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Fall 2012

Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

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Matt Donovan

In a William Lamson photograph I have always loved, a man stands center-frame in a field of bulldozed, dark red dirt. He wears suspenders, loafers, a wristwatch, a light gray workshirt, and gray pants dusted red at the knees. With one hand, quite matter of fact, he points directly up into sky.

The near-crimson earth fills the photo’s lower half, and all around him, in signs of ongoing flurries of work, tire tracks crisscross and recede. A tangle of pines and a washed-out sky fill the frame’s top half.

In some ways, the man could be directing our gaze to just about anything—the disappearing speck of a redwing hawk, the precise location of a cloud from which lightning blared down long ago—yet his offhand, straight-back posture suggest something else. The title alone instructs: “Irving Pointing to God.”



Over a century of guesses have been flung at the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. This here, many have written, look just here, this.

That woman being whipped, the pinecone-tipped staff, bodies mid-spin, heads mid-turn, cymbals, and that peculiar peaked shape about to be unveiled from beneath a velvet-like tasseled cover (most in-the-know folks insist “phallus”). Among the twenty-one almost life-size figures occupying the room, there are women delivering loaves and laurel, pouring water and brushing hair. There are goats, a lyre-strumming Bacchante, a cupid clutching a mirror, and, in the room’s corner, a booted, topless woman with a whip and a large set of wings. No doubt, you’ve seen it, if not in person, then reproduced on calendars, postcards, souvenir ashtrays or plates.

Theories abound.

Some believe all of the above was painted in a secret room used for induction into Dionysian rites. Some think it all amounts to an initiation into marriage, as if the link to the aforementioned flogging were transparent enough. Or, given that Bacchus slouches smack-dab in the fresco’s center, some guess the painting was done in tribute to the god of wine by homeowners who, based on the winepress in the basement, raked in a small fortune through fertile earth and lip-smacking grapes.

“They can mean,” an expert in Roman frescoes told me, “whatever you want them to mean.”

One female figure holds a billowing, wind-filled cloak and seems to be fleeing in terror. She’s also been identified as Aura, goddess of the dawn, striding in and spewing benedictions.



There’s a lure to Irving’s candid faith. That he gestures skyward, steeple-like, unwavering, toward some immensity the viewer can’t see, even while the photo’s cropping insists on the span and weight of all that earth, underscored all the more by the background bulldozer’s red-stained blade.

Or perhaps it’s his casual gesture, how his fixed gaze—not skyward, but directly at the viewer—suggests the ease with which, in answer to the implied question, he can pinpoint the location of the divine. As if directing us to a misplaced sprocket wrench we should have known was there all along.

Or there’s the way in which he seems caught mid-task, en route to other earth-bound chores. Or how the precision of his gesture explains nothing at all.



The villa’s assigned name comes from the word “mystery” in the sense of a secret cult or rite. But, as confusion persisted about the frescoes’ meaning, it has come to denote, through beautiful chance, what is beyond comprehension, irresolvable.

“Mystery,” from the Greek “myein,” meaning to close or shut, referring perhaps—and we don’t really know—to the eyes or lips. As in to stop looking, to say nothing more.



Almost as soon as they were excavated in the early twentieth century, the frescoes began to deteriorate. Salts seeped in from the earth, splotching the figures with white streaks, and light blared on the walls, enacting its inevitable changes. In an attempt to preserve the images they had found, workers applied a mixture of petroleum and wax that both deepened the red and added a new kind of gleam. Thus the room’s infamous backdrop red is only an approximation of the pigment originally applied to the wall.

So what kind of red was it?

One with a luster the ancients were desperate to preserve. Never allow, Vitruvius advised, either the moon’s splendor or the sun’s harsh rays to steal or lap up its brightness. It was a color that served as a cure for ulcers and as an enema to abate diarrhea. When applied in a burnt state, it could serve as a balm for dryness in the eyes, and when mixed with vinegar, Pliny tells us, it cured vomiting, blood spitting, bloated spleens, failing kidneys, excessive menstruation, snakebites.

