Cubiculum (bedroom) from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor, Boscoreale, ca. 50-40 B.C.

The separation between the private and public spheres in Ancient Roman society was not always clearly defined. The Roman atrium house (domus) was both the domestic residence and the center of the owner’s social and economic life1. Certain areas, such as the triclinium, tabulinum and atrium served clear public functions; their decorative programs where thereby largely intended to project an image of the owner’s virtue, wealth and genealogical lineage2. Cubicula however were more undefined in their specific functions and thus interpretation of their decorative programs is somewhat problematic. Cubicula, while often translated as “bedrooms”3, are more accurately simply “small rooms”4. Whether they served as purely private domestic spaces, or held a more public function and to what extent, remains somewhat unclear. The Cubiculum from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor in Boscoreale is a glaring example of this ambiguity. The sheer extant and elaborate nature of the fully encompassing second style frescos seem to suggest an audience, yet the lack of narrative or figuration does not clearly project any particular message. The exact function of the Cubiculum from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor cannot be determined from its decorative program, yet an argument for its more general role as a private space for quiet reflection without an immediate public function can be deduced. Wrapping around all four walls, the illusionistic second style frescos reflect the tradition of the Hellenistic scaenae frontes5, setting an empty stage for the imagination of the viewer. As near
1 2

Dwyer, Eugene. “The Pompeian Atrium Houses in Theory and in Practice,” In Roman Art in Private Sphere, edited by Elaine K. Gazda, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1991), 26-29. 3 Richter, Gisela M. A, “The Boscoreale Frescoes,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 5, no. 2 (1910): 37.
4 5

Dwyer, “Atrium Houses,” 26. Little, A. M. G, “A Roman Sourcebook for the Stage,” American Journal of Archaeology 60, no. 1 (1956): 27-28.


mirror images, the slight variations between the two side walls provide visual interest that encourages the viewer to spend time carefully studying the images. While what the Cubiculum was used for is seemingly elusive, how it was used can be inferred from how the images work shape the experience of the viewer. The decorative program of the Cubiculum from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor clearly defines a private space suited for quiet, prolonged reflection. The Roman home varied significantly from our modern conception of the domestic space. The Roman atrium house, while also a private residence, maintained a significant public function6. It served as the not only as the setting for large banquets, but also for the reception of clients and the arena for ceremonies such as weddings7. The Roman domus, as prescribed by Vitruvius8, consisted of a long rectangular hallway with symmetrically planned out rooms extending from the central axis, culminating in a triclinium9. This is of course an ideal plan that does not reflect the significant amount of individual variation and accommodation found amongst the multitude of villas uncovered in Pompeii and the surrounding areas10. Despite irregularities in these plans, the basic features of the atrium, triclinium, tabulinum and cubicula remain constant. The persistence of these basic features must thereby reflect the continued importance of the functions these spaces encompassed11; the means by which these areas are decorated can therefore be understood in relation to the purposes they served.

6 7 8

Dwyer, “Atrium Houses,” 27. Allison, Penelope M, “Using the Material and Written Sources: Turn of the Millennium Approaches to Roman Domestic Space,” American Journal of Archaeology 105, no. 2 (2001): 183.

Dwyer, “Atrium Houses,” 26. Dwyer, “Atrium Houses,” 26. Dwyer, “Atrium Houses,” 26.

10 11


The center of the Roman domus was the atrium. The large courtyard, served as a testament to the family genealogy. Prominent statues of deceased relatives were not only intended for worship the cult of the ancestors, but as a proud display of the family lineage12. As such, the atrium was not only an area of private devotion for the family, but also as a means to demonstrate the proud genealogical heritage of the patriarch during public ceremonies such as weddings, wherein a new member of the family was essentially inducted into the family13. Decorative motifs employed in the atrium of the Roman domus thereby serve to highlight the perceived dynastic lineage of the family. The triclinium remained an equally constant feature of the Roman domus. Belonging to the upper class of Roman society the triclinium, or formal dining rooms, of these country estates were the site of elegant social gatherings14. Guests were seated on benches which flanked the far wall15. The decorative designs were arranged so as to face the attending guest intending not only project a flattering image of the owner, but also to evoke discussions amongst the educated elite. The Alexander Mosaic, from the House of the Faun is perhaps one of the most impressive surviving examples of triclinium decoration and its function16. The depiction of Alexander the Great would not only serve as a flattering association to the owner of the villa, but as a historical point of reference that would have been known to the elite educated and could serve as the

12 13 14 15 16

Dwyer, “Atrium Houses,” 26-27. Dwyer, “Atrium Houses,” 26-27.

