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This chapter explores the question of how erotic tenderness was represented pictorially in early Imperial art. The pinakes from cubicula B and D in the Villa della Farnesina in Rome (ca. 20s BCE) are among the earliest surviving tender representations of lovers to have been found in Roman domestic spaces. Since the villa’s discovery in the late nineteenth century, these frescoes have prompted numerous interpretations, mostly of a moralizing, biographical bent. Instead of focusing on the ultimately unanswerable question of who might have owned this splendid residence, the argument presents these well-known wall paintings as expressions of a contemporary cultural phenomenon, namely the formation of a new romantic ideal. Close readings of key passages from Latin love elegy help to situate these images within a larger concomitant debate on privacy and domesticity. This chapter also traces the diffusion of the Roman ideal of amatory tenderness beyond the capital and the court. Two first-century wall paintings from Pompeii, one from the House of Caecilius Jucundus and the other from the House of Lucretius Fronto, demonstrate how quickly this new romantic ideal was absorbed into Roman familial ideology and became emblematic of widespread socio-cultural aspirations.
This chapter addresses the more common subject of mythological representations, focusing on one of the most frequently depicted mythological lovers in Roman wall painting, the cyclops Polyphemus. Beginning with the earliest extant Roman depiction of Polyphemus as a lover, a now much damaged fresco in the so-called House of Livia on the Palatine (30s BCE), the analysis proceeds by exploring the creation of a tender iconography for this well-known monster over the course of the first century CE. At the same time, it considers different literary treatments of this myth by Theocritus, Virgil, and Ovid. These poetic and pictorial portrayals of Polyphemus as a long-suffering, sympathetic romantic protagonist likewise point to the emergence of a Roman aesthetic of tenderness, capable of transforming even the most savage of Homeric characters into a pitiable, domesticated creature. This study of Polyphemus as a lover in Roman poetry and painting also traces the reception of the Roman aesthetic of tenderness among non-elite contexts on the Bay of Naples. A well-known Campanian image of Polyphemus receiving a love letter points to the influence of Latin elegy in the representation of this well-known mythical character in Roman art.
This final section of the book analyzes how elegiac tenderness was absorbed into a conservative, mainstream discourse on conjugal love. By the late first century CE, the Augustan elegists’ witty and subversive ideal of a life of love became a commonly accepted model for articulating, describing, and commemorating the emotional bond between spouses. The elegists’ ironic use of familial, marital, and domestic terminology to portray the poets’ ardent and illicit love affairs is now itself domesticated and deradicalized. In elite discourse, Pliny the Younger’s letters to his wife, Calpurnia, are an excellent example of the appropriation of the language of elegiac tenderness in the context of a traditional Roman marriage. But as with other aspects of the Roman aesthetic of tenderness, this form of conjugal self-fashioning was not an exclusively elite phenomenon. Both the Pompeian portrait of “Terentius Neo” with his wife and the Roman altar dedicated to Pedana by her husband Donatus demonstrate how a wide spectrum of Roman citizens adopted elegiac models for their own self-representation.
This chapter continues the theme of dissemination by investigating two Pompeian wall paintings of Medea – one from the House of Jason and the other from the House of the Dioscuri – that show her contemplating the murder of her children. Building on the previous chapter, the argument now turns to the literal and figurative domestication of this ultimate monstrosity. By analyzing these paintings in conjunction with Ovid’s Heroides 12 (Medea’s epistle to Jason), we see how these images of Medea in a domestic setting invite viewers to (re)create the heroine’s own inner struggle – a process that would have rendered her sympathetic in the eyes of ancient spectators attuned to the figure of an abandoned elegiac lover. Whereas the lovers discussed in the previous chapters primarily evince tenderness through togetherness, Medea in her isolation becomes sympathetic through Jason’s conspicuous absence, which drives her to her horrific deed. That absence, of course, is also the necessary conceit of Ovid’s epistolary elegiac fictions. Far from the haughty, vengeful goddess of Euripidean tragedy, Medea in the poetry and painting of first-century Rome displays tender characteristics that resonate with early Imperial notions of marriage and domesticity.
The introduction examines the pre-history of the elegiac ideal of a life of love. Although Latin love elegy and tender depictions of lovers in Roman wall painting may be described as Augustan phenomena, their roots lay in the ethical and aesthetic transformations that marked the Republican era. From the construction of luxury villas along the Italian coast to the emergence of a more personal style of poetry, we see in this period a new valuation of private life and a growing concern with individual experience among Rome’s aristocracy. Catullus’ poems to Lesbia represent the apogee of this turn toward the intimate and the private. In his verses we see for the first time the fusion of domus (home) and amor (erotic passion) – concepts long seen as mutually exclusive. Catullus’ domestication of erotic passion thus prefigures the elegists’ rejection of Augustan morality and their own construction of an alternative worldview. The poets’ witty appropriation of familial and marital terms also points to the codification of amatory experience in Roman literature and, later, in art. In both images and texts, erotic tenderness manifests itself through a series of metonymies that render love an experience that can be recognized, learned, remembered, and recounted.
Tenderness is not a notion commonly associated with the Romans, whose mythical origin was attributed to brutal rape. Yet, as Hérica Valladares argues in this ground-breaking study, in the second half of the first century BCE Roman poets, artists, and their audience became increasingly interested in describing, depicting, and visualizing the more sentimental aspects of amatory experience. During this period, we see two important and simultaneous developments: Latin love elegy crystallizes as a poetic genre, while a new style in Roman wall painting emerges. Valladares' book is the first to correlate these two phenomena properly, showing that they are deeply intertwined. Rather than postulating a direct correspondence between images and texts, she offers a series of mutually reinforcing readings of painting and poetry that ultimately locate the invention of a new romantic ideal within early imperial debates about domesticity and the role of citizens in Roman society.