Chapter X - House of the Fountain

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Adjoining the north wall of the fullonica is a house, not particular from its dimensions, but adorned with a fountain of so remarkable a structure, that the habitation was distinguished, for some time, by no other name. There is, however, the name of Holconius Priscus near the door, who was, probably, the protector of the proprietor.

An angle, in size nearly equal to one quarter of the whole quadrangle occupied by this house, has been cut off so as to form a small habitation, consisting only of two little rooms, an entrance, and a peristyle of three columns on each side, and uniting, by means of a narrow door, with the fullonica.

The columns are placed round a compluvium, at one extremity of which seem to have been more than the usual inventions for water-works ; and certain dwarf walls are observed, the uses of which are by no means apparent. Vide plan, plate LX.

The house of the fountain is approached from the street of the Mercuries by a handsome and lofty door ; and the atrium is not less than fifty feet in length, by forty broad. This atrium has its ala on each side, regularly disposed, with its tablinum in the centre ; and, beyond it, a portico with a small court, the wall of which is painted to represent a garden. In the tablinum is a pretty painting of goats.

The whole ground floor of the house consists of eleven rooms, without reckoning the alae, the atrium, or the portico, and it seems to have been the property of a person of consideration.

The ornaments, on the whole, do not differ much in style from those already mentioned. The inner portico has only three columns, and those of a degraded Corinthian ; nor are they at equal distances from what may be termed their antae. The fountain also, though nearly in the middle of the garden, which is not rectangular, is neither placed opposite an intercolumniation, nor opposite the centre of the tablinum, so that it must have lost much of its effect.

Of the wall of the garden, more will be said in the description of the view of it in plate LIII.

The colours and the plaster have long since fallen.

There was a private entrance through the faux, and a back passage from the vicus of the Tragic Poet. Near the faux was also the staircase for ascending to the upper floor.

In this house is the representation of a comic scene, given in plate LIV.

The fountain itself was, however, the great source of the modern celebrity of this habitation, presenting, in fact, several circumstances calculated to strike an observer. First its form, as will be seen by reference to plate LIII, is precisely that which every citizen would erect as a fountain at the bottom of his garden, near the metropolis, in our own times, and such as may be seen, at the present day, in the courts of most of the palaces in Rome and throughout Italy, and proving that, the worse the taste, the better chance it has of being handed down for imitation from generation to generation.

Secondly, the materials are of a singular description, the whole being covered or incrusted with a sort of mosaic, consisting of vitrified tesserae of different colours, but in which blue predominates. These are sometimes arranged in not inelegant patterns, and the grand divisions, as well as the borders, are entirely formed by, and ornamented with, real sea-shells, neither calcined by the heat of the eruption, nor changed by the lapse of so many centuries.

It is so difficult to describe the exact nature of the shells, in a manner perfectly intelligible to those who have not studied them as a science, that they may be here represented by a wooden cut.

It has been said that a boiler, or caldron, in this house, was so contrived that hot water could, if necessary, be conveyed to the cistern, or piscina, which advances in front of the fountain. We are exceedingly apt to accuse the ancients of ignorance in natural philosophy, an imputation winch the excavations of Pompeii almost every day contradict. Pliny states that water in leaden pipes will rise to the height of the source whence it is derived ; and, in the Sylvae of Statius, it is clearly shown that the Aqua Marcia passed the Anio in leaden pipes. But Vitruvius, (VIII, 7), gives instructions for the conveyance of water in tubes ; and Pliny, (XXXI, 6), mentions the custom as common in his time. The two fountains of Pompeii confirm the written testimony.

Neither does it seem that the use of shells, in the decorations of a fountain, is first noticed in the excavations of Pompeii, for Cicero, in his Formian Villa, appears to have employed them. A certain Philander, who wrote notes on Vitruvius, has this remarkable passage : «Quod veteres admiscuerint incrustationibus, potissimum fontium fornicibus quod nostra aetas imitatur. Quod genus videtur in Villa Ciceronis ad Formias interspersis purpuris, peloridibus, caeterisque conchis».

The peloris was a species of shell-fish, about which the ancients themselves seem in doubt, as ostrea and echinus are both given as synonymous interpretations.

Vignette 22 - Commentary