Ramage, Nancy H. and Andrew Ramage, Roman Art, 5th edition, (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, 2009), 106107.


starting point for conversation17. Presumably a copy of a Greek original18, it could thereby also attest to the owner’s intelligence, education and sophisticated taste19. The tabulinum was also a feature of central importance to the public function of the Roman domus. As the home office, or public reception room of the Roman head of household, the tabulinum was the setting for the daily reception of clients, who were often ceremonially initiated, subservient member of the family’s patriarch20. As such, the tabulinum was essentially a showpiece of the political and economic superiority of the patron, and the dependence and loyalty of the client21. Usually located centrally, directly off the central atrium and commonly lifted slightly in elevation, the tabulinum can be seen as a continued expression of the atrium22, furthering the messages of genealogical prominence and flattering associations of the family patriarch. Cubicula compose much of what is leftover in the Roman domus after the atrium, tabulinum and triclinium are established. While again, individual variation in placement, number and size is evident, the ideal plan of the Roman atrium house, presents four small cubicula as offshoots of the atrium, symmetrically planned with two on either side of the central

Bergmann, Bettina, “The Roman House as Memory Theater: The House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii,” The Art Bulletin 76, no. 2 (1994): 225-256. Bergmann provides an interpretation of the role of memory, as an integral part of Roman education, in the intentions of Roman domestic interiors. While she uses the House of the Tragic Poet to illustrate her argument the central theme, being the interpretation of the domestic decorative programs as more than simply isolated illustrations, is relevant to the decorative motifs of other Roman atrium house. The idea that chosen images, such as The Alexander Mosaic would have served several purposes for the elite viewers, not only recalling historical references but also serving as flattering associations to the owner can be inferred based on the general argument she outlines.
18 19 20 21 22

Ramage and Ramage, Roman Art, 107-108. Bergmann, “The Roman House,” 255. Dwyer, “Atrium Houses,” 27-28. Dwyer, “Atrium Houses,” 27-28. Dwyer, “Atrium Houses,” 27.


axis of the domus23. Unlike the tabulinum or the atrium, the cubicula are not thruways, but contained spaces with only one doorway; unlike the triclinium, they also do not require a grand procession though the entirety of the house in order to reach them. This would tend to point to a more private function of the cubicula. Occasionally mistranslated as bedrooms24, the exact function of the cubicula is in reality somewhat less clear25. It is at this point also important to note the transition of these villas between different owners. The Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, wherein we find the Cubiculum which serves as the focus of this paper, was originally belonged to M. Vipsanius Agrippa, a friend and aide to Augustus and his wife, who was the princeps’ daughter26, yet by the time of its preservation in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. had become the property of P. Fannius Synistor. The function of the cubiculum can therefore be interpreted as potentially transitory in nature. In terms of a more modern example, when a house is sold to a new owner, the kitchen may be remodeled an redecorated but will probably continue to function as the kitchen, due to its location, appliances and the previously installed plumbing and electrical accommodations. An upstairs room however, which had previously served as a nursery, may now become a guestroom, a sewing room or a private study, depending on the needs of the new owner. The decorative program of

cubicula, such as that of Villa of P. Fannius Synistor, unlike those seen in the atrium, triclinium or tabulinum, must therefore not be interpreted in terms of a decisive, static function. The wall paintings from the Cubiculum do not reflect a specific purpose, but rather a more general private
23 24 25

Ramage and Ramage, Roman Art, 72. Richter, “The Boscoreale Frescoes,” 37.

