Roman Pantomime Aesthetics: Accessories

Pantomime: The History and Metamorphosis of a Theatrical Ideology: Table of Contents

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The aesthetic appeal of pantomime costumes depended on the use of accessories. Pantomimes could strengthen the theatrical effect of their performances by the wearing of beautiful helmets, brooches, tiaras, sashes, wreaths, fibulas, or jewels. Performers could supplement accessories with props, such as swords, shields, wands, torches, mirrors, or flowers. Apuleius mentions numerous props and accessories in his description of the pantomime in Corinth. Mercury wore “little wings of gold” and carried a gold apple. Juno wore a “white diadem upon her head” and brandished a “regal scepter.” Minerva “had on her head a shining helmet, whereon was bound a garland made of olive branches, having in one hand a target or shield, and in the other shaking a spear as she would fight.” Castor and Pollux wore “pointed helmets with stars.” Accompanying Minerva were “two young men, armed and brandishing their naked swords in their hands.” The many Cupids in Venus’s retinue carried torches, while the “comely Graces” scattered before her “garlands and loose flowers.” In the Porto Maggiore frieze, the dancer playing Agave, clad in a diaphanous tunica, swings a sword in one hand and raises the severed head of Pentheus in the other [Figure 3]. In the mysterious image of a theatrical performance engraved onto a fourth century CE silver plate (Parabiago Plate), several performers wear fitted sleeves, peculiar headpieces, and flowing pallas [Figure 28]. Impersonators of Hercules most likely carried a lion skin or a club or both. The cuirassed breastplate, which might contain elaborate, gleaming ornamentation, was another accessory that pantomimes could affix to their bodies with great dramatic flair and then display with further flamboyance through powerful shifts from pose to movement (Gergel 1994). In the painting from the Casa del Medico in Pompeii depicting some sort of pantomime of a tribunal performed by dwarfs (supposedly the Judgment of Solomon), several figures wear cuirassed breastplates as well as plumed helmets [Figure 8]. The palla was a large scarf worn by women and its functions were manifold, not least of which was to bestow a dramatic effect on the woman who wore it [Figure 16]. “The variety in methods of draping the palla around the figure was endless. When of exaggerated length, it was wound many times around the body and over the shoulders; if the texture were of the flimsiest, it would be wound many more times, with the two ends trailing on the ground or carried over the arms” (Norris 1924: 115). When worn by dancers, the pallaemphasized a voluptuous, flowing, rippling quality, as indicated in a series of images from Pompeii showing partially nude female dancers (maenads) moving as if floating in space. The equivalent of the pallafor men was the pallium, although this garment, “associated with philosophers” and “all learned men, including orators” (Norris 1924: 107), probably was not so widespread among men as the pallawas among women. However, the pallium (like the palla) was useful in producing a decorative display of the nude body, as indicated in numerous images of nude males posing with a pallium draped around the shoulders or around the waist. In these pervasive instances, the pallium functions less as a veil than to signify a discarded veil—or rather, perhaps, to signify a veil that follows the will of the performer rather than the custom of a society [Figure 17]. 

Figure 28: Fourth century silver plate (Parabiago Plate) depicting a procession honoring Cybele attended by armed guards (Korybantes), the leading two performing the pyrrhic step. Photo: Museum of Archeology, Milan, Giovanni Dall’Orto. 

The Romans developed a wide variety of footwear in styles that drifted in and out of fashion over long periods of time. As with other garments, footwear was a marker of social status based less on types of shoe than on the quality of materials used to make the shoe. For pantomime performance, only some types of show were appropriate. Pantomime performers required shoes that allowed them to move freely and at the same time metamorphose into different identities. To change shoes implied an action as dramatic as changing a mask or a mantel if it was to interest an audience. Lucian (1936: 239) therefore complains about actors in tragic spoken dramas who produce a “repulsive and at the same time frightful spectacle” by being “mounted upon high clogs” or kothurni, the platform boots of archaic Greek origin that attempted to make the performer achieve “disproportionate stature.” The available visual evidence supports his contention that kothurni had no place in pantomime performance. Indeed, the vast majority of dancers in images perform barefoot. However, we must welcome the possibility that pantomimes employed, for theatrical effect, sandals or boots that they ornamented with jewels, tassels, or luxuriously designed thongs or straps. A painting from Pompeii (House of the Golden Cupids), depicting Jason before Pelias, shows a man in a blue tunica wearing elegant gray boots, an especially dramatic detail when one considers how rarely painters felt inclined to described any kind of footwear. In the Milan silver plate, ca. 350 AD, depicting Cybele in a chariot pulled by lions, dancing soldiers wear ornate boots, and their movements suggest they perform the pyrrhic step [Figure 28]. The famous Villa of Mysteries fresco, from the first century CE, features a female angel who wears memorably elegant high boots while swinging a whip, presumably at the person to whom she directs her gaze, the half-naked kneeling woman painted on the wall at a right angle to the angel [Figure 29]. The upper body of the angel is naked and only a palla, yellow and trimmed in purple, wraps around her waist. The boots therefore imply an obscure symbolic significance, like the whip and the wings, and indeed they enhance the erotic appeal of the figure by bestowing a touch of constricting severity that contrasts ambiguously with the flowing palla and dance-like movement of the body. Mielsch (2001: 42-43) suggests, without great confidence, that the boots, worn by so naked a woman, serve to represent Lyssa, who “embodied the wildness or enthusiasm of the Dionysian cult in Tarentino and Etruscan images from the fourth century BCE.” But female performers and even male performers impersonating female characters may well have used the calceus, a laced shoe boot of Etruscan origin that completely enclosed the foot in a soft hide (Bonfante 1975: 203). The visual evidence associates the calceus entirely with aristocratic figures. The statue of an empress, dating from the fourth century CE, now in the Norwegian Institute in Rome, displays the exquisite charm of her shoe boot, studded, according to L’Orange, with pearls (L’Orange 1971: 97). But excavations in many sites, “from Britain to Dura-Europos,” indicate that classes of persons outside the aristocracy wore the calceus (Goldman 1994b: 119). The calceus, like the sandal or the boot, could be a beautiful accessory in itself, and this beauty was significant for performance insofar as it amplified the unique, star identity of the pantomime rather than reinforced the “authenticity” of the character impersonated. 

Figure 29: Fragment of a wall painting from the Villa of Mysteries, Pompeii, showing an angel wearing boots, First Century CE. Photo: Karl Toepfer.

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