The pictorial ensemble from room E in the House of Jason in Pompeii (IX 5,18–21; see Fig. 1) has long been at the forefront of scholarly discussions about both the reception of Ovid’s work in the early imperial period and the relationship between Roman painting and architecture (see, e.g., Zevi, Bergmann, Newby). Dated to ca. 10–20 C.E., the frescoes from room E depict three well-known heroines from myth who also appear as “authors” in Ovid’s collection of fictive amatory epistles: Medea, Phaedra, and Helen (Figs. 2–4). The attested popularity of Ovid’s poems in Pompeii, and the Heroides in particular, suggests that these wall paintings ought to be understood as a self-consciously elegiac, Ovidian ensemble (Colpo, Swetnam-Burland, Valladares). But more than mere illustrations of well-known poems, these paintings also allude to Ovid’s work to create an immersive environment that, very much like the Heroides themselves, calls attention to the viewer’s own physical and intellectual engagement with the depicted narratives.
The parallels between the paintings from room E and Ovid’s poems can be seen as operating in three different, yet related ways: their overall conceptual framework; a number of specific references to Ovid’s verses; and a deliberate emphasis on the acts of reading and writing that highlight the materiality of the poems and the paintings themselves. For instance, in all three paintings, Medea, Phaedra, and Helen are shown in contemplative poses in domestic spaces that resemble a theatrical stage. These pregnant moments (Bergmann), in which the heroines’ actions are suspended, invite the viewer to retrace mentally all that has taken place before the depicted scenes and all that will still unfold. In doing so, these compositions, like Ovid’s Heroides, draw attention to the middle of each heroine’s story (Fulkerson, Spentzou), turning the spectator into a witness to their most intimate, private dramas. At the same time, several details in these frescoes seem to point to specific passages in Ovid’s poems: not only does Medea’s younger son rush to call her attention (Fig. 2) in a gesture that evokes Heroides 12.150 (Vout), but Helen’s pensive gaze (Fig. 3) is directed both at Paris and at Medea in the adjoining wall—a pictorial connection that recalls Helen’s own mention of Medea in Heroides 17.229–35. Last but not least, Phaedra’s writing tablet (Fig. 4) calls attention to the acts of writing and reading that are a recurring topos in Ovid’s fictional letters, and an essential part of this heroine’s tragic undoing. But Phaedra’s tabula, on which she inscribes her lethal letter to Hippolytus, is also a reference to the art of painting, i.e., to the encaustic panels that served as models for Roman frescoes. Like Phaedra’s letter (as it is envisioned in this composition), these panels would have consisted of a wooden surface covered in wax, bearing signs to be visually decoded by her addressee. Thus viewing and reading, painting and writing were set forth as analogous activities within the context of this room, inviting spectators to create new narratives that both recalled and transcended Ovid’s version of these stories.
Figure 2 Figure 3
Ovid and the Constructed Visual Environment