Monday, 28 January 2013

The House of the Two Dogs

Plaster Cast of a Dog (from the House of Orpheus, Pompeii)
Antiquarium of Boscoreale
From the British Museum website
My main question, at this stage, became: what was the purpose of a small, elegant mosaic representing a dog (a pet? a hunting one?) on the threshold of a fine room in a quite big and wealthy Pompeian villa?
I started wandering around the department of Digital Humanities, asking people to help me making hypotheses, even the less likely. I really needed external stimuli. I received very good inputs so far, and I am confident I will receive more. But I will discuss them in another post. 
Here, I want to write about the informative value of relationships. What I am trying to do with this project is showing that you cannot really understand an object unless you put it in its context and consider the relationships with the other elements that interacted with it (animate and inanimate).

I was reading Della Corte’s records when a sentence caught my attention. Describing the House of Orpheus he says that in the Villa there were two dogs: a real one and a portrayed one. 
The latter is our mosaic, the former is the poor dog whose remains have been found during the excavation. The dog was chained so it couldn’t escape the tragedy. It is unlikely that it could have survived in any case, but,  being chained, it met a very dreadful end. The plaster cast of its remains is one of the most iconic images of Pompeii, expressing the despair and anguish that all living creatures must have experienced in that fatal day.
I knew that the plaster cast of the dog was from the House of Orpheus and it was one of the criteria in the choice of my case study. However, della Corte’s words built an immediate and effective relationship between the two entities. I got very interested in the link between the living dog and the artistic one. Did the mosaic mark an area dedicated to the real dog or usually inhabited by it? How my hypotheses on the mosaic dog changed if I imagined a real dog interacting with it? Could room 9 have been a dog’s room?

I became even more convinced that visualising the relationship between the artefact and the building is extremely useful but sometimes is not enough, especially when you are trying to “decipher” an object. 

Herm of Vesonius Primus. From 
Presuhn E., 1878. Pompeji: Die Neuesten 
Ausgrabungen  von 1874 bis 1878
Available at
What do we know about that villa and its inhabitants? The answer to this basic question proved to be very interesting as I realised that we actually have several pieces of information about the House of Orpheus. I divided them into three categories:

1) information still on site
A huge amount of information is, obviously, held by the the building itself. Through the analysis of the remains, and hypotheses developed in virtual environment, we can derive information (and possible interpretation) about shape, light, water features, visibility, accessibility, movement trough space, status of the owner, etc...
But we also have specific artefacts survived such as
the well preserved fresco in room 13
the massive fresco of Orpheus in the garden
the mosaic floor in room 13

2) information held or exhibited in museums
All the artefacts that have been found in the House of Orpheus and moved to a museum, such as
the plaster cast of the dog
the mosaic of the guard dog
the herm of Vesonius Primus and its dedication

3) information survived through documentation
graffiti and inscriptions (recorded by della Corte and Preshun)
mosaic floor of the atrium (recorded by Preshun)
fresco of room 10 (recorded by Preshun)
detail of fresco of room 15 (recorded by Preshun)

I believe that putting all these elements together would enhance the informative value of my 3D model. Furthermore, if the audience could see the relationship between bits of information that are often delivered discontinuously, I believe they would be much more engaged with the understanding of them. In my opinion, it would also help in perceiving again the Pompeian houses as places that used to belong to humans. And animals...

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