Paintings and Mosaics
Paintings and Mosaics
Figural Arts. The remains of monumental painting from the Roman world can be traced back to the second century B.C.E., but it seems that accomplished painters, such as Fabius Pictor, were active as early as the fourth century B.C.E. Many surviving examples of painting come not only from Rome itself, but also from Herculaneum and Pompeii, where distinctive styles continued to develop until 79 C.E., the year of the eruption of Vesuvius. Over this period, too, a number of mosaics were produced which often echo the subject matter, colors, and designs of wall
painting, and may in some instances be copies of lost original frescoes. This has been suggested of the “Alexander Mosaic” from Pompeii depicting Alexander the Great’s victory over king Darius of Persia. This mosaic involved the use of tesserae —small cubes of cut stone, glass, or terracotta—for greater subtlety and illusionistic effect than was usually possible through older techniques of pebble mosaics. Many paintings and mosaics from the Roman period depict scenes ranging from heroic action in myth and history, to exotic urban and natural landscapes, to images drawn from everyday life. An early instance comes from the floor of the temple of Fortuna at Praeneste, circa 80 B.C.E., where there was a mosaic (5.25 by 6.56 meters) depicting a panoramic view of life on the Nile in a series of vignettes of activity in architectural, mountainous, and maritime landscapes. The inclusion here of animals such as lions, crocodiles, and hippopotamuses would have had an exotic appeal for Romans. Such a mosaic seems to be an important precursor of the panoramic vistas that became fashionable in painting of the Augustan era (27 B.C.E.-14 C.E.).
Fresco Panels. A house on the Esquiline hill in Rome has yielded eleven fresco panels, from circa 50 B.C.E., depicting scenes from Homer’s Odyssey, a Greek epic which tells of the return of the hero Odysseus from the Trojan War during a ten year period. These paintings (circa 1.5 meters high) have an almost impressionistic feel to them with their bright hazy colors and confident brushwork, which emphasize the background landscape at the expense of the narrative and diminutive figures. An example is the scene of Odysseus’s escape from the cannibalistic giants called the Laestrygonians, one of his misadventures on his way home. Here one sees a shift away from the centrality of the human figure more often associated with classical Greek painting. But the Greek subject matter and varying points of view in different panels have suggested to some that they may be copies of Hellenistic originals, transposed to a new setting in a Roman house. It is also possible that the work may have been done by Greek artists known to be operating in Rome from the second century B.C.E. onward, such as laia of Cyzicus and others. Another possible general influence is Etruscan tomb painting from as early as the sixth century B.C.E., some of which reveals an interest in landscape and animals with human activity depicted on a diminutive scale.
Pliny the Elder (35.116-117) tells of the innovations brought to painting by one Spurius “Tadius,” active during Augustus’s reign, which tally well with remains of wall-painting found in Rome, Pompeii, and Herculaneum.
It was he who first instituted that most delightful technique of painting walls with representations of villas, porticoes and landscape gardens, woods, groves, hills, pools, channels, rivers, coastlines—in fact everything which one might want, and also various representations of people within them walking or sailing, or, back on land, arriving at villas on ass-back or in carriages, and also fishing, fowling, or hunting, or even harvesting wine-grapes. There are also... many other lively subjects of this sort indicative of a sharp wit. This artist also began the practice of painting representations of seaside towns on [the walls of] open galleries, thus producing a charming view with minimal expense.
Source: Pliny: Natural History, 10 volumes, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press / London: Heinemann,1938-1962).