That kind of red.

It was a color found in its purest form at Sinope and Pontus, near the river Hypanis. It was a red so precious that it warranted its own pricing and tax. It was cinnabaris, known as “dragon’s blood,” and used so sparingly it was once called, in Latin, “minimum,” from which the word “miniature” is also derived.



I had hoped, I think, when I saw those frescoes in person at last, to lose myself for a moment, to wade deep into the backdrop red and bustle of figures that crouch and mourn, reveal and pour, suckle and strum, pivot, gaze, clang, and stroke. To be swallowed whole by the place’s beauty and—let’s be honest—its haunting weirdness. To step into the room and—nudging the stakes up a notch—be utterly engulfed, led out to the fathomless sea like Moby-Dick’s overboard Pip who, after the Pequod disappeared on the horizon, found himself splashing alone in that immensity and, agog with wonder, screws slipping loose, thought he could see God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom.

That didn’t happen.

For one thing, by the time we arrived at the villa, it was midday and we were all a bit zonked. Through the morning hours, block after block, my family had stumbled over ancient doorways and curbs and Pompeii’s wheel-rutted roads. On our way to this far north-west corner of the site, we had heaved past the street of tombs, a guard station, and an incongruous junk-strewn yard, before descending on dilapidated stairs past a dozen or so rosemary terraces. Entering the villa, we had wandered from room to room, lost in what seemed like a ramshackle design, gazing upon plenty that seemed beautiful enough—a leaf-shedding courtyard tree, trompe l’oeil frescoes of pillars receding into infinite space—but couldn’t seem to locate the well-known beauty we were looking for. My son, testing out a newly learned phrase, whined that his dogs were now barking loud.

Backtracking yet again, we finally queried the guard on hand, using a meager and mistake-riddled Italian: “Dove gli frescos rossa?” He smiled, nodded, lit a cigarette, and led us to the room we were seeking, where we also found throngs of tourists jostling for photo ops, cupping audio guides to their ears, milling about at the room’s entrance that was blocked by a length of chain.



Early on in my church-going, I began to suspect I could answer any Sunday School question with a single mournful reply: “God works in mysterious ways.”

Why did Jesus die?

What is the Holy Ghost?

Why did that race-car tire kill two people in the bleachers?

No matter the befuddlement or doctrine at hand, it seemed that if someone in the class piped up with that cure-all line, we’d be given a Good Work! scratch-and-sniff sticker and, most often, roll on to some riff on the Miracles.

A box of gray and black crayons to color the soon-to-be-calmed, storm-churning sea. Three goldfish crackers and a single Twinkie that, from a box tucked beneath the desk, multiplied into heaps of fish-shaped snacks and cream-crammed cake: from the miniscule, immensities.



So much for submersion. So much for God’s foot pumping the pedal of His loom.

Even after I finagled a closer look, making discreet arrangements with the guard that allowed us to step over the chained threshold and into the room, in return for which we would eat lunch at his family’s kitsch-filled restaurant, “Bacco e Arianna,” located about twenty yards outside the site’s back gate—what then?

As always, it seems, there was no sense of being awash with any whole. Instead, as always, this inevitable narrowing, the scraps I have come to expect.

A wrist curled over a shadow-streaked forearm. The edge of a wadded-up brown-fringed robe. A scalp line, a leg’s dappled calf. A drizzle of gold cloth and the god’s earth-smudged feet. The sliver of Dionysus’ flesh visible between Ariadne’s two fingers, almost all of her that remains.



Where is God?

God is everywhere.

Can you see God?

No. I cannot see God, but he always sees me.

Does God know all things?

Yes. Nothing can be hidden from God.

Can God do all things?

Yes. God can do all his holy will.

