During the restoration works of the House of Leda in Pompeii, a fresco appeared depicting the mythological scene of the twins Phrixus and Helle fleeing from their pursuers on the back of the famous golden fleece ram.

The scene, showing Phrixus on the ram while his sister is falling into the water, is painted as if it were a framed picture, hanging on a yellowish background wall.

According to Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, history repeats itself. It’s a beautiful fresco in excellent condition. The myth of Phrixus and Helle is widespread in Pompeii, but it’s also relevant today. They are two refugees at sea, brother and sister, forced to flee because their stepmother wants to get rid of them, doing so with deceit and corruption. She (Helle) fell into the water and drowned.

After reaching Colchis, Phrixus nailed the ram’s fleece to an oak in the sacred grove of Ares, which was guarded by a dragon. According to the myth, this is the famous fleece that Jason went to fetch with the Argonauts. The place where Helle fell and disappeared forever would be known as the Hellespont (now the Dardanelles strait).

The fresco maintains its vivid colors after nearly 2000 years and is in excellent condition.

The House of Leda is currently undergoing excavation and restoration activities aimed at addressing conservation issues with the decorative elements and installing a new protective covering system, as well as enhancing and opening the domus to the public.

The ongoing work is completing the excavation of the rooms already known since 2018, including that of the Leda and the Swan fresco, still partially buried with the retreat of the escarpment between the excavated city and the unexcavated one, revealing additional rooms, partly connectable with two new domus, located respectively to the north and south.

Current research is providing useful elements for the planimetric definition of these two new domus as well, accompanied by a series of particularly valuable fresco finds.

The area occupied by the House of Leda has already been partially investigated by underground excavations dating back to the 18th and early 19th centuries, thanks to an eruptive layer from 1822 covering modern fill levels on the south side. The tunnels have disturbed the stratigraphy from 79 AD to a height of 50-80 cm from ground levels, while in other houses, the pumice deposit reaches a height of almost 4 m, covering the tops of the walls.

The House of Leda features two small rooms on either side of the entrance, one of which houses the painting of Leda and the swan. Among the emerging rooms are the tablinium, an entrance hall to the service areas, and a small square room. All are connected to the atrium, whose northern part has also come to light, showing extensive signs of intervention in the ground levels, indicating that the building underwent several construction phases.

In the atrium, there are red and yellow panels adorned with faux architecture, with mythological paintings in the center (one featuring Narcissus emerged in 2018), while the tablinum and the small rooms prefer a white background with naturalistic elements such as birds, tree views, and seascapes; sometimes fantastical animals are represented on the side panels. Conversely, the cubicle located north of the fauces shows roundels with portraits of female faces. Finally, the walls of the hallway are decorated with replicas of various types of marble.

The northern domus currently consists of six rooms, almost all connected to the atrium to the north. In the area between the south wing and the atrium, a group of terracotta figurines was found. The same wing retains most of the decoration, of which the middle and upper registers are visible. The pinakes depict still lifes and paintings with lacustrine themes. The adjacent rooms are characterized by a higher floor level than that of the House of Leda.

The southern domus includes the fauces, one of the lateral cubicles, and part of the atrium, but excavations in this sector are still ongoing. The atrium was equipped with a staircase, whose layout remains in negative. Near the staircase, there is a lararium with a marble shelf. Among the decorations covering the back walls is the mythological painting depicting Phrixus and Helle fleeing on the golden fleece ram.

The excavation operations currently underway aim to restore the entire layout of the House of Leda and acquire sufficient data to define the main rooms of the two neighboring domus, to the north and south. At the same time, operations are being carried out to clean frescoed surfaces of volcanic residues and concretion deposits, consolidate the surface layer and depths, and then begin the phase of pictorial restoration.


Sources

Parco Archeologico di Pompei


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