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The paintings: an ancient showroom

There are reasons to think that at least rooms 16-24 of the Caseggiato dell'Ercole (IV,II,2-4) were a showroom of the Ostian painters. The building was excavated in 1940. Most of the paintings found in the building were taken to the museum and store-rooms. On the page The paintings: notes on the preservation and conservation I have written about the problematic modern history of the paintings from this building and established the following.



Plan of the Caseggiato dell'Ercole. After SO I.

Inspection of the ruins

"Ad ovest del Caseg. dell'Ercole" - "To the west of the Caseggiato dell'Ercole"

The paintings that had been taken from the walls were temporarily stored in the Horrea Epagathiana, where they were photographed by the ICCD in 1958. Many paintings were accompanied by small signs with the place of discovery and inventory number. Unfortunately, many of the signs cannot be read. There is one very confusing description of the place of discovery: "Ad ovest del Caseg. dell'Ercole" ("To the west of the Caseggiato dell'Ercole"). We can read it on the signs on various ICCD photographs of the judicial scenes from room 16, from which we can deduce that what is meant is "from the west part of the Caseggiato dell'Ercole" or "to the west of the Portico dell'Ercole".

In the early 1960's Sala XI, the Hall of the Paintings, was opened in the museum. At about this time many paintings were also stored in store-rooms next to the museum. On photographs we see them on the side walls, and on wooden panels resting on a metal frame in the centre of the rooms. On the side walls irregular areas were demarcated with wooden bars. There can be little doubt that each area contained paintings from a single findspot. Is that also true for the panels in the centre of the rooms?
- One has three fragments from a single building (Caseggiato IV,II,14, near the Caseggiato dell'Ercole).
- Another one has two fragments, one from an unknown building, the other a huge painting from the Caseggiato degli Aurighi.
- A third one has two fragments that are so similar that they presumably come from the same building (apparently Edificio IV,II,7, in the same block as the Caseggiato dell'Ercole).
- A fourth one holds the following fragments:

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". Does it really come from Caseggiato IV,II,5, which is a building to the west of the Caseggiato dell'Ercole? Paintings were found in the east half of IV,II,5 and published by Liedtke. Eight fragments were in a demarcated area on a side-wall of a store-room. I found no traces of the removal of paintings in the west half of the building. The painting of Fortuna has inventory number 10100, whereas the judicial scenes from the Caseggiato dell'Ercole have numbers 10097-10099. Adding all this up (the inventory number, the presence on a panel with fragments from the Caseggiato dell'Ercole, a separate area for the paintings from Caseggiato IV,II,5 and the known confusion about the "area to the west"), it seems fair to assume that the painting was found in the west half of the Caseggiato dell' Ercole. It is also fair to assume that all fragments from the panel come from the Caseggiato dell'Ercole, including the painting of a Genius and snakes (findspot unknown according to the museum guides). And more paintings can hypothetically be assigned to the Caseggiato dell'Ercole.

The showroom

Both the east and west half of the Caseggiato dell'Ercole consist of shops. The presence of all these paintings - with good quality architectural motifs, many deities and judicial scenes - in shops is most surprising. This led me to the conclusion that, in a sense, they do not belong there at all. People would look at them as paintings, regardless of the environment, which was irrelevant. The awkward architectural setting in itself is a clue to the function of the building. The building may well have been a showroom of a painters' workshop. This is also suggested by painted relieving arches in corridor 4, with red paint on the bricks, but also on the mortar, and white paint on the mortar. The paint creates the illusion of very narrow layers of mortar. The illusion of narrow layers of mortar is found in a few other places in Ostia, in shrines and tombs. But there is no reason to create this illusion in a narrow corridor, a simple passage. This may merely have been yet another example of what the painters could do.

It is possible of course that the painters used surrounding buildings as well. Good quality paintings were also found in building IV,II,14, a row of three shops. Building IV,II,5 seems to have been an apartment. Its paintings are characterized by griffins and swans, animals accompanying Apollo (perhaps with a reference to Dionysus; Liedtke 1995, 60). A building that is famous because of its paintings, the Caupona del Pavone (IV,II,6) is also part of the block. The original function of this building is not known. Later an internal bar was installed, which has suggested to some that it had become a hotel. Or was it perhaps the main office of the painters, where more examples of paintings could be seen on the walls and on parchment, and where the business deal was made, while a drink was offered to the customer? The building was named after a small shrine with the depiction of a peacock. The peacock is related to the cult of Dionysus, and a symbol of immortality. I do not know of any parallels for such a reference in private shrines. But it makes sense if we realize that the painters were not only active in the city, but also (and perhaps even more) in tombs. The painters may have felt that they contributed in a significant way to the afterlife of the deceased, by painting in the tombs the works of Hercules, Dionysiac motifs, mythological scenes etcetera. Technical work may also have taken place in the block, such as preparing the plaster and pigments. Here we can think of Edificio IV,II,7, with rooms grouped around a courtyard with a basin, and the rooms to the west of Caseggiato IV,II,5.

The Ostian painters are mentioned in a funeral inscription, and called collegae pingentes (CIL XIV, 4699).


[jthb - 26-Mar-2009]