Friday, 25 January 2013

All about my dog

House of Orpheus
Mosaic of a Guard Dog (?)
I have tried to look at the mosaic with fresh eyes and to gather as much information as possible about it. What are its characteristics? What makes it similar or different from other Pompeian (or Roman) mosaics depicting dogs?
A little warning before we continue: here follows my thoughts about the mosaic and my attempts to imagine its use and context. Although I want to be as accurate as possible, my hypotheses are currently mainly based on direct observation and educated guessing. They definitely need further investigation. 
Let's go back to the dog...
We know for sure that this artefact was not meant to be visible from the street. Nonetheless, it seems to be a communicative object, meant to be seen and to “speak” to his viewers. But what the little black dog was supposed to “say”? If we want to be realistic, the only question I could possibly answer is “what this dog mosaic says to me”.
They say an image worths 10.000 words. I believe it depends from the image and from the words. However, it is indubitably true that images are a synthetic language, able to condensate a lot of information. I’ve tried to unwrap it, focusing on different details. 
I have started with the image per se, detached from the material object that I’m going to examine later. 
The chain holding the guard dog at
the House of P. Proculus, Pompeii

Shape and Dimension: I realised that I tend to call the dog in this mosaic “the little dog”. This is not connected with the actual dimension of the support. I wouldn’t called a st. bernard ‘a little dog’, even if it was a miniature. What gave me the impression that it is a small dog? I am not an expert of canine breeds, especially in the antiquity, but if I look at the Pompeian cave canem mosaic, I would say that the dog looks quite like a big, solid guard dog of the mastiff kind. The one at the Proculus House looks more like a big doberman or a Great Dane. The cute one at the entrance of Caecilius Iucundus House, on the contrary, looks like a greyhound. The dog in the mosaic from the House of Orpheus is less easy to identify. It has pointed ears, pointed muzzle and long tail. I would say it is a middle size dog, maybe an hunting one. Generally speaking, I have the feeling it is less realistic and more ideal-typical than his companions in Pompeii.

Position and Movement: what is the dog doing? Again, Orpheus’ dog is less easy to assess than the other ones. I would say that the position of the body (all the weight on the fore legs, its bottom up, the tail erected) suggests that the dog is either barking or even greetings its owner. The other two mosaics of guard dogs seems to confirm that very scary and dangerous animals do not bark but wait silently and stare at you. I started wondering if this mosaic actually depicts a guard dog after all or if the first archaeologist might have named the artefact slightly inappropriately.

The red leash
worn by
Accessories: the mosaics in the house of the Tragic Poet and the House of Proculus are sort of advertisements. They have to convince visitors that the guard dog is actually strong and possibly cruel. What would serve this purpose better than a chain? The chain says: this dog is so strong that he needs a big chain to hold him.  You should hope it is a very resistant one. The message is quite clear and straightforward.
Orpheus dog hasn’t a chain but a leash, a red one. Small red elements are quite common in b&w Pompeian mosaics. It could be just an aesthetic choice, a pretext to introduce a red touch in the composition. However, it could also be a way to remark that this dog wears a fancy, elegant leash. 
Likewise all the other collars I’ve seen so far in mosaics with domestic dogs, this one is spiked. It was a means to protect the animal from being attacked by other dogs or other animals.

Threatening teeth of the
House of the Tragic Poet's dog
Anatomical features: unlike the other guard dogs, Orpheus’ dog doesn’t show his teeth. It was a very common feature in other mosaics and an easy but effective touch of realism. Thus, I believe their absence is relevant and makes me think even more that this is not exactly a guard dog.
The eyes are red, which is potentially a worrying detail. However, they are not half closed and threatening (like the other two guard dogs mosaics), but big and shut open. We could even say they look like puppy eyes. Definitely not aggressive or ferocious.

 The mosaic
Strongly believing in contextualisation of artefacts, I think it would be quite shallow to look at the image without considering the material characteristics of the object and all the information we have about it.

Dog's stylised teeth
Roman mosaic exhibited
at the Olearie Papali
Position: the fact that the mosaic was not visible from the street seems to suggest, again, that the dog depicted is not a proper guard dog. If it’s function wasn’t to scary possible thieves or trespassers, what was its purpose? Why such a mosaic should be placed on the threshold of a little, exquisite room?
According to my experience of Pompeii and Herculaneum, rooms with mosaics tend to follow rules. When the whole room’s floor is covered by a mosaic, the single figurative image is usually in the middle (often framed) while the rest of the room is in plain colour or simple geometrical pattern.
This dog mosaic breaks the rule. It is a figurative, framed image and it is surrounded by a white background. However, it is not central but it is positioned on the threshold of the room. Unlike other mosaics, it doesn’t mark a new use of space because it overlaps with a material threshold, making the purpose redundant.
It seems to me that the position of the mosaic mirrors the position of the other mosaics with dog but, instead of being on the threshold of the house, it is on the threshold of a single room.
This feeling could be backed up or challenged if we knew the orientation of the dog in its original context. Was the animal facing the exterior or the interior of the room? Unfortunately, we can’t know. 

The half closed, slightly red eyes of
House of Proculus' dog are, probably,
the most scary detail
Dimension: it might not be immediately perceivable looking at digital reproductions of it, but the mosaic is quite small, compared to the other examples. I haven’t measured it, but I have seen the original in the museum of Naples and i would say it is not bigger than 60 cm (roughly squared). It confirmed again that it wouldn’t have worked very well as a sign to be seen from a distance. The other two guard dog mosaics are not only quite wider but definitely much longer (according to the rectangular shape of the houses' entrances). 
If Orpheus’ mosaic was actually meant for other purposes, it is consistent that it has different dimension (and proportions). It looks almost as if it was the miniature version of a proper one. 

Age: according to John Clarke, the black and white very graphic mosaic style was a new fashion in the 1st century AD. This probably discourages the hypothesis of the mosaic coming from a former house and being moved to the new one (with a change of use: from real warning to house decoration). The practice wasn’t uncommon in Pompeii, especially after the earthquake. 

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