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Category: Classics & Creative Writing
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Clodia felt that it was time for a change. Now that she was single once again – well, a widow – she would spend some of her money on the house on the Palatine. The wall paintings were looking tired throughout the house, and she was going to start with her bedroom. She wanted the latest style, to cover up any traces of Metellus. There was a young painter, Arellius, who was beginning to earn a reputation for his work in some of the best houses in Rome. And some said he had another reputation too. Clodia was intrigued, and decided to invite him to survey her bedroom and come up with some ideas. Her younger sister-in-law Fulvia was not so sure that this was a good idea.

‘My dear do you really want that Arellius to paint your bedroom? Do you want to open yourself up to more scandal, so soon after your husband’s death? Couldn’t you maybe, start with the dining room?’

‘I only want him to paint the walls, Fulvia, I’m not asking for any other services’, laughed Clodia. ‘Do you think he offers other services?’

Clodia liked to try to shock her sister-in-law. She believed that underneath Fulvia’s composed exterior was an altogether different woman trying to get out. After all, if Fulvia was really the ideal Roman matron that she performed in public then how could she and Clodius be so happy together?

‘Clodius, your sister is incorrigible’, said Fulvia, ‘Can’t you persuade her to choose another room, or even better, another painter…’

‘Oh, she’s never paid any attention to me. Anyway from what I hear Arellius’ taste in women does not aspire to the heights of my beautiful patrician sister. His painting of Hebe is supposed to be based on….’ 

Fulvia interrupted ‘well if you must have Arellius and he must paint your bedroom then you won’t mind if I meet him with you, just to ensure the proper decorum’

My dear sister-in-law, you should have just asked, if you are as intrigued as me to meet the young painter. I’ll send for you and you can help me decide on a subject for the painting.’

*********

A week later Clodia and Fulvia were seated in an alcove in the peristyle, the private courtyard at the back of the house, drinking Falernian wine. One of the slaves brought Arellius into the courtyard, and he was handed a glass of the wine, and took the stool the had been placed in front of the two women. He was a handsome young man in his twenties, with dark hair, a suntanned face, broad shoulders and a broader smile.

‘Good afternoon, Arellius, I am pleased to meet you, as is my sister-in-law Fulvia.’ Fulvia nodded to Arellius, looking not particularly pleased.

‘How do you like my wine?’ asked Clodia.

‘The wine is very good, thank you, my lady. My clients rarely share their best wine with tradesmen’.

‘Oh I wouldn’t call you a tradesman. You are an artist, surely?’

‘Artist, artisan, tradesman, call me what you will.’

‘Artist, then. And my garden. Any improvements you would suggest?’

‘The garden, like its owner, is well-renowned for its beauty, and on surveying both garden and owner I am happy to say that both are beyond my expectations and quite perfect.’ 

Fulvia’s eyes hardened at the impertinence of the painter but Clodia smiled. If she was a little shocked at the audacity of the young man she didn’t show it.

‘Your slave told me that you would like me to paint one of your rooms.’

‘Yes, my bedroom. It’s over on the right, my slave will show it to you later. I want it painted in the latest style, with the columns and the little mythological pictures I hear you are so good at.'

Fulvia was pleased that at least Clodia had taken her advice and decided not to take Arellius into her bedroom herself.

‘And do you have any ideas on which myth you would like me to paint? I see by your fountain that you are fond of the goddess Aphrodite’. He glanced towards the statue in the fountain at the centre of the courtyard, adorned by the crouching naked figure of the goddess, her hair half undone.

‘The goddess of love is perhaps not the subject for a widow’s bedroom’ Clodia replied, raising her eyebrows, but her tone was more playful than disapproving.

‘Oh I am sorry, I should not have been so indelicate. My sincere condolences. I never met Metellus but I hear he was a great Patrician.'

‘Indeed he was’, said Fulvia. Fulvia had never liked Metellus. Although he was only a couple of years older than Clodia they seemed to be a generation apart. Metellus had always been opposed to Clodius and was disapproving of her own and Clodia’s interest in politics. But she was pleased that Arellius seemed to have finally remembered his place.

‘So tell me, Aphrodite aside, what are people with the best taste commissioning for their room paintings this year?’ asked Clodia, returning to business.

‘As the first woman of Rome, you can set the taste, rather than follow it.'

Clodia laughed. She had actually not been at all offended at the idea of Aphrodite, but Arellius had given her an idea.

‘You flatter me, Arellius, I am just one Roman woman among many. But the first woman. That might be a subject for your painting.'

‘Ah, Pandora. Yes of course. I think that would be an excellent scheme for three painted panels.’

‘Excellent indeed. I’ll have my slave take you to the room now. Fulvia and I are going out.’

Clodia and Fulvia got up, leaving Arellius alone on the peristyle.

