Scenes from Homer’s Odyssey, Via Graziosa

This fresco cycle showing scenes from Homer’s Odyssey would have decorated an ancient Roman home.

Scenes from Homer’s Odyssey (books 10–12), before 46 B.C.E., fresco, 142 x 292; 142 x 292; 146 x 292; 142 x 292 cm (Vatican Museums), excavated in 1848 from a domus on Via Graziosa, now Via Cavour, Rome. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] When we think of ancient Greek and Roman art, we often think of sculpture. Sculpture is commonly made out of stone or metal, and it lasts. But there was lots of painting, and painting is much more fragile, which is why we have so little of it from the ancient world.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:21] Which is why we’re so lucky to be here in the Vatican Museums, looking at some rare ancient Roman paintings that date to the 1st century B.C.E.

Dr. Zucker: [0:30] This was found in a domus, in a large house, on the Esquiline Hill here in Rome.

Dr. Harris: [0:35] These are what art historians call Second Style wall painting, which was typical during that 1st century B.C.E., and that is a style of wall painting that sets up a kind of architectural frame through which we view an illusion. Here, it’s an illusion of a landscape, but a landscape showing a mythological scene.

Dr. Zucker: [0:54] The conceit is that we’re standing in a porch, looking out past these red columns into the landscape beyond, but this is no ordinary landscape. These are scenes from the great epic poem by Homer, the “Odyssey.”

Dr. Harris: [1:06] The “Odyssey” tells the story of Ulysses’ return from the Trojan War to Ithaca and all of his adventures along the way. One of those adventures was with a people known as the Laestragonians.

Dr. Zucker: [1:18] Now, we only have four scenes left. Presumably, there were more originally, but these start with Odysseus’ compatriots meeting the daughter of the king of the Laestragonians.

Dr. Harris: [1:28] You can see her walking down a hillside carrying a jug of water and greeting Ulysses’ men.

Dr. Zucker: [1:34] Look how easily she flows. It’s a reminder that the naturalism of classical Greece and Rome is not only seen in sculpture but was present in painting as well.

Dr. Harris: [1:43] This is incredibly naturalistic. We have mountains, and trees, and bodies of water, and people moving through this landscape, casting shadows, standing in lovely contrapposto.

Dr. Zucker: [1:56] I love those trees. Look how quickly they’re painted. They almost seem impressionistic. They seem to move in the wind. Now, the Laestragonians were giants, and they were cannibalistic. In the second panel, we see them throwing huge boulders at Odysseus’ ships.

Dr. Harris: [2:11] The Laestragonians destroyed 11 of 12 of Ulysses’ ships.

Dr. Zucker: [2:15] In fact, you can see the ship in the foreground is actually mostly underwater and the ships in the back are being attacked as well. Over on the right side of this panel, you can see one ship, the 12th ship, Odysseus’ ship, is safely in a cove.

Dr. Harris: [2:28] And making its way to the island of Circe, the enchantress.

Dr. Zucker: [2:31] Here we see the classical architecture of the palace of Circe.

Dr. Harris: [2:35] Unfortunately, this panel is in the least good shape of the four that survive. Nevertheless, we can make out, as you said, that lovely ancient architecture, columns and an entablature, and figures relaxing in the landscape.

Dr. Zucker: [2:49] There’s even a sculpture on a pedestal to the left. The final panel shows Odysseus’ ship approaching Hades, the underworld.

Dr. Harris: [2:56] In Hades, Ulysses meets a number of figures, and they’re actually identified by inscriptions. Now, those inscriptions are in Greek, which tells us that it’s likely that these paintings were based on a Greek model. We know that the ancient Romans were copying ancient Greek sculpture, so of course it makes sense that they were also copying ancient Greek painting.

Dr. Zucker: [3:17] In this particular scene, on the right side, there are shades — that is, the figures of the souls of the dead — in Hades that we can recognize. The figure with the slingshot is the hunter Orion.

Dr. Harris: [3:27] Below that, the mythic figure of Sisyphus, who spends eternity trying to roll a stone up a hill and never getting there. The giant figure on the ground is Tityus, who’s having his liver pecked out by a vulture.

Dr. Zucker: [3:41] Only to heal again and to be devoured yet again for eternity.

Dr. Harris: [3:45] These were meant to entertain, to be part of the decorative program of the house of likely an elite member of Roman society.

Dr. Zucker: [3:53] These are not political images. They don’t celebrate an emperor. They’re not meant to honor a god. These are literary subjects. They’re meant to express the wealth and station of the owner and to entertain.

Dr. Harris: [4:04] This gives us an idea of what the decoration of a Roman house was like, what Roman painting was like in the 1st century B.C.E., and through that, what ancient Greek painting was also like.

[4:15] [music]

This fresco at the Vatican Museums

Umberto Pappalardo, The Splendor of Roman Wall Painting (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2009).

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Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Scenes from Homer’s Odyssey, Via Graziosa," in Smarthistory, August 21, 2023, accessed June 25, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/scenes-from-homers-odyssey-via-graziosa/.