Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Mario Grimaldi (ed.), Pompei. La Casa di Marco Fabio Rufo. Collana Pompei, vol. 2. Naples: Valtrend, 2014. Pp. 398. ISBN 9788888623788. €170.00.

Reviewed by John R. Clarke, University of Texas at Austin (

Version at BMCR home site

Whereas the first volume in this series 1 concerned the decorative apparatus of the eight houses belonging to the Insula Occidentalis, this volume presents the rich results of the excavation of the garden in the most important of these buildings, the House of Marcus Fabius Rufus (Regio VII, 16, 22), carried out between 2004 and 2013 under the aegis of the Università degli Studi Suor Orsola Benicasa. The director of the project, M. Grimaldi, far from restricting himself to the presentation of the finds and their stratigraphy, has taken a global approach that adds significantly to our understanding of the city's urban grid, its defenses, and the succession of changes to this important property as it went from being a city wall to a luxurious multistoried urban villa—one of the Hanghäuser first defined by Noack and Lehmann in their study of Regio VIII. 2

In chapter one, Grimaldi is able to demonstrate how in the earliest periods the volcanic spur may have been a quarry for building materials, with the creation of a system of channels for the drainage of water from the city above and the establishment of the foundations for the Samnite-period walls.

With the arrival of the Sullan colonizers after Pompeii's defeat in the social wars (80 B.C.), we find two important changes: the elaboration, in the area at the base of the walls, of a public system for handling water drainage from the city, and the construction of houses on the walls, dated by remains of murals in the Second Style.

Although Bourbon excavations had partially explored and removed paintings from the houses at the street level (piano terra), the first and second stories below street level (primo/secondo piano sottostante) remained unexplored. Amedeo Maiuri began the excavation of the House of Fabius Rufus in the 1950s, as part of his grand project to reveal the walls of Pompeii, buried under two centuries of excavation debris. The excavation and reconstruction of this house and its neighbors were completed in the late sixties under Alfonso De Franciscis; these houses have never been open to the public. The remains of the magnificent spaces of the largest of these, the House of Fabius Rufus, underscore the deep investment of elites of the Julio-Claudian period in owning multistoried view-villas built upon the former defensive walls, a practice documented also at Herculaneum. This period saw the privatization of the area at the base of the walls, perhaps part of the pomerium, to create porticoes, nymphaea, and gardens. After the earthquakes of 62 and later, the elite owners of this house, like its neighbors (most notably the so-called Villa Imperiale), abandoned it, a process amply demonstrated by the stripping of marble revetments. The final owner, identified by a seal ring, was Marcus Fabius Rufus, probably a member of the emerging non-elites. It is he who refashioned the expropriated pomerium into the garden excavated by Grimaldi's team.

One of the most noteworthy discoveries of Grimaldi's research is the identification of the remains of the long-sought city gate, the Porta Occidentalis, corresponding to the western extremity of the upper decumanus (the via di Nola). On the basis of the Samnite-period eituns inscriptions, created to direct soldiers to key defensive positions along the city walls, as well as analysis of the remains of a series of stairs, ramps, and a barrel-vaulted arch partially visible within the fabric of the House of Fabius Rufus, Grimaldi has reconstructed the access to the western terminus of the via di Nola (20-25).

In his synthesis of new information coming from the excavation of the garden, Grimaldi details the phases of the city wall in the neighborhood of the House of Fabius Rufus and beneath it. He attributes the system of tubs and cisterns (end of the first century BCE-beginning of the first century CE) to the public use of the area beyond the house to handle drainage from the streets above (38, fig. 40; pls. 14, 15). Similar cisterns lie beneath the other houses of the Insula Occidentalis. The materials found in the several strata point to an earlier phase and a public building, likely a sanctuary outside the walls dating to the third or second century BCE (40).

Grimaldi provides several addenda and emendations to his discussion of the decorative apparatus of the entire house that appears in Volume 1 of the series. 3 Changes in decorative systems provide the clearest evidence that the House of Fabius Rufus developed its lower levels between 80 and 30 BCE. Little remains of the Second Style walls of this period, where on the ground floor workers raised the pavement level by one meter, obliterating the Second-Style decoration and replacing it with decoration of the Early Third Style (Candelabra Style, 20-1 BCE). Accompanying the most ambitious spatial remodeling in the period of the early Fourth Style (45-62 CE) were walls constructed in opus reticulatum in yellow tufa and pavements in opus sectile. In this period an owner commissioned the conservation of the elegant Second Style cubiculum 71. The original east wall had to be abandoned, presumably because of water infiltration. He had a second wall built in front of it, and commissioned an artist to create an imitation Second Style scheme to fit (fig. 37).

The abovementioned earthquakes caused significant damage that required repair of wall paintings (carried out by the Workshop of the House of the Vettii 4). For oecus 62, the most important space of the first subterranean floor, Grimaldi provides photographs that document the cuts visible around the edges of the original central pictures in the early Fourth Style. He explains how the wall-painters preserved them even while covering the repairs in opus mixtum with a new, black-ground decoration dating to the late Fourth Style.

Chapter two (45-71) provides a brief interpretation of the five trenches opened by Grimaldi and his team, where five stratigraphic phases can be documented: Phase I: 77-79 CE; Phase II: 62-77 CE; Phase III: 40-62 CE; Phase IV: beginning of first century BCE-40 CE; Phase V: third century BCE-beginning of first century BCE. The evidence for Phase V seems to be the slightest, since it is documented only in trenches 2 and 3.