Given the clockwork call and response of the catechism we were expected to memorize during the course of the annual “Gloria Dei Overnight Lock-In,” is it any wonder we plunged into slumber party shenanigans as soon as the last deviled egg tumbled into Tupperware and the adults had skedaddled off to who knows where?

Pile-on, Truth or Dare, tales of bloody hooks and monkey paws and someone’s neighbor’s heisted kidneys. In a basement classroom, chanting “Light as a feather stiff as a board,” we all wedged two fingers beneath Perry Bell and lifted him skyward. Rubbing her temples and intoning instructions—“You are getting sleepy. Very sleepy”—we took a stab at hypnotizing Holly St. Clair, who on cue proffered deadpan clucks and yaps and a daring one-legged tush-waggling leap. And when someone on impulse commanded her to “French-kiss Matt,” she never paused before lunging with her tongue.

I fell from faith long ago, yet perhaps it was here the end actually began. Even given that clumsy, spit-caked smooch, what chance did the catechism’s tit-for-tat recitation have against the world for a moment transfigured, narrowed to a swiveling tongue?



I’ve had a taste, I think, of what I’m missing.

Each twilight for weeks during an autumn I lived in Rome, I watched starlings swarm. “It was like,” I scribbled in my journal after that first rapturous appearance, “a sea of wings.”

Yet even as I began to put pen to Moleskine page, I knew words wouldn’t land me close. Impossible to capture those sprawling, dervishing, shape-shifting flocks that completely transformed the sky, when words like “wings” and “flocks” became standstill clumps in proximity to those colossal thumbprint whorls that turned into braided coils, knotting sails, then something enormous rising wave-like, smoke-like, whip-like all at once.

Some evenings, in what became regular gatherings, I’d watch from the rooftop with a small group of friends, a glass of prosecco in hand, treating the event like a paid-for show, a kind of daily vesper fireworks. We’d croon and point (“Did you see that one?”), drift into silent awe, then pour more drink and blurt out guesses as to “why”: perhaps that safety in numbers cliché (but the corkscrewing?), perhaps ritualistic mating (in October?), perhaps, as someone had heard that someone had read, it was all about avoiding the dive-bombing peregrine falcon.

Far better—if by “better” I can mean, without really saying it, an earth-bound apotheosis—was to be caught unaware by their gathering, to stop and pitch back on a patch of grass, turn skyward and, all alone, give yourself over to the blindsiding thing directly overhead. To every inch of rippling sky, those shapes unspooling then reeled in, clenched tight then woven, spun then spinning, an endless cascade stilling desire, answering all you could ask or know.

“Uno stormo di storni,” the Italians say, as if enacting a spellbound stutter, as if allowing a “storm” to be carried within the phrase’s on-a-dime acoustical veer. “A murmuration of starlings,” we call it—a phrase too fussy, and connoting, through unfortunate chance, the word “murmur” when silence is the only proper reply.

As Dante’s terza rima carries him closer to Heaven, as he becomes even more affixed and enkindled by what he sees, he writes that he stared into a living light and “should have been lost if my eyes had been turned from it.”

That kind of “it.”

Before I saw those Roman starling flocks, I never understood Paradiso, nor, for that matter, the conclusion of the Book of Job, where the long-suffering man’s question of “why” is answered by the whirlwind that is God—Master of Morning, Father of Rain, Cloud-Forger, Water-Veiler, Lightning-Lobber, Heaven-Bottler, Thou-Who-Clothes-His-Neck-In-Thunder—bellowing, in essence, “Who the fuck are you to ask?”

May a flock of starlings backhand me. If ever there was any divine shuttlecock and loom, if ever “breathtaking” meant not a humdrum stretch of a flax-strewn meadow nor a dimly star-heaped sky, but to have one’s breath wrenched in a swoop of awe and bliss, I can guess what it means to see an unanswerable whirlwind and atone, submit, lurch to silence, stop seeking, amen.



