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The paintings: notes on the preservation

The 19th century

We hear about Ostian paintings for the first time in the 19th century. Until 1870 Ostia was property of the Vatican, and excavations were carried out under the supervision of the Vatican. Many finds were taken to the Vatican Museums, including seven paintings from the Porta Laurentina necropolis, from three tombs excavated by C.L. Visconti in 1865 (Paschetto 1912, 463 ff., 555). They are:

In an unidentified building ("ben ornata casa"), not far from the necropolis, two fragments were found by C.L. Visconti in 1868 (Paschetto 1912, 559; Helbig 1963, nr. 467; Stern 1974, 1975, 1981). These too were taken to the Vatican (Sala delle Nozze Aldobrandine). They are:

A painting of Silvanus was found in 1870 by P.E. Visconti in the Sacello del Silvano (I,III,2). After the excavation it was covered with earth again, to be re-excavated by G. Calza during the First World War (Paschetto 1912, 559; Bakker 1994, 145).

Other paintings are mentioned without further details: "eleganti pitture" found "in edificio nobilmente arrichito" in 1864, possibly near the Porta Laurentina (Paschetto 1912, 553 nr. 435), and "pitture" that were perhaps found in the Terme di Porta Marina (IV,X,1-2) in 1866 (Paschetto 1912, 557 nr. 4760). In the later 19th century a painting of a mythological scene was taken to the Museo Nazionale Romano. It is not known where in Ostia it was found (Borda 1958, fig. 280; Mielsch 2001, Abb. 185).

The museum

In the years 1865-1868 a museum was built in Ostia, by order of pope Pius IX (on the history of the museum of Ostia see Ietto 1996, 14-23 and Angelucci 2006). It was not a new building, but a facade was added to a much older building known as the Casone del Sale. It is still the museum of Ostia. However, in the 19th century it would not be used as museum, but only as office and store room. In 1870 Ostia became part of the new Italian state. It was now decided that the castle in mediaeval Ostia would be used as Antiquarium, and finds were taken there until 1890. Many objects from Ostia (including the painting with a mythological scene mentioned above) were taken to the Museo Nazionale Romano in Rome, that was inaugurated in 1889. In 1908 Dante Vaglieri became director of the excavations and from now on finds were taken once more to the Antiquarium in the castle. In the 1920's Guido Calza and Italo Gismondi again took up the idea of using the Casone del Sale as museum. It was modified extensively, only the outer wall of the Casone was preserved. The new museum was inaugurated by Mussolini in November 1934. When the museum was opened it does not seem to have contained many paintings. In his museum guide from 1935 Calza mentions only one, a painting of a bird (Calza 1935, 70).

The first half of the 20th century

In the meantime many paintings had been found, especially in the Domus di Giove e Ganimede (I,IV,2), Caseggiato del Termopolio (I,II,5), Caseggiato di Diana (I,III,3-4), and Sacello del Silvano (I,III,2). Most of these are still in situ. In the years 1935-1937 Calza excavated insula III,X, made up of the Caseggiato del Serapide, Terme dei Sette Sapienti and Caseggiato degli Aurighi. The block contained many paintings. Up till 1942 many more paintings were found, especially in the Mitreo delle Pareti Dipinte (III,I,6), Casa delle Volte Dipinte (III,V,1), Case a Giardino (III,IX), Casa delle Pareti Gialle (III,IX,12), Domus delle Muse (III,IX,22), Caseggiato di Annio (III,XIV,4), insula IV,II (including the Caupona del Pavone (IV,II,6)), Domus dell'Aquila (IV,V,8), and Caseggiato del Sole (V,VI,1). But the history of the preservation and conservation of the Ostian paintings during the late 1930's and afterwards is very complicated.

