WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE exquisitely crafted frieze? Who are the two couples it depicts—the two half-naked women, and the men (or are they gods?) exchanging such meaningful gazes with them? And who are the onlookers? Ever since the Portland vase, a priceless ancient Roman work of blue and white glass, was discovered 400 years ago, the meaning of its images has remained an enigma.

So it is shocking that, after more than 40 scholarly interpretations had failed to gain general acceptance, the puzzle should apparently be solved by Randall Skalsky. Skalsky, you see, is not an art historian. At 43, he is just winding up a master's degree in the classics, having frittered away most of his 20s and 30s waiting on tables and soaking up rays at Hilton Head, S.C.

To make matters more embarrassing for the pros, Skalsky unraveled the mystery by tugging on a thread that had always been in plain view. "My conclusion," he says, "was if all these people have been looking at the figures for 400 years, it's not going to do me any good. So I stopped looking at them."

That's when inspiration struck. The answer lay in the architecture: The columns behind the figures are shaped like the Greek letters pi and iota. The pi, or p, Skalsky ingeniously argues in the spring issue of Arion, a journal of the classics, stands for Peleus, who sired the Greek warrior Achilles and is the figure in front of one of the arches. The scene depicts the marriage of Peleus and Thetis, described by the Roman poet Catullus. The iota, says Skalsky, stands for Mount Ida in present-day Turkey, where Paris and Helen (the principals of the second scene) were united. In short, says Skalsky, the frieze portrays a pair of marriages that led to the fall of Troy and the birth of Rome. "His piece is absolutely brilliant," says Arion editor Herbert Golder. "I believe he solved the puzzle."

It was surely a potent augury that Skalsky, who would come to love all things Italian, was born in Syracuse—New York, that is. His childhood, thanks to his mother, was anything but ordinary. Audrey Houghton, 69, was a marine in World War II and a divorced single mother during the '50s—Randall never knew his father—who placed great store in books. Says Skalsky: "My mom pushed me to read, discover, devour."

Reared in the Roman Catholic Church, Skalsky reveled in its ritual, largely because of the language in which it was delivered. Indeed, so smitten was Randy that he trained Sheba, his golden Labrador, to obey commands in Latin. Yet, oddly, Skalsky was a reluctant schoolboy who managed but one semester at the State University of New York College at Fredonia before dropping out. "I went to college because I thought it would be a good party," he says. "It was."

Skalsky promptly shoved off on his own 20-year odyssey. "It was the '60s," he says. "I wanted to see what was going on." After stops in New Orleans, Atlanta and Savannah, Ga., he took a job as a waiter in Hilton Head, where he remained for eight years. Working nights, he kept his days free to knock back classics on the beach. "I had the best life," he says. "I'd buy a new Trans Am every two years and drive back and forth across the U.S. It was the American dream—a full tank of gas and a clean windshield."

By 1987 he was 38 and, he thought, "maybe ready for college." Ready? He breezed through the College of Charleston's classics curriculum in 2½ years, becoming valedictorian in the process. In the fall of 1990 he enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Last spring he was casting about for a topic for a Roman art class when he remembered a TV special about the Portland vase (named for England's Duchess of Portland, who owned the vase in the 1700s). Approaching the frieze as "an ancient parlor game," he soon became obsessed with the vase. "It was so exciting," he says, "I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep." And like many before him, he became lost in the labyrinth of interpretation. One night, he says, "I laid awake [mulling] this thing until 4 o'clock in the morning. And then it hit me."

Skalsky's thesis has caused something of a stir in the art community, attracting both champions and detractors. Most experts are waiting to see the 29-page piece in Arion. But Skalsky remains supremely confident. And why not? He considers himself a Roman reincarnate.

"I'm not Shirley MacLaine," he says, "but I can picture myself reclining on a couch with a cup of wine. There's a cool Mediterranean breeze. I'm listening to some nice poetry with a little harp playing in the background." He pauses, then smiles. 'T was definitely a Roman," he says. "Just look at this nose!"

WILIAM PLUMMER
HEIDI J. LAFLECHE in Amherst

  • Contributors:
  • Heidi J. Lafleche.