Naples – Beautiful home of the Vettii

This house was excavated in 1895 and is the best example of the houses of well-to-do people in this ancient city that have thus far been brought to light. Who the first owner of the house was we cannot tell, but, subsequently, it passed into the possession of two owners, Aulus Vettius Restitutus and Aulus Vettius Conviva ; but what relation these men sustained to one another we do not know. They are thought to be freed men emancipated by a very wealthy master and afterwards, by some means, they themselves be-came rich. We learn from an inscription on a wall of the house, that Conviva was a member of the Brotherhood of Augustus.

The main entrance to the house is on the east side, that is to our left, for we are looking south from the colonnade at the north end, as the map shows. Just inside the entrance, or vestibulum, was a narrow passage (fauces), out from which the porter or janitor had his den (cella). This passage led to a large chamber (atrium), the chief room, and, originally, the only room in the house open in the middle to the sky ; through an aperture in the roof (compluvium) light was admitted, and beneath this opening was a tank or cistern (impluvium), which caught the rain that fell through the opening and the water which ran down from the roofs. Subsequently, sleeping-rooms (cubicula), store-rooms (cellae), and the like were built around the atrium.

Generally the tablinum opened out from the atrium directly on the side opposite where it was entered from the fauces or street entrance. This was the office or private room of the master of the house, in which he kept his money and his papers and from which he could command a view of the entire house. It opened on the one side into the atrium and on the other led to the peristylium, the central court or gar-den, which we see before us. This garden was surrounded on all sides by pillars and a covered passage-way, from which many of the living-rooms of the house opened. One of these rooms was the triclinium or dining-room, placed to one side of the tablinum. In large houses there were several dining-rooms for different seasons of the year. Around the court were also the slaves’ rooms and kitchen (culina). In the smaller houses there were no kitchens, and, the cook shops not being numerous enough to cook for so many, meals were sent in from the public eating houses, just as is done in cities where apartment houses are in vogue today; moreover, it saved fuel and heat in the house.

During the entire year the lovely garden surrounded by a peristyle was the resort of the family, both in their occupations and their pleasure, and this accounts for the fact that the rooms of the house, with the exception of the atrium and the dining-rooms, were so small. In a climate where the winters were mild and short and the spring and autumn long, life was largely spent in the open air. Even the summer heat in Pompeii was not excessive except in the morning; for early in the afternoon a ripple could be seen dancing over the blue waters toward Capri and breaking its glassy surface into an expanse of dimpled light; afterward, until sunset, the wind blew steadily and refreshingly; then it died down for a few hours, but at midnight it sprang up again and continued until sunrise. In summer time meals were taken in a kind of summer house sheltered by vines. The expression ” to lean on one’s elbow in a man’s house ” meant to dine with him.

Small vegetable gardens were attached to some of the houses. ” It is pleasant,” writes Pliny, ” to grow some of one’s food at home.”

Over the entrance of a tablinum in one house in Pompeii was found the legend, ” Salve, lucrum ” (Welcome, gain), and in the mosaics which covered the floor, ” Lucrum gaudium ” (Gain is pure joy!)

There was a large Greek colony in this city, as we learn from the names and Greek inscriptions found on the walls, and with the Greeks, business shrewdness and artistic supremacy went hand in hand. Then there were Jews here, as is shown by a fine wall painting, The Judgment of Solomon, which was found in one of the houses excavated here.

The garden and colonnade of this house have been restored in exact conformity to their original condition, so that we are now looking upon the same scene as that which greeted the eyes of the Vettii. This is possible, because, while centuries ago the house had been thoroughly searched for valuables, the garden was left just as it was abandoned by its proprietors; so bright and fresh does it all look that the entire structure might well have been finished yesterday.

In each corner of the colonnade is a round marble basin. You may see the one at the farther right-hand corner by looking beyond the bushes growing near the center of the garden. At each side of the garden there are oblong marble basins, extremely artistic in design. Jets of water fell into them from bronze and marble statuettes standing on pedestals beside the columns nearest them. As you will perceive, there are two such figures for each side basin and one each for those in the corners. The statuettes at this end of the garden, one of which we see, are of bronze and represent a boy holding a duck from which a stream of water spouted. Among the others distributed in this space are a Bacchus and two Satyrs. Besides these basins there are two fountains in the garden. By looking above that pillar which stands at the extreme right-hand corner you will see a drain-pipe leading down from the roof ; water-pipes extend all through the house and garden and drain-pipes are numerous. These were all so well preserved that they were repaired and are now ready for use. That the water supply of the town was abundant may be seen from the fact that the house has sixteen faucets.