In one post-bribe Pompeii snapshot, my wife and two sons are mere inches from a seated, laurel-crowned Silenus. Both Ligia and Cyrus, with his three-eyed monster shirt and orange kids’ camera dangling from his wrist, are pointing up to the exact same spot on the wall; Oliver, only four months and strapped into his carrier, cranes his head to look too. I don’t know what they’re saying, and their faces are turned from me, but Cyrus appears rapt with something he’s seen. They seem to be looking at Silenus, who is looking at something on the opposite wall. Or perhaps they are looking at the boy who is peering into the pot that Silenus holds, seeing, perhaps, his own reflection, or a reflection of the actor’s mask another boy holds up behind the gazer’s head, or—how this is discerned, I’m not at all sure—an image of himself withered and aged, or perhaps, in a kind of existential gag, simply an empty pot.

While I could simply stop writing, walk into the next room, and ask my son what it was that made him for a moment transfixed, I’d rather not. It’s not that he’s busy (although he is, building “a time machine with a bench”), so much as that the answer would offer little in return. Just now, I’d rather gaze upon my family gazing upon those frescoes, forever gazing upon who knows what.



Not that I mean mere gazing to be solace when solace is needed most.

Not that some fragment or flock should be consolation for the likes of Job. For his ashes, and silence, and boil-covered flesh, for his servants slain, the heaven-sent fire, and all of his children dead. For the woman—inconsolable, painted on the wall—whose suffering we will never understand.

For the father of a friend, who, just before he died, with the idea that he might look upon autumn foliage a last time, was loaded into a La-Z-Boy chair roped down in a pickup’s bed. It was late afternoon, and they eased down the drive, heading out toward the fields and a five-mile stretch where September oaks were already brick red. Someone else squatted in the back, gripping his hand, shading him with an umbrella. They hadn’t even left the cul-de-sac before the man muttered, “That’s enough,” meaning this sight-seeing gave him nothing at all, and the truck slowed, stopped, then turned and headed back home.

I know there’s much in the way of narrowing I haven’t mentioned here at all.



Once, King Midas became convinced that Silenus could, if snared, cough up the secret to life, and thus he laid a trap. Beneath Mount Bermois, in a garden where branches sagged with blossoms, Midas laced a stream with wine, knowing that the chubby follower of Bacchus couldn’t resist. Sure enough, days later, Silenus staggered through the thorny scrub and glutted himself on the boozed-laced water until, as planned, he could drink no more and collapsed into a wine-deepened sleep. When he awoke, he was strapped to the trunk of an oak and told by the king that he wouldn’t be released until he shared the secret he held.

Silenus was all too eager to oblige. “It is best for a man never to have been born,” he pronounced. “Second best is to die soon.”

Who am I to respond?

Were these words spoken by someone who wished to die mercifully soon even as his daughter slipped the umbrella back into the hallway stand, and the pickup cooled and ticked out in the garage with no fallen oak leaves snared in its bed, I would, I swear, keep my mouth sealed shut.

But this is Silenus, glassy-eyed, speaking in what is merely a story in which no one will die. In which a king, ravenous for an answer that would preclude all else, had no use for the furtive uselessness of blossoms and oaks, or, for that matter, any earthbound, happened-upon thing that accrues to nothing, and points nowhere, and yet, for the moment, is enough.

Do I mean any minutia is priceless, that, as in another Midas story, any fingered small thing becomes gold? To insist so, I think, would be doctrine of another color.

But I mean the plenitude of the partial, to be awash not with “the” but “a.”

Not Semele, hankering to look upon the immeasurable, whole-hog divine, incinerated by Jupiter careening through her bedroom in the form of a fire-spewing cloud, but Moses, yes, his face pressed against that cleft rock, rapt in seeing that “hind part” scrap of God. And failing the luxury of Glory’s backside, I mean the fissured rock itself, lingering there and leaning in, feeling it cooled by a starless night, deep breathing its unknowable scent.



Matt Donovan, a recipient of a Rome Prize and a Whiting Award, is the author of Vellum. He teaches at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
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