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Ancient house provides gateway to the past

Art historian Barbara Kellum shares her research into a house in Vettii, Pompeii, where former slaves decorated the structure with depictions of enslavement.
The House of Vettii might have been the most elabo- rately decorated house in the island city of Pompeii, which was destroyed by a volcano in A.D. 72.

But, art historian Barbara Kellum said what remains preserved tells us little about the owners of the house, other than that they were former slaves who became very wealthy — owning many slaves themselves.

Inside, paintings adorn almost every surface of the house, showing gods, people, animals, objects and other various mythological scenes, which seem to revolve around the reoccurring theme of slavery.

Why would wealthy former slaves decorate their luxurious house with images of enslavement? That was the question that Kellum, a professor of art history at Smith College, shared with an audience of nearly 100 faculty, students and members of the community during the 2004 Mario and Antoinette Romano Lecture last week.

Kellum’s lecture, “The Stuff of Which Dreams Are Made: The Phantasmagoric Imagery of the House of the Vettii, Pompeii,” provided a glimpse into one of the most sumptuously decorated houses in Pompeii and presented an interpretation of its seemingly bewildering myriad of imagery.

By way of various theories of dream interpretations, Kellum revealed meanings from the house’s kaleidoscope of images.

“The structure of the whole comes into notice if we look at the house through dreams, which capture the consciousness of many levels of Roman society,” Kellum said. Images of enslavement, domination and cruelty would all seem to the modern viewer to be uncomfortable reminders of the owner’s former status as slaves.

Kellum interprets these images as not being painful reminders but as instances of celebration of the Vettii’s victory, capable of multiple meanings that reflect the contradictions of slaves becoming owners of slaves. “From things to owners of things, their dreams had come true,” Kellum said.

Kellum’s scholarly expertise is the visual culture of the ancient Roman world and her publications focus on everything from imperial building complexes to the shop signs and graffiti of Pompeii. Most recently, as a recipient of an American Council of Learned Societies fellowship, she has been completing a book on the visually complex monuments commissioned by wealthy, upwardly mobile former slaves in the ancient Roman world.

The Romano Lecture series was endowed in 1984 by the Romanos as a tribute to Mario Romano’s years as a Harpur College student. Each year, their endowment sponsors a lecture given by noted speakers in history, economics, art history or medicine.

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Last Updated: 10/14/08