Near the middle of the garden is seen a round marble table, and between the pillars of the colonnade are three others, somewhat similar to the one we see.

The two artistic marble posts which you see a few feet from us, and which are exquisitely carved, are double busts ; one represents Bacchus and a Bacchante, the other Bacchus and Ariadne, with faint traces of coloring on hair and beard and eyes.

This house of the Vettii when first discovered was a veritable art gallery, its walls being perfectly radiant with glowing color. The best, which are the most valuable yet discovered in Pompeii, have been removed to Naples.

Of the frescoes found in this house, the oldest are the most remarkable, showing a refinement and delicacy and a superb finish which is perfectly charming even to the minutest details. The colors, while simple and harmonious, are yet so rich and glowing as to surpass anything we know to-day. One of these frescoes represents a moonlight scene, and its soft, magical tones are wonderful. The later works of art found in some of the rooms are characterized by lesser skill and a more degenerate taste, which suggests to us the probability that the original owner was a man of great culture and refinement (with which the older frescoes correspond), while the freedmen, lacking both and supplied only with money, continued the decorations, but with vastly inferior results.

The decorations of the walls of Pompeian houses are usually divided into three horizontal bands, the one at the bottom being a space of darker shades and either adorned with faintly traced arabesque or painted in imitation of marble. The middle band is the broadest and the most important and is divided vertically into three or more panels ; the middle panel usually contains a painting three or four feet square, representing a female figure, supposed to be that of Vesta, to which the others are subordinate and accessories. The highest band contains single figures, often with perspective effects, and edged with a frieze of smaller figures.

In early times only religious paintings were placed in the atrium, but afterwards the cooking was relegated to the kitchen, and with it went the household deities. Sometimes a room was set apart to contain the ædicula or shrine of the household gods. Some are of the opinion that the series of wall paintings in this house represents Arts and Manufactures, in which members of the Vettii gens were engaged ; especially a scene representing the striking of coins in the mint. We know that several members of this family filled the post of Moneyers at Rome during the first century B. C. Taking this scene in connection with others in the house, it is evident that they were painted to represent the important State offices held by members of the family, and hence many of these paintings were for the glorification of the family.

As the walls of the house surrounding the peristyle were exposed to the weather – except the protection they received from the covered passageway – we are not surprised to find the colors on them faded and the surface cracked; but when these were fresh and radiant, and the garden was blooming with beautiful flowers and the fountains were musical with the flash and gush of falling water, the place must have appeared like a corner out of paradise.

The columns of the colonnade, or peristyle, are worthy of attention also. They were unusual, even in ancient Pompeii. You will notice that they are fluted tufa columns, and that they were covered over with stucco which has crumbled away from the lower portion of the columns, that not being as well protected from the elements as was the top. Now, brick columns covered with stucco in whole or part were common here, but to cover stone fluted columns in such a way was very unusual. The only explanation I can give is that it is the work of the freedmen Vettii, who, finding that some of the columns began to be discolored and show the ravages of the years, plastered them all over in this way ; but even the dumb, cold stone will assert itself if you give it time enough, and now its graceful flutings are once more gleaming in the light.

Yes, this is a beautiful home, and were our limits more extended we would like to visit its separate rooms, those frescoed chambers which are eloquent with the silence of twenty centuries. We cannot see everything-we could not were we on the ground with our hand resting on that iron railing and with a custodian at our side.

But what we have seen and what yet remains to be seen, both here and in the Museum at Naples, are all a constant marvel and surprise. Now that our eyes have looked upon the city, we can never put it altogether out of our minds. It will ever be a beautiful, phantom place, whose weird spell steals over you again and again.. When you sit alone, and when you walk the busy ways of life, it will rise before you and you will see, once more, its narrow streets, with their wheel-cut lava pavements ; its noble Forum, with its delicate Grecian columns ; its chaste homes, with their rosy walls ; shops in which they do no business ; temples in which there is no worship ; and theaters from which the actors have long since departed. On one side will appear the peerless, iridescent sea, and on the other, the ever threatening, ever terrible Vesuvius.

We have seen the homes and the streets of Pompeii, but the inhabitants – were no traces of them left? No doubt a pathetic and mournful interest would attach itself to such a sight, but to actually look upon the faces of those who once lived in these dwellings, and made up the life of this famous city, would be exceedingly interesting and instructive. Is such a thing possible? Surprising as it may seem, that is the very thing we are about to do. Before retracing our steps back to Naples, we will enter the Museum here at Pompeii and gaze upon some of the inhabitants of this ancient city.