The House of the Harpist

A remarkable group of luxurious wall paintings has been discovered at a rich Roman residence called the House of the Harpist in Arles, southern France.

The house was discovered beneath an 18th-century glassworks factory in the Trinquetaille district, on the right bank of the Rhône. During excavations of the glassworks in the 1980s, several Roman structures dating to the 2nd century AD were identified, but over the past few years archaeologists have returned to the site and have unearthed the remains of an earlier house, built between 70 and 50 BC, below these structures. The walls and ceilings of this 1st century BC house are decorated with an exceptional collection of frescoes in the Second Pompeiian style, which dates to 70-20 BC. This type of wall painting was not uncommon in Italy at the time, but is very unusual in France, with only about 20 examples currently known. These frescoes were probably created by artists brought from Italy, suggesting that the owners of the house were extremely wealthy. However, the house appears to have been deliberately destroyed less than a couple of decades after it was built (50-40 BC), so that a new building could be constructed over the top. Fortunately, this destruction did preserve many of the artworks in the original house.

Some sections of the frescoes were discovered still intact, but much of the painted plaster had to be recovered from debris and fill layers. Now archaeologists from Inrap and the Museum of Ancient Arles are attempting to piece the thousands of fragments back together. With 800 cases of fragments, they estimate that it will take at least 1,000 days to study all of them.

As efforts to piece the fresco fragments back together are still under way, researchers cannot yet tell exactly what the house’s paintings depicted, but they have identified frescoes imitating architectural features such as Corinthian columns, marble panelling, and podiums, as well as a group of large-scale figures painted on a red background. These include a female figure playing a stringed instrument (above) who gave the ‘House of the Harpist’ its name, and other figures believed to be part of a Bacchanalian procession.

Text: Amy Brunskill
Images: Musée départemental Arles antique; Inrap; Rémi Bénali

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