Prof. John J. Dobbins

70_dobbinsDr. Dobbins is a Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology at the University of Virginia (retired 2019).  He has excavated in Spain, Greece, Syria and Italy.  He has been the Director of the Pompeii Forum Project for twenty years and has collaborated with Malcolm Bell in preparing the final publication of the Hellenistic theater at Morgantina, Sicily.  He has published on Pompeii, Roman sculpture, lamps, a Roman villa in Tuscany, the Athenian Acropolis, and houses and mosaics at Antioch.  His professional awards and service include Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia, a three-year NEH grant, co-director of the Summer Program in Archaeology at the American Academy in Rome, member and chair of the Advisory Board of the Etruscan Foundation, a Mead Honored Faculty Member at the University of Virginia, an All-University Teaching Award, an NEH Distinguished Teaching Professorship, membership in the University of Virginia Academy of Teaching, President of the Charlottesville Society of the Archaeological Institute of America and traveling lecturer for the Archaeological Institute of America.

Public Space and via dell'Abbondanza (page 2 of 5)

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The intersection of via dell’Abbondanza and via Stabiana is distinctive.  First, it is packed with urban furniture, some of which one also sees elsewhere, and one feature that is unique to this intersection.  Familiar at other intersections are the water tower, the fountain and the stepping stones; unique is the quadrifrons, a four-sided monument that dominated the intersection much more fully in antiquity than now and that gave the intersection a very special character.[1] Second, at the intersection the character of the street changes fundamentally.  It expands from a width of about 6.7 m on the east side of the intersection to about 14.6 m on the west side, and its level is raised above that of via Stabiana by about 0.4 m rendering cart traffic to the west impossible from this point and transforming the street into a grand pedestrian thoroughfare.

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The dramatic widening of the street apparently took place in association with the construction of the Stabian Baths in the second century B.C.  Presumably, the construction of the baths, the laying out of insulae VII.1 and VIII.4, and the resulting widening of via dell’Abbondanza are contemporary aspects of second-century B.C. urban design.  The consequence of these related developments is that the stretch of via dell’Abbondanza that is associated with the Stabian Baths and the intersection with via Stabiana became a largo, a widening of a street that displays characteristics of a piazza, while still retaining its function as a through street for pedestrians.  The utility of a largo at this site is obvious as this was a dedicated public space that attracted large crowds to the baths and their associated shops.  The largo gradually narrows to a width of about 7.4 m and terminates at its western end about 60 m from via Stabiana.  At that point it blends with the sidewalks on the sides, and a ramp drops about 0.25 m to street level in the middle.  The ramp again forms a traffic barrier, but one that possibly could have been surmounted, with difficulty, by carts for deliveries to the shops and the baths.

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Zone 1 is characterized by the quadrifrons, the broad expanse of the largo dedicated to pedestrians, the entrance to the Stabian Baths, the especially large shops along the street on both sides of the bath’s portal, the entrances to grand houses, the numerous shops on the street’s opposite side and the pinched-in nature of the street at the western end of this section, but still within it.  Together, these urban elements create a sense of place within this zone.  This is detectable by a sensitive visitor on-site today.  The sense of place would have been all the more obvious to the ancient Pompeians who saw façades at full height, people flowing into and out of the Stabian baths, others inspecting wares at the shops, and others coming to and going from the grand houses.  Within this zone the quadrifrons created a buffer between the largo and via Stabiana, effectively pushing the north-south through traffic on via Stabiana to a space beyond the largo while welcoming into the zone pedestrian traffic that would use the space.  Apart from the forum, there is only one other location in the city with such a concentration of equally prominent features.  Via del Foro to the north of the forum constitutes a comparable public space.  Indeed, both share similar functions urbanistically.  Each is linked visually to the forum and each forms an important connection between the forum and regions that lie beyond.  Each of these spaces served as a largo at an important intersection where diverse activities took place.[2]

