1902 Encyclopedia > Architecture > Pompei Architecture: Private Houses and Mansions - Layouts, Designs, Materials

(Part 78)

Pompei Architecture: Private Houses and Mansions - Layouts, Designs, Materials

Whenever a private house or gentleman’s mansion was situated in a good place of business (like the ground floor of many modern Italian noblemen’s palaces), the street-front, or fronts, were entirely occupied with shops, a comparatively narrow entrance to the house being preserved in a convenient part between some two of them (Plate XVII. Fig. 3). The door to this is sometimes quite plain, but at times is decorated with pilasters. When the site permitted such an arrangement, the entrance door being open, a passer-by could look completely through the house to the garden, or, in the absence of a garden, to the extreme boundary-wall, on which was painted a landscape or other picture. An arrangement, it may be observed, not unlike this, is common in some of the Italian cities at the present day; but the mansions being now built in stories, and the upper stories alone being occupied by the families, a merely pleasing effect is produced; whilst in the former, persons crossing from one apartment to another were exposed to view, and domestic privacy thus completely invaded, to produce a pretty picture. Inside the entrance passage, which may be from 10 to 12 feet in depth, there is a space, the atrium, generally square, or nearly so, on which different rooms open, that vary in size from 10 feet square to 10 feet by 12, or even 12 feet square; they have doorways only, and were probably used as sleeping chambers by the male servants of the family.

In the center of this court there is a sunk basin or reservoir for receiving the rain, called the impluvium, rendering it likely that this was roofed over, with a well-hole to admit light and air, and allow the rain to drop from the roof into the reservoir. Connected with this outer court was the kitchen and its accessories. If the site allowed the second court to be placed beyond the first in the same direction from the entrance, the communication was by a wide opening not unlike folding doors between rooms in modern houses, generally with a space intervening, which was variously occupied; or a mere passage led from one to the other.

The second or inner court is generally much larger than the first, and is for the most part of a parallelogram, but variously proportioned. It forms a tetrastoön, being open in the middle and arranged with a peristyle of columns, colonnading a covered walk all round. On this the best and most finished apartments open; but they are of such various sizes, and are so variously arranged, that it is not easy to determine more than that they included the refectory, the library, and sleeping rooms. Some of them, indeed, are such as must have been useless except for the last purpose; these perhaps, were the apartments of the female branches of a family, at least in most cases. Some houses, however, have a nest of small cells in an inner corner or secluded recess, which may have been the gynaeceum; but that is far from being common.

Exhedrae or recesses, open in front to the atrium, are common, and are often painted with more care and elegance than any other part of the house; but generally the walls are everywhere painted -- in the more common places flat, with a slight degree of ornament, perhaps, and in the best rooms, with arabesques and pictures in compartments. The architectural decorations are mostly painted; the ornaments are not unfrequently elegant, but the architecture itself of the mansions is bad in almost every sense. The rooms being windowless, would when covered, be necessarily dark; the doors are arranged without any regard to uniformity, either in size or situation.

The street-fronts of those houses which, not being in a good business situation, were not occupied with shops, were not merely unadorned, but were actually deformed by loop-holes, to light some passage or inner closet which had no door on one of the courts. (Plate XVII. Fig.8). The columns of the second courts are generally in the worst style possible: those which have foliate capitals, and may be considered compositions of the Corinthian order, are the best; but the imitations of Doric and Ionic are both mean and ugly.

From the uses to which they were put, and the wideness of their intercolumniations, together with the fact that none of them have been found in Pompeii, it is probable that the entablatures were of wood, and were consequently burnt at the time of the destruction of the city, and broken up by the inhabitants, almost all of whom certainly escaped, and who, it is very evident, returned, when the fiery shower and the conflagration had ceased, to remove whatever they could find of their property undestroyed; for it must be remembered that the roofs and ceilings all over the city are entirely gone, and the uncovered and broken walls remain, from 8 to 10 feet only in height. Everything indeed, clearly demonstrates that great exertion were use to recover whatever was valuable; and it is very probable, moreover, that the place was constantly resorted to by treasure-seekers for perhaps centuries after the calamity occurred. It may also be remarked that the loftier edifices, which would have been unburied by the ashes, had been thrown down by an earthquake about sixteen years before the volcanic shower fell, and, therefore, were the more easily covered. Other showers must have fallen since that which destroyed the city, to produce the complete filling up of every part and the general level throughout. Hence we are still uninformed as to the structure and disposition of the roofs and ceilings of the houses of the ancients.

The doors, too, of whatever materials they were composed, are entirely gone: there remain, however, here and there indications-and even charred fragments-of wooden door-posts, but they belong to outer or street doors, leaving it probable that a matting of some kind, suspended from the lintel, formed the usual doors to rooms. It is, in fact, supposed that curtains answered the purposes of doors to the interiors. In these particulars, unfortunately, Herculaneum affords but little assistance, as the mode of its destruction was similar to that of Pompeii, though, upon the whole, Herculaneum is more likely to furnish information on these particulars than its sister in misfortune.

Although it has been ascertained that the Romans understood the manufacture of glass, it must not be supposed that they were accustomed to apply it as freely as we do to exclude the weather and transmit light. It was, however, sometimes used; one wooden frame with four small squares of glass has been found; another brass frame with the glass movable; and one piece of glass of considerable size was found in one of the walls of a bath.

The floors of the houses of Pompeii and Herculaneum are all of mosaic work, coarser and simpler in the less important parts, and finer and more ornate in the more finished apartments: the ornaments are borders, dots, frets, labyrinths, flowers, and sometimes figures. In this, too, the superior advantages the moderns enjoy are evident. The ancients did not understand how to construct wooden floors, or, at least, they did not apply timber to that use.

A few rude and narrow staircases are found in Pompeii, which it is very probable, were to afford access to the terraces or flat roofs, for they are not common, and no portion of an upper story remains in any part. Sufficient remains have, however, been found to show that the upper stories often overhung the lower front, as in mediaeval houses; the fronts being made of woodwork, supported on a prolongation of the floor joists.

In one part of the city the houses on one side of the street are on a declivity: there a commodious flight of stairs is found to lead from the atrium in front to another lower court and rooms, not under the houses but behind them; for we do not find an under-ground story in the Pompeii houses. On the shores of the Bay of Baiae, and at Cicero’s Formian Villa on the Gulf of Gaeta, however, there are crypts or arched chambers under the level of the mansions, the sites requiring substructions; but it may be questioned whether even these were used as parts of the house, and as we use cellars, for they present no indications of stairs, and have no regular means of intercommunication.

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