Metrological analysis of ancient houses reveals the use of standard models that were ingeniously adapted to suit individual situations.
Pre-Roman atrium houses exhibited a striking number of similarities as part of a long Italic building tradition. Dutch researcher Noor van Krimpen analysed the measurements of primary mansions in Pompeii. As buildings were constructed according to a standard model, the adaptations to that model, required by the economical, practical and social demands of any particular project, provide a lot of information about the social significance of the houses of Pompeii’s elite.
Noor van Krimpen has added a new weapon to the archaeologist's arsenal; the metrological analysis. This was already used to find out more about the design aspects of historical constructions. Van Krimpen, however, has now also used the method to add to our knowledge of the social significance of the houses of Pompeii’s elite. The main advantage of using metrological analysis is that it does not require further excavations and so the remains are kept intact.
The ideal measurements
The elite in Pompeii had architects to design their houses. Van Krimpen has demonstrated that these architects worked according to geometric figures and proportions, expressed in arithmetic approximations, a well-known tradition of classical mathematics. This resulted in a number of standard sets of ratios that were used by architects in the design of houses.
Despite the fact that the atrium houses in Pompeii show a high degree of homogeneity – all having been splendidly built around a so-called atrium, an inner courtyard with or without a roof – the architect’s skill and clients personal wishes ensured that each house retained an original character.
Dress to impress
Van Krimpen used a metrological analysis to establish what the original design must have been before subsequently examining how the houses were adapted to the particular circumstances. The adaptations revealed how a client exerted his influence on a design and how each situation required a unique solution. The primary mansions were mainly intended to receive friends and other notable persons and so had to be designed accordingly.
The Pompeii elite tried to maintain the illusion of a perfect home. The central symmetry was not solely maintained by juggling with the dimensions of the rooms. Van Krimpen even demonstrated how two neighbours had cooperated to outdo a third neighbour, one of the richest men in the city. They let their two houses be built behind a single facade so that their property appeared to be as big as that of their neighbour.
Van Krimpen investigated 18 primary mansions from Pompeii. Her research formed part of the broader project RUSPA (Ricerche Urbanistiche Su Pompei Antica) and was funded by NWO.
The above story is based on materials provided by NWO (Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research). Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
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