Rags to riches: Restored Pompeii house offers hints to its past

A newly restored house in Pompeii, Italy, reopened to the public on Tuesday. The ancient house includes paintings and architecture that tell mythological stories and offer clues about the daily lives of the owners, former slaves who became wealthy merchants.

Andrew Medichini/AP
Columns frame the courtyard in the Ancient Roman Domus Vettiorum, House of Vettii, in southern Italy, Dec. 14, 2022. One of Pompeii's most famous domus, which contains works of art and tells the story of the social ascent of two former slaves, has reopened to visitors.

The newly restored remains of an opulent house in Pompeii that likely belonged to two former slaves who became rich through the wine trade offer visitors an exceptional peek at details of domestic life in the doomed Roman city.

On Tuesday, the House of Vettii, Domus Vettiorum in Latin, was formally unveiled after 20 years of restoration. Given fresh life were frescoes from the latest fashion in Pompeii wall decoration before the flourishing city was buried under the volcanic ash furiously spewing from Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

The unveiling of the restored home is yet another sign of the rebirth of Pompeii, which followed decades of modern bureaucratic neglect, flooding, and pillaging by thieves in search of artifacts to sell.

That is delighting tourists and rewarding experts with tantalizing fresh insights into the everyday life of what is one of the most celebrated remnants of the ancient world.

“The House of the Vetti is like the history of Pompeii and actually of Roman society within one house,” Pompeii’s director, Gabriel Zuchtriegel, gushed as he showed off an area of the domus known as the Cupid Rooms last month.

“We’re seeing here the last phase of the Pompeian wall painting with incredible details, so you can stand before these images for hours and still discover new details,” the archaeological park’s energetic director told The Associated Press ahead of the public inauguration.

“So, you have this mixture: nature, architecture, art. But it is also a story about the social life of the Pompeiian society and actually the Roman world in this phase of history,” Mr. Zuchtriegel added.

Previous restoration work, which involved repeated application of paraffin over the frescoed walls in hopes of preserving them, “resulted in them becoming very blurred over time, because very thick and opaque layers formed, making it difficult to ‘read’ the fresco,” said Stefania Giudice, director of fresco restoration.

But the wax did serve to preserve them remarkably.

Mr. Zuchtriegel ventured that the fresh “readings” of the revived fresco painting “reflect the dreams and imagination and anxieties of the owners because they lived between these images,’’ which include Greek mythological figures.

And who were these owners? The Vettis were two men – Aulus Vettius Conviva and Aulus Vettius Restitutus. In addition to having part of their names in common, they shared a common past – not as descendants of noble Roman families accustomed to opulence, but rather, Pompeii experts say, almost certainly, as once enslaved men who were later freed.

It is believed that they became wealthy through the wine trade. While some have hypothesized the two were brothers, there is no certainty about that.

In the living room, known as the Hall of Pentheus, a fresco depicts Hercules as a child, crushing two snakes, in an illustration of an episode from the Greek hero’s life. According to mythology, Hera, the goddess wife of Zeus, sent snakes to kill Hercules because she was furious that he was born from the union of Zeus with a mortal woman, Alcmena.

Might Aulus Vettius Conviva and Aulus Vettius Restitutus have recognized their own life story in some way in the figure of Hercules who overcame challenge after challenge in his life?

That’s a question that intrigues Mr. Zuchtriegel.

After years in slavery, the men “then had an incredible career after that and reached the highest ranks of local society, at least economically,’’ judging by their upscale domus and garden, Mr. Zuchtriegel said. “They evidently tried to show their new status also through culture and through Greek mythological paintings, and it’s all about saying, ‘We’ve made it and so we are part of this elite’” of the Roman world.

Pompeii’s architect director of restoration work, Arianna Spinosa, called the restored home “one of the iconic houses of Pompeii. The residence “represents the Pompeiian domus par excellence, not only because of the frescoes of exceptional importance but also because of its layout and architecture.”

Ornamental marble baths and tables surround the garden.

First unearthed during archaeological excavations in the late 19th century, the domus was closed in 2002 for urgent restoration work, including shoring up roofing. After a partial reopening in 2016, it was closed again in 2020 for the final phase of the work, which included the restoration of the frescoes and the floor and colonnades.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Rags to riches: Restored Pompeii house offers hints to its past
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today