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Maritime façades in Roman villa architecture and decoration

Mantha Zarmakoupi

University of Pennsvlvania

This paper examines representations of maritime façades in the sacral-idyllic, or genre, landscape wall paintings featuring in early Roman luxury villas, along with the actual landscapes around the villas as well as contemporary ekphraseis, to address the emblematic character of these representations and tackle the ways in which they contributed to the formulation of Roman ideas of landscape. Whereas the early surviving sacral-idyllic landscapes depicted inland scenes in their majority, from the beginning of the first century CE the bulk of landscape paintings portray the junction of sea and water, featuring villas, beaches, promontories, straits, harbors, and fisheries. The insertion of maritime facades presenting prominent basis villae in the iconographic repertoire of the sacral-idyllic landscapes points to a shift of emphasis in the representation of nature on wall paintings set in domestic settings.  While the paintings portraying inland scenes were popular from about 60 BCE to the end of the first century CE, the littoral scenes gained in importance from the early first century CE, a time of intense construction in the Italian countryside and around the bay of Naples and followed the appearance of many villas with prominent maritime façades featuring harbors, promontories and beach pavilions. I argue that the representations of maritime façades in wall paintings served the cultural phenomenon of Roman luxury villas, as they conveyed the allusion to harbors, promontories and beach pavilions, which in fact had just started being included in the architectural repertoire of such villas – for instance in the Villa dei Papiri.  By examining the distinct layers of meaning and function of landscape, to which these maritime façades make reference, together with the actual harbors, beach pavilions and promontories featuring around villas, this paper will tackle the ways in which Romans articulated their notions of landscape through these representations.

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Herculaneum: Works in Progress

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