Hippolytus and Phaedra
Fresco from Pompeii.
54 × 61 cm.
Inv. No. 20620.Naples, National Archaeological Museum

Hippolytus and Phaedra.

Fresco from Pompeii.
54 × 61 cm.
Inv. No. 20620.

Naples, National Archaeological Museum
(Napoli, Museo archeologico nazionale).

From Pompeii, unknown provenance.
The red wall, where this pinax originally stood, contained a painting surrounded by a thin white frame. The scene shows four figures: a seated woman on the left; three standing figures in the centre, and a horse and a dog on the right. In the middle is a male figure, standing upright facing the front. He is naked, with just a chlamys draped down his back on one side, and he holds a lance. The pose of the figure suggests he is resting, with the weight on his left leg and his right leg slightly bent with the toes just touching the ground, raised as though about to take a step. The movement towards the right, which the man is about to make, is developed in the upper part of the body, with a slight torsion of the bust, the movement stressed by the muscles in his chest, face and elbow. These are highlighted and stand out from the tanned skin, and with the bent right arm all suggest movement. However, the gesture of the hand drawn back and the angry suspicious glance capture the attention and focus the gaze on the left side, where a female figure sits on an elegant throne.

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—I.2, Rome 1989, I. 1, p. 150, no. 195) and another painting from Stabiae (Miniero P., Stabiae. Pitture e stucchi delle ville romane, exhibition catalogue, Naples 1989, p. 36) showing Hippolytus repudiating Phaedra, part of a figurative composition now lost, with his stepmother and the old nurse. The myth of Hippolytus is frequent in wall painting and usually depicts the salient moments of the story, either in scenes with few figures (see Le Collezioni del Museo Nazionale di Napoli, I.1—I.2, Rome 1989, I. 1, no. 76) or in scenes like this one, which are more complex and detailed. The source for the iconography of the various scenes is the second “Hippolytus” by Euripides, which resulted in two versions of the story in the figurative arts: one in the Greek style focussing on the drama of Phaedra’s love, the other covering the whole story in a theatrical representation showing the main characters. In this picture, the composition on different planes, the frontal poses and the figures slightly turning on the same plane are clearly of classical inspiration. However, the moods of the characters and the attempt to control the space (Phaedra’s leg drawn back and the glimpse of Hippolytus’s inclined right foot) suggest that the painting is in the tradition of the 3rd style.

Marisa Mastroroberto
Mastroroberto, in Riscoprire Pompei, exhibition catalogue, Rome 1993—1994, pp. 292—294, no. 225;
Mastroroberto, in Pompeii. Picta fragmenta. Decorazioni parietali dalle città sepolte, exhibition catalogue, Turin 1997, pp. 116—117, no. 68;
Mastroroberto, in Pittura nella Reggia dalle città sepolte. Affreschi antichi da Pompei, Stabiae, Ercolano, exhibition catalogue, Naples 1999, p. 62, no. 31.
© 2001. Photo, text: Pompeii. Images from the buried cities. Electa, Napoli, 2001, p. 75—76, no. 26.
Keywords: ζωγραφικήί pictura ars picturae painting pittura malerei peinture ελληνική μυθολογία mythologia graeca greek mythology mitologia greca griechische mythologie grecque ρωμαϊκές roman romana romano romani römisch römische römisches römischen römischer romain romaine romains romaines σφίγξ σφίγγα sphinx sfinge φαίδρα phaidra phaedra fedra phädra phèdre ἱππόλυτος ιππόλυτος hippolytos hippolytus ippolito hippolyte φρεσκογραφία τοιχογραφία νωπογραφία wall fresco frescos frescoes opera parietale murale opere parietali murali affresco affreschi freskomalerei frischmalerei wandmalerei fresko fresken fresque fresques pintura mural horse horseman rider armchair easy chair elbow-chair furniture cricket footstool male footwear foot-gear female feminine garment garments clothes clothing pinax chlamys chiton purple mantle bracelet bangle adornment armilla winged sphynx phix column pillar inv no 20620