Was it some kind of Dionysiac intiation chamber? or simply a visual cribsheet for girls who were preparing to ‘graduate’ into womanhood? The painted room at the centre of the Villa dei Misteri in Pompeii has fascinated scholars and visitors for years.
Painted towards the middle of the first century B.C., just over a hundred years before the eruption that wiped out this flourishing Vesuvian town, the ‘Mysteries’ mural and the villa it belongs to have recently been restored and reopened to the public after a two-year closure. Among the tools used in the clean-up was a newly developed, non-invasive laser beam technology.
The mural’s vivid colours – including a Pompeii red based on cinnabar, a costly pigment that gives a measure of the elevated social status of the villa’s owner – have been brought back to vibrant life. Presenting the restoration at a press conference on 21 March, head archaeologist Antonio Varrone gave his own interpretation of the wall-painting cycle, suggesting that it was “probably an existential representation of the female life-cycle, in which a woman who is now getting on in years looks back on scenes from her life, in a series of flashbacks”.
The Italian culture minister Dario Franceschini, also present at the press conference, hailed the restoration as the beginning of a “new chapter” for Pompeii, which has been plagued by problems of neglect and staff inefficiency in recent years, with several cases of wall collapses and rain infiltration. We won’t be holding our breath, but in the meantime, one part of the site at least is guaranteed to thrill and amaze.