The Paintings of Ostia: An Ancient Showroom and Preservation



By Dr. Jan Theo Bakker / 10.11.2008
Professor of Archaeology
Leiden University

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:

  • Meal in honour of the dead (Marucchi 1922, nr. 969; Museo Lateranense; perhaps from tomb 31).
  • Mercurius (Museo Lateranense; perhaps from tomb 31)
  • The ship Isis Giminiana (Marucchi 1922, nr. 969; Sala delle Nozze Aldobrandine; perhaps from tomb 31).
  • Orpheus and Eurydice in the underworld (Helbig 1963, nr. 1156; Marucchi 1922, nr. 954; Vaglieri 1914, p. 117; Museo Lateranense; from tomb 33).
  • Scene from a tragedy (Helbig 1963, nr. 1155; Vaglieri 1914, 117; Marucchi 1922, nr. 956; Museo Lateranense; from the Tomb of the Caecilii, which is perhaps tomb 34).
  • The Rape of Proserpina (Helbig 1963, nr. 1155; Vaglieri 1914, 117; Marucchi 1922, nr. 952; Museo Lateranense; from the Tomb of the Caecilii, which is perhaps tomb 34).
  • Fruit and a bird (Helbig 1963, nr. 1155; Vaglieri 1914, 117; Museo Lateranense; from the Tomb of the Caecilii, which is perhaps tomb 34).

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:

  • The months August (feast of Diana) and September (Vendemia)
  • The months March (Navigium Isidis) and April (birthday of Septimius Severus)

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):

  • Simply leave the paintings on the wall.
  • Protect the paintings with a row of roof tiles or another modern “awning”.
  • Prevent crumbling of the paintings by securing the edges with cement, and sometimes by filling up gaps with plaster or cement.
  • Detach the paintings from the wall, fasten them on a panel, and attach the panel to the same wall using metal hooks. The detaching can be done in three ways. Stacco a massello means that all plaster and the wall behind it is removed. This never happened in Ostia. With the strappo-technique only the thin top layer with the paint is removed. This too was not done in Ostia. Instead the “normal” stacco-technique was used. First the painting is covered with cloth that is attached to the painting with a glue. With knives or saws the edge is created of the part that will be detached. Then a modern panel is set against the cloth. The cloth is wider and higher than the panel and the parts that are sticking out are folded back and nailed to the modern panel. Then the painting, cloth and panel are carefully separated from the wall with long iron bars, a procedure during which the painting may be damaged. In the store rooms most of the ancient plaster behind the paint is removed. The remaining millimeters are then attached to a modern panel, and the cloth is removed.

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.

Sources

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

  • The inventory numbers. When activity focused on one or more buildings in a particular period, we may expect to find a cluster of numbers.
  • The Dutch archaeologist C.C. van Essen walked through Ostia in 1949 and described and mentioned many paintings still in situ. His work was published in 1954 in Dutch and in 1959 in Italian. In the 1980’s I saw his archive at the Dutch Institute in Rome, in several boxes. It included an unpublished description of Ostia, so some more work can be done here.
  • Field work. As we will see, some important clues can be found by inspecting the buildings that once contained paintings.
  • There is of course the photo archive of the Soprintendenza. This is not online and relatively few photographs have been published of paintings in situ that were taken to the store rooms, and of the store rooms themselves. Further work in the archives will hopefully lead to further progress.
  • Then there is the photo collection of the “Istituto Centrale per il Catalogo e la Documentazione” (ICCD). Many photographs of Ostian paintings were taken in 1958. They are all online and have been linked to in the Virtual Museum on the Ostia website. We have been able to improve the meta information considerably, by checking photographs with their descriptions. The ICCD photographs can be found in the Ostia website’s Virtual Museum on the “Floor of the museum buildings” (i.e. photographs of paintings in situ) and in the “Hall of the paintings” (i.e. paintings in the museum and the various store rooms).
  • The museum guides: Helbig 1972, Calza – Floriani Squarciapino 1962 and Floriani Squarciapino 1971. In Helbig the references to ICCD and Soprintendenza photographs (p. 548-552) are very helpful, but not without errors.
  • Several recent publications. Especially important for paintings in the museum and store rooms are Liedtke 1995 and 2003, Mols 1999 (with many references to Soprintendenza and ICCD photographs), and Falzone 2004.
  • Obviously the museum and store rooms in Ostia. But the room of the paintings in the museum (Sala XI) that was opened in the early 1960’s has been closed for a long time, and the paintings in the store rooms are today stacked closely next to each other and are thus basically inaccessible.

