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On Graceland and Roman elite villas: My post at the Chronicle

This post on David Silbey’s history blog from the Chronicle of Higher Education lays out some of the arguments I’m making in a conference paper (coming up next weekend in ABQ!) and an article. The post also talks a bit about how I arrived at the idea for the research project, “showing my work,” as it were.

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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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As a resident of Memphis, I have visited Graceland three times–two of those times were with esteemed colleagues in ancient art and archaeology (Rabun Taylor and Bettina Bergmann). While teaching a seminar last fall on Roman domus and villas around the Bay of Naples, it dawned on me that Graceland is our best extant example of what a Roman luxury villa was meant to be.

I mean, it has everything:

  • Locations for both otium (swimming pool, billiard room) and negotium (office, recording studio)
  • It is located in a semi-rural area, outside a city (at least when first constructed)
  • The house has now become a shrine to the memory of the residence’s most prominent owner
  • That prominent owner is buried there in an eye-catching monument
  • There are images of the owner’s ancestors (and their funerary monuments as well)
  • In the decoration there are allusions to exotic locations (the “Jungle Room”) and more traditional, indigenous elements
  • Animals in the decoration: peacocks (living room), monkey (media room)
  • There are “water features” for an allusion to the taming of nature (indoor waterfall in the Jungle Room)
  • The residence is situated on a large parcel of land

Perhaps unlike any Roman residence, there is at Graceland a very clear demarcation between public and private; visitors to the mansion are not allowed upstairs into the private bedrooms. Some rooms have a more consistent iconographical theme than what we see in ancient residences, rather than an eclectic blending of styles and subject matter.

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