Following these two interpretative chapters is chapter three, "The Materials" (73-310), consisting of twenty-eight catalogues detailing the materials found in the excavation, authored by sixteen individuals. A listing of their subjects will serve both to demonstrate the richness of the deposits and to alert specialists about the new information provided on various topics: pre-Roman architectural terracottas; Roman architectural terracottas; decorated plaster (representing all four styles); tessellated mosaics (including a fragment with a sinopia); marbles; coins; bronzes; worked bone and ivory. Ceramics by type include Attic; bucchero; Italiote; miniature vessels; black gloss ware; red gloss ware, thin-walled; Hellenistic relief (Italo-Megarian); Iberian; mold-made; and terra sigillata. Special shapes include: unguentaria; thymiateria; incense burners; and loutheria. Amphorae, mostly fragmentary, provide a number of stamps and tituli picti (241-250). Lamps include 41 examples attributed to the Hellenistic-Roman period and belonging to Phase I; more than 900 fragments dating to the later phases were found ( 11 identifiable types, 277-286). Objects associated with women's work include mortars and loom weights. Numerous fragments of clay statuettes, seemingly cultic in purpose, were found in strata belonging to Phase V. A. Russo proposes that they furnish further evidence for the existence of an early sanctuary in this extra-mural area (182).

The final chapter, "Interdisciplinary Studies," focuses on the various strategies for documenting and conserving the House of Fabius Rufus. A. Capurso provides an invaluable history of the vicissitudes of its excavation and physical reconstruction. It is a checkered history, not least because the atrium, partially excavated in 1759, was subsequently filled in to become a roadway for the carts carrying excavation refuse to the dump created over the walls. Even after Maiuri cleared this dump in the sixties, there was no systematic study of the house, now reconstructed in reinforced concrete. It was only in the last two decades that scholars identified the House of Fabius Rufus as a residential entity (313-318). Considering the instability of the now-decaying reinforced concrete restoration (a problem endemic to twentieth-century reconstructions throughout the Vesuvian area), the efforts to document the actual state of the house employing true orthophotography (S. Tilia: 319-325), laser scanning (327-334), and 3d modeling (335-338) become all the more important. Tilia's account demonstrates the rapid advances in documentation methodologies. After describing the elaborate and difficult methods between 2004 and 2012, he notes that the new Agisoft Photoscan software allowed a photogrammetric reconstruction using photographs taken without the use of sophisticated scanners or the need to pre-calibrate devices in the laboratory. The winning solution among many was the simplest (324-325). The images illustrating L. Repola's entry on the laser-scanning hardly do justice to the data acquired, considering that the scans are not only three-dimensional but also accurate to the milimeter. Because of their accuracy, laser scans of archaeological sites (here the author employed the Riegl LMS-Z 420i Time of Flight technology), allow a clearer understanding of building phases even while providing a base-line for monitoring the state of conservation of the building (333).

The last two sections present the results of the analysis of bones found in the trenches (S. Chilardi and M. Della Vecchia, 339-345) and chemical analysis of pigments used in fragments of wall painting of the First, Third, and Fourth Styles (G. Trojsi and P. Baraldi). Analysis of the bones shows, as in other sites at Pompeii, a predominant consumption of pork (344). Raman spectography, combined with other techniques, revealed the chemical composition of red, yellow, green, blue, black, and white pigments. Particularly interesting is the individuation of the highly-prized cinnabar (HgS) among the common reds made from ocher (Fe2O3). Unfortunately the illustrations for blue pigments (figs. 19-22) are incorrect; the images for green pigments appear in their stead.

This volume delivers good quality color illustrations throughout, properly scattered in the text rather than being gathered at the back, where we find plates 4-15. Plate A, a 3d reconstruction of the house, spreads across pages 12-13, whereas plates 1-3 are crowded on page 18. This points up a further problem, that the design of the book puts most figures in the same margin space, 5.5 cm wide, where the notes appear. Consequently many figures, especially the plans, are reproduced at too small a scale (e.g., the plans of Pompeii in figs. 4a, 4b on page 20). It is clear that this is a book composed of discreet units rather than conceived as a whole. There is no list of figures, and the figure numbers begin anew in each chapter or section, making it necessary to refer to an image by both figure and page number. Finally, the 3D reconstructions, reproduced as screen shots, would exhibit their full research potential "live," in a DVD or on a web site.

In the broad view, this volume contributes significantly to our knowledge of the history of the Insula Occidentalis, adding new information to ongoing studies of the early city, its plan, and the city walls. Detailed studies of the house itself, and especially the finds from the excavations, will be of interest to specialists in areas such as ceramics, numismatics, and wall painting. Finally, the technical discussions of methodologies used for documenting the house and the excavations will be of use to archaeologists considering options for recording their work. ​


1.   M. Aoyagi and U. Pappalardo, eds., Pompei (Regiones VI-VII) Insula Occidentalis (Naples:Valtrend, 2006).
2.   F. Noack and K. Lehmann Hartleben, Baugeschichtliche Untersuchungen am Stadtrand von Pompeji (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1936).
3.   M. Grimaldi, "VII 16 Insula Occidentalis 22: Casa di M. Fabius Rufus," in Aoyagi and Papparlardo, Insula Occidentalis, 259-418.
4.   D. Esposito, "La Bottega dei Vettii: vecchi dati e nuove acquisizioni," Rivista di Studi Pompeiani 10 (1999): 23-61.

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