|House of Orpheus|
Mosaic of a Guard Dog (?)
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
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.
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.
|The red leash|
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
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.
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
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
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.