Even today the Shakespearian trope all the worlds a stage has not lost its central place at the heart of human drama and the house continues to provide the ‘stage’ for many of the television soap operas that are avidly consumed all over the world.

The material evidence suggests that even quite modest Romano-Campanian houses were permeated by depictions of mythological themes that would have encouraged a complex range of emotions. Some of the literary connections between the house, emotion and ancient theatre are discussed in Susan Treggiari's article “The upper-class house as a symbol and focus of emotion in Cicero.” (JAR, 1999, vol. 12, 33-56). Latin rhetoric also linked the house with the concept of ‘memory theatre’ and public speakers were trained to roam through an imagined house in order to allow its contents to trigger pre-programmed discourses. (For more on this theme see Bettina Bergmann “The House as Memory Theatre: The House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii”. The Art Bulletin. 1994, vol. 76-2, 225-255.) The house as a theatre of memories also functioned on another level in which the house became an evolving palimpsest designed to encourage memorialisation. This is very much exemplified by the presence of ancestor busts or wax death masks, which were often displayed on honorific shields (imagines clipeatae) in atria or depicted in wall-paintings (fig.1).

Whilst I intend to argue against an overly close relationship between the ancient theatre and domestic wall-painting, it is nevertheless very evident that Italy from Roman times to the present demonstrates a predilection for the theatrical in all aspects of its socio-cultural fabric. Enter any pre-twentieth century church from Turin to Naples and the theatricalisation of religion in terms of spectacle is all too evident. The visual and literary tropes that covered the walls of the inward facing houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum no doubt provided a similar sense of spectacle, which was mainly provided by trompe l'oeil wall-painting's depicting metaphysical worlds inhabited by divinities, mythological beings and ancestors. Even now, its not difficult to imagine how the faded remains of highly sophisticated trompe l’oeil Second Style architectural facades once provided the domestic backdrop that transformed every day encounters into theatre-like staged events, such as the pater or mater familias greeting their clients in the atrium or entertaining cherished friends in the inner sanctums of the house (fig.2).

The House as Theatre
Labyrinth 1
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1 Honorific shields (imago clipeatae) located between the columns of the tholos. Casa del Labirinto, Pompeii - oecus Corinthius