Abstract: The Patron is the Program: Understanding Roman Domestic Decor as Autobiography

This paper takes as a point of departure the problem of finding thematic displays among the suites of decoration in Roman residences of the Late Republic and Early Empire as well as the difficulties involved in understanding ancient viewer experience in these settings. I offer the possibility that displays of frescoes, mosaics, sculpture, and furnishings could have been read as a sort of autobiography of the house’s owner. This model is not meant to supplant modes of viewing in which aesthetic, formal qualities were appreciated or in which iconological exercises took place. Rather, this autobiographical reading should be added to the list of possible experiences an ancient visitor to a villa or house might have had.

Primary textual sources, for example extended ekphrasis on art collections, indicate that programmatic readings of displays were extremely rare and that many viewers had more self-centered or at least subjective responses to art. As archaeologists and art historians have come to approach domestic decoration as a status symbol and a tool for self-fashioning, these displays can perhaps be seen as more literal commemoration of an owner’s various achievements. 

This paper addresses the ideological connections between the Roman house and personal identity, formal associations between public and private displays of art, and the actual interactions ancient viewers had with artworks. What I have concluded is that there was a strong connection between the house and autobiography and that it is possible to read a suite of domestic decorations as if the patron himself were the program. The owner symbolically made references to his own achievements, personal and intellectual powers through his decoration, and more than likely assisted his visitors in reading the displays.
In addition to examining some domestic collections from Roman Italy, this paper analyzes ancient textual evidence for the connections among the house, memory, and personal identity or propaganda.