Roman Painting

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Roman Painting

The Destruction of Pompeii.

On 24 August 79 c.e., the volcano of Mt. Vesuvius, which was thought to be extinct, reawakened and blew up, spewing a mushroom-shaped cloud into the air to the amazement and terror of the onlookers. The eruption would claim the life of Pliny the Elder who is one of the major sources for information about Greek and Roman art. When the eruption was over, the cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae, and Oplontis had been sealed in ash and lava. Pompeii and Stabiae were covered in easily removable ash and pumice, but Herculaneum, directly beneath the volcano, was covered with mud and lava that hardened as it cooled, making it impossible to remove without pick-axes and pneumatic drills. While the eruption was a terrible tragedy in the ancient world, it was a boon for modern art historians, for the lava preserved the wall decorations of the houses and the mosaics on their floors for modern excavators to discover. While wall-paintings from other sites are only isolated finds, the art from Pompeii and Herculaneum show the changes in Roman taste over three centuries. Even though Pompeii, a town of some twenty thousand inhabitants, was already past the peak of its prosperity when it was buried under the ash from Mt. Vesuvius, and so did not attract the Roman Empire's best painters, its houses present a vivid record of changing fashions. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the German scholar August Mau divided the wall paintings of Pompeii into four styles: first, second, third, and fourth, in chronological order. Fourth style was in vogue when the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius abruptly ended the life of the little city.

First Style.

First Style tried to produce in painted stucco the appearance of a wall covered with panels of marble or with blocks of masonry, for which reason it is also sometimes called "Masonry Style." The largest house in Pompeii, the House of the Dancing Faun, which was built in the second century b.c.e., had first-style wall decoration: plaster that faked marble panels, all painted a bright red. Herculaneum has a well-preserved example of this style in a house built in the late second century b.c.e.: the so-called "Samnite House." The plaster is shaped into panels which were painted using the al fresco technique in which the pigment is applied to the plaster while it is still damp. The inspiration for the style is the marble-paneled walls in the Hellenistic palaces and public buildings in royal capitals such as Alexandria and Antioch. First Style counterfeits the marble panels in plaster, and since the painter had more colors at his command than did the marble-cutter, the effect of First Style could be more garish than the real thing, an example of which can still be seen in the Pantheon in Rome where the marble panels on the wall are still in place.

Second Style.

Second Style came into fashion after 80 b.c.e. though it never pushed First Style completely aside. Second-style painting was illusionist, meaning it tried to create the illusion that the spectator was looking beyond the confines of the wall to a world outside it of gardens and fantastic architecture. One splendid example was found in the villa of Livia, the wife of the emperor Augustus, at Prima Porta just north of Rome. There a vaulted, partly underground room was painted on all sides with a panorama of a garden, complete with trees bearing fruit and birds. With this illusion the walls of the room no longer confine the space. The artist suggests depth to his painting by a kind of atmospheric perspective: the trees and plants in the foreground are painted precisely but as objects recede into the distance, they become increasingly blurred. If the artist working in Second Style wanted to open up the wall and show landscapes beyond it receding into the distance, he had to use perspective to give depth to his painting. Greek scenery designers for the theater had been the first to use perspective in the first half of the fifth century b.c.e., and its general rules were well known. A fine example of Second Style was found in the villa of Publius Fannius Synistor, otherwise unknown, at Boscoreale near Pompeii which dates to the middle of the first century b.c.e. The frescoes were removed from the walls and taken to the Metropolitan Museum in New York shortly after the villa was discovered, and they are part of a reconstructed cubiculum, or Roman bedroom, there. The wall paintings create the illusion that the onlooker can walk through the bedroom walls into a cityscape with porticoes, arches, and temples; one view shows a charming tempietto, a small, round shrine which seems to be set in a courtyard surrounded by porticos. Roman taste changed a few years after the villa of Publius Fannius Synistor, as evidenced by the construction of another villa belonging to Agrippa Postumus which was decorated in Third Style about 10 b.c.e.


