from the Roman Period to the Middle Ages

Images and imaginations of Roman ports

Fig. 1: Rome, Museo Torlonia, inv. 430 (© D-DAI-ROM-33.1326 [Felbermeyer])

For the most part the ancient ports and harbours in the Mediterranean are neither entirely nor partially preserved. Reasons for this are mainly the effect of the natural elements on the structural remains in the contact zone between land and sea as well as tectonic shifts and human influence. Due to the lack of monuments pictorial representations of ancient ports are frequently used to reconstruct their architectural appearance. Because of their wealth of details a relief in the Museo Torlonia (fig. 1), a sarcophagus relief in the Vatican Museums (fig. 2) and wall paintings from the Campania region (fig. 3 and 4) are often used as model and illustration. However, the amount of pictorial representations of Roman and early Byzantine harbours is significantly larger; thus, the compilation of these scenes and their contextual analysis is a desideratum in the research on ancient ports and their facilities.

The research project "Images and imaginations of Roman ports" studies in different genres the extent to which representations of Roman ports are suitable for the reconstruction of the ancient appearance of individual ports and the performative acts - such as rituals and statuary line-ups – which had been practiced there. For pictorial representations it was commonly assumed that the represented monuments can be specifically identified and assigned to particular ports, without checking the images’ own value as a source. However, it is a necessity to examine in detail in with genera representations of ports occur, who were the clients and audiences, which is the value of those images as a source and which information we are able to gain about the structural facilities of ports. Furthermore, we hope to gain a better insight into the perception of "port" and "sea" as areas of life by the ancient people.

Fig. 2: Vatican, Cortile del Belvedere, inv. 973 (© D-DAI-ROM-31.1138)

Due to the current state of research an extensive research in the various art forms and a detailed documentation of the pieces is necessary first. Based on this research detailed descriptions of the images of ports are to be created. The information obtained will be added to the archaeological object database "Arachne” in order to make them available online for further research after the completion of the project.

Based on this research the following issues will be examined:

1) What are the contexts in which ports and harbour scenes have been pictured and who are both clients and addressees?

A first separation of the genera of harbour views can be made according to a public and a private context. On coins and monuments such as Traian’s Column images of port facilities possess the character of a public representation. Images on sarcophagus reliefs, wall paintings, mosaics, glass bottles and lamps, on the other hand, derive from private context. Ports have been depicted both in the secular as well as in the mythical context. The assumptions that harbour scenes in a mythical context occur only in a private context shall be checked.

Fig. 3: Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale inv. 9484 (© Luciano Pedicini, Archivio dell’arte, Nr. MN 0927)

2) Which amount of realism and which value as a source do the pictures have?

As a basic premise for the analysis of harbour scenes it is assumed that the representations only rarely can be considered as realistic scenes from a clearly localizable harbour. By a synopsis of the images it is possible to work out which buildings repeatedly occur and hence are to be described as topical for identification as a harbour and which are specific to individual images and therefore could be assigned to a specific port.

3) Which performative actions in port facilities can be reconstructed by examining the pictorial harbour scenes?

In the archaeological record the practice of statue line-up, ritual acts or every-day activities in Roman ports are hard to grasp. For this complex we possess no further knowledge besides sparse written notes. The analysis of the representations of harbours is suitable to expand our knowledge in this area.

4) Is it possible to reconstruct the perception of “port” and “sea” as areas of life by the contemporaries? Which positive and negative connotations have been connected with it?

The question is to which occasions harbours have been represented, which view on the habitats “port” and “sea” the client / producer wanted to communicate and which possibilities of reception had been available to the observer.

Fig. 4: Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale inv. 9514 (© Luciano Pedicini, Archivio dell’arte, Nr. MN 0892)

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