Strategies of the excavators

Four strategies of the excavators for the preservation and conservation can be encountered in Ostia (see also Liedtke 1995, 21-31):

Once the paintings had been detached they could be left in situ or taken to the museum or store rooms. Obviously we would like to know about each painting that is no longer in situ, in which building it was found, in which room and on which wall. But in many cases we do not know this, or have only partial information, or are provided with incorrect information. To some extent this is due to the frantic work in the years 1938-1942, when a large part of Ostia was excavated with only meagre documentation. But also after the Second World War, paintings were often taken to the store rooms without recording their location.


What are our sources for the modern history of the paintings?

Many ICCD photographs of detached paintings were taken when the paintings had been moved to some ancient building, that must be the Horrea Epagathiana (see below, "The work of C.C. van Essen"). When it comes to the store rooms we can distinguish three periods: the use of these Horrea, which was the situation in 1958 (documented by the ICCD); walls and panels in a modern store building (documented on Soprintendenza photographs); the present situation (all the paintings stacked next to each other).

The inventory numbers

The museum guides, describing the paintings in Sala XI (today closed), mention a few paintings with low inventory numbers:

But then, perhaps in the years 1935-1937 (when insula III,X was being excavated), or shortly after the Second World War, a new numbering system was introduced. The lowest inventory number of this series that I am aware of is 10010, a painting of two birds from the Caseggiato degli Aurighi. Above we mentioned a painting from tomb 17-18 in the Porta Laurentina necropolis (inv. 142), found in 1935. Another painting from the same tomb has inv. nr. 10108 (according to Helbig it was found in 1937, but that must be 1934-1935, see Heinzelmann 2000, 227, tomb B1/C1). All paintings with inventory numbers higher than 10010 were taken to the museum and store rooms from this period onwards, either from newly excavated buildings, or from buildings that had been excavated earlier, such as the tombs of the Isola Sacra necropolis.

Below is a list of the known inventory numbers in this high range, of paintings and one wall-mosaic. Note that there are many gaps in the list.

Inventory number Place of discovery Information
10010 Caseggiato degli Aurighi  
10012 ? Unknown Painting with graffito. ICCD E40880.
10013-10017 Caseggiato degli Aurighi  
10026 Isola Sacra necropolis, tomb 88 Deceased on a kline. Wall-mosaic. Helbig 3178.
10033 Isola Sacra necropolis  
10035 Unknown Painting of a sea-dragon. ICCD E40790.
10036-10037 Isola Sacra necropolis  
10040 Terme dei Sette Sapienti  
10041-10044 Isola Sacra necropolis  
10065-10067 Caseggiato IV,II,5  
10069 Caseggiato IV,II,5  
10074-10075 Caseggiato degli Aurighi  
10084 Unknown Painting of a snake. No ICCD photo. Belongs to Inv. 10106 (ICCD E40800), painting of a Genius and snakes.
10085-10087 Domus del Ninfeo  
10088 Caseggiato degli Aurighi  
10091 Isola Sacra necropolis  
10092 "To the west of the Caseggiato dell'Ercole" Painting of three deities, perhaps Jupiter, Minerva and Mars. ICCD E40753.
10093 Horrea dell'Artemide  
10094 Porta Romana necropolis  
10097-10099 Caseggiato dell'Ercole  
10100 "To the west of the Caseggiato dell'Ercole"  
10103 Caseggiato degli Aurighi  
10104 Domus Fulminata  
10105 Caseggiato degli Aurighi  
10106 Unknown Painting of a Genius and two snakes. ICCD E40800. Inv. 10084 belongs to the same painting.
10107 Domus Fulminata  
10108 Porta Laurentina necropolis  
10111 Porta Laurentina necropolis  
10112 Domus dell'Aquila  
10113-10115 Isola Sacra necropolis  
10117-10119 Isola Sacra necropolis  
10122-10126 Isola Sacra necropolis  
10144 Isola Sacra necropolis  
10812-10815 Santuario della Bona Dea (V,X,2)  
10817 Isola Sacra necropolis  