‘So what did you think of the impertinent young painter?’ asked Clodia, when the women were alone, ‘do you think his reputation with the ladies is an exaggeration. He is nearer your age than mine, so you must have an opinion?’

‘Why does my age mean I should have an opinion?’

‘I could see you blush when you looked at his muscles. Oh don’t deny it, you try to be a proper Roman woman, but you are married to Clodius, after all.’

Fulvia stifled a giggle but said nothing. Clodia had long thought that her sister-in-law could be more fun if only she would allow herself to be a little more indiscreet. But both women agreed on one thing. Arellius was probably trouble and best left to his painting and his other women.

**********

Arellius came back the next day to show Clodia his initial sketches but she would not see them. She would not see Arellius either, but gave a message through her slave that Arellius was to ‘surprise her’. Clodia’s bed was moved to a room off the atrium while the painting took place, and the lady of the house was not to be seen by the painter for the three long weeks he took to complete the room. Starting at sunrise he worked on the plaster until the light faded with only a little bread and cheese to sustain him. First he painted the architectural details; red columns contrasting with the golden yellow background, using a ruler for the precise dimensions to create an illusion of depth, as if the columns stood out from the wall. He left the three spaces for his mythological paintings until last. 

For the paintings he had prepared cartoons of imagined scenes from the story of Pandora. The first picture was her adornment by the gods. His first attempt had been depiction of her creation, with the blacksmith god Hephaestus creating the first woman from clay on the orders of Zeus. But he hadn’t been happy with the composition. The lame god had looked awkward, and he felt that Pandora needed a different divine companion. He had a choice of gods for her adornment; the giving of gifts to the first woman whose name meant all giving. He would have liked to have included Aphrodite, but after his conversation with his patroness in the garden he decided against this, and instead chose to depict Pandora attended by Hermes on her right and Athena on her left. Pandora had been clothed by Athena in a shining robe and a youthful, girl-like Hermes looked into her dark brown eyes, as he formed her character. On completion of the painting Arellius stood back to admire his work. He was very pleased with his triptych composition, and felt satisfied to move on to the next panel and the next phase of Pandora’s story.

The second picture was a depiction of a wedding, that of Pandora and Epimetheus. Epimetheus was painted as a handsome young man in his twenties and Pandora appeared a little older, but a great beauty. As was written in the story she was the image of an immortal goddess, on whom her appearance was modelled. Beneath her bright blue tunic and red shawl her slender form was visible, and the shape of her breasts were discernible. Her eyes were the ox eyes of Hera, but her breasts were Aphrodite’s. Arellius’ skill with the paintbrush had created a woman who wore the stola and palla of a Roman matron, but in the gauzy material that would have adorned the goddess of love herself, should she have chosen to cover her divine nakedness. The married couple walked on rose petals, and more petals filled the air around them; offerings to the goddess of love.

The third picture was dominated by a large storage jar; a pithos made of clay. It was decorated by many symbols, which Arellius felt had some meaning but even he, the artist, could not decipher them. Pandora stood behind the jar, the lid in her hand, though still on top of the jar. Pandora looked directly from the picture as if into the eyes of anyone who confronted her, a smile on her face. She seemed pleased that she would be performing the task ahead of her, the task for which Zeus had created her. Both she and the jar were one, a deadly weapon to cause suffering to mankind.

***********

Arellius was well paid for his work, but the money came from the hands of a slave, not the hand of his patroness. As she had heard of his reputation, he too had probably heard of hers, and maybe even hoped for a moment. But that wasn’t Clodia’s way. 

A few days later Clodia showed the paintings to Clodius and Fulvia.

‘The audacity of that young man. Look, he’s painted himself into the picture as Epimetheus! You will now have to contend with his smirking face as you undress every evening,’ said Fulvia. ‘I’m surprised you paid him so much. If this were my bedroom I’d have the painting covered over by a more respectable tradesman.'

Clodius grinned ‘Of course he isn’t the only person he painted into the picture. Look at Pandora’s dark eyes’. Fulvia put her hand to her mouth, eyes wide as she looked at her sister-in-law and back at the painting. 

‘Fulvia don’t look so shocked. If you were a widow and my age you would be happy if someone painted you to look so well. I’m quite pleased with the way he has captured my eyes.’

‘And the subject matter is entirely suitable’ added her brother ‘Clodia as Pandora, the beautiful evil put on earth to wreak havoc on unsuspecting men.’

‘That’s a little harsh, even from you’, said Clodia, ‘but if that is true, you men certainly deserve a little havoc once in a while, don’t they Fulvia!’ A secret smile passed between the two women, and Clodia confirmed what she had suspected for a while, that Fulvia was indeed going to be more fun, and also more indiscreet, in the future.