Domus of Via Graziosa

The magnificent fresco with scenes from the Odyssey that can now be admired at the Museo Nazionale Romano at Palazzo Massimo comes from a luxurious domus (house) built on the western slopes of the Cispius, one of the summits of the Esquiline facing the Viminal hill. Already in the Republican era this was one of the districts favoured by the wealthiest families, whose homes were built on several levels on the hillside to better enjoy this spectacular raised position above the lower districts of the city, such as the Subura. Numerous structures belonging to these wealthy private residences first emerged in 1684, during the construction of a new road, Via Graziosa, running parallel to Via Urbana. About 150 years later, during the construction of some buildings, another house in this wealthy neighbourhood was discovered.

The drawings and writings of the time allow us to imagine a vast residential complex, arranged on several levels: the excavations brought to light at least two terraces. The lower terrace hosted a huge rectangular room, over five metres tall, surrounded on three sides by a portico. The most striking finds were the frescoes decorating the walls of this room, divided into panels with extraordinary landscape paintings, in which we can recognize scenes from the Odyssey. As was customary at that period, the wall structures were demolished, while the paintings were detached from the walls at the time of discovery. Seven of the painted panels are now in the Vatican Library, while another is on display at Palazzo Massimo. The surviving panels actually represent only a tiny part of a group of between 35 and 100 painted scenes, that must have run along the entire perimeter of the portico for a length of about 150 m, illustrating Homer’s whole poem.

These long covered porticoes, known as ambulationes, were an ideal place for long strolls, chats and confidential conversations between the owners of the house and their guests. The paintings that decorated them seemed to break through the wall, giving viewers the impression that they were strolling through fantasy landscapes, usually populated by mythical figures: the Trojan wars or the wanderings of Ulysses on his return home, the “Ulixis errationes per topia”. Reading the treatise De architectura by the famous architect Vitruvius, who lived when this magnificent residence was built, we learn that during this period the custom of decorating the rooms of houses with mythical scenes was widespread in the most luxurious domus. Vitruvius’ words bring these pictures back to life and place them in the cultural context in which they were born: not just mass produced scenes but paintings that, when they were commissioned, reflected the highest peaks of art and fashion. Some of the episodes illustrated in the paintings from Via Graziosa show details absent from the Homeric text, the outcome of research by the scholars working at the Library of Alexandria. As such, these paintings do not just reflect the extraordinary refinement and elegance attained by the wealthy homes of the time, but also the cultural world of their owners. At this time, the artistic and cultural traditions of Greece were enormously popular among the wealthier and better-educated classes in Rome.