The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii: Ancient Ritual, Modern Muse by Elaine K Gazda.

Gazda The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii

I borrowed this book as a byproduct of a failed library search for Vittorio Macchioro’s Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii (1931). The Villa of the Mysteries: Ancient Ritual, Modern Muse turns out to be a collection of scholarship organized around an exhibition at the Kelsey Museum of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the autumn of the year 2000, including a full exhibit catalog. The centerpiece of the exhibition was a set of watercolor reproductions of the frescoes from Room V of the Villa of the Mysteries, commissioned from Italian artist Maria Borosso in the 1920s. In addition to related antiquities, the show included work by contemporary artists inspired by the murals of the Villa.

The Villa of the Mysteries is on the outskirts of Pompeii, and was a relatively late archaeological find, coming to light only in 1909. The impressive paintings on the walls of Room V have a hieratic quality and appear to be related to some sort of mystery cult. A conspicuous central figure is evidently Bucchus (a.k.a. Liber or Dionysus), although the female figure with whom he is paired has been partly effaced, and there is little agreement on whether she is meant to represent Semele, Ariadne, Aphrodite/Venus, or even an initiand of the rite being depicted. Several of the papers in this collection are concerned to supply a more focused historical context in first century B.C.E. Campania for the interpretation of the ancient images. Others are concerned to enter the discussion about the actual function of Room V within the Villa. There are also studies of women’s roles in classical mystery cults, imitation and artistic originality in the frescoes, and the modern reception of these works.

Most useful to me were a set of three papers treating the general state of knowledge regarding the ancient Roman cults of Bacchus. Especially informative was Elizabeth de Grummond’s “Bacchic Imagery and Cult Practice in Roman Italy,” which uses archaeological and art historical resources in efforts to understand the operation of the ancient religion. De Grummond reproduces a table of titles taken from a roster of over three hundred cult personnel engraved into a plinth at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I found quite illuminating.

I’m sure I would have enjoyed the actual exhibit immensely, but I probably learned more by means of my relatively quick read of this volume.