54 × 61 cm. Inv. No. 20620.Naples, National Archaeological Museum
54 × 61 cm.
Naples, National Archaeological Museum
(Napoli, Museo archeologico nazionale)
She is sitting straight, facing the front. On her right arm is a fine armilla on an arm-rest in the form of a winged sphinx; her left arm is raised and a slender hand reaches up to her throat. She is turning slightly towards the centre of the scene and looking not at the protagonist but at the onlooker, her gaze frozen in the act of a tragic revelation. Over the yellow chiton she wears a purple mantle bordered in green, which clings to her body and shows her legs — the left one bent and the right one drawn back. These features suggest different reactions by the two characters in the foreground, and point to their identities and the event. The young man who is ready to go hunting is frozen in his tracks by the revelation, though he shows little sign of reacting to the news he has received, with just an exchange of glances and imperceptible movements. In contrast, the woman who is more dramatically painted, appears regal and perturbed. The effect of the double register of the hands, the right hand resting loosely and the left raised to her throat in apprehension, the appearance of the figure in the picture planes and in perspective, the swirling folds of her dress — all this is contrasts with the powerful physique of the young man. Behind the main figures are two minor ones: an elderly woman in a long draped chiton and red head-dress, and a squire holding the reigns of an impatient white horse, moving to the right, followed by a hound.
In the background are two columns with a flag draped in between, and at the back is a second building silhouetted against a pale green sky. The architecture, like a stage set, predominates while the lack of nature is conveyed by the unnatural looking sky, which appears more the colour of a stormy sea. Light and shade is produced by a single source of light from the left. This composition recalls the stage sets and subjects of Greek tragedies which inspired Italian potters and artists during the 4th century BC. In the early 1st century AD a Campanian artist, known as the Hellenic Master as he worked in the Greek style consisting of placing the figures on intersecting planes, worked in Pompeii and Herculaneum. His paintings show the influence of early experiments by the Greeks of the depiction of a group in the picture space. Therefore, this work appears to be an imitation of Greek painting. The subject is inspired by the theatre and is the scene of Phaedra’s confession to the young Hippolytus, about to go hunting. Infatuated with her stepson and rejected by him, Phaedra, the second wife of Theseus, commits suicide, falsely accusing Hippolytus of seduction. Similarities exist with a fresco from Herculaneum (Le Collezioni del Museo Nazionale di Napoli, I.1—
Mastroroberto, in Pompeii. Picta fragmenta. Decorazioni parietali dalle città sepolte, exhibition catalogue, Turin 1997, pp. 116—
Mastroroberto, in Pittura nella Reggia dalle città sepolte. Affreschi antichi da Pompei, Stabiae, Ercolano, exhibition catalogue, Naples 1999, p. 62, no. 31.