Sometimes activity does indeed seem to have concentrated on specific buildings. The lowest numbers are all from the Caseggiato degli Aurighi. Then there is a series of paintings from the Isola Sacra necropolis, with one painting from the Terme dei Sette Sapienti in between. Next we find small clusters from insula IV,II, the Caseggiato degli Aurighi and the Domus del Ninfeo. These are followed by paintings from various locations: work continued in the Caseggiato degli Aurighi, the Isola Sacra necropolis, and block IV,II, but a few paintings were also taken from the Horrea dell'Artemide, Porta Romana necropolis. Domus Fulminata, Porta Laurentina necropolis, and Domus dell'Aquila. Then there is a long series from the Isola Sacra necropolis. Paintings from the Santuario della Bona Dea in regio V and one tomb on the Isola Sacra have very high inventory numbers.

There are three paintings of which the inventory number is known, but the place of discovery not. Inv. 10012 is particularly interesting because it contains a dated graffito. The number suggests that it comes from the Caseggiato degli Aurighi. Inv. 10035 is a painting of a sea-dragon, that has been dated to the first century AD. The number suggests that it comes from the Isola Sacra necropolis. A painting of a Genius and snakes consists of two fragments, with numbers 10084 and 10106. In this case the numbers do not provide a clue.

The work by C.C. van Essen

As we will see below, important progress can be made in block IV,II, containing the Caseggiato dell'Ercole. Therefore it is particularly interesting to hear what van Essen says about it. He mentions two rooms with paintings that he compares to work in the Terme dei Sette Sapienti: a bar and room 22. He saw something comparable to a red socle with yellow plants and vases in the bar (which could be room 3, 10 or 13, all bars). No further details are provided about the paintings in room 22 ("terza stanza a sin. dell'entrata su via del Pavone") (1959, 168). Paintings are mentioned furthermore in "IV,ii, Via della Caupona del Pavone, negozi su ambedue i lati dell'entrata della caupona" (1959, 175). Paintings with judicial scenes are mentioned in the Portico dell'Ercole, in a retrobottega (1959, 177). As we will see he is referring to room 16. Most interesting is his addition: "ora nella Pinacoteca degli Horrea Epagathiana". On the same page he mentions that paintings from the Casa dell'Ercole Bambino (II,VI,3-4) are in that Pinacoteca. The transferral of a painting from the Domus Fulminata to the Horrea Epagathiana is mentioned by Meiggs (1973, 445 note 2).

The painting of a Genius with snakes (inv. 10084 and 10106) is not mentioned by van Essen, which suggests that it had already been taken to the Pinacoteca.

Field work

While studying the Caseggatio dell'Ercole in 2008, I discovered that clear traces can be found of paintings that were taken to the store rooms. In this building a painting of three judicial scenes was found. A photo of the paintings in situ was published by Pasini (1978, Pl. 59). It was easy to identify the room in which it was found: room 16, a retrobottega (as stated by van Essen). The bricks were much damaged by the iron bars that were used to separate the paintings from the wall.

The judicial scenes in room 16 of the Caseggiato dell'Ercole in situ. Pasini 1978, Pl. 59.

The same walls today. Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

But more progress could me made. The north-west wall of room 18 has many holes, grooves and damaged spots (see the photographs below). There can be little doubt that grooves indicate the edge of a large fragment of a painting that was taken off the wall: cement that had at first been used to secure the painting was hacked away. The grooves coincide with little holes that were meant for metal hooks to support the painting on a new modern panel. A few of these holes are in the centre of the wall, suggesting that two panels were made. In the area demarcated by the grooves the mortar and bricks show many little damaged spots, the result of the use of the iron bars to separate the painting from the wall. A good candidate for the painting to the right can be seen on E40825. It fits well between the little holes.

The north-west wall of room 18 of the Caseggiato dell'Ercole. Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Detail of the same wall. Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

The same wall.
Red: ancient putlog-holes. Blue: grooves. Green: small square or rectangular holes.
Purple: large irregular holes. Yellow: irregular damage of mortar and bricks.
Photograph and colours: Jan Theo Bakker.

