On the Threshold: Visualizing Ambiguity in the Art and Experience of Ancient Roman Doorways

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Chen, Amanda Kane
Gensheimer, Maryl B.
Neither interior nor exterior, doors, thresholds, and passageways were regarded as powerful, yet ambiguous areas by the ancient Romans. Ancient myths and texts characterize thresholds as sites of magic and ritual and record that improper movements or interactions could enact misfortune or physical peril for those who transgressed the space. These concerns about the liminal nature of doorways are reflected in the art historical and archaeological records, where corridors are often decorated with charged images or inscriptions. This dissertation examines the wide variety of efficacious images that accompany domestic doorways in the cities of ancient south Italy (Campania) from the second century BCE through the first century CE. The project investigates the painting, mosaic, architectural features, and surrounding urban landscape of domestic doorways to understand how images were used to mark and mediate transitional spaces, and to reconstruct the ancient experience of moving through spatially ambiguous areas. In doing so, it offers new insights into the active nature of Roman images and the mechanism of this “superstitious” practice. The phenomenon of decorating spaces of passage with powerful imagery existed throughout the ancient Mediterranean and reveals not only Roman concerns with the uncertainties of liminal space, but also that images were considered an effective tool for mitigating the perceived vulnerabilities of thresholds. This dissertation demonstrates that homeowners in ancient Campania safeguarded their thresholds by embellishing their entrance corridors with images that themselves possessed ambiguous or transitional qualities and associations. By addressing spatial ambiguity with its visual and ideological counterparts, the Romans developed a visual language that they used to mediate transitional areas. The efficacious images also physically engaged viewers in these protective mechanisms through pointed visual details that encouraged reciprocal interactions and activated the images. This project draws on data collected from a survey of all domestic doorways in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae. It combines wide-ranging philosophical, anthropological, art historical, and archaeological theories to assess the material, and offers a new methodology for understanding and evaluating spatial ambiguity. The conclusions, methodology, and datasets presented in this dissertation exhibit the importance of a comprehensive contextual approach to the art and archaeology of ancient Campania, while they also demonstrate the interconnected nature of art, space, and spiritual practice in ancient south Italy. The project thus carries important implications for studies of Roman art, archaeology, and space, but also for perceptions of and responses to ambiguity and uncertainty more broadly.