The herma originated in ancient Greece and depicted the head of the god Hermes, from which it takes its name, supported by a small pillar onto which a phallus was often carved to augur fertility and prosperity. It was placed on streets and in front of doors to invoke the god's protection. This type of support was also used for the heads of other gods, especially Dionysus, and for portraits. The Romans used herms to decorate the rooms and viridaria of houses. Herms were often used in gardens as fountains.
Guide to the museum rooms
The Roman house had wide open spaces planted with gardens surrounded by a peristyle, a large columned porch, onto which dining rooms and sitting rooms opened.
The labrum was a basin used as fountain. Usually, the water spurted from a bronze nozzle in a hole at the bottom of the basin. In the domus, basins were placed in gardens and peristyles for ornamental purposes. In baths they were used to wash before dipping in the swimming pools and to cool off. There are also examples of large basins in precious marble which were placed in public spaces not only as decoration but also as drinking fountains and to provide a drinking water supply.
Votive reliefs were small plaques decorated with mythological scenes. They originated in Greece as ex voto offered to the gods by the faithful in shrines. The Romans adopted these artefacts and used them to decorate the gardens and peristyles of houses. Generally made in marble, they were decorated on both sides with different features: gods, nymphs, figures from Dionysian processions and theatrical masks. Usually they were supported by small marble pillars with plant motifs, but could also be hung on the walls.
The rooms of the house were lit by torches, candles, oil lamps and candelabras made of terracotta, bronze and marble. Marble candelabra, mostly decorated with plant and floral features, were found mainly in the wealthiest mansions, and were refined furnishing items in reception and living spaces such as triclinia, peristyles and gardens. Tall candelabra featured a dish at the top where the oil burned.
The puteal was a round well-head placed around a well, often decorated with reliefs. In the Greek world it might also enclose a sacred area, so it turned into an altar on which sacrifices and libations were made, and performed a religious purpose. Among the Romans puteals became decorative features in the gardens of houses and villas. The most popular iconographic theme is the Dionysian procession. The Maenads are Dionysus' priestesses and are almost always depicted in the throes of divine madness, while they dance pleading for Dionysus to awaken from his winter sleep.
The viridarium was laid out to reflect the home owner's specific intention to flaunt his wealth as he did in other areas of the house, through exotic and Mediterranean plants, colourful flower borders, exedrae decorated with fountains, pools and nymphaea with water features. A profusion of colours, sounds and scents was further embellished with sculptural ornaments. Small herms, i.e. small pilasters topped by carved heads of deities, and pinakes, small mythological marble plaques, were laid out among the flower beds and along walkways in an evocatively sacred composition. The garden decoration was complemented with basins, tables and marble candelabra. Rather than just a pleasant place where to spend time, the garden was a suitable place for contemplation, where the symbolic meaning of plants and decorations continuously evoked the concepts of life and death.