Saturday, April 11, 2020

Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale: Frescoes to rival the Villa of the Mysteries!

The fresco of a seated woman playing a kithara from either a triclinium or oecus of the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale (50-40 BCE) now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of my favorite Roman frescoes in the world. I hadn't realized that the Met had collaborated on the creation of a virtual tour of the villa. 
Boscoreale, about a kilometer north of Pompeii was notable in antiquity for having numerous aristocratic country villas and was preserved as a hunting park - hence its name, meaning "Royal Grove" - by the kings of Naples. Like Pompeii and Herculaneum, it was consumed by volcanic debris following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. The villa of P. Fannius Synistor (not thought to be the original owner) was among the sumptuous residences, originally built in the middle of the 1st century BCE, buried at that time. It was dated partially by the discovery of a graffito indicating the villa was auctioned in 12 CE. It was also determined that the villa had at least two owners during the 1st century CE based on the discovery of an inscription on a bronze vessel found in Room 24 (Publius Fannius Synistor) and a bronze stamp inscribed with Lucius Herennius Florus.
The villa was rediscovered in 1900 and its Second Style frescoed walls hacked out, framed and sold to art dealers in France, Belgium, and The Netherlands with some panels retained by the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. When the villa of Oplontis was excavated in 1964, archaeologists recognized the similarity of the frescoes there with those removed from Synistor's villa in Boscoreale. Both villas share the scheme in which red Corinthian columns with floral vines winding around them support a narrow entablature decorated with shields emblazoned with the so-called Macedonian starburst. In fact the similarities were so striking that scholars have speculated the two sites may have been painted by the same workshop.
The rooms of the complex were arranged around a central peristyle garden like many other villas of the period. One of the bedrooms recreated in the Metropolitan Museum of Art was located in the northwest of the home and preceded by a small vestibule. But the fresco of the woman with the kithara was from the east wall of room H, the villa's largest, thought to have been either a great dining hall or even a room reserved for the celebration of a cult, perhaps Aphrodite, although the presence of seemingly unrelated figures seem to contradict that theory.
"In this fresco, the kithara player is depicted as a plump young woman clothed in a purple chiton and white himation. She is adorned with a bracelet, earrings, and headband with a central medallion, all of gold. A small figure of Atlas supports the arm of her elaborately carved chair that originally was lacquered a deep lustrous red. The instrument she plays is not a simple lyre, but a gilded kithara, a large concert instrument played by Apollo and professional musicians. Behind the seated woman stands a small girl wearing a sleeveless purple chiton. She, too, is adorned with a gold headband, bracelet, and loop earrings. Like portrait figures, the woman and the girl gaze directly at the spectator."
"Most recently it has been suggested that the pair may represent a Macedonian queen, or princess, and her daughter or younger sister. The gilded kithara and richly adorned, throne-like chair, as well as the carefully rendered gold jewelry and headbands, give the impression of royal personage. Whatever the exact subject, this painting and others in the villa were admired as excellent copies of Hellenistic art that emphasized the erudition and worldliness of the villa's owner." - The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Here is also a very good Italian website about the villa (it appears to have been mechanically translated without proofreading, though, so there are a few hiccups here and there)
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