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Herculaneum‎ > ‎Insula oI‎ > ‎

House of the Relief of Telephus

Description of the House (Ins oI, 2-3)

The House of the Relief of Telephus is one of the largest houses in the excavated area covering about 1,800 sq. m.  Together with the adjoining House of the Gem they originally formed a single large property developed from a string of standard plots. The two atria that became the separate atria of these houses reflect the orientation of the older standard plots. The current house has an irregular layout due mainly to its location and its owner's efforts to provide sea views to as many rooms in the house as possible.

The house possibly belonged to one of the town's leading benefactors, Marcus Nonius Balbus and is somewhat unusual in that it has its own private access to the adjoining Suburban Thermae to the south.
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The doorway in the north west corner of the atrium (in the left of the picture above) leads to the stables (e) which had their own separate entrance (f) on Cardo V wide enough for carts and wagons.

On either side of the tablinum (d) at the east end of the atrium, are twin alae (c), both continuing the red and yellow theme of the main hall (pictured below).
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The tablinum has a white mosaic floor with a double black border. In the centre of the floor is a square decorative panel in black and white tesserae.

On the south wall of the atrium is a copy of a neo-Attic relief depicting an episode from the myth of Telephus. The relief, which was found in an oecus off the peristyle, depicts Achilles in the presence of his mother Thetis (pictured below), treating the wound of the Mysian king, Telephus in return for the king showing the Achaeans the way to Troy.
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The peristyle encloses a garden (i) with a rectangular pool (piscina) which still retains some of its decorative blue plasterwork. Off the south side of the peristyle (pictured below) are three reasonably sized drawing rooms (j) each ornamented with mosaic flooring. Below them, still to be excavated, are two more levels of rooms. From the exposed edges it can be seen that they too were richly decorated.
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A second passageway (k) leads to the top floor of the most unusual feature of the house, a tower like structure (m) built out over the shoreline with three lower floors, the bottom two of which were abandoned as sea levels rose and fell.
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Although only three floors are currently visible a test trench along the east side of the tower revealed the lowest of what we now know to be four levels, with a facade composed of
a series of engaged columns framing arched openings. These arches, like those immediately above them, were later filled in because of a significant drop in ground level which resulted in the encroachment of the sea and the abandonment of the two lowest floors. 
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The entrance to the house (pictured left) opens directly onto a bright vestibule (a) which in turn gives way to the atrium (b).

The atrium, which seems to reveal the influence of earlier Greek civic architecture in its three part division and ornamentation,
has a central impluvium and puteal and is colonnaded on two sides (shown left and below). But appearances can be deceptive. What the visitor sees today is a reconstruction of the house conceived by Amedeo Maiuri between 1934 and 1936. Although the reconstruction of the house is impressive it is partly false, particularly in the area of the atrium. The central impluvium shows that the atrium roof originally covered the central space and the side columns, rather than supporting the colonnades of a peristyle originally acted as supports for an upper floor.
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The decoration of the atrium is in the third style with

yellow panels (turned red in places by the heat and gases from the eruption) with architectural motifs above a lower red frieze. The upper zone continues the architectural theme on a red ground. The columns are of brick, stuccoed, and painted red, the spaces between them decorated with oscilla - marble discs with reliefs on both sides (left and, in more detail, below).

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The tablinum (d) (pictured below) is decorated in a similar manner to the atrium, with yellow decorative plasterwork (again turned red in places). The room is open to the atrium over its full width and has a large window in its east wall overlooking a large peristyle.
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The rest of the house, laid out along a different axis, is on a lower level and is reached by way of a ramped corridor (g) located to the left of the tablinum. The ramped corridor leads down to a large terrace with an imposing peristyle (h) (pictured lower left and below) which was porticoed on all four sides and had thirty-one columns of opus vittatum mixtum, alternating rows of brick and tufa blocks, supporting the inner margins of the roof. Bridging the gaps between the columns was a low wall or pluteus.
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The ground level appears to have recovered until sometime after the construction of the Suburban Thermae when it dropped once more prompting the building of a protective wall along the baths' southern side. Thereafter the land once again rose.  This rise and fall of ground level was almost certainly connected to the build-up in activity in the magma chamber beneath Vesuvius.

On each floor of the tower were three or four rooms, but it is the rooms at the southern end with the sea views that were the focus. The top floor (pictured opposite and above) is currently undergoing conservation work with the addition of a new roof and the installation of windows but even in its current state the decoration is outstanding with a polychrome marble floor and a spectacular dado composed of panels of cipollino, pavonazzetto and africano marble.

The room immediately below this one has survived in even better condition although the marble cladding on the lower part of the walls is less lavish with plain marble slabs and plain dividers in place of the large plaques of varied marble and richly decorated dividing columns.
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The central and upper zones of the walls are decorated in red with a wallpaper style design of repeated horizontal patterns etched out in white. The room also retains its entire marble floor in opus sectile (pictured above).




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