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Spectacle and Society: The Tablinum’s Imagery in the Houses of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Ambra Spinelli

Duke University

This paper investigates the connection between theatrical performances and wall paintings decorating the domestic room known as the tablinum based on a study of 160 atrium houses at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Scholars (e.g., McKay 1975; Richardson 1988; Carandini 1990; Clarke 1991; Dwyer 1991; Pesando 1996; Ellis 2000; Gros 2006; Hodske 2007; Sewell 2010; Jolivet 2011) have usually considered the tablinum to be in the “public” section of the house and linked this room to the formal morning greeting, or salutatio, despite the fact that no ancient literary source mentions the tablinum in connection with this daily ritual. The perception that the tablinum served as the “master’s study” and the emphasis on its “public” nature have not only prevented a fuller discussion of this space but have also conditioned the way in which scholars have interpreted its decoration. For example, the mythological frescoes often found in tablina are frequently discussed in terms of the moral lessons associated with them (Wallace-Hadrill 1996; Trimble 2002; Romizzi 2006; Hodske 2007; Lorenz 2008), while the role played by contemporary spectacles (such as pantomime) and by the social and cultural environment in promoting certain visual tableaux has received less attention.

My project demonstrates that the figurative imagery within this room informs us about a common visual vocabulary shared by different strata of society, reflecting the cultural and local environment and taste in which it circulated. The analysis of wall decorations associated with this room in conjunction with a close study of the full range of archaeological and literary evidence reveals how the tablinum was a highly flexible space, which served for multiple social and familial activities.

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Vesuvius: Texts Objects and Images

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