Painting Styles. Wall painting from Pompeii is usually divided up by scholars into four styles, which point to certain differences in this medium over time. The first style from before 100 B.C.E. involved the use of molded plaster, which was painted to imitate architectural forms, mostly marble panels. The second style, beginning circa 80 B.C.E. involved the more detailed and illusionistic treatment of architectural forms and urban landscape at some distance. Sometimes, as in a fresco from the Boscoreale villa in Pompeii, there is more than one vanishing point in these images with receding ledges, colonnades, and balconies. Such features may reflect the painter’s interest in perspective, shading, and illusion, which had been the subject of earlier Greek speculation, and which also attracted the attention of the architect Vitruvius (active circa 50-20 B.C.E.) in his treatise On Architecture. It is also conceivable that some of these “architectural” frescoes may bear some relation to the work of Pacuvius (circa 220-130 B.C.E.), who was both painter and playwright, and may have painted his own stage scenery. Pompeiian paintings in the “Room of the Great Fresco” from the so-called Villa of the Mysteries, dated circa 60 B.C.E., have attracted much attention for the large-scale depiction of the human form. An array of figures, almost lifesize, appear on a bright red background divided up by painted pilasters, and include Bacchus (god of wine and frenzy), his lover, Ariadne, satyrs, and anonymous men and women. The depiction of a ritual flagellation, possibly an initiation into rites in honor of Bacchus, is a most talked-about image where on adjacent walls a winged female figure prepares to whip a young woman cowering on the lap of another older looking woman. Near them appear two other women, including a nude dancer holding cymbals above her head, understood as a maenad, one of Bacchus’s female followers. The figures are dramatically rendered and the scene is one of the most (literally) striking and intriguing images in ancient painting. The “third” Pompeiian style, which appears about the beginning of the Christian era, tends to be more ornamental and floral than other styles, and prettifies the painted surface instead attempting a deeper illusionistic image. Monochrome backgrounds in black, green, or other colors tend to replace the more colorful backdrops of the second style, and the variously active figures and architecture are often quickly and minutely brushed on, adding a spontaneous and delicate effect to the scene overall. Indeed, this imagery seems typical of what Pliny tells us about painting of the Augustan era (27 B.C.E.-14 C.E.). One may also note as an example of this kind of imagery the splendid fresco of the “Garden Room” from Prima Porta in the house of Livia, wife of Augustus, dating from circa 20 B.C.E. The “fourth style” of Pompeiian painting appears around 63 C.E. and sees a return to depicting fuller architectural depth in the frescoes as well as human figures in more monumental form. Frescoes from the house of the Vettii (circa 63-79 C.E.) in Pompeii contain good examples. Treatment of figures and their setting is sometimes called theatrical, and on occasions one does find theater masks and even curtains across the top of a fresco. The subject matter was broad.
Narrative depictions of heroes such as Aeneas, Theseus, Perseus, and Hercules (the Roman name for Heracles) appear around this time, sometimes with or without architectural backdrops. As well there were still lifes, portraits, and even depiction of specific events such as the riot of 59 C.E. between the Pompeiians and Nucerians in the amphitheater at Pompeii, described by Tacitus (Annales 14.17).
Funerary Art. Of course, fresco painting and mosaics continued elsewhere in the Roman world after the eruption of Vesuvius. Examples come from Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli (circa 130 C.E.), the baths of Neptune at Ostia (circa 150 C.E.), and further afield in the provinces such as the hunting scene frescoes from the baths at Leptis Magna under the Severan emperors (193-235 C.E). But the next most significant achievements in painting from the Roman world can be identified in the funerary portraits from the Fayum in west-central Egypt during the first to fourth centuries C.E. These were painted on a coat of plaster on wooden or linen tablets often in the encaustic technique and placed on the sarcophagus at the height of thedeceased’s face. There is a marked emphasis on the enlarged dark eyes of the deceased, which stare back directly at the viewer, and the angle of depiction with highlights and shading is consistent from one image to the next. This gives a vivid impression of the subject who is often presented in the prime of life, although child portraits are known, too. There are clear links between these images and portrait frescoes and mosaics from Pompeii and earlier Egyptian funerary images; and the style of the Fayum portraits has rightly been seen to anticipate developments in Byzantine icons of the fifth century C.E. and later.
George M. A. Hanfmann, Roman Art. A Modern Survey of the Art of Imperial Rome (New York & London: Norton, 1975).
Roger Ling, Roman Painting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).
Jerome J. Pollitt, Art in the Hellenistic Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).