Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 8, 1999
Paul Zanker Pompeii: Public and Private Life Trans Deborah Lucas Schneider Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998. 251 pp.; 11 color ills.; 113 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (0674689666)

A study of any locale rich in buildings and paintings that places buildings in their urban setting and interprets paintings in their architectural settings is always welcome. Pompeii is an obvious place to present in this way, but studies of that intriguing city have seldom risen to the challenge. The task is even harder now since archeological activity there has intensified over the last decade. The first (Italian) edition of this book, which appeared in 1993, was based on three essays, the first one published in 1979. The tensions between older interpretations and newer material are evident throughout the book, tensions the author graciously accentuated by incorporating some recent news and interpretations into footnotes and textual asides that undermine his argument. This translation, based on the 1995 German edition, is usually clear, but it is marked with one major deficiency: the Italian title, Pompei: società immagini urbane e forme dell’abitare, and German one, Pompeji: Stadtbild und Wohngeschmack, accurately indicated the contents while the English title promises more than it delivers. The book’s argument arises from Zanker’s view that Roman domestic architecture best represents Roman society, because it best provided a self-conscious display of the family’s cultural aspirations. To be convincing, that argument must be played off against Pompeii’s urban character. Zanker argues that other ancient societies had provided a political arena within which a person established his self-image and definition. But Romans, from the third century B.C. onward, found their residence to be a better locus for displaying themselves than the Forum was. Wishing to reveal themselves as participants in the current Hellenistic culture, they invented the villa urbana, an environment involving architecture, landscape architecture, painting, sculpture, and cuisine, to portray their understanding of Greek culture. When building, what they could not produce in brick and stucco they provided in paint, so that the richer the family, the more actual and the less fictitious the setting was.

The Romans moved into a Mediterranean city more than half a millennium old, one that had always taken desirable urban and political matter from the Hellenes but that was never a Greek city in any sense of the term. Hellenism was the model, but comparison with Priene shows how superficial and inchoate this Hellenism was. In contrast, in Oscan Pompeii wealth went into dwellings, not into cultural or political structures. The second-century House of the Faun is the largest house known in the Mediterranean world in that period. Cultural sites were sparse with the Forum Triangulare, which captures Hellenistic Greece, placed well away from the central forum where makeshift modifications show only half-hearted interest in Romanization. Still, the Oscan-built basilica is the oldest known example of this characteristic Roman building type. (Zanker thinks it was roofed.) Things changed radically after Sulla founded the Roman colony in 80 B.C. and settled perhaps 2,000 veterans and their dependents there. They expanded cult sites and Romanized existing ones, for example, adding the Temple of Venus and expanding the Forum’s temple to produce the Capitolium. They coarsened culture by building the innovative, and oldest known, amphitheater for gladiatorial contests between men and men and men and animals. They built the “Odion,” which Zanker suggests served as a veterans’ meeting place. Villas appeared outside the walls and villae suburbanae perched atop the walls exploited the views of the Bay of Naples. In another imitation and emulation of Rome, they built extravagant tombs outside the gates. “On all sides,” Zanker reports, “we see the need for exhibition and self-promotion growing, reflected in public statues and private tombs, and by a new taste in domestic decor visible in more modest houses as well as in those of the rich” (p. 77).

Expansion and vacuity marked the Augustan Age. Imitating the magnificence and imperial glorification of the Augustan program in Rome, a marked expansion of this activity touching the entire city sought, as its model did, stability and piety and the restoration of the good old days of the republic. It also reinforced the existing social hierarchy and separation among the classes. Most impressive were expanded temples for Venus and Apollo connected directly with Augustus, the reworked Capitolium linking Pompeii to Rome, and various projects in the Forum where local citizens established their connections with Augustus. Augustan Pompeii, like Rome, went from brick and tufa to marble.

For the next and ultimate period running from the terrible earthquake in 62 A.D. to the fatal eruption in 79 A.D. Zanker presents the older, standard formulation with clarity and grace: Private buildings were rebuilt, luxury facilities were renewed, old baths were restored or enlarged and a new one begun, and so on, while the public cult buildings received little attention, the Forum remained largely ruinous, and the water supply was left broken. But in an addendum to this edition of the book, he acknowledges what he calls the powerful if not yet convincing arguments recently offered by J. J. Dobbins and Kurt Wallat: A major and comprehensive post-earthquake rebuilding campaign based on the latest work in Rome transformed the important, large buildings and faces along the east side of the Forum. (Dobbins’s work is accessible at This period has been misinterpreted, because immediately after the eruption much of the material in place in these restored and rebuilt buildings was looted, a fate also visited on many of the houses.

Whatever the truth of this matter, the book’s larger thesis is a welcome addition to our conceptual understanding, because it argues that a city is a place that conveys meaning by making material the character of a particular political and social regime. Its method for arguing the point, however, is a bit blunt. Zanker catalogues what and when things were built, notes where they were built, and plots this against events in Roman history and similar undertakings in Rome. This gives us an understanding of the townscape as a meaningful collection of buildings, but the character of the whole as an urban entity remains allusive. Lacking is an understanding arising from the intricate connections between the plan and its three-dimensional embodiment, an understanding that would require an even larger net than the one Zanker has cast over this intriguing ancient site.

The second part of the book argues that Hellenistic villas became the models for the settings in which Pompeians, largely after the earthquake, indulged their taste for luxury. Pre-Roman buildings presaged what the Romans amplified in newly built houses along the sea walls rather than in the dense center of city. In that dense area, older buildings were converted into miniature villas, reduced villas, and villa annexes to atrium houses according to that same model. Gardens were essential, and when there was no room or funds for having a large garden or even any at all, painting could produce an acceptable fictitious substitute. Zanker attributes the broad distribution of this “taste” for houses as villas produced through fiction to the aspirations of freedmen who were excluded from participation in politics but could nonetheless emulate the settings in which their betters conducted their lives. In a note he states that the recent evidence and newer interpretations “suggest that Pompeian taste in domestic interiors should be seen as a general phenomenon and not be linked quite so directly with the specific outlook of freedmen” (pp. 222–23).

Zanker’s thesis about taste in domestic settings covers the residences of perhaps a quarter of the Pompeians. One wishes he had also discussed the (shall we call them “tasteless?”) places where the other three-quarters lived. Region VII, the so-called “Altstadt” of older Pompeii studies, is packed with a variety of row houses, industrial buildings, large (old, new, or refurbished?) atrium houses, and commercial facilities that make it unique in the city. Region VI has a solid mass of Samnite atrium houses with few lesser buildings and virtually no commerce. In Region I many blocks are crammed with tiny buildings marking the other extreme of the social scale, while other blocks are devoted to orchards or vineyards equipped with wineries and places to consume their produce. And Region II is an in-town villa district that does receive some of Zanker’s attention. In each Region there is a different relationship of the house to street, and in each there is a different distribution of public buildings and other places of public assemblage.

The two parts of the book, one about townscape, the other about the domestic taste of the elite and those who ape them, never quite come together. Nevertheless, we do get closer to Pompeii as an urban and urbane place. It may be that Zanker sees the city in the way an elite visitor would while others of us would like a more encompassing view. With the rapid pace of new discoveries in that much picked-over city, such a view becomes ever more accessible. Until we have that view, this one will do quite well.

Carroll William Westfall
University of Notre Dame