The Enigma of Pompeii's Villa of the Mysteries - by Valentino Gargano

With its fascinating aura of immobilised eternity, Pompeii has rightfully become famous throughout the entire world for its own specific peculiarity, including the enigma of the Villa of the Mysteries. What makes this tiny archaeological site utterly distinct from others is its potential to yield to us, in all its entirety, an entire Roman city of the early Empire exactly as it was when the Romans populated its streets. The story is well known: on an unlucky day in 79 CE Mt. Vesuvius – which the Romans indeed believed to be a simple mountain – suddenly awoke from the millennial sleep it had fallen into and erupted ferociously, burying alive with its extraordinary force an area on the southern coast of Italy in the proximity of Naples that comprehended Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae and Oplontis. The world of these people as they knew it was destroyed from one day to another, completely suffocated and annihilated by an immeasurable amount of debris and ashes precipitating from the sky. Pompeii, the luxuriant and flourishing Pompeii, suddenly was no more.


Yet it was this same debris, in a way, that saved Pompeii, for it was the ashes that had caused Pompeii’s own destruction that protected the city and concealed it from the sight of the others who outlived them. It was the cause of Pompeii’s destruction that constituted Pompeii’s salvation and returned it to the stupefied eyes of the modern age. Thanks to the tons of ashes that buried these cities alive, we are now able to look at a perfectly preserved Roman city of the early empire, to intrude into their houses, walk on their streets, admire their art. Pompeii lies uncorrupted, it seems, and open to stretch and bridge over thousands of years towards us to reveal us the darkest, most profound, most unknowable mysteries of the past. This is true, for many cases. But one case, in particular, demonstrates how greatly we might be mistaken if we think that Pompeii could tell us everything that we would like to know about our past.


This is the so-called Villa of the Mysteries, a suburban villa (that is, a countryside mansion), possibly owned by a rich and powerful family of the city, the Istacidii family. This is one of the last, or first, houses that you will see if you happen to visit Pompeii, distant as it is from the centre of the town. The real enigma represented by the villa is concealed in one of its many rooms, whose function is still disputed among scholars. Some say that the mysterious and undecipherable frescoes of the Villa of the Mysteries are located in a room that has to be identified as a triclinium – a fine dining room; others instead believe that it might simply be a cubiculum, or bedroom, of the mistress of the house, linking one of the figures of the frescoes to the function of the room. It seems clear, then, that the enigma lies in the frescoes themselves.

The frescoes of the villa are made up of a series of murals portraying several characters who seem to engage in different activities. We know from the type of composition that it represents – a megalography, in Vitruvius’ words – that these murals are supposed to be read together. There must be a connection between the characters and it is precisely this mysterious common thread that remains still undeciphered. Most scholars have argued that the frescoes represent a scene of initiation to Bacchic mysteries, the sacred rituals of Dionysus, or Bacchus, and his worship. But while this assumption gave the name to the villa – villa of the Mysteries – it remains an assumption, and that many distinguished scholars disagree with it. The villa is, after all, a villa of mystery, rather than of the Mysteries.

The first mural depicts two women, of which one sits comfortably on a throne. Some have argued that she might be a priestess and that the boy with a scroll by the throne might be reading the declaration of initiation. The mural proceeds to show a woman crowned with myrtle who is carrying a tray of cakes: according to the initiation interpretation she might be the initiand. Might she be, instead, a bride? This seems to be another plausible option, set forth most famously by Paul Veyne. What should we make, then, of the second mural, that shows three women sitting at a table? Should we interpret them as simple wedding guests or priestesses preparing the liknon, the winnowing-fan that featured in the Eleusinian mysteries? Could the Bacchic allusion be proved by the proximity of a figure which could be identified as Silenus (the satyr-like companion and tutor of Bacchus)? A female figure at the end of the mural has been interpreted variously as Aura, the personification of the wind, or as the initiate in a ritual panic.

The first fresco in the Villa of the Mysteries

The perplexity seems to reduce when we look at the fourth mural, which depicts another Silenus and two satyrs, next to whom, Dionysus lies on the waist of someone who has been variously interpreted as Semele or Ariadne (most frequently). Should this confirm the Bacchic mysteries hypothesis? This could be effective evidence – if only Ariadne and Bacchus had not been symbols of marriage, too! The use of their iconography in wedding contexts is well established: they represent the archetype of the heterosexual couple united in perfect and perpetual marriage (Catullus 64 is somewhat eloquent in this regard). We are still left, then, with a puzzle, which seems to extend to the rest of the megalography.


The frescoes in the Villa of the Mysteries

The fifth and the sixth murals plunge us deeper into uncertainty, and somewhat disturb the viewer. The initiate, if she is indeed the initiate, reappears and is about to unveil something that is still veiled but that scholars have identified as a phallus. A winged character, perhaps chastising the initiate who is being sexually initiated, seems to hold a whip. Next to this, the initiate kneels in despair before a priestess while a Maenad dances by her side and a figure holds a thyrsus (a staff covered in ivy and a symbol of Dionysus). Is the initiate being initiated unwillingly to the Bacchic mysteries? Has she seen something unpleasant in the process? Could the phallus be a metaphor for initiation to sexual life within marriage, instead?


Some have argued that the frescoes might represent both interpretations – that the protagonist is both a bride and an initiate to the rites of Dionysus. Yet if this is the case, what is the connection between marriage and Bacchic mysteries? Why is the emphasis on the bride? Why is there no bridegroom? These questions remain unanswered, but serve to add to the mystery of the villa itself.


The Villa of the Mysteries

Far from revealing anything, the Villa and its beautiful frescoes leave us wondering, exquisitely tantalised by the mysterious hypotheses that we may consider. While it has become one of the symbols of Pompeii, the Villa paradoxically demonstrates that, even if perfectly preserved, the past might not be willing to disclose its mysteries and profound secrets to us. When an eternal city such as Pompeii seems to lie uncovered and disclosed in front of our modern eyes, we may be deceived by those same places to believe that time can be undone, but the Villa proves that it cannot. Some mysteries belong to the past, and they can never be revealed.



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