Dwyer, “Atrium Houses,” 26. Dwyer briefly describes the cubicula as “used for sleeping or storage” implying a level of unknown, varied and nonspecific function

Knauer, Elfriede R, “Roman Wall Paintings from Boscotrecase: Three Studies in the Relationship between Writing and Painting,” Metropolitan Museum Journal 28 (1993): 13.


function, as the room could very well have at one point served a bedroom, while at another point been used as a study, or simply as an area for storage depending on the needs of the owner. The Cubiculum from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor provides an excellent example of what August Mau categorized as the Second Style of Pompeian wall painting27. Covering the walls from floor to ceiling, the walls are divided into two horizontal registers. The bottom register, significantly smaller than the top register, consists of illusionistic stone work, reflecting the continuation of the earlier first, or masonry, style28. The top registers consist of various outdoor scenes ranging from architectural shrine spaces, cityscapes and less organized landscape scenes as seen on the far wall. The walls are vertically segmented by painted architectural divides in the form of columns that extend from the top registers to the floor. The two long walls are essentially mirror images of each other, reflecting the same basic partitions and scenes with slight variations between the two in terms of details. Noticeably absent are any attempts at human figuration of mythological narrative. As such, despite the extent and lavishness of the décor, the cubiculum program is relatively vague, serving as evidence for the transitory nature of the Cubiculum. The upper panels of the long walls adhere to the conventions of the Second Pompeian Style of the Late Republic. Illusionistic architectural elements not only serve to divide the wall into separate sections, but also to create an expansive sense of depth within the panels themselves. The long walls are mirrors of each other, depicting the same basic views with slight

27 28

Ramage and Ramage, Roman Art, 94-99. Ramage and Ramage, Roman Art, 94.


variations in the details. On each, an enshrined statue of Diana Lucina holding torches29 serves as the main focal point. She stands in an elevated middle ground within a trabeated frame. A courtyard, filled with billowy vegetation is enclosed by a high wall visible in the background. The foreground consists of the actual structure of the shrine itself. Lavishly decorated columns in red and gold give way to a small niche housing two large gold vases and what is presumably a bowl for offerings to the deity30. The red tones of the architectural elements, contrast sharply with the clear blue sky in the background, helping to further emphasize the impression of realistic space established through the use of relative perspective (not quite perfect linear perspective)31. The panels on both sides of the shrine scenes depict cityscapes. While elaborate, these scenes do not reflect the same mastery of focused linear recession. The building appear to show several different views of the various smaller protruding additions32, while the diminutive buildings as a whole seem somewhat out of scale in relation to the shrine scenes to which they are connected. The panels closest to the north wall mimic the shine panels in their basic layout. A foreground is established by eight golden, iconic, fluted columns that create a shallow stage on which a mysterious orb like structure on a pedestal stands. In the middle ground, a rotunda of columns topped by a pointed roof stands elevated on a second story. The courtyard is surrounded on all sides by colonnades set against a pure blue sky. The north wall is somewhat less rigidly symmetrical, probably in large part due to the off center placement of the room’s only window. It is divided into two uneven panels by the same ornate red and gold columns seen in the shrine panels of the long walls. The north wall scenes are somewhat unfocused.

29 30

MET Schefold, Karl, “Origins of Roman Landscape Painting,” The Art Bulletin 42, no. 2 (1960): 93. Ramage and Ramage, Roman Art, 99.



Jagged rocky hillsides recede into the background, establishing a sense of depth, yet fail to provide a clearly established focal point. These vistas can be seen as reflecting the traditions of the Hellenistic scaenae frontes, substantiating Vitruvius’s claims that the Roman painters drew on ancient stock forms of theater scenery33. Remarkably, the collection of vistas from the Cubiculum walls seems to reflect all three major forms of theatrical stages. The architectural settings of the shrine and temple panels adhere to the standards of the tragic setting; the cityscapes reflect the traditions of the comedic setting, and the landscapes of the north wall belonging to the tradition of satirical theatrical backgrounds34. The Cubiculum can thus be further classified as belonging to a Scaenographic Style35 rather than the less descriptive Architectural Second Style. In combining these three forms together, the decorative program of the Cubiculum not only provided a multitude of reference points to Hellenistic past, it also created essentially an ambiguous reading. Depending on the vantage point or mindset of the viewer, the wall paintings could evoke memories of the range of the theatrical, from the comedic, the satiric or the tragic. The indistinctness of the room’s function is thereby reinforced, again attesting to its probable transitory nature. While the intention of the wall paintings in the Cubiculum of P. Fannius Synistor are perhaps intentionally vague, and thus cannot allude to a specific function, they do attest to a general sense of how the room was meant to be experienced. The two side walls at first glance seem to be mere mirror images of each other, reflecting the same basic divisions and vistas. On closer inspection however there are alight variations between the two; this is most evident on the
33 34 35

