Water-Display and Meaning in the High Roman Empire

Rogers, Dylan, History of Art and Architecture - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Dobbins, John, Department of Art, University of Virginia
Smith, Tyler, Department of Art, University of Virginia

This study examines public water-displays throughout the Early and High Roman Empire (first three centuries CE) to understand the meaning behind their placement in the built environment. There are two main goals of the dissertation: to explore ancient Roman perceptions of water and to investigate fully an individual’s interaction and reaction to its display. In order to accomplish these goals, an approach that employs the framework of the archaeology of the senses, along with those of memory and identity. By laying the groundwork for understanding the sensorial pleasures that all humans gain from their encounters with moving water, we can begin to comprehend how both memory and identity are created in an architectural space. A wide variety of evidence is employed to gain a fuller understanding of exactly why Romans displayed water in certain locations. Ancient literary sources of both prose and poetry, particularly from the first century CE, demonstrate the Romans’ fascination with water, due to its inherent pleasure, its necessity, and its related sensorial response. The archaeological evidence is based on 151 examples of public water-displays collected from throughout the High Roman Empire and located in 17 modern countries. Previous studies have excluded a number of examples of water-displays, based on modern terminologies (e.g., nymphaea and “monumental” fountains) that are predicated primarily on size. In an effort to cast the net as widely as possible, as many examples as possible of public fountains installed at least in part for display are included here.

By examining water-displays, that is structures that show water flowing into some sort of basin (allowing the water to serve a secondary function), this dissertation is able to tap into a wide variety of public fountains related to civic, religious, and entertainment-related settings. The three contexts help to illustrate the following: throughout the Empire, no matter the date, location, or context, water-displays were present; public fountains connect all individuals in the Empire, due to the omnipresence of water-displays, the sensorial experience related to moving water, and a sense of shared identities; fountains also alter the physical interaction an individual has with a particular space. The demonstration of moving water allows for sensory reactions in a built environment that all humans, regardless of their time or place, inherently and inevitably respond to in a positive way. By investigating the contexts of public water-displays, the meaning behind their placement is demonstrated, both in terms of the inherent experiences and the notion of identity that they created.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Roman archaeology, fountains, sensorial archaeology, Roman architecture, nymphaea, water
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