In the light of Pompeii

21 Nov 2022

Fire spectacles, shadow play: archeologist Ruth Bielfeldt studies how light was used in the Roman Empire to stage-manage community – and social power.

Prof. Dr. Bielfeldt in front of antique lamps

Prof. Dr. Ruth Bielfeldt

© LMU / v.zign

What to take with you when your house is in flames and a volcano is erupting over the city where you live? On 24 October of the year 79 A.D., a fleeing couple chose just two things: a key and a bronze lamp in the shape of an African head. They did not even have money on them.

Alas, they did not get far – their remains were found almost 2,000 years later on a road before the gates of Pompeii.

The couple’s decision to take a little lamp with them on their flight has emblematic significance. For the people of the Roman Empire, light was far more than a means of finding their way in the dark or of turning night into day. This becomes clear when Ruth Bielfeldt talks about her research:

“In Roman society, light was engineered to inspire awareness, but also to influence social atmospheres. Artificial light can be orchestrated, moreover, to direct people’s attention to what they should see,” says the Professor of Classical Archeology at LMU.

Different relationship to day and night

In Roman houses of the first century A.D., there was a great variety of lighting equipment made of terracotta and bronze – from tall candelabra to handy oil-burning table lamps in all kinds of shapes. Romans did not wait for nightfall to light lamps. Anyone seeking to see things from the perspective of those distant times “must undergo a rupture with today’s lighting practices,” says Bielfeldt. “Time and the perception of time were structured very differently, and life in Roman households had a different practical relationship with day and night.”

This is apparent in the architecture: The Roman house seals itself off from sunlight, with hardly any windows. Instead, light shines into the atrium from above, falling down like a shower. “There were different lighting dynamics in the house depending on the position of the sun. In some rooms, there were extreme light contrasts that posed quite a challenge for the human eye.” Some of the rooms were in the dark or semi-dark all day long and needed lamps even in the daytime.

As part of the “New Light from Pompeii” research project“, Ruth Bielfeldt investigates the lighting culture in the ancient city. With her team, she researched little known bronze lamps – bronze being a virtually neglected material – from the storage vaults of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. The artifacts were brought to Munich for a year of study and restoration. Employing scientific techniques, the researchers analyzed and digitally simulated various materials, especially bronze, along with their light and shadow effects in order to capture the interactions of light, space, and the human eye. Some of the originals were even reproduced according to rigorous scientific criteria. At the same time, the team investigated Roman light cultures and analyzed key texts from the period that explicitly discuss or incidentally mention lighting. “It’s about understanding how people in ancient times saw what,” says Bielfeldt.

Roman dining culture as the quintessential social activity

For the LMU archeologist, the lamps are “key objects” for comprehending the ancient world. Pursuing an “archeology of the senses” approach, Bielfeldt investigates the sensory impressions of people in ancient societies as a way of deepening our understanding of social rituals. The new insights into the use of light, for example, are expanding our view on the art of Roman dining and celebration: “Light gives us a better understanding of festive culture and its key rituals. Lighting shapes the sensory experience of communal life. And it shapes power relationships, which were symbolically and physically instantiated with the help of lighting.”

Bielfeldt’s research shows how strongly the experience of light is culturally informed. “As observers from the present, we’re quick to project our own sensory experiences on to those times. At a dinner party today, for example, the lighting is designed to create coziness and intimacy. But the Roman cena had nothing to do with coziness.”

At the cena, the private banquet, the guests apparently reclined alongside each other, but who lay where and what they could see was regulated. “Social life played out in concentrated form at the banquet, the feast, which was the place for networking. Originally reserved for the elite, it evolved into a form of communication between the elites and the imperial household, or between the elites and social dependents.” Pompeian families would invite guests to a banquet several times a week, and there were various dining rooms for this purpose. Light played an active part in structuring the cena. It created hierarchies, but at the same time visual chaos: shadow plays, fantastical images, “intoxicated visions.”

The cena had a large element of theater about it. It was about seeing. Center stage was occupied by the food, which was presented for the eyes and the stomach – “an ancient form of food posting,” observes Bielfeldt. “The dishes came from everywhere – the diners imbibed the whole Roman Empire as it were. Even the slaves were a commodity. They came from all over the empire and were presented in all their beauty and physical availability.”

The bronze lamps are themselves documents of social conditions. “There are figural lamps that depict slaves and thus more or less directly the practice of slavery. Social instrumentalization is also a topic of lampstand statues. Sculptures in the Greek style are fitted out with trays and lamps in Pompeii and used as dumbwaiters. This creates a tension between the real slaves and their bronze counterparts.”

Bilychnis, replica (Figure 28.1. from the exhibition catalog)

© Institut für Klassische Archäologie, Projekt Neues Licht aus Pompeji/Johannes Eber

Snapshot of a Roman city

Pompeii, which was buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted, provides archeologists with unique insights into Roman society. The prosperous small city opens a window on to the Roman middle class, as Ruth Bielfeldt explains. “In the first century before Christ, there was strong social dynamism thanks to the many freed slaves. This phenomenon can also be traced in Pompeii.”

How people consumed light also changed, says Johannes Eber, who worked on the project. “Researchers had previously considered bronze lamps to be a luxury good.” The finds in Pompeii tell a different story. They show that all inhabitants had access to lighting, and not just in the form of terracotta. “In Pompeii, every household owned at least one bronze stand, and bronze lamps were found in almost every house – indeed, the most beautiful ones were discovered in cook-shops and workshops.”

A different way of seeing

As part of the project, the team led by Ruth Bielfeldt analyzed ancient texts about perception. “The ancient world had a completely different conception of seeing. Eyes were not conceptualized as passive receptors, but as having emitting capabilities. There was a theory that rays emerge from the eyes themselves and sense or scan objects. But objects could also be thought of as active in the seeing process – for example, that they give off particles and images. Vision was full of activity.” Analysis of the bronze lamps confirmed the optical knowledge that went into their production, with their reflectors and multiple shadow images.

Bielfeldt’s team is now showcasing its research results in an exhibition created in collaboration with the State Collections of Antiquities in Munich. The archeologist wants to show visitors how people in antiquity saw the world. To this end, there is a “Virtual Triclinium,” an interactive virtual scenario of a Pompeian dining room, where visitors can appreciate the lighting and touch the lighting equipment. And there is the “Hygge Room” devised by Ruth Bielfeldt and lighting designer Stefan Maier. In this place of seeing and conversation, there are various historical lighting scenarios to experience.

“The historical sciences are shedding light on aspects that are just as virulent today as they were back then, but for which we have no eye in our chaotic present. Beautiful aspects and problematic ones,” says Ruth Bielfeldt. “Looking back at the past remains a key to the present. And what does it mean anyway, to be past?”

Exhibition: New Light from Pompeii

On 9 November 2022, the “New Light from Pompeii” research exhibition opened in the State Collections of Antiquities in Munich. The exhibition presents 180 known and completely unknown originals from the Vesuvian cities. A highlight is the “Virtual Triclinium” created in collaboration with the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre, Virtual and Augmented Reality Lab, Sofia Tech Park.

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