A painting on E40825 fits well on the right part of the wall.

On the Floor of the Museum buildings, regio IV, is a photo of a rectangular fragment of a painting in situ: E40850. The ICCD provides no further information, but it is clearly the painting that can still be seen on the north-west wall of room 22 of the Caseggiato dell'Ercole. Architectural motifs can be seen on the ICCD photo. The painting is today almost white. The top was secured with cement. Why a rectangle has been preserved is a mystery to me (were wooden structures around it in antiquity?). But something else is curious. Directly to the left of the painting are holes for modern hooks, to support a modern panel, but there are no such holes to the right, and the painting was never detached from the wall. It seems that the excavators changed their mind. Their first plan was to leave the paintings in the building in the rooms, on modern panels. Then they decided to take them to the store rooms, and the rectangular painting then seems to have been forgotten.

The north-west wall of room 22 of the Caseggiato dell'Ercole. Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

On the north-east wall of room 22 are traces of the removal of another painting (see the photographs below). Again we see grooves and holes for metal hooks. There can be little doubt that the fragment that was removed here is seen on ICCD E40816, in view of the distinct shape of the upper right part. Comparison of the measurements will clinch it. Paintings in this same room are mentioned by van Essen.

The north-east wall of room 22 of the Caseggiato dell'Ercole. Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

The same wall, with grooves (blue) and holes for metal hooks (green). Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

Several walls in the west half of the Caseggiato dell'Ercole show traces, less distinct, that may also be related to the removal of paintings. Further study is required. The same is true for other buildings of course, such as the Caseggiato degli Aurighi.

The photo archive of the ICCD

I will not discuss the countless minor corrections of and additions to the meta data of the ICCD that I was able to make. The photographs in the Hall of the Paintings were taken in the Horrea Epagathiana in 1958. Many are accompanied by a small sign with the inventory number and place of discovery. It is a big frustration that many of these cannot be read, or only partially. Perhaps though the negatives are good enough for enlargements that will make the texts readable. The paintings were later taken to a modern store building near the museum. As we will see below, there they were grouped together according to the place of discovery. This had already been done in the Horrea. On E40768 we see three fragments of the garden paintings from the Domus del Ninfeo grouped together. All four fragments on E40876 come from the Caseggiato degli Aurighi. Idem for the three fragments on E40828 and the two fragments on E40867. On E40754 we see four fragments of the painting with judicial scenes from room 16 in the Caseggiato dell'Ercole. On the other hand, on E40799 and E40803 we see paintings from Caseggiato IV,II,5, above which are paintings with curved bands that cannot be seen on the excavation photographs published by Liedtke (1995). Unfortunately the signs accompanying the latter paintings cannot be read. On E40868 we see two paintings from room 7 in IV,II,5 next to each other. The paintings of E40776 and E40777 are very similar; note the subsequent ICCD numbers. On E40762 we see two paintings from insula IV,II (lower part of deities and vegetative motifs), and a painting that is reported both as coming from insula IV,II and the Horrea dell'Artemide.

The photo archive of the Soprintendenza

A few photographs of an old arrangement of the Ostian store rooms were published by Liedtke (2003): Taf. 23,45 (Sopr. Ostia B1431); Taf. 24,47 (Sopr. Ostia B1434); Taf. 26,50 (Sopr. Ostia B1425); Taf. 31,60 (Sopr. Ostia B1424); Taf. 31,61 (Sopr. Ostia B1435). These may have been taken in the early 1960's, when Sala XI in the museum was opened. Paintings are attached on the side walls, and on wooden panels resting on a metal frame in the centre of the rooms. The frame could move through the room on wheels in rails.

Liedkte 2003, Taf. 23,45.