introduction: Vitruvius, who wrote a treatise of ten books on architecture in the latter part of the reign of the emperor Augustus (27 b.c.e.–14 c.e.) has some derogatory remarks to make about the wall-painting fashion of his own day, which, from his description, was Third Style. In the passage quoted below, he begins with a reference to First Style or "Masonry Style," and then progresses to Second Style, which, as he reports, took some of its inspiration from the scenery in theatrical productions. He approves of paintings taken from mythology, and many examples of these have been found in Pompeii. Two of the best examples, however, come not from Pompeii but from a house excavated on the Esquiline Hill, one of the Seven Hills of Rome. It shows landscape scenes taken from Homer's Odyssey, copied, like most such wall paintings, from lost masterpieces. The originals of the wall paintings from the Esquiline would have dated to about 150 b.c.e. Note that Vitruvius, whose language was Latin, refers to Odysseus by his Latin name, "Ulysses."

The ancients, who introduced well-finished wall surfaces, began by representing different varieties of marble slabs in different positions, and then cornices and blocks of yellow ochre arranged in various ways. Afterwards they made such progress as to represent the forms of buildings, and of columns, and projecting and overhanging pediments; in their open rooms, such as exedrae, (rooms or outdoor conversation areas) on account of their size, they depicted the façades of scenes in the tragic, comic, and satyric style; and their walks, on account of the great length, they decorated with various landscapes, copying the characteristics of particular locations. In these paintings, they show harbors, promontories, seashores, rivers, fountains, straits, temples, groves of trees, mountains, flocks and shepherds. In some places there are also pictures designed in the grand style, with representations of gods or episodes from myths portrayed in detail, or the battles at Troy, or the wanderings of Ulysses, with landscape backgrounds, and other subjects reproduced on similar principles from real life.

But those subjects which were copied from real life that exists around us are scorned in these modern days of bad taste. We have now fresco paintings of monstrosities rather than truthful paintings of tangible things. For instance, reeds are put in the place of columns, fluted accessories with curled leaves and volutes instead of pediments, candelabra supporting representations of shrines, and on top of their pediments numerous tender stalks and volutes growing up from the roots and having human figures seated on them without rhyme nor reason. Sometimes there are stalks with only half-length figures, some have human heads, others the heads of animals.

Such things do not exist and cannot exist, and never have existed. Thus this is the new taste that has caused bad judges of substandard art to prevail over true artistic excellence.

source: Vitruvius, "The Decadence of Fresco Painting," in The Ten Books of Architecture. Trans. Morris Hicky Morgan (New York: Dover, 1969): 210–211. Text modified by James Allan Evans.

The Elegant Third Style.

As the landscapes of Second Style went out of fashion, they were replaced by mural designs that emphasized the wall instead of dissolving it into a vista beyond. The artist painted his wall in a solid, dark color such as black, and instead of the architectural elements of Second Style, he framed his space with thin, spidery columns holding up insubstantial canopies—architectural forms that never existed in real life. In the middle of his space he composed a picture enclosed within a frame, like a painting hanging on a wall. Or he sometimes substituted a motif borrowed from Egyptian art. Third Style was elegant and exquisite, but it was also oppressive.

Fourth Style.

Illusionism returned with the Fourth Style, which became popular in Pompeii about 62 c.e., when Pompeii was shaken by an earthquake and houses needing their damaged wall paintings restored no doubt opted for the latest style. The emperor Nero, who was building his Domus Aurea (Golden House) in the heart of Rome following the devastation of a great fire that broke out in the summer of 64 c.e., used Fourth Style to decorate the rooms of his extravagant new villa. Walls were painted a creamy white with landscapes appearing as framed pictures in the center of a large subdivision of the white wall. There are also architectural vistas, but they are dream cityscapes: columned facades, sometimes fragments of buildings, none of them belonging to the world of reality. The painters of these architectural follies may have been influenced by the painted scenery that they saw in contemporary theater. Some of the framed paintings show scenes from mythology: one, from Pompeii, now in the Naples Museum, shows Aeneas, wounded in one leg, being tended by Iapyx, master of the healing art, while Venus appears in the background, bringing with her a medicinal herb. The scene comes from the final book of Vergil's epic, the Aeneid, and it is evidence that the Romans had illustrated books containing such pictures. The codex, or bound book, would not appear until the second century c.e., but the picture of the wounded Aeneas from Pompeii is the sort of illustration that might have been found on a parchment scroll containing the last book of the Aeneid.

