Imagine that the year is 1777. Let’s go to the open fields to the east of the Baths of Diocletian. I hear that a Roman house has been discovered in the fields of the Villa Negroni!
The house lies between the Viminal and Esquiline hills. As we approach from the north-east side, we can see the diggings. Beyond, in the distance, is the convent of St. Eusebio. An English artist is painting the scene…
The artist is, in fact, a certain Thomas Jones. Jones recorded in his ‘Memoirs’ under 5 July 1777, that he went to see the excavation with Henry Tresham, an art dealer who acted for Lord Bristol:
Went with Tresham to see the Antique Rooms just discovered, by digging for antient Bricks, in the Villa Negroni – The painted Ornaments much in the Chinese taste – figures of Cupids bathing &c and painted in fresco on the Stucco of the Walls – The Reds, purples, Blues & Yellows very bright – but had a dark & heavy effect – NB Tresham made a purchase of these paintings for 50 Crowns, to be taken off the walls at his Own Expence-.
The Tate Gallery catalogue also notes that:
Thomas Hardwick, another friend of Jones, made a ground-plan of the ‘antique Rooms’ and recorded the wall-paintings in a cross-section drawing (both in the RIBA collection).
I wonder where these are; indeed what the “RIBA collection” might be.
The plan of the house given by Count Massimo in 1836 is worth repeating here:
Unfortunately this does not indicate North; and even with the picture and the plan, it is not clear what we are looking at.
I’ve zoomed in a bit, and we can see some more details:
Note the pair of columns in the right of centre. From the map, these must be the pair at the entrance; or perhaps the pair at the entrance to room F.
But note also how the rooms have vaulted ceilings, so that the tops of the paintings must be semi-circular.
Finally note that the room to centre left is plainly not the ground floor – there is a further vault below it. There is no mention in any source of anything much remaining of the upper floor, so this is not consistent with those accounts.
It’s very easy to see why scholars, faced with a mess like this, went on to demand proper scientific recording of such excavations.