AbstractsPhilosophy & Theology

Cinnabar: The Symbolic, Seductive, Sublethal Shade of Pompeii

by Celia Davenport Harris

Institution: Brandeis University
Year: 2015
Keywords: Cinnabar; Mercury; Minium; Pompeii; Herculaneum; Third Style; Mark Rothko; Villa of the Mysteries; House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto; Pigment; Quicksilver
Record ID: 2062336
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/10192/30594


The city of Pompeii lies within the southern Italian region of Campania, nestled between the Bay of Naples and the massive Mount Vesuvius. The archaeological remains and continued excavation of the city offer scholars a rich opportunity to delve into the thresholds of ancient homes (domus), and the rituals of daily life. Through analysis conducted using primary and secondary resources, in combination with an artist???s experience, this paper serves to explore one element of the stunning visual force within the ancient decorative arts arena - cinnabar - the symbolic, seductive, sublethal shade of Pompeii. The research for this paper incorporates the history of cinnabar, from environmental extraction and processing of the ore; to the health ramifications of the mercury-based mineral; and focuses on the refined creative craftsmanship of the artisans. The overall role of red, aligned with the distinctive painting styles and mythological subtexts are explored, using The Villa of the Mysteries and The House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto V.4.11, as primary interpreted subjects. Woven into the discussion are the post-Pompeiian modern works of abstract expressionist, Mark Rothko (1903-1970), and the inspiration the ancient world cast over his artistic evolution. His use of red, and production of the famous Seagrams triclinium panels, is presented in direct correlation with his visit to Italy, and the Villa of the Mysteries, in 1959. Finally, the chemical changes and challenges inherent in the application of cinnabar is examined, including the question initiated from data presented in a 2011 Italian study conducted in Herculaneum, with possible consequence in Pompeii: is yellow the new red?