National Geographic : 1946 Nov
Interior of a Rich Man's House THE TYPICAL Roman house, like Roman civilization in general, was a hybrid of native Italic, early Etruscan, and imported Greek. Actually, it was two houses in one. The front half, to which the street door gave access through a side corridor, perpetuated ancient native construction by using an open rain catch in the center of the ceiling of the large main room, or atrium. Above this, on the outside, the tiled roof sloped down from all four sides, throwing the rain through spouts into a marble-lined basin set in the floor. There opened off this amply pro portioned atrium several minor rooms, some useful as servants' quar ters, and a master room, with wide doorway hung with curtains against the draft, the entertainment room of the large double house. In the atrium a rich and important proprietor re ceived his following and adherents, his "clients" as they were called, at the early-morning reception with which he began his day. Beyond the reception room with its flanking passageways for servants and familiars, the sunlight shines between the columns of a portico surrounding an open garden court, forerunner of the patio which Rome bequeathed to Spain and Spain trans mitted to her American colonies. Here began the inner portion of the Roman double house, the part bor rowed directly from Greece. Sunroom, dining room, gaming room, and lounge were all likely to be located off this peristyle court. The main sleeping quarters were probably upstairs in a second story, the women's rooms almost invariably so. The ground floor turned blank walls to the outdoor world of streets and alleys, since it drew its light directly down into atrium and peristyle; but in the second story there were windows and balconies, equipped no doubt with shutters and grills. Roman women were by no means confined to their quarters in Oriental seclusion. Even though chance visi tors or business callers never reached the inner house, there was nothing to prevent the married women of the house from appearing in the atrium or frequenting the houses of their friends for news and gossip. A wealthy Roman house was not so elaborately furnished as its American counterpart; but it was more care fully decorated, and color was used more freely. On the floors, where there would seldom be matting or rugs, the favorite tradition, as in Italy today, was for the coolness of tile, elaborated in the more important rooms to the geometric fantasies of intricate mosaic settings. The most costly and spectacular way to decorate the walls was to cover them from top to bottom with a veneer of thin, sawn slabs of marble, white or colored, blank or veined, with contrasting materials such as alabaster, porphyry, and mother-of pearl inserted in patterned shapes. Painted imitations of the glories of veined and colored marble satisfied most requirements for private homes, however. More tasteful were deco rative designs applied directly to the finished plaster. Paintings in the grand manner, echoing famous Greek masters, were not put on canvas and hung, as in our homes, but were copied directly on the plaster walls themselves. Our most extensive information about the lost paintings of Greece has come to us from these copies, discovered in Pompeii under the ashes of Vesuvius.