So my mother is very ill. I’ve taken the summer off from my usual research writing schedule to spend time with her and help take care of her. When she is feeling well she can be like a fire-hose of stories and family history; the gravity of her illness means she feels some urgency to relate these stories to others. As a woman who has lived abroad, who has traveled to all seven continents, she has a lot of things to say. I am an only child and the sole receptacle for these stories for the most part.
One project Mom has set up for the two of us is for her to tell me about the furniture, souvenirs, and other objects in her house. In some cases she tells me what family member bought what specific piece of furniture when: my great-grandfather the country doctor whose drop-leaf table is stained with what my mother (as a child) was sure was blood; my great-grandmother who gave away furniture after a family down the road lost their house in a fire, and then had to refurnish her own house. Other stories are of the typical souvenir type: a huge wooden rice bowl purchased in Bhutan; an inlaid stone tabletop from Agra, India, whose package was stamped ‘MARBLE WITH CARE.’ There is also the giant, hexadecagonal painting over the fireplace, painted by Mom’s college art professor, the man who introduced my parents to one another while on a study abroad program in Italy. There are bronzed shoes and a bronzed toy lamb, whose jingle-bell in the tail now just goes THUNK. Framed 19th-century maps of Mom’s native North Carolina. The 1973 puffin decoy awarded to Mom by Project Puffin leader Steve Kress because she was the only volunteer who didn’t throw up on the research boat. And so on.
My mother has really only one serial collection of objects among her souvenirs of life and travel: nativity scenes (some might call them crèches). This is a little odd to me since we are not an overly religious family; our Christmas celebrations are secular. Yet these sets of figurines are what Mom has collected over the course of at least 40 years. She has a knack for finding such scenes in (largely) non-Christian countries: to have scrounged nativity scenes in Burma, Nepal, Turkey, and Egypt (fine, it’s a plastic Coptic icon) is a great part of the fun.
Mom keeps most of these nativity scenes in a corner cupboard (purchased from my second grade teacher’s parents in Pilot Mountain, NC), closed for at least 335 days a year, but open at the holiday season for what she calls ‘instant Christmas.’
As someone who researches ancient houses, their architecture, and their decoration, this project of listening to and recording Mom’s stories about her ‘domestic collection’ is as fascinating for intellectual reasons as it is for personal ones. I have been working (for too long, actually) on a book about Roman residences as symbols of autobiography and this experience with Mom is a vibrant test-case for some of my theories put forth in the book. That becomes especially apparent when looking at the ‘instant Christmas’ collection. The imagery in the nativity scenes is familiar and legible to just about anyone who has been exposed to the Western version of Christmas. So when Mom talks about her pieces, she naturally doesn’t tell the story of Jesus’ birth, quoting from the gospels of Matthew or Luke. (She would maybe only do that with a child, or with someone clearly unfamiliar with the Christian tradition.)
When Mom shows off her nativity scenes, they are a map and a calendar. They are indexical of her own life, not the life of Christ. Sometimes the materials become part of the narrative–the olive-wood figures from Italy, the hand-made terracottas from Mexico–but these formal qualities of the figurines relate to the map function of the collection. The stories she tells about this collection relate, as Susan Stewart notes in her work on souvenirs, to the circumstances of acquisition, to the exotic, a means of collapsing time and space. Mom’s souvenirs have lost their original didactic value (to tell the story of the birth of Jesus), replaced by Mom’s autobiographical narrative of travel and personal history. (This is to say nothing of the cultural imperialism of tourist art. But that’s another blog post.)
This relates to my own research on Roman domestic decoration by coming around to understanding how people in antiquity might have dealt with the banality of repetitive imagery. Paintings of Narcissus, for example, appear in over 40 wall paintings at Pompeii, entirely in residential settings. Certainly the owners of these houses did not tell Ovid’s story every time some new visitor came to call. Even if frescoes do not lend themselves to narratives on the circumstances of acquisition because of their ‘built-in’ materiality, I think subjective and personalized stories along the lines of Stewart’s souvenir model could have been told. The wall paintings of poor Actaeon were commissioned, then, not only for the ‘moral of the story’ or reference to literature, but for the patron’s love of hunting or dogs. Maybe domestic sculpture would have been better points of departure for ‘souvenir stories’– pieces acquired at specific places and times and brought back home. Gifts are even better ‘souvenirs’ as they symbolize not only time and space, are indexical of the owner, but are also tangible evidence for specific personal relationships.
Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (in both 1994 and 2008) discussed the banality brought about by social diffusion of typical features in Roman domestic decoration, noting that everyone pretty much had the same kind of stuff, from Cicero on down, but quality and quantity varied according to financial means. Yet–with all due respect!–Wallace-Hadrill doesn’t indicate how the Romans might have gotten over an important problem: How can a residence be symbolic of an owner’s cultural, economic, and social status if it pretty much looks like everyone else’s? I guess a Roman house is both self-portrait and mirror.
But if we allow subjective personal narratives to enter the toolbox of the art historian or archaeologist dealing with ancient interpretations of domestic decoration, then we may find new readings which are appropriate for the ancient climate, enliven repetitive imagery, are accessible to viewers who may not have had an elite literary education, and recognize an abundantly human tendency to talk about oneself. Suites of statuettes or wall paintings in a Roman house then become autobiography, mirror, map, calendar. We don’t have surviving written commentary on how and why archaeologically-known residences were designed the way they were. But we can speculate that an ancient homeowner, like my mother, might tell a personal story about a familiar image type, rather than resorting to overly-complicated literary criticism or intertextual dissections or even just plain old didactic readings.