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Exploring the Ancient Past

Neptune and Amphitrite

A House of Herculaneum
By Natasha Sheldon

Named after one of its mosaic walls, this house is one of the best preserved in Herculaneum. Its unusual feature is a garden room that replaces the peristyle.

The House of Neptune and Amphitrite has some of the best preserved and spectacular mosaics and wall paintings in the town. But it also makes good use of space as its owner adapted a limited plot to create a house with all the features of an elite roman domus.

 

The Location of the House.

 

The house is located in Insula V, Cardo IV of Herculaneum. It is fronted by a caupona which was attached to the house by an interior door, suggesting both properties were owned in common.

 

The House of Neptune and Amphitrite is of quite a modest size occupying an area of only 227m squared. However, its owner was clearly wealthy and made use of his house’s layout and decor to show his social standing off to best effect.

 

Frescos and Mosaics.

 

Despite the modest size of the building, the wall paintings and mosaics are the equal of any high status house. They are executed with taste, demonstrating that the owner was both wealthy and cultured.

 

Many of the wall paintings and mosaics are missing or damaged. This is because the house was one of the earliest properties to be targeted by Bourbon excavators who were intent on raiding the site for its work of art. Areas of the house such as the lararium were damaged by the tunnelling and many of the wall paintings such as frescos from the triclinium are missing.

 

What remains is in a good state of repair, so much so that the artist’s signature is still visible on a set of imitation Greek marble wall panels near the atrium. The artist, ‘Alexander’ was clearly a popular Herculaneum wall painter as his signature has been found against other wall paintings elsewhere in the town.

 

The Layout of the House.

 

The exterior of the house was standard, with its plaster facade painted red and white. But the entrance offered a taste of things to come: a threshold sporting an unusual painted carpet border.

 

This entrance led straight into the atrium which was edged with rooms on two sides. To the right of the entrance was a cubiculum and the lararium, the shrine of the household gods. Directly visible from the entrance was the tablinium, triclinium and an innovative room that acted as an ingenious replacement for a peristyle garden.

 

The triclinium was the largest room of the house and was adapted to make the most of the lack of space. It was a barrel roofed room that probably acted as a reception area for guests as well as a dining room.

 

To the left of this was the tablinium, the first room visible from the entrance. In other houses, it would have overlooked a peristyle garden. The House of Neptune and Amphitrite was too small to accommodate an internal garden. Instead, the tablinium offered a view into a small internal grotto/garden room.

 

Unlike town houses in Pompeii, the some of the upper rooms of the house of survive at the front. They were decorated in a Fourth Style, and furnished with a bronze bed and marble table. They may have been the owner’s private quarters.

 

The Indoor Garden.

 

This was a small room and the culmination of the visual axis of the house. It was designed and set out like a garden, elaborately painted and equipped with water features that created a grotto effect.

 

One wall contained the mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite that gave the house its name, a brightly coloured piece made of polychrome tesserae. This may have been added by the owner to commemorate his successful shipping business as Neptune is the Roman God of the sea.

 

The rest of the walls paintings emulated those in villas in Pompeii and at the Villa Oplontis. Plants and fountains are prolific features, while the north wall  has a theatrical aspect and features hunting scenes. Wall niches in the room would have contained statues and garlands.

 

Finally, the centre piece of the room was a working indoor fountain with couches set around it, making it the perfect place for dinner for two.

 

Sources

Pirozzi, Maria Emma Antoinetta. Herculaneum: The Excavations, Local History and Surroundings. Electra. Naples.