The relatively uniform level of preservation of the entrances to the properties on both sides of via dell’Abbondanza’s zone 1 masks a carefully orchestrated hierarchy of entrances that signaled the importance of the spaces that lie behind.  Within Regio VII, Insula 1, the entrance to the Stabian Baths claims the highest position in the hierarchy, then the portals of the atrium houses on the south side of the street in Regio VIII, Insula 4, and finally the shop entrances on both sides of the street.  The ostensible uniformity of the Nucerian tuff jambs of the northern shops and bath portal contributes to a false impression that all of the openings are alike.  Only tourists pouring into and spilling out of the baths emphasize the entrance today, while few enter the wide open, but empty shops.  In antiquity the adjacent shops would have been crammed with wares that attracted lookers and buyers who entered all these spaces and not just the bath.  Nonetheless, it would have been visually clear to all that the entrance to the Stabian Baths was the most important on this section of the street.  The surviving evidence is subtle, but convincing.  The jambs of the bath portal are wider than the jambs of the shops and they therefore would have risen to a greater height, as the height of the jambs would have been proportional to the width of their bases.  Moreover, the wide and open shop fronts rose in height only to the level of a mezzanine, or loft, that constituted the sleeping quarters of the family that ran the shop.  By contrast, the portal of the Stabian Baths rose to a considerable height above the shop openings and thereby asserted its primacy by height alone.  Stucco decoration and polychrome painting may have augmented the presentation of the portal.  In short, the entrance to the Stabian Baths presented itself much more prominently in antiquity than now.

123 quartio dAt the second tier in the hierarchy, the portals of the atrium houses on the south side of zone 1 must have asserted themselves in elevation and decoration, although no hint of the ancient presentation has survived.  Like the bath portal to the north, they would have stood above the neighboring shop fronts to assert their primacy.  The façade of the House of D. Octavius Quartio (II, 2, 2) may be considered as an analogy in visualizing the original atrium house façades of this section of via dell’Abbondanza.


Finally, we turn to the shop fronts of zone 1.  On both sides of the street the shops present larger openings than is typical throughout the city.  (Even larger shops are associated with the equally important largo in via del Foro, mentioned briefly above.)  Moreover, the shops along the north side of the street share the same formidable Nucerian tuff construction of the Stabian Bath portal.  In other words, the entire north side of zone 1 presented a uniform façade of broad shops flanking a prominent bath portal.  The tuff was no doubt covered with plaster or stucco, but the uniform construction and grandeur of the overall design argue for a single plan that was part of the installation of the Stabian Baths, a project possibly conceived by and executed by the city.

The uniformity of materials seen on the north side is lacking on the south side of the street.  Brick dominates, but other materials are also present.  The jambs of the shop opening at the corner of via dell’Abbondanza and via Stabiana (VIII, 4, 17) are Nucerian tuff and may be vestiges of an original treatment that once characterized the entire south side of this section of the street.  Significantly, the width of those jambs (1.20 m) is considerably less than the jambs associated with the ostensibly publically constructed bath/shop complex on the north side of the street (2.13 m).  This difference would be due to the fact that they are of private construction.  Nonetheless, the scale of the shops is nearly commensurate with those on the north.

Along the south side of zone 1 the shops overwhelm the atrium houses on a simple numerical count or by a comparison of their street frontages.  Nonetheless, the atrium house façades more than held their own because they belong to an architectural type that is of a higher order than that of “shop.”  They employed grand scale and unique design.  Shops employed neither.  Moreover, the grandness of an atrium house entrance bespoke the grandness of the interior space, of the activities that were performed within, and of the patron who presided over the space and its activities.  The shop makes no such claim.  It was straightforward, practical, and uncomplicated both architecturally and socially.  In contrast, the atrium house was complex, articulated, eloquent and grand both architecturally and socially.

Where does this discussion leave us vis-à-vis zone 1 of via dell’Abbondanza?  This complex and fascinating section of the street derives its unique and individual character from the public pedestrian space defined by the largo, the imposing entrance to the Stabian Baths and the monumental elements discussed above.  The atrium house façades also played their role in that grand presentation and enhanced the status of the street.  At the same time, the shops cannot be minimized because in terms of numbers alone they constituted a major architectural, functional, commercial, and social presence within this zone.

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[1] Four piers with statues on bases on their west sides may have supported a canopy covering this section of via dell’Abbondanza immediately adjacent to the intersection.  Today only the statue base associated with the northwest pier is intact; its inscription (CIL X, 830) lists the offices and honors of Marcus Holconius Rufus.  The marble statue found on the base is in the Museo Nazionale in Naples.  The survival of only one inscription leaves us with a dilemma.  We don’t know if four prominent, but unrelated, Pompeians were honored at this structure, or if this was a monument dedicated exclusively to the Holconii.

[2] Via del Foro intersects via delle Terme/via della Fortuna and forms a major intersection.  In the immediate vicinity of this intersection are the Forum Baths, the Temple of Fortuna Augusta, large shops, grand houses (Pansa, Tragic Poet, Faun), two prominent arches, the elegant neighborhood to the north along via di Mercurio, and all the activities associated with these different structures and areas.  The quadrifons-like structure at the northwest corner of Insula IX.2 (illustrated below) spans a sidewalk and does not undermine the uniqueness of the quadrifrons in via dell’Abbondanza that spans a street.