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:

  • 124: Male figure with oxen. From the Terme dei Sette Sapienti, room 3, north wall. Helbig 3172; Guida p. 104 nr. 1; Mols 1999, 299 and fig. 60 = SAOA neg. A1892 (in situ).
  • 142: Nilotic scene. From the Porta Laurentina necropis, tomb 17-18. Found in 1935. Helbig 3184. Guida p. 109 nr. 14. Heinzelmann 2000, Abb. 134 (in situ).
  • 155: Male figure sacrificing to Hercules. From the Porta Laurentina necropolis, tomb 27. Found in 1937. Helbig 3182; Guida p. 108 nr. 11.
  • 156: Silvanus. Found in the Sacello del Silvano during the First World War (see above). Helbig 3186; Guida p. 110 nr. 16.
  • 196: Hypnos. From the Porta Laurentina necropolis, tomb 22. Helbig 3185; Guida p. 109 nr.15.

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.

 

Left: The north-west wall of room 18 of the Caseggiato dell’Ercole. Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.
Right: Detail of the same wall. Photograph: Jan Theo Bakker.

 

Left: 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.
Right: 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.

 

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

  • Top left. No ICCD photo.
  • Top right. On E40876.
  • Center left. No ICCD photo
  • Center middle. On E40876.
  • Center right. On E40867.
  • Bottom left. On E40828.
  • Bottom right. On E40867.

Caseggiato IV,II,5

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

  • Top left. Room 7. On E40868.
  • Top right. Room 7. On E40806.
  • Center left. No ICCD photo.
  • Center right. No ICCD photo.
  • Bottom left. Room 6. No ICCD photo. Liedkte 1995, Abb. 5 top left, Abb. 7, Taf. 2b.
  • Bottom middle left. Room 6. On E40804 and E40803.
  • Bottom middle right. Room 6. On E40799.
  • Bottom right. Room 6. No ICCD photo. Liedkte 1995, Abb. 5 top right, Abb. 7.

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.

  • Top left. Caseggiato dell’Ercole, room 16, below left judicial scene. On E40818.
  • Top right. No ICCD photo.
  • Center. Caseggiato dell’Ercole, room 16, below central judicial scene. Upside down.
  • Bottom left (Genius and snakes). On E40800.
  • Bottom middle (a coil of a snake can be seen). This must be inv. 10084 (Helbig 3188; Supplemento alla guida p. 33-34 nr. 2), belonging to the previous fragment. No ICCD photo.
  • Bottom right (Fortuna). On E40764.
  • Below panel. On E40833. Note the curious diagonal lines on the painting.

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.

  • First row, left. No ICCD photo.
  • First row, right. No ICCD photo.
  • Second row, left. No ICCD photo.
  • Second row, right. On E40878.
  • Third row, left. No ICCD photo.
  • Third row, right. No ICCD photo.
  • Fourth row. No ICCD photo.

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:

  • Top left. On E40819.
  • Top right. On E40822.
  • Centre. On E40822 and E40835.
  • Bottom. No ICCD photo.

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:

  • See if enlargements of the ICCD photographs will make more signs readable.
  • Consultation of the photographic archive of the Soprintendenza.
  • Consultation of the Giornale degli Scavi.
  • Take accurate measurements of the fragments in the store rooms for comparison with traces of the removal in various buildings.
  • Further close inspection of the walls of various buildings.

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

  • A painting of three judicial scenes was found in shop 16. It was taken from the wall and the bricks are much damaged by the iron bars that were used to separate it from the wall.
  • The north-west wall of room 18 has many holes, grooves and damaged spots. The 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 ICCD neg. E40825 (lower part; stored in the Horrea Epagathiana), a painting with architectural motifs. It fits well between the little holes. On a small sign on the ICCD photo we can probably read “Caseggiato dell’Ercole”.
  • ICCD neg. E40850 is a photo in situ of a painting with architectural motifs. It is clearly the painting that can still be seen on the north-west wall of room 22 of the Caseggiato dell’Ercole. 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.
  • On the north-east wall of room 22 are traces of the removal of another painting. 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 neg. E40816 (stored in the Horrea Epagathiana). The distinct shape of the upper right part leads to the identification. Comparison of the measurements will clinch it.
  • 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.

“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:

  • A fragment that was originally below a judicial scene in room 16 of the Caseggiato dell’Ercole.
  • A fragment with an unclear representation.
  • A fragment that was originally below a judicial scene in room 16 of the Caseggiato dell’Ercole, but upside down.
  • A Genius and snakes
  • A coil of a snake, belonging to the previous fragment.
  • Fortuna.
  • A painting with curious diagonal lines.

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.

  • A painting with vegetative motifs (also on ICCD neg. E40758) was found in Caseggiato IV,II,5 according to Baccini Leotardi. It is more likely that it is a painting in the Caseggiato dell’Ercole, mentioned by C.C. van Essen. He saw something comparable to a red socle with yellow plants and vases in a bar (which could be room 3, 10 or 13, all bars).
  • A painting of three deities (perhaps Jupiter, Minerva and Mars) was found “to the west of the Caseggiato dell’Ercole”, according to the sign on the ICCD photo.

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).

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