On 23,45 can be seen that on a side wall irregular areas were demarcated with wooden bars. There can be little doubt that each area contains paintings from a single findspot. In the lower left area is only one painting. This is the painting of fishes from the Terme dei Sette Sapienti on ICCD E40832. The findspot of some of the paintings in the other two areas is known. In the upper left area are paintings from the Caseggiato degli Aurighi, in the upper right area from Caseggiato IV,II,5.

Caseggiato degli Aurighi

We see seven fragments from the Caseggiato degli Aurighi.

Caseggiato IV,II,5

We see eight fragments from Caseggiato IV,II,5.

Liedkte 2003, Taf. 24,47.

On 24,47 we see a wooden panel in the centre of the same room (there is no photo of the other side of this panel). To the left we see the paintings from Caseggiato IV,II,5 that were listed above. This is a very important panel for the spindspots in IV,II, if we may assume that all paintings on this panel come from the same building.

The painting of Fortuna was found in Caseggiato IV,II,5 according to the Supplemento alla guida. The sign on the ICCD photo seems to say "Reg. IV, Is. II. Ad ovest del Caseg. dell'Ercole". We know however that the designation "to the west of the Caseggiato dell'Ercole" has been used in error. We can read it on the signs on various ICCD photographs of the judicial scenes from room 16, but what is meant is "from the west part of the Caseggiato dell'Ercole" or "to the west of the Portico dell'Ercole". I believe that all fragments from this panel come from the Caseggiato dell'Ercole (see below).

To the right of the wooden panel we see the large fragment (E40816) that comes from room 22 in the Caseggiato dell'Ercole, where traces of the removal can still be seen. To the right of that we see the left part of a smaller fragment, probably the lower fragment on E40825. On the sign on the ICCD photo we can probably read "Caseggiato dell'Ercole".

Liedkte 2003, Taf. 26,50.

The next photo is 26,50. We see a wooden panel with three fragments from Caseggiato IV,II,14 (there is no photo of the other side of the panel). The two large ones can be seen on E40793, E40817, E40821, and E40869. To the right of the panel seven fragments can be seen.

Liedkte 2003, Taf. 31,60.

Next comes 31,60. On a wooden panel we see a painting of a griffin and two birds that was found in the Caseggiato degli Aurighi. It can be seen on E40809, E40810, and E40808. Below it is a painting that may, because of this display, come from the same building. It can be seen on E40815. On the right wall are two huge fragments, that can be seen on E40831 and E40871. On the left wall we see four fragments:

Liedkte 2003, Taf. 31,61.

The last photo is 31,61. On a wooden panel we see two paintings of male figures that can be seen on E40776 and E40777. On the sign on the latter photograph we can probably read "ad ovest della Caupona del Pavone" (IV,II,6), which suggests that the fragments are from Edificio IV,II,7. The paintings on the walls to the left and right have been described above (from room 22 in the Caseggiato dell'Ercole and from Caseggiato IV,II,5).

The paintings from regio IV, insula II

A first inspection of the walls of the Caseggiato dell'Ercole and Caseggiato IV,II,5 (April-May 2008) has suggested that many paintings were taken from the former building, not from a building "to the west" of it, i.e. not from IV,II,5. The confusion here allows us to assign yet another painting to the Caseggiato dell'Ercole. It is a painting with vegetative motifs on E40758 that was found in Caseggiato IV,II,5 according to Baccini Leotardi (1978, Tav. XIII). It is much more likely that it is the painting in a bar in the Caseggiato dell'Ercole, mentioned by C.C. van Essen (1959, 168).

The quality of all these paintings and especially the topics (judicial scenes, deities) are surprising in the rows of shops that constitute the ground floor of the Caseggiato dell'Ercole. I believe that this may have been a showroom of the painters of Ostia. Shops IV,II,14 may also have belonged to it. And it could well be that Caseggiato IV,II,5 and the Caupona del Pavone (IV,II,6) are related. That hypothesis is investigated here.

Future research

Future research may include the following activities:

[jthb - 11-Oct-2008]