Review of ‘Otium’ exhibition in Ravenna

A nice piece for those teaching Pliny’s letters, Vita Rustica in the Cambridge Anthology, or the Roman Villa.

From the International Herald Tribune

For the ancient Romans the word “otium” – the implications of which
ranged from “a pause,” through “ease” and “leisure” to “inactivity” and
“sheer indolence” – was fraught with ambiguity. Its opposite,
“negotium” (non-otium), denoted activity, involvement in public affairs
and administration, and generally the doing of business, from which our
word “negotiate” derives.

How the pursuit of “otium” became a way of life for the leisured
Roman classes and gave birth to the classic Roman villa is the
rewarding subject of “Otium: The Art of Living in the Roman House of
the Imperial Age” in Ravenna, where the doors are thrown open to the
Roman private house. The venue is the Complesso di San Nicolo, the
great hall of whose former church is spacious enough to accommodate
large sections of ancient mosaic, as well as detached frescoes,
statuary, furnishings, fittings and other household objects, well over
100 of them in all. (The show continues until Oct. 5.)

The Romans were convinced that the previous rulers of much of the
peninsula, the Etruscans, had been brought down by their increasing
idleness and hedonistic self-indulgence. The old Roman virtues were
puritanical, emphasizing simplicity, self-denial and hard work. During
the Republican era, it was a prime duty of all free-born males of
reasonable means to interest themselves in politics and administration,
which involved spending a large part of their time in the capital and
other urban centers.

The fall of the Republic and the institution of an imperial
dictatorship by Augustus put the Roman ruling classes into a state of
crisis. Deprived of their traditional role, what were they to do with
their time? And where, given their almost constant presence in town was
no longer required, were they to spend it? Otium had been thrust upon
them. Moreover, the fruits of imperial expansion in the late Republic
and early Empire had made them wealthier than ever.

One result was an explosion of private home building. And, as the
exhibition demonstrates, the form this domestic architecture took was
influenced both by exposure to Greek culture and the demands of a
changing Roman society.

Greece had by then been absorbed into the Roman Empire and
upper-class Romans were profoundly affected by this. “Captive Greece
held captive her uncouth conqueror,” as the poet Horace put it. With
leisure hours to fill, cultivating one’s sensibility and indulging in
philosophical speculation, activities that traditionalists saw as all
very well for the Greeks but not suitable for Romans, became
respectable, even desirable pursuits. Indeed, the creation of an
environment in which this new Greek-style otium could be practiced was
a cornerstone of villa architecture.

The first section of the exhibition is appropriately lined with
statues and reliefs of Greek philosophers and images of scholarly
activity – more than likely in Greek, the study of the Greek language,
literature and philosophy becoming a prime example of leisure time well
spent and not frittered away in mere idleness.

Traditionally, urban Romans did not think much of the countryside.
Like Karl Marx, they tended to write it off as the realm of “rustic
imbecility.” Aristocratic Romans owned vast estates worked by slave
labor, which they might visit to inspect, but they would never have
conceived of taking up residence there. Now the countryside was the
perfect location, far from the distractions and hubbub of the town to
spend leisure hours amid fresh air and tranquility cultivating the
liberal arts. (Horace even made the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that it
had become rather vulgar to live in town.) And, after long years of
civil strife, the new security ushered in by the pax Augusta made it
possible to live safely in rural areas.

The ideal house (“domus”) became the country house, or villa. But
sophisticated Romans continued to look down on their country cousins.
Pliny the Younger, that arbiter of correct country style, with his
seaside weekend villa near Rome and an even grander one “in Tuscany”
(the site is now in Umbria), relates in a letter how the rustic
complainings of his tenant farmers in Tuscany “hasten me back to my
literary and more urbane studies.”

From the same villa, in another letter, he also defines in a
nutshell the later notion of the “picturesque,” when he says the view
from it “seems to be a painted scene of unusual beauty rather than a
real landscape.”

Painted landscapes on the walls of villas, notwithstanding the
natural ones that surrounded them, became the sine qua non of the
well-appointed villa, as did mosaic floors, both illustrated with
characteristic examples in the exhibition. So, too, did heated baths
and swimming pools, however small.

Colonnaded courtyards, or peristyles, were absolutely de rigueur.
These features were inspired by Greek public and institutional
architecture – such as the famous gymnasiums and academies as well as
the temple – rather than Greek domestic buildings. Roman houses
differed radically from Hellenistic ones in that there were no women’s
quarters, where female members of the household were secluded and kept
from view – a positively “oriental” practice to the Roman mind. Hosts
and guests of both sexes mixed freely and shared the same table.

Urban men and, there is evidence to suggest, especially women were
reluctant to spend time in the country without the amenities and
creature comforts of the town. Women clearly had a significant say in
the choosing of décor, fixtures and fittings, such as the utensils,
tableware and lamps on show here. Despite the Augustan rhetoric of
returning to the virtues a bygone age, women won new freedoms on a
number of fronts during this period. We know, too, from scores of
houses in and around Pompeii that women also partook of the
opportunities of otium to develop their musical, literary and
intellectual talents.

A section given to “Games for All Ages” opens a window into the
world of children and more lighthearted pastimes. Roman children seem
to have had as much unrestricted use of every part of the house and
gardens as the women of the household. Their adoring parents sometimes
gave them expensive toys. The star turn here is Crepereia Tryphaena’s
beautiful ivory doll from the Capitoline Museum in Rome with
articulated limbs and minutely carved coiffeur, the image of the
Empress Faustina’s fashionable hairdo. This Roman Barbie also had
multiple accessories, including little combs, a key, jewelry and an
exquisite box, possibly for her makeup. Simple amusements included
various games involving throwing knucklebones and dice, to which Romans
remained addicted, also for the purposes of divination and gambling,
into adulthood.

The literary and archaeological evidence brought together here
reminds us that the Roman villa, less spectacular than the mighty
aqueducts, bridges and monumental buildings, was nonetheless one of the
great achievements of Roman civilization. A combination of Greek
thought and public architecture and Roman planning and engineering, the
villa was as agreeable and practical a living space as any constructed
in human history.

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