The discovery of Villa P. Fannius Synistor and the scaenarum frontes - scaenae frons conundrum

Much of the current debate concerning whether or not Romano-Campanian wall-painting was influenced by stage scenery has been underpinned by material evidence relating to wall-paintings and ancient texts. Prior to the early twentieth-century discovery of Villa P. Fannius Synistor, attempts to link the wall-paintings to stage scenery were primarily based on the premise that linear and atmospheric perspective evolved to meet the needs of stage scenery and then migrated into domestic wall-painting (fig.1). Wall-paintings, such as those found in the Villa's cubiculum M significantly shifted the focus from purely technical evidence to evidence relating to thematic content (fig.2). This could not have happened without reference to passages in Vitruvius's De Architectura. 

Originally dedicated to Augustus, De Architectura is thought to have been written around the 20s BC as a ten-book manual on architecture, art and civil and military engineering. Its somewhat chequered history, combined with the authors’ own idiosyncratic polemical style caused Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to comment, “Vitruvius is not easy reading; the book is written in an obscure style and needs to be studied critically. I skim through the pages or, to be more exact, I read it like a breviary, more from devotion than for instruction.” (Goethe. Italian Journey. 1786-1788.  Penguin Classics 1982 : 103). Despite this and many other criticisms it became fundamental to the debate concerning the Roman theatre's influemce on domestic Romano-Campanian wall-painting. For those searching for a link between the two, cubiculum M provided 'unambiguous' evidence confirming Vitruvius's observation that in-house wall-paintings were produced in the tragic, comic and satyric style (Vitru, 7.5.2). On its own this snippet of text would not have been sufficient to categorically link the wall-paintings to theatre scenery because the genres he cites are generic to other art forms. Therefore, in order to specifically connect them to the stage it was linked to earlier texts in De Architectura (Book 5.6.9 in particular) that clearly associated the three genres with theatre scenery (fig.3). This may seem a reasonable strategy, but unfortunately re-positioning Vitruvius's reference to tragic, comic and satyric styles in Book 7.5.2 from the generic to specifically theatre environments, relies on the interpretation of other key words in the same text, particularly scaenarum and scaenarum frontes, both of which are problematical phrases.

The problem, from both a translator and theorist's view point, is that there is an inherent ambiguity associated with the word scaenae and its genitive form scaenarum because it can mean both theatre stage scenery and scenery in general, such as a landscape. Hence in its route form scaena can mean theatre, stage, scene or view. Scaenarum is its genitive plural form. Frontes is the plural of frons - meaning forehead, brow, front or facade. In Book 5 Vitruvius describes the architectural components required to construct a Roman theatre and in section 6.9 scaenarum appears in a description of stage scenery in the tragic, comic and satyric style - "genera autem sunt scaenarum tria, unum quod dicitur tragicum, alterum comicum, tertium satyricum..." The two much quoted English translations by Joseph Gwilt (1826) and Morris Hicky Morgan (1914) both translate scaenarum in this context as 'scenes', as in stage scenery: "There are three sorts of scenes, the Tragic, the Comic, and the Satyric". (Gwilt); "There are three kinds of scenes, one called the tragic, second, the comic, third, the satyric". (Morgan).

The House as Theatre
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1 Villa P. Fannius Synistor during the 1900 excavation with Vesuvius visible on the horizon
2 Cubiculum M (end wall) - Villa P. Fannius Synistor
3 Sebastiano Serlio's illustrations of tragic, comic and satyric stage scenery (1545) based descriptions by Marcus Pollio Vitruvius (20s BC.)