the other Museums to acquire data about the items exhibited in glass cabinets, so I decided to focus on the flat ones that are easy to photograph and document even without special permissions.
- The image of the black dog is one of the most famous and it has been reproduced in  many books, guides and memorabilia.

The characteristics of the Mosaic of the Dog and the House of Orpheus made them the most sensible choice. Furthermore, an other very iconic Pompeian object that will be part of the BM exhibition such as the plaster cast of the agonising dog comes from the same House. Even though it wasn’t possible for me to acquire data about the cast of the unlucky animal, its story can be easily connected to the virtual model.

However, I am not forgetting user’s needs and expectations. I have started conducting unstructured interviews with visitors:
of the sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum
of the National Museum of Naples
of the Virtual Museum of Herculaneum (MAV)

in order to gather the first information about what different audiences think of the ancient remains and what kind of experience, real and virtual, they expect during the visit.