Little, “A Roman Sourcebook,” 27. Little, “A Roman Sourcebook,” 27-28. Little, “A Roman Sourcebook,” 27-28.


shrine panels. On each, the same basic architectural layout is repeated however, the statue of Diana Lucina holding torches is represented with slight variations between the two. On the left wall she holds the torches upright, while in the right wall she seems to gesture with the torches, as though pointing towards something behind the viewer. This minute discrepancy is without doubt intentional and requires an extended period of time spent comparing the images between the two walls36. This would seem to further indicate that the function of the room, despite being nonspecific, was an area for general prolonged reflection. In other words, the Cubiculum, unlike the atrium was not an area that clearly projected a singular message that could be easily understood in simply by walking through the space. The Cubiculum was a space which s prompted the viewer to stay and reflect37, to become lost in scenes whose meaning was largely determined by what the viewer projected onto to them. The small variations between the two provided a sort of game, a variation of the modern “can you spot the differences?” which compelled the viewer to spend time comparing the details of the reflected images. The wall paintings from the Cubiculum of P. Fannius Synistor must also be understood in terms of their practical function. The introduction of high vaulted ceilings in Roman domestic architecture significantly limited the square footage of contained spaces such as the cubicula38. Having only one doorway and one solitary window on the north wall, the Cubiculum would be somewhat claustrophobic in its dimensions. The expansive vistas of the Second Style wall

36 37 38

Little, A. M. G, “The Formation of a Roman Style in Wall Painting,” American Journal of Archaeology 49, no. 2 (1945): 136.


paintings essentially broke down the physical presence of the walls, allowing for a sense of sprawling space despite the limited area39. As compared to the other standards of the ideal Roman domus, such as the atrium, triclinium, and tabulinum, the cubicula present a somewhat unique problem in terms of understanding the decorative programs employed. It can be deduced that they represent the more private areas of the home, and that their function was probably somewhat unfixed and transitory in nature. As such, in discussing the Cubiculum of P. Fannius Synistor, it would be relatively futile to attempt to define its exact function. The expansive vistas however, do seem to provide a blank stage for the reflections of the viewer. Referencing Hellenistic scaenae frontes traditions for the tragic, the comedic and the satiric, the wall paintings allow not only for a greater sense of open space, but also a multitude of open ended points of reference to guide the musings of the owner. The slight variations between the two long walls provided visual interest that required a prolonged study of the scenes, indicating that the rooms were intended for lengthy reflection rather than a quick viewing. It is not surprising that much less is conclusively known about the function and decorative programs of cubicula; it also not unexpected that a greater amount of variation is seen in their motifs and general styling than other areas of the Roman atrium home. What remains evident, as in the case of P. Fannius Synistor, is that the cubicula represent the more private function of the Roman home, potentially serving several functions depending on the needs of the owner. The decorative motifs, while extensive and elaborate remain intentionally vague, allowing for this transitory nature. The use of the Second Scaenographic Style not only provided the illusion of expanded space in the room, but referenced the Hellenistic past and encouraged the prolonged stay and reflection of the viewer.

Little, “The Formation,” 136.


1. Roman homes as both public and private function 6. Again Roman homes as both public and private function 14. Triclinium as banquet halls, social gatherings 15. Arrangement of benches in triclinium 26. History of ownership for the villa 29. Dinia lucinia holding torches 30. offering bowl for diety 36. difference bt two walls encouraging study 37. differences prompt to stay and reflect


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