Classical Color: Take A Virtual Tour Of A 1st Century AD Roman Villa

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.)

The (Wearable) Gospel Of John

​I have a bit of shameless electronic nepotism for you today, gentle reader, which I hope you will choose to participate in.

If you watch “The Journey Home” on EWTN, you may have seen the recent episode featuring new media producer Seth Paine, or that featuring his wife, artist Michelle Paine. I first met Seth at the Catholic New Media Conference in Atlanta last year, and at first I was quite astounded by his very High Victorian mustache. I later came to appreciate his good humor in singing karaoke in what turned out to be a rather sketchy part of town, with some rather loud people whom he had never met before. (Well okay, the Barrons, Jennifer Willits, and I were rather loud – others were quieter.

As I’ve come to know Seth better, his humor, his love for his family (and for music), his creativity, and his faith have all impressed me a great deal. Seth understands, and is very good at, using new media as a tool for evangelization. So it’s not surprising that his site is called nuCatholic Media.

Unlike in secular media, I can tell you from first-hand experience that there is often very little in the way of financial support out there for creative Catholics in new media who come up with faith-based outreach projects. That being the case, it’s important to help out content producers like Seth with their efforts. To that end, I’m going to quote him here regarding a t-shirt campaign that he’s come up with, where he shares his inspiration from St. John’s Gospel in a wearable way:  

For his master’s thesis, Seth created the beginning of an interactive documentary called Food for the Journey which is focused on the beauty of the sacraments and their role in the Christian life.  As you know, film equipment isn’t cheap, and Seth’s working to not only finish the Food for the Journey project but also do more video shorts with the kind of production quality that reflects his love of the subject matter.

To raise money and do something creative at the same time, he’s designed the shirts you see featured on this page.  The theme of the design is the Gospel of John, with a word cloud of the terms that most commonly occur in that book of the Bible arranged in the shape of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  So when someone looks at your shirt and wonders why some words are bigger than others, that’s your handy explanation.  We think it looks pretty cool and makes for an awesome conversation starter.

The shirt is available for a limited time only, so be sure to grab one now!  John’s Gospel serves as the inspiration for Seth’s Food for the Journey project, as well as some of the other projects he’s planning to tackle if this campaign goes well.  We’d love your support, and your help getting the message of Christ’s love to a world flooded with counterfeit versions of love- please share this page with anyone you know who might be interested in either this shirt or Seth’s projects!

If you’re interested, head on over to the Gospel of John page on Teespring, where the limited edition Gospel of John shirt is available until October 13th. The shirt comes in several styles and colors, for both men and women. There are also a mug and tote bag featuring the same design, and as Christmas approaches, these would make unique gifts that you can’t just order on Amazon or pick up at Walmart.

Thanks in advance for your support, gentle reader, and please be sure to share this with anyone whom you think may be willing to lend a hand!

Dangerous Design: Sonia Rykiel, Victorians, and Burkinis

​As the design world today mourns the loss of iconic French designer Sonia Rykiel, two recent controversies involving what one should be allowed to wear in public make me wonder what she might have made of these stories.

Ms. Rykiel catapulted to fame back in 1963, when Audrey Hepburn sought out her boutique in Paris after seeing one of the designer’s “poor boy” sweaters on the cover of Elle, and bought 5 of them on the spot. She employed a mostly dark palette punctuated by electric colors and designs from the Pop Art movement. She was particularly praised for her knitwear and for the use of unusual textures in her work; I am fortunate enough to have several somber but pleasing ties designed by her house. When it comes to style, you could not get much further away from Ms. Rykiel’s aesthetic than the prim and prudish Victorian era, even though she herself was famous for her almost Pre-Raphaelite auburn hair.

Today however, it is Victorian prudishness which is considered shocking. As this article from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation describes, Washington State couple Gabriel and Sarah Chrisman recently took a trip to Canada to celebrate their 14th wedding anniversary. Mr. and Mrs. Chrisman take the idea of period living far beyond simply putting on old clothes at the weekend for something like a Civil War reenactment, and actually try to live as much a Victorian lifestyle as possible – albeit with a very 21st century divergence, in that they blog about their experiences. Thus, when the couple visited Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia during their vacation, they were unpleasantly surprised to be asked to change clothes or leave, since the park maintains a “no costumes” policy.

Then yesterday, news stories and photographs surfaced from France, in which police officers were shown asking Muslim women who had covered themselves up on the Riviera to remove their Victorian – or perhaps better put, Medieval Revival – coverings or leave the beach. The commentariat went ballistic, as summarized in this opinion piece in the New York Times. There were photographic posts of men in wet suits or nuns in their habits at the seaside, asking what was the difference between the French allowing such garb to be worn at the beach, but not allowing Muslim women in France to cover themselves up in the so-called “burkini” or similar garments.

Being French and a member of the Legion of Honor, I would imagine that Ms. Rykiel would mock the Canadians but side with her own countrymen. The French have a habit of chastising everyone else while making exceptions for themselves. Given how many times their country has been subjected to Islamic terrorism in recent years, there is a tendency even among the left-leaning French to categorize Fundamentalist Islamic forms of dress as an actual public danger, rather than as an expression of modesty.
That being said, a ban on the wearing of costumes in a park seems to me just as untenable as insisting that women remove their clothing at the beach. Do we draw the line of acceptability of either practice at whether the space is publicly or privately owned? Who gets to decide what is a “costume”, or what makes an article of clothing dangerous? I would be curious to read some debate in the comments section.

Sonia Rykiel (1930-2016)