ACTA ACCLA, June 2005
ROMAN WALL PAINTING
Many genres of art have come down to us from the Roman world. We have sculpture, jewelry, metalworking and coins to name a few. One of the more fascinating areas of Roman art are the great wall paintings which have come down to us. Some are to be found in various villas in Rome, such as Livia's villa on the Palatine, but we owe a great debt to the beautiful discoveries from the area of Campania around Naples, which includes Pompeii and Herculaneum, and were preserved by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. The majority of the surviving wall paintings are murals painted on wet plaster and represents the true state of pictorial art in the Roman period. Roger Lang outlines four major points about Roman wall painting (Lang 1992, 1-2). 1. Ancient houses were painted much more than today. Today we tend to think of individually commissioned murals as reserved for only the very rich yet in Pompeii and Herculaneum it was a daily occurrence. 2. Quality varies from room to room. The more important, and therefore more highly visible and visited rooms, received better paintings. 3. Paintings must be considered in the context of the architecture settings in which they occur. What was the function of the room? Was it well lit? How does it work with pavements? With furniture? 4. Wall paintings are a measure of the artistic taste and social aspirations of the owner of the house.
In Hellenistic times it was popular to paint on portable panels. While there is some evidence that the Romans also practiced this type of painting, such as the Fayoum mummy portraits from Egypt, the predominance of Roman paintings were applied directly to the wall itself.
The art of fresco as practiced in Classical times was described by Vitruvius (De Architectura) and Pliny The Elder (Naturalis Historia). To prepare a wall, the 1-3 coats of mortar (lime and sand) followed by 1-3 coats of lime mixed with finely powdered marble was applied; colored pigments were applied while the wall was still damp. Sometimes tempura and liquid wax were added after the wall had dried.
Roman wall painting was divided into four different styles, based on four fundamental differences in the way the artist treated the wall and the painted space. This scholastic division was undertaken by August Mau (Pompeii, Its Life and Art, tr. F. W. Kelsey, London, 1899), a German anthropologist and a member of the German Archaeological Institute. He began excavating at Pompeii in 1860 and spent his winters working at the site and his summers at Rome analyzing his data. His division of the styles are very useful, but much overlapping of the various styles occur. The first two styles began in the Republican period and were outgrowths of Hellenistic Greek wall painting, which almost nothing survives except the literary reference to them. The third and fourth styles are found in the Imperial period.
The 1st Pompeian style, or "incrustation style" c.150 - 50 BCE, was a common form of house décor and was quite simple. It consisted mainly of imitations of colored stone and marble veneering done in stucco and paint. The grandiose villas and their rich adornment of marble would have provided the inspiration for the less well to do, who could not afford real colored marble for their walls but desired the same effect. A good example of this 1st Pompeian style is found at the House of Sallust in Pompeii, from the second century BCE (Figure 1). While much of the paint has faded, the stucco "blocks" can be seen and one gets a real feeling of what the overall effect might have been like. Another example of this early type is found at the Samnite house, c.100 BCE, at Herculaneum (Figure 2). The inner peristyle at the Getty museum, which was inspired by the Villa de Papyri, outside of Pompeii, also is done in the 1st Pompeian style.
The 2nd Pompeian style, or the "architectonic style", began in Pompeii itself shortly after 80 BCE and there are examples found in Rome which are somewhat earlier. This suggests that the style began in Rome and then spread to other areas. It is found as late as c.20 BCE at Pompeii. This 2nd Pompeian style preserved a trace of the 1st style, in that part of the wall was painted with panels which looked like marble, but the whole scheme changed as three dimensional objects, primarily architectural features were painted as realistically as possible rather than modeled in plaster or stucco. These architectural elements divide the walls into segments within which are sometimes architectural vistas or atmospheric perspectives or landscapes. Painted architecture in this style tended towards the heavy and substantial, with multi-point perspective sometimes giving an Escher-like effect. The whole idea is to give a strong illusion of spatial extension of the wall. A very nice example of this 2nd Pompeian style is found at the Villa at Oplontis, 1st Century BCE (Figures 3 & 4).
Here we see a nice architectural vista of a colonnade, with a peacock and a theatre mask in the foreground. It is very much like peering into another world, or a dream. Another fine example was found at the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, near Pompeii, mid-first century BCE, and was partially moved into the Metropolitan Museum in New York (Figure 5).
