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Women and Beauty in Pompeii

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Women and Beauty in Pompeii , by Antonio d'Ambrosio. Translated by Graham Sells. (Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum: 2001. Pg 67, illustrated.) ISBN: 0-89236-631-1.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - February 11, 2002

Antonio d'Ambrosio's richly illustrated book, Women and Beauty in Pompeii, offers a brief overview of the Pompeian, and by extension, Roman concept of beauty. In this delightful book, d'Ambrosio explores all aspects of feminine beauty from hairdressing to jewelry. He also investigates the methods by which this beauty was achieved - namely by the personal hygiene practices, beauty treatments, makeup, and perfumes used by the women of Pompeii. Some of the treatments described will definitely make you wince. For example, on page 11, d'Ambrosio states, "...tweezers were originally used to remove hair from the armpits..." Ouch!!

D'Ambrosio's research is based upon the archeological evidence uncovered at Pompeii, and the written records left behind by a plethora of Classical writers. Many of these writers, including Cato, Catullus, Juvenal, Martial, Ovid, Petronious, Pliny the Elder, Porpertius, Seneca, Tacitus, and Ulpian are quoted throughout the book. In addition, this book is lavishly illustrated with art work depicting women engaged in all aspects of their toilet, as well as with photographs of various artifacts used in the acquisition of beauty, ranging from auriscalpium (sticks used to the clean the ears) to perfume bottles.

The first half of this book is devoted to body care and the second half is given over totally to jewelry and fashion. Both sections concluded with a short catalogue. The first catalogue, "Items Commonly Use for Body Care" contains photos of the various items, along with descriptions of the item, where it is from, how it was used, and for what purpose. The second catalogue, "Catalogue of Ornaments" features a nice selection of jewelry, and it includes detailed information about each piece.

Women and Beauty in Pompeii offers the reader a glimpse into a world that was frozen in time when Pompeii was buried in a sea of lava and ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79. This text is part history and part art. It is also, to a degree, a work of social commentary, discussing the ancient view of beauty, and the lengths and reasons, why women were willing to endure various treatments, and to put forth such efforts to try to adhere to their culture's standard of beauty. Most interestingly, a goodly portion of this commentary is offered by the women themselves, by means of the archaeological remains discovered in the once thriving town of Pompeii.

Other books in this series:
Related Reviews:

Gladiators at Pompeii, by Luciana Jacobelli.
A brief overview of the history of gladiatorial competitions, and the men, and women, who competed in them. Special emphasis is given to the gladiators of Pompeii and the material evidence about the spectacles that have been uncovered at Pompeii.

Vestal Virgins, Sibyls, and Matrons: Women in Roman Religion, by Sarolta A. Takács.
This book offers an overview of the role that women played in Roman religious practices and public ceremonies, and their contribution to Roman society and history.

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