Department Colloquium: Hérica Valladares (UNC Chapel Hill) "Women Writers from Pompeii: Epistolary Fictions in Roman Wall Painting"

Thursday, October 5, 2023 - 4:45pm to 6:15pm

402 Cohen Hall, 249 South 36th St.

*4:15-4:45 pm: Coffee and cookies in Cohen Hall 2nd Floor Lounge. All are welcome.

Speaker: HéricaValladares, Assoicate Professor, Department of Classics, UNC Chapel Hill

Title:"Women Writers from Pompeii: Epistolary Fictions in Roman Wall Painting"

Abstract: The Pompeian portrait of a couple (often identified as a baker and his wife) and the so-called “Sappho” (also found in Pompeii) have long fascinated modern viewers. Both frescoes depict elegantly dressed women who hold a wax tablet with one hand, while lifting a stylus to their lips in a gesture that suggests intellectual engagement. Yet despite numerous evocations of daily life in both compositions, these first-century images of women writers have been largely interpreted as aspirational, optimistic representations of non-elite subjects.

In this paper, I will interrogate the continued assumption that images of women writers in Campanian wall painting belong solely to the realm of fantasy. By looking at Pompeian graffiti that either reproduce or recreate the poems of Latin love elegists, I aim to bring Pompeian depictions of women writers into closer dialogue with the actual experiences of late-first century individuals. At the same time, I also investigate the potent symbolism of the wax tablet. Although in everyday life they served many purposes, in Roman art these objects frequently denoted an amatory epistolary exchange. The representations of women writers on the walls of Campanian houses should be seen then as participating in a larger intermedial network of metaphors. After all, like the “baker’s wife,” “Sappho,” too, was paired with the image of a male “poet.” In both instances, couples were transformed into perfect correspondents whose romantic bond, though redolent of elegy, had been thoroughly domesticated.