Here the walls have been opened up to a wide array of city vistas and country landscaping, all framed by painted columns and architraves with vivid colors. It is hard to believe the wall is a flat surface at first glance.
A most beautiful example is found at the Villa of the Mysteries, near Pompeii, mid 1st Century BCE (Figures 6, 7, 8). The scenes depict a ritual passage into a mystery religion, probably Dionysos, and is unusual in that it shows figures in front of the architectural framework. Figure 6 shows a detail of the great frieze of the Dionysian mysteries.
Figure 7 shows a young woman enduring an ordeal of ritual scourging, an initiation rite.
Figure 8 depicts a portrait of the Domina, or high priestess.
The 3rd Pompeian style or "Ornamental style" began about 20 BCE during the Augustan period and continued until around the time of the great earthquake that damaged much of Pompeii in 62 CE. The 3rd style grew out of the 2nd style. It treated the wall as the flat surface that it is, rather than as a window upon a distant space. Often rectilinear and organic patterns against a monochrome background predominated and it often emphasized the ornamental value of the designs. The architectural elements are unrealistically thinned out, often wispy, with panels depicting various topics or small vignettes with sacro-idyllic landscape scenes. It can almost be called a "picture gallery" style. Typically a large central picture would be flanked by smaller pictures on each side. Sacro-idyllic scenes are depictions of natural landscapes with sacred structures, such as temples and sacred urns. Also depicted in these types of scenes are sheperds with their flocks, trees, water vistas and are generally calm and very serene, often almost dream-like in quality. A good example of this type of scene is found at the Villa at Boscotrecase outside Pompeii, 63 - 79 CE (Figure 9).
Figure 10 shows another nice pastoral scene from Pompeii, circa 60 - 79 CE.
Other examples which illustrate this 3rd Pompeian style are: Figure 11, an Aedicula with small landscape, from the "Black Room" of the Imperial Villa at Boscotrecase, last decade of 1st century BCE; Figure 12, another detail from the Imperial Villa at Boscotrecase; and figure 13, a mythological scene depicting Perseus and Andromeda from the Villa of Agrippa Postumus at Boscotrecase.
The 4th Pompeian style is the latest style and occurred from c.62 to 79 CE. Many of the houses that were repaired or restored after the great earthquake of 62 CE were painted in this newer style. In this style, the architectural elements as in the 2nd style return, but are still unrealistic, but not to the extent as the 3rd style. Also as in the 2nd style the walls open up again. This style also shows uses of stage décor and may have been influenced in part by the art of the stage backdrop. It is similar to the 3rd style in that the use of panels of various topics continue and are given an illusion of portability by being set into trompe-l'oeil aediculae, screens, and tapestries. Further developments include an "intricate" style consisting of arabesques on white ground, as in the Domus Aurea of Nero in Rome (Figure 14), and this finial from Pompeii (Figure 15).
Other scenes from the Domus Aurea well illustrate this 4th Pompeian style (Figures 16 & 17). Pliny the Elder gives us a rare glimpse of a Roman wall painter. He mentions a certain Fabullus, who worked in the Domus Aurea. He tells us that he wore a toga when he painted and that "Fabullus went for only a few hours each day to the golden house when the light was right" (Pliny, Natural History xxxvi. 111).
Other examples which illustrate the 4th Pompeian style include the Ixion Room, House of the Vettii, Pompeii, circa 70 - 79 CE (Figure 18), and a detail of a painting from Herculaneum, circa 62 - 79 CE, entitled "Peaches and Jar" (Figure 19).
A mythological scene depicting Hercules as a baby strangling snakes sent as a punishment by Hera can also be found at the House of the Vettii, (Figure 20).
As the four styles suggest, the Romans had a love of lavish decoration when they could afford it. The depth of the various styles also suggest that this art form was far more widespread than is apparent from the surviving examples. From copying the rich marbles to opening the walls to "other worlds", the Romans sought various ways to utilize the flat surface of the wall and did so in very creative ways. Drawn from their Hellenistic and Greek predecessors, the originality of the wonders of natures and the liveliness of the various styles give Roman wall painting a character all their own and can be placed into the category of things that are truly Roman. Though the great eruption of Mount Vesuvius in CE 79 caused great devastation and took many lives, it also left the world a great legacy of art that continues to impress with every new scene that is uncovered.
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Kelly Ramage is a Los Angeles numismatist and has been a member of ACCLA since the late 1980's.