Browsing through the Pompeii and the Roman Villa catalogue, I was stopped in my tracks by an image of one sculpture’s piercing ivory eyes set upon its darkened bronze face. I had learned that ivory eyes were a common trait among bronze statues, but Girl fastening her peplos (Peplophoros), unlike most, was beautifully restored and had really stood the test of time. Who knew a statue could have so much intensity? It wasn’t just the eyes that got me; she seemed to be stopped in her tracks, as well. Like a deer in the headlights, she looked as though she was caught off guard while buttoning or unbuttoning her dress (or peplos).
Girl fastening her peplos (Peplophoros), 1st century BC-1st century AD (detail), Herculaneum, Villa dei Papiri, photography © Luciano Pedicini
As I went over the catalogue description, my curiosity only grew. “Her gesture should be effortless,” the text read. “But it is rendered somewhat awkward by the fact that she faces directly forward and does not look at what she is doing.”
Pompeii curator, Ken Lapatin, confirmed that she (along with her four “sisters” found in the Villa dei Papiri, but not included in this exhibition) was, in fact, a mystery. He noted that she doesn’t seem to be a mythological figure, as they tend to carry some sort of prop with them—a bow, an arrow, a wand, a crown. This one comes with only, well, the clothes on her back. Not only that, but Lapatin also pointed out that even her title was up for question—no one really knows for sure if she’s actually fastening or unfastening her peplos. He thinks the artist may have deliberately made her enigmatic just to keep people guessing. If so, it works; I’ve overheard numerous conversations in the galleries as visitors tried to decipher just what she’s up to.
Her posture doesn’t match her peers in the exhibition, either—she’s not outwardly posing, nor is she limp; with her solid, straight stance, Girl is no wilting flower. For me, all these things brought her to life. I couldn’t help but wonder what the artist had in mind. What were we to make of that reaction? She looked just like any one else who had been caught in the moment. Perhaps her fixated stare was the result of spotting a special someone in the distance. Did she possibly come upon a moment of clarity? Or maybe, just maybe, she was simply getting dressed.