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Posts Tagged ‘domestic decoration’

I’ll be presenting this as a paper next month at the Southwest Popular/American Culture conference, and I’m currently writing it up as an article, perhaps for the Classical Receptions journal (though other suggestions for an appropriate venue are appreciated!).

Here is the abstract for the conference paper:

Luxus on the Mississippi: Graceland Mansion as an Elite Roman Villa

Francesca C. Tronchin, Rhodes College

Varro’s criticism of luxury villas, Statius’ encomium through villa description, Pliny the Younger’s autobiography in villa letters, Philostratus’ description of a paintings gallery in a Neapolitan villa: myriad ancient texts describe ideal elite Roman residences. The archaeological record largely confirms the written evidence for the taste of the aristocracy for imported marbles, large-scale statuary, landscape and water features, and costly mosaics in their rural estates. Yet while there is some corroboration between these two primary sources of information from the ancient world, there are no examples of extant villas which are specifically described in the texts–no villa of Pliny’s has decisively been discovered and Cicero’s Tusculanum remains buried. Indeed no archaeologically-known villa from Roman Italy displays all the typical characteristics described in the texts about these sumptuous residences, although the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, among others, comes close.

If an ancient handbook of ideal features in luxury villas existed, it would certainly include the following: imported materials, classicising sculpture, exotica, water features (as evidence for the owner’s ability to “tame” nature), references to the owner’s ancestors, and settings for both otium and negotium. Ideal estates would be extra- or suburban and eventually would come to be monuments to the memory of the most prominent owner of the villa, perhaps even through the tomb itself. Whether written as praise for a villa patron or as criticism of private luxury, these components are included in a great number of ancient descriptions of opulent, rural estates.

As noted above, archaeologists have not found any villa on Roman soil which specifically confirms all the features of villa design mentioned in the written sources.

Perhaps they should have been looking for a quintessential example a luxury villa in Memphis, Tennessee, for Elvis Presley’s Graceland Mansion is indeed a “better” elite Roman villa than ones around the Mediterranean. Built in 1939, purchased by Elvis in 1957, and modified and redecorated over the last twenty years of his life, the mansion reflects the King’s personal taste, commemorates his personal achievements, and memorializes his loved ones. The residence features a recording studio and office, balanced by zones for otium like the swimming pool and racquetball courts. The Jungle Room, sheathed in green shag carpet, boasts an indoor waterfall akin to the Euripi described by Cicero in de Legibus II.2. Many other decorative features and direct classical references at Graceland evoke antiquity, but the Meditation Garden is perhaps the most poignant and eloquent aspect of the residence-turned-museum’s allusion to Roman villas. As the funerary monument to Elvis and a number of his family members, the Garden is visited by hundreds of thousands of international pilgrims, especially around the anniversary of Elvis’ death.

Graceland, therefore, is the eclectic and personalized architectural autobiography of the King, an enduring shrine to his memory, and a time capsule of (for better or for worse) contemporary taste.

Through this comparison of elite villas and Graceland, this paper interrogates, in part, the usefulness of ancient textual sources with respect to examining archaeological evidence for Roman domestic architecture.

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Yep, so an NPR program has hit me again with another example of economic capital, cultural capital, and social capital all collaborating to assist in self-fashioning. This time it was a Fresh Air interview with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, carried out by Terry Gross.

[NB: Gross’ speech patterns often drive me bananas, but Fresh Air keeps me good enough company on the bus ride to work.]

LCD Soundsystem’s song “Losing My Edge” is all about the anxiety one feels about getting older and being surpassed by the new generation coming up. Specifically, the lyrics deal with jealousy over a music collection.

Yeah, I’m losing my edge.
I’m losing my edge.
The kids are coming up from behind.
I’m losing my edge.
I’m losing my edge to the kids from France and from London.
But I was there.

I heard you have a compilation of every good song ever done by anybody. Every great song by the Beach Boys. All the underground hits. All the Modern Lovers tracks. I heard you have a vinyl of every Niagra record on German import. I heard that you have a white label of every seminal Detroit techno hit – 1985, ’86, ’87. I heard that you have a CD compilation of every good ’60s cut and another box set from the ’70s.

This seems to have particular resonance with some of the anxiety Roman aristocrats felt about the nouveaux riches buying luxurious homes and filling them with the typical “collectibles” of the day–silverware, Greek or Greek-like sculpture, costly purple-dyed cloth, etc. There was a resentment that economic capital could be used to acquire social capital and the lower classes could share–if not usurp—the habitus of the intellectual elite. These aspirational aspects of consumption and symbolic possessions are the background for some of the critiques of luxury and collecting found in Roman satire. Martial’s disparagement of Eros (Ep. X.80), Mamurra (IX.59), and Charinus (IV.39) emerges from not only an awareness of the convertibility of symbolic and cultural capital, but also a veiled anxiety over self-completion through consumption.

In talking about writing “Losing My Edge,” Murphy says about naming obscure bands at the end of the song:

This is what you do when you know things….Knowing things, knowledge, your attachment to them, or your self-association with other bands or with books or whatever. It’s often this weird amulet that protects you. You’re like ‘I am serious. Look at my library or listen to this. I’m going to list all the books I’ve read and now you know I’m a serious person.’

To this, Terry Gross responds: “I think a lot of people have experienced that. What you read, what you listen to as who you are.”

In this instance, the books or albums are strong indicators of Murphy’s erudition, but talking about the books or music is what really fulfills his identity. There is a knowledge that goes along with the possessions which completes the picture of the real hipster with encyclopedic musical taste and awareness. The habitus of this particular type includes the record collection as well as the esoteric knowledge of, say, the genealogy of CBGB stars.

So I continue to imagine the relationship among identity, status, the house and its contents in the Roman world to include the education–formal or informal–to discuss the display of works of art in the home. The elite habitus, as far as the house was concerned, was comprised of both the material, economic capital and the cultural capital required to discuss it with one’s peers.

And just to bring it back to the house, here’s LCD Soundsystem’s song “Home.”

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