The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Greg Gilles
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
There is no one particular item that is my ‘go to’, but if I were to choose something to take with me on a desert island, it would most likely be a book or online collection of frescoes.
Every time I see one, I am awestruck by the beauty of the artwork, the craftsmanship behind the details and the fact that people 2-5000 years ago commissioned them on their walls, walked past them every day, ate a meal dazzled by their beauty, or simply admired them in the same way that I do so many years later.
Probably the reason why I started #FrescoFridays on Twitter, so that I’d have an easy place to find and admire all the amazing frescoes that are out there!
When did you first come across ancient frescoes?
When I first started going to museums, especially the Louvre, as a child, my first imprints were Egyptian tomb paintings. I remember being amazed by the vividness of the colours and the fact that people so long ago could create such beautiful artwork when I couldn’t even colour within the lines. (Sadly, my artistic abilities have not developed much!)
As a result of this early love of frescoes, everything about ancient Egypt fascinated me and inspired me to do a BA in Egyptology and molecular archaeology. These days, Rome is my passion, especially late Republican Rome, and thankfully my love of frescoes is not in short supply of inspirational pieces. Although Pompeii and Herculaneum have an abundance of breathtaking frescoes, it was on a trip in 2015 to Rome that I discovered the garden frescoes from the triclinium of Livia’s Villa, which are gloriously displayed at the Museo Nazionale Romano di Palazzo Massimo.
Can you tell me a bit about these frescoes and their context?
I am no expert on frescoes (although if I could do my studies over again, I would try to be), so I won’t even try to go into the detail of how frescoes are made. All I will say is that these frescoes were discovered in what has been labelled as Livia’s Villa in Prima Porta, just outside of ancient Rome (the same villa that has given us the most recognisable statue of Augustus, in all his glory).
The frescoes were on display in a subterranean triclinium. Imagine the surrealness of knowing you’re dining underground, but being surrounded by these immensely intricate and detailed images of an outside garden! I’m sure the room would also have been bathed in candlelight, just at the right places to accent the images of the frescoes. There would also have been natural essences burning that would have reminded you of the scents that the trees and plants would have produced – scents of oranges, lemons, apples and peaches… There probably would have been live birds in the room too. The (wealthy) Romans sure knew how to live!
What is it about these paintings that appeals to you most?
The sheer beauty of them. The colours are still so vibrant and evocative – I can only imagine what they would have been like in situ, at the time, and whilst the room was being used. And, if it was indeed Livia’s villa, imagine the people that would have reclined on couches in this room and the conversations they would have had… The fate of the Roman world could have been decided in this room!
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Well, this year hasn’t been the best year. I had a brain haemorrhage in January, so I’ve spent most of this year learning how to walk, use my left arm and talk again. It wasn’t the best time for this to happen, so close to finishing my PhD, but I’m slowly recovering.
My first love has always been tennis (I nearly succeeded at making it a profession), so starting to play again has been a huge motivation to getting back to normal. As soon as lockdown was lifted for tennis courts, I was out there hitting balls. I can’t run or serve, but luckily I can still belt a decent forehand. It’s so easy to forget, especially for those of us whose work involves long hours of reading and/or writing, that our bodies actually crave physical activity and fresh air. Even just sitting outside in nice weather, going for a walk or playing your favourite sport can do wonders for your well being – physically, mentally and spiritually.
Maybe that’s another reason why I like these frescoes so much: they immerse you in an outdoor environment even though you’re underground. I really think the Romans, and all other ancient cultures to be honest, had a much closer relationship to nature than we do now, and that’s quite sad for us.
Greg Gilles (@GregHGilles) is a final year PhD student in the Classics department at King’s College London. His PhD is on female agency in the late Roman Republic, using social network analysis. Greg is the founder and chief editor of New Classicists (@NewClassicists), a peer reviewed journal for postgraduate students of Antiquity. He is also the organiser for the ‘Women in Antiquity’ conference (@AntiquityWomen) that will be held at the ICS in May 2021.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.