We often think of the Classical world as a monochromatic place. This is partly because ruins and statues from the ancients have, in many cases, come down to us in shades of white and beige, utterly devoid of color. However the false idea of a neutral historical palette influenced centuries of architects and artists, who mistakenly believed that our ancestors lived in whitewashed surroundings, and reinforced this false impression on the public. This is clearly in evidence here in the Nation’s capital, which has two centuries’ worth of neutral-toned monuments, residences, and official buildings designed in a classically-inspired style.
In fact however, our ancestors loved bright colors, and used them on just about everything, including their own homes. If an Ancient Egyptian or Athenian were to turn on HGTV, and see a house flipper painting the interior and exterior walls of a house in whatever shade of gray Restoration Hardware is currently promoting, they would be appalled. In their day, the use of bold color in the home was an indicator of a person’s wealth and status.
With the passage of time, paint eventually fails, if surfaces are not maintained regularly or protected from the elements. Think of your own home, where in as little as a few years you may notice that the exterior paint color has started to fade. So in order to see just how colorful an ancient home would have been, we have to use a combination of research, technology, and imagination.
For the past 16 years, the Swedish Pompeii Project has been analyzing and recording as much data as possible to virtually recreate a single city block in the city of Pompeii, the Roman town that was buried by a massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Contained within this block were luxury homes, gardens, and several shops, including a bakery, a tavern, and a laundry. The juxtaposition of these structures may seem odd today, when we typically zone residential and commercial structures into different areas. However if you visit historic neighborhoods here in the U.S., you will often find luxurious, historic homes located in the same block as small businesses.
As part of the Project, researchers from the Swedish Institute in Rome in collaboration with technical wizards at Lund University have been using a combination of hand-held digital scanners, drone photography, and other resources to come up with a virtual recreation of what the buildings in this city block probably looked like at the time Vesuvius blew its top. If you’ve ever watched the HBO series “Rome”, then these buildings will look somewhat familiar to you. For many however, I suspect that the results will be rather surprising.
The first completed recreation that one can virtually visit is the home of a wealthy Pompeian banker by the name of Caecilius Iucundus, a man who was clearly not afraid of color. The walls of Caecilius’ home office, for example, are covered in mythological scenes set against a blood-red background, while his banqueting room (shown below) is painted a bold, mustard yellow. The central courtyard of his house contained a small reflecting pool, which caught the rainwater from the large opening in the timber-framed ceiling above, and the courtyard itself was surrounded by an inlaid floor, as well as walls covered in colorful frescoes of flowers and birds.
As luxurious as this home appears to be, keep in mind when looking around that Caecilius was not a member of the Roman aristocracy. He had to work for a living, and was possibly a self-made man. Thus, this home of a well-to-do banker, which to modern eyes appears to be rather grand, would have been nothing compared to the even more grandiose homes of the upper classes. Those who lived on inherited wealth and the income from their estates employed people like Caecilius to manage their wealth for them. One can only imagine how boldly colored their homes would have been.
More virtual reconstructions from the Swedish Pompeii project are to be forthcoming, including two other luxury homes located on the same block as Caecilius’ villa. Given what we have already seen, we can reasonably assume that these houses will turn out to be brightly colored and decorated as well. (Personally however, I’m more curious to see what a 1st Century AD laundromat would have looked like.)