Week 4 Questions : Frescos
Frescos : Using Roman Wall Paintings (frescos) as 'Evidence' for Traditions of Staging in Greece
These Roman frescos from Pompei were preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. around 500 years after the plays of Aeschyus, Euripides and Sophocles were first staged in Athens. They depict myths that were the subject of 5th-century Athenian tragedy, and that continued to be represented on the Roman stage, both in revivals of Greek plays, and in later plays written in Latin.
1. Consider the depictions of mythological scenes:
i What are the main similarities and main differences between the way in which the death of Pentheus is depicted in this fresco and in Euripides' Bakkhai?
As in 'The Bacchae', the Pentheus in the fresco is being brutally murdered by the women followers of Dionysus. Pentheus' mother, Agave (on Pentheus' left), looks as though she is about to rip Pentheus' arm off, as the messenger mentions in 'The Bacchae' ("Grabbing his elbow and digging her foot into his rib cage she pulled until his shoulder parted") The Bacchae are holding thyrceses, ivy-covered sticks typical of Dionysus' followers, which is mentioned by Euripides in 'The Bacchae'.
In the fresco, Agave and Ino are the main perpetrators of the murder and there are only 3 other Bacchae depicted. Euripides states that "the whole pack of blood sisters came screaming from their dance to swarm over him". There are less bacchae around Pentheus and the scene is not nearly as chaotic and confusing as in Euripides' description.
ii. Compare and contrast the way in which the death of Iphigenia is depicted in this fresco with how it is recounted in Aeschylus' Agamemnon, and/or in Euripdes' play Iphigenia at Aulis.
Euripides' description by the chorus of Iphigenia's death keeps descibing her as a she-child, a virgin, as Agamemnon's jewel, joy, virgin-blood. In the fresco she doesn't look terribly young, but her barely-concealed body makes her look vulnerable and innocent.
In the fresco Agamemnon looks very unsure of what he is going to do – his hand on his mouth shows his doubt about comitting the act of sacrifice. 3 of the characters are looking up at the gods, as if waiting for a sign to confirm that the act should be done. In the play it is made to sound as if his mind is unchangeable once it has been made up : Necessity he kneels to it neck into the yokestrap the General harnessed to what he can't change and ince into harness his while life-lot lurches towards the unspeakable horror the crime
iii. Why do you think the similarities and differences which you have identified may exist?
The wall paintings are Roman whereas the plays were written by Greek playwrights; the stories would therefore have changed slightly in the retelling of the stories. Whoever painted the frescos wouldn't have known all the details of the Greek dramas, merely the basic plot.
iv. On reviewing your responses to the above questions, how useful do you find these Roman frescos to be as evidence for traditions of tragic performance in 5th-century Athens?
They are evidence that the performances happened, as they show the plot of the dramas. They show elements of symbolic costume or props from the plays. However, they are not realistic of the plays themselves as they show (for example) humans riding through the sky on horses, which would obviously not have been a tradition of performance. In the ferscos, the characters are not presented as actors, but as the actual people themselves; no one is wearing maks, and there are women, rather than male actors playing women in the performance.
*2. Examine this mosaic from the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompei. *
i. What different types of masks can you see?
There is the mask of a type of animal on the top of one man's head; one man is holding against his face the mask representing Dionysus, with ivy growing out of the top. A tragic white mask and the mask of an old man are lying in a box at the bottom of the picture.
ii. What do you think is going on in this scene?
The characters on the left could be rehearsing for a play, while the boy on the right is being dressed by another boy before starting the rehearsal.
*3. Look at the masks in these frescos depicting actors, and those in the Pronomos Vase.
i. What differences can you discern between the 'tragic' masks depicted in the frescos and the vase?*
On the vase, the masks are much more realistic and like a real human. On the vase they have a large amount of beard and a crown-like thing on the head. In the frescos, the masks are more melodramatic and less like real people. They look as if they are meant to convey the meaning and point of the emotion, but not necessarily in a realistic way.
ii. Why might the masks be different?
The fresco and the vase could have been painted at very different times, or one could be Roman and one could be Greek. They could also just be open to interpretation, so the different artists working on the fresco and vase coulkd have interpreted or remembered the masks from the plays differently.
iii. Why do you think the ancient artists (and viewers) might have been so interested in depictions of actors and masks?
Theatre was a massive part of Greek culture and life, and was central to the life of the city of Athens, so was important enough to be depicted by all artists; it summed up Athenian culture, and inspired the Romans so much that they also felt the need to depict the plays and dramas they saw.
4*. Consider this painting from the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii.*
i. Is it similar or different in subject to the vases considered in Q.3 above?
*ii. What do you think the purpose of such paintings might have been? *