I’m working on a section of my book in which I discuss the various ways in which a Roman house could reveal the status and identity of its owner. This is not new news in the field, but it is a crucial part of my argument in favor of reading domestic decoration as autobiography. So I am essentially summarizing some of the more famous bits of textual evidence for this phenomenon, like this passage from Cicero, De officiis I.139,
A man’s dignity may be enhanced by the house he lives in, but not wholly secured by it; the owner should bring honor to his house, not the house to its owner.
It’s a sort of “clothes make the man” sentiment. Vitruvius has similar bits as well, and today’s scholarship, like Shelley Hales’ book, is all over this concept. So again, I have not come across some major discovery, just incorporating this concept into a different argument.
So another ancient idea I need to grapple with in this section is that of the house as a container of memory, actually a mnemonic device described by Cicero, Quintilian, and the anonymous author of the ad Herrenium. Bettina Bergmann, in a 1994 Art Bulletin article, summarized this rhetorical trick:
Begin by fixing the plan in your imagination; then order the ideas, words, or images that you wish to remember, placing the first thing in the vestibule, the second in the atrium, then move around the impluvium, into side rooms, and even onto statues or paintings. Once you have put everything in its place… start again at the entrance and move through the house, where you will find all the images linked one to another as in a chain.
Now, the mnemonic technique is rather straightforward and it also makes clear that paintings and statues were probably as essential an element in an (elite) Roman house as an atrium. Yet I continue to wrestle with an explanation for the question: Why the house? Am I crazy for not thinking this is as self-evident as it sounds?
It can be argued that the house was chosen for this technique because those were simply the buildings most familiar to the speakers. It is probably likely that they imagined their own houses when using this method for remembering tricky sequences of arguments in speeches. (It becomes tricky if the same house & contents were used over & over again for different speeches.) But Roman houses are quirky things. Regardless of how textbooks want us to envision the “typical Roman house,” there really is no such thing. Roman bathing establishments–the large, public ones at least–have more traditional, symmetrical, regular, and logical layouts than most houses. I’d reckon that most Romans could find their way in a bath upon the first visit much faster than in an unfamiliar house.
So if it is not a standardized layout, or even standardized contents which make the house a perfect tool for recalling memories, then what is it? If it is indeed the personal-ness of the house which assists the speakers, that the familiarity of one’s everyday surroundings cemented the rhetorical points in one’s mind, then it becomes easier for me to make my argument for an autobiographical reading of the house and its contents 0verall. Just as specific facts in a speech were pinned on otherwise commonplace objects and spaces, things which would have been seen every day as the “background noise” of domestic life, specific and personal memories–even subjective responses–could be hung onto this conventional framework as well. Domestic decoration functions then, in part, as a visual and metonymic curriculum vitae and calendar.
This is just one way of approaching questions of personal, individualized readings of rather widespread imagery in domestic decoration. It’s a good and healthy first step to acknowledge subjective responses, but it’s a step into the abyss to try to figure out what those varied responses were. And so I am contending with a somewhat generic way to recreate the breadth of individualized viewing experience. If that makes sense!