Focus Monuments: The House of Medusa
Roman Wall Paintings from Enns
An exhibition organised in collaboration with the Bundesdenkmalamt
In 2000, plans to build a new parking lot at Lorch near Enns in Upper Austria necessitated an archaeological rescue excavation that discovered and preserved the remains of Roman wall paintings. Five large blocks and over sixty crates filled with fragments represent the largest and most important find of provincial Roman wall paintings in Austria ever discovered. These wall paintings once decorated a vaulted ceiling, and they greatly increase our knowledge of this important genre in Roman Austria. Prior to this discovery only a few examples of painted wall and/or ceiling decorations embellishing several connected rooms were known. Up to four layers of plaster bear witness to several phases of décor comprising magnificent figurative and decorative elements. These wall paintings from the third century are in exceptionally good condition. In 2012 the archaeological and the conservation-restoration departments of the Federal Monuments Authority Austria began work on this discovery. Identifying matching fragments from the wealth of extant pieces has proved a particular challenge.
Situated on the edge of the Roman Empire, Enns, the ancient Lauriacum, was once an important city. Its exposed location on the limes – a request to designate the latter a UNESCO world heritage site is pending – makes it an excellent example of how to make the most of a key function between what appears foreign and one’s own views and experiences. The outstanding quality of the decorations in this house are impressive, and illustrate the close contacts that once existed between people living on the Danube and the inhabitants of the capital of the Roman Empire.
Changes in taste and fashion led to the walls and vaulted ceilings of the reception rooms of this Roman villa being repainted four times over two centuries. The exhibition showcases the preserved and restored fragments of at least three phases of wall- and ceiling paintings from the Roman “House of Medusa” at Enns. The paint layers executed in the third century A.D. feature different decorative schemes, which have been reconstructed from extant fragments.
Framed by geometric pattern repeats the pictures feature figurative motifs, among them several renderings of the head of Medusa – hence the villa’s modern name. The exceptional quality of the paintings and the rich pictorial repertoire employed here document close contacts with Rome.
The exhibition presents both the different phases and ancient techniques. In addition to the archaeological finds from the “House of Medusa”, the show focuses on the recovery and restoration of ancient paintings.
The history of Roman painting is primarily the history of wall paintings; this not only reflects the vagaries of survival over the centuries but also their pivotal role in ancient painting; the highlights of this genre are wall paintings, especially central (framed) pictures executed on walls and ceilings. Sometimes these pictures were not painted onto the wall but on wooden or marble panels that were then inserted into the wall. Around a dozen extant marble wall-tablets are now in the Collection of Greek and Roman Antiquities of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, and they will be on show to the public for the first time in this exhibition.
Following the presentation of the Romanesque reliefs from the doors of Gurk Cathedral in 2014, this exhibition of Roman wall paintings from Enns is the second collaboration between the Federal Monuments Authority Austria and the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, and the second show in our successful exhibition series “Focus Monuments”.
Our ongoing collaborations with the Federal Monuments Authority Austria are wonderful examples of how research, historic preservation and education complement one another. The Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna defines itself as a non-university scientific institution dedicated to research. The curators of the different collections carry out foundation research that forms a vital basis for subsequent exhibitions. This makes it even more important to focus not only on art-historical aspects of Roman wall paintings but also on the cultural context, and to look at everyday life in the Roman Empire. In addition, the exhibition showcases on the skills and efforts required to preserve and restore this cultural heritage.
Following this exhibition in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the paintings will be displayed at the Upper Austrian Provincial Exhibition The Return of the Legion. Roman Heritage in Upper Austria (german only) and later be permanently on accessible to the public at Museum Lauriacum in Enns.
21 November 2017
to 8 April 2018