Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Villa of Crossed Destinies

Gladiator Fight during a Meal at Pompeii, 1880, Francesco Netti
from Getty Museum website
We used the space syntax analysis software to investigate accessibility and visibility of space. We also tested from which points of the villa it was easy to see the mosaic and what areas of the villa were visible standing on the mosaic. But I’ll publish some screen shots and notes on that in another post.

I stared at the plan and went through my photographic documentation, trying to image that House, in the past. The little beautiful mosaic on the threshold of the fine room. Why? Why the mosaic was there and not in any other place of the villa? What was its purpose? The truth is that we don’t know.
But is that really a problem for the audience?

Many professionals in museum and site management seem to believe that visitors couldn’t cope with uncertainty. Maybe they feel it would undermine the authority of the museum or cultural institution. I don’t think so.
Let me use an example to make this point clearer. In her popular book about Pompeii, Mary Beard complains about a famous Pompeian “fact” that I have actually found in more than one touristic guide. The anecdote is that the body of a very wealthy woman, wearing fine cloths and expensive jewellery was found in the Gladiators barracks, close to the body of a handsome fighter. It is easy to join the dots and put together a steamy story about luxurious ladies visiting their secret lovers: fearless men who faced death everyday but, apparently, were also very keen on enjoying life. The catastrophe of the Vesusius caught them in the middle of a passionate meeting. To me, it sounds like something between a Hollywood peplum and a Barbara Cartland novel. However, the story per se is quite effective and often makes the tourists smile.
Unfortunately, the story in not true. Or, at least, not complete. None of the books citing (or just repeating) the  story says that, in the same barracks, other 18 bodies have been found. This information changes the scenario completely. Assuming that they were not a club of voyeurs, it is more likely that, during the scary and confusing events of that day, people of different social status sought shelter in the same place. We could even add that she was wearing so many jewels not to impress her lover but because, as many other inhabitants of Pompeii, she was trying to flee carrying on her body at least her most valuable goods.
But this is just another hypothesis. Perhaps more grounded than the other one. What is certain is that we don’t know.

The Castle of Crossed Destiny,
Cover of the first edition
I believe that the possibility to imagine one (or more) hypothetical story, starting from the historical and archaeological information available, can be seen as an interesting task and not a limitation by the audience. As a visitor, I wouldn’t like to listen to a ready made story that is presented as “a fact” while not only it is just an interpretation but is also based on a (non declared) selection of the available information.

According to many scholars in Museums Studies and Public Archaeology (such as Witcomb, Parry and Copeland), the best way to engage the audience is to involve them in the production of meaning. Of course members of the public are not archaeologists or classicists. But if they knew what was found in an ancient place, let’s say a house or a cubiculum in the barracks, they could apply what Merriman  calls ‘informed imagination’. They can’t develop scientific interpretation. But, for sure, they can imagine stories starting from the pieces of information they have received.

That’s what I wanted to do with the dog mosaic.
When I was trying to explain my idea to my supervisor, I told him something like: “Imagine each bit of information we have about the House of Orpheus is a card. You have multiple combinations available, you have multiple potential stories.” While I was speaking, I visualised the pages of a book by one of my favourite Italian writers, Italo Calvino. The book is called The castle of Crossed Destinies and it’s part a collection of short stories, part a mind blowing essay on semiotics. A group of travellers are gathered together but, for a mysterious reason, they cannot talk. The only means they have to communicate (and entertain each other) is using a deck of Tarots to build their stories visually. 
One of the interesting aspects is that each card is used more than one time and with different connotations.

Let’s go back to the House of Orpheus.
If we consider, for example: 
the small mosaic with the dog, 
the fact that the dog does not look like a guard dog but more like a pet, 
the fact that room 9 is exquisitely decorated, 
the fact that Vesonius Primus had his garden decorated with a large fresco with Orpheus and the animals, 
the fact that he received an herm from his workers as a sign of gratitude 
we could say that Vesonius was a gentle hearted person who treated his workers and slaves fairly. He also loved poetry and nature (like Orpheus), especially animals. So much so, that he was very fond of his dog and dedicated an entire room of his house to it. When he left the House to save his life, a major cause prevented him from freeing the dog, who met a sad end. 

The Castle of Crossed Destinies
Or we start from the fact that Vesonius received a herm from his workers and change completely its connotation, connecting it differently to the other bits of information we have.
We could think that Vesonius was a mean and tyrannic master. Not only he made almost impossible for his slaves to buy their freedom but also obliged them to spend a lot of money in a “spontaneous” gift of gratitude. The dedication of the herm should be read, in this case, as slightly ironic in spite of its respectful words. Perhaps Vesonius loved his dog more than his human workers (it wouldn’t be that strange for an ancient Roman) and the dog was indeed very much hated in the house as he received better care, food and shelter than many people there.
Maybe when Vesonius left the house he put one of his slave in charge of protecting it from thieves but the slave, understood the situation, escaped leaving the dog at guard of the house. With not a lot of regrets.

Combinations are almost endless. There isn’t one that is more correct than another. Probably none of them would be “what actually happened”. But that is not the point. I believe that trying to build a story is an effective way to invite the public to gather as much information as they can, to put things in context, to empathise with the people that used to live in ancient cities, to understand better what studying the past means.

By the way, we started feeling sorry for the poor dog that dies at the end of each of these stories. So we gave him a name: is called Morty :-)

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