Leading Edge: Francesca Tronchin on Elvis and Roman Architecture

February 11, 2014, 7:37 am

Graceland villa 1My first visit to Graceland was during what Memphis folks and Elvis fans call “Death Week” without the slightest sense of the macabre or even irony, as this is high season for Elvis tourism, even in torrid mid-August. I only saw Graceland from the outside, as my destination, like that of so many other visitors this particular week, was the Meditation Garden where Elvis, his parents, and his grandmother are buried. I was surprised but then moved to see mourners praying at the gravesite, openly crying. I was even more fascinated by the large, elaborate flower arrangements sent from Elvis fan clubs all over the world. What to me was going to be a cheeky glimpse into my new home’s local hero turned into something more profound. I not only felt an emotional twinge, but also an intellectual one, seeing some connections between annual pilgrimage to Elvis’ residence and funerary monument and my own research on the ancient villas and houses of Roman Italy.

Yup—I see a link between the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Cicero.

Like many reading this and contributing to the Leading Edge project, I’m at work on a book-length project but also testing the waters of my big-picture theories in conference papers and shorter articles. My larger project examines ancient villas and houses, their decoration, and the relationships between the house and elite identity. I’m studying both the archaeological remains of residences as well as the ancient textual sources which describe Roman houses. By applying some current sociological methodologies to the ancient material, I’ve come up with a model for reading these residences as idealized autobiographies of their owners.

Unfortunately there are no ancient texts which definitively describe residences known through the archaeological record. (Insert sad trombone sound here.) There are, moreover, no excavated villas or houses which can be connected to the Roman authors who wrote quite a lot about their own villas, or those belonging to their famous contemporaries; the villas described by Cicero, Pliny the Younger, Statius, etc. have not been conclusively discovered. What the ancient villa descriptions do provide, however, is a pretty clear list of what was considered desirable in the country estate of an elite Roman (and just as often, what was considered bad taste). So part of my research has been to see in what ways the archaeological record corroborates that ancient written checklist of real estate must-haves. Yet (cue the sad trombone again), there is no extant ancient villa which satisfies all the requirements as recommended in the texts.

But Graceland does.

Graceland villa  2I made my first thorough tour of Graceland Mansion three years ago, with a visiting speaker in Roman archaeology and have since returned with friends and colleagues. Each visit to Graceland helps me find new ways in which Elvis’ residence is an ideal elite Roman villa. At first it was a fun game to play, noting how there was a topographical divide at Graceland between the rooms which are open to the public and more private ones cordoned off, an axis of privacy as described by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill in his Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum (Princeton 1994). We noted the thematic eclecticism of the decoration of a bar-niche just off the TV room downstairs at Graceland (eclecticism in domestic decoration was a theme of my dissertation as well as some more recent projects). The conspicuous display of silver service in the dining room echoed the decoration of the tomb of Vestorius Priscus at Pompeii; the ancient patron knew even 2-D paintings of silver cups could be a signifier of elite status to Roman viewers.

I recently responded to a call for papers on classical reception for the Southwest Popular/American Culture Conference, seeing an opportunity to test out this theory that Graceland is a living model of Roman elite ideal domestic architecture and decoration. Here is an excerpt from the paper’s abstract:

[The idea Roman elite villa includes]: imported materials, classicising sculpture, exotica, water features (as evidence for the owner’s ability to “tame” nature), references to the owner’s ancestors, and settings for both otium [leisure] and negotium [work]. Ideal estates would be extra- or suburban and eventually would come to be monuments to the memory of the most prominent owner of the villa, perhaps even through the tomb itself.

.. [Graceland] reflects Elvis’ personal taste, commemorates his personal achievements, and memorializes his loved ones. The residence features work areas and an office, balanced by zones for otium like the swimming pool and racquetball courts. The Jungle Room, sheathed in green shag carpet, boasts an indoor waterfall akin to the Euripi described by Cicero in de Legibus II.2.

Graceland, therefore, is the eclectic and personalized architectural autobiography of the King, an enduring shrine to his memory, and a time capsule of (for better or for worse) contemporary taste.

This last sentence of the abstract is the most promising for my larger project: specifically the ability of Graceland to stand as a brick-and-mortar autobiography of Elvis (it’s a fairly common theme in the reception of Graceland). So now I’m testing the big-picture thesis with Elvis’ mansion, evaluating it with the sociological methodologies of reading domestic decoration and architecture as a tool for self-fashioning through symbolic self-completion and adoption of an elite habitus, while comparing Elvis’ villa to the list of qualities desired in an ancient Roman one. Here’s an excerpt from the article, still a work-in-progress:

This “personalizing” or “autobiographical” role of domestic decoration at Graceland and in the ancient villas is perhaps surprising, given that Elvis purchased mass-market furniture and the taste of Roman domestic decoration was rather corporate in nature, that is to say, shared widely among socioeconomic groups and varying in quality given patrons’ financial resources. This last point is rather significant, given the “handcrafted” nature of ancient visual culture. While individual craftspersons carved marble furniture or painted suites of frescoes, many of the motifs or mythological narratives are repeated over and over again in the same cities and regions, perhaps because of the potential of those familiar images to convey a sense of belonging to an elite status. What kept the recurring images from losing potency through repetition in the Roman residences was likely a personal narrative provided by the home’s owner to his guests, permitting him to draw connections between elements in the decoration and his own experience or interests.

This is where comparisons with Graceland (and even our own narratives of home) can be especially promising when interpreting ancient residences: Elvis’ commentary on his Memphis mansion frequently connects the objects in it to his experiences, his career, his family, his travels, and his ambitions. Can we then suppose that owners of ancient villas less frequently discussed theories of iconology or intertextuality when interacting with their domestic decoration, in favor of personal, subjective responses? Naturally, we are on much firmer ground when connecting Graceland to Elvis’ highly-publicized biography than when attempting to read the decoration of ancient villas, given that so few of the ancient residences provide coherent clues to their ownership. Yet this article argues that a standardized autobiographical interpretation of ancient villas, one which takes into account well-known elite Roman archetypes, can be a valuable and indeed appropriate tool for understanding these monuments and should be added to existing methodologies in the study of Roman domestic decoration.

As Albert Goldman wrote of Graceland in 1981, “A pop archaeologist would find the excavation of this site a satisfying occupation.” Indeed I am finding this project immensely gratifying!

Francesca Tronchin is currently Assistant Professor of classical art and archaeology in the Department of Art and Art History at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. She has held fellowships in art history and archaeology at the Getty Museum and the University of Manitoba, Canada, and has taught courses on ancient Mediterranean art history and archaeology at not only Rhodes College, but also the Ohio State University and Sacramento State University. In addition, she has also worked on a number of archaeological sites in the Mediterranean and in various museums and archival collections. She earned her Ph.D. in art history in 2006 from Boston University.

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