The Aftermath.

Campania, the region of Italy around Naples which includes the cities destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, has no examples of wall paintings after 79 c.e. The murals after that date which have survived come from Rome or the imperial provinces, and they show less taste for fantastic ornamentation and an increase in simpler, more realistic designs, done on white, red, or yellow backgrounds. In the Roman province of Britain, a town house of the second century c.e. found at Verulamium (modern St. Albans) yields evidence of a mural with painted panels with two candelabra on a red background, and in the center, a blue dove on a perch. On the ceiling, there were ears of wheat painted in a lattice-work design on a purple background. The third century c.e. had a penchant for scenes on a large scale, most of them illustrations of ancient myths. The third century was a period when the Roman Empire seemed on the verge of disintegration, and yet it was also a time when there were new departures in artistic taste. In the eastern provinces, the retreat from naturalism that we find in medieval art, where two-dimensional figures stare directly at the viewer, was already underway.

Dura-Europos: a Pompeii of the Third Century C.E.

In 256 c.e., a Roman garrison town on the Euphrates River in modern Iraq, called Europos by the Greeks and Dura by the Romans, fell to the Persians. The eastern frontier of the Roman Empire had become a dangerous place, for the Persians under a new dynasty, the Sassanids, had overthrown Rome's old foe, the Parthian Empire, in 224 c.e. They were more aggressive than the Parthians had ever been for they dreamed of restoring the Old Persian Empire that Alexander the Great had overthrown. Dura-Europos was discovered during World War I, and in 1931 excavations got underway under the auspices of Yale University. The wall paintings that were found made art historians rethink their notions about the retreat from naturalism in the late Roman Empire that had hitherto been associated with the rise of Christianity. There was a Jewish synagogue with scenes from the Old Testament, dating to about 200 c.e. These came as a surprise, for Judaism took the Second Commandment banning "graven images" very seriously, as did early Christianity, but by the start of the third century c.e., the veto for both religions had broken down. There was a Christian "house church," built about 240 c.e., for before Christianity became a legal religion, Christian congregations met in ordinary houses which were adapted for worship; we know that there were at least forty such "house churches" in Rome by 258 c.e. At one end of the baptistery room in the Dura "house church," set in a vaulted niche, there was a font shaped like a sarcophagus, and on the back wall of the niche was a painting showing Christ as the Good Shepherd, carrying a sheep on his shoulders, and beside him, Adam and Eve. This was clearly an example of wall painting as a mode of instruction: Adam and Eve represented the old Adam who sinned, and Christ, the new Adam, redeemed the victims of original sin. The synagogue paintings were also art serving to instruct, and since they date before the "house church" was built, the Christians probably borrowed the idea of using art for religious education from the Jews. One synagogue painting shows the prophet Samuel anointing David as the future king of Israel while his six older brothers look on. Samuel towers over David and his brothers who are all the same height, though David's status is marked by the purple toga that he wears like a Roman emperor. The figures face the onlooker, fixing him with an intense gaze, and they seem to float in air. This frontality and weightlessness is even more pronounced in the sacrificial scenes that were painted and carved in the Temple of the Palmyrene Gods in Dura. By contrast, the art in the Christian baptistery has not quite abandoned the classical tradition. The "Christ the Good Shepherd" figure recalls a classical type; among the archaic sculpture found on the Athenian Acropolis there is an example, the dedication of Rhonbos showing a man carrying a lamb on his shoulders. The Dura finds make it clear that the features associated with early medieval art—two-dimensional, weightless figures in frontal poses—developed independently of Christianity, and that their inspiration came from the Middle East.

Early Christian Art.

Apart from the "house church" at Dura-Europos, examples of early Christian art come from the catacombs: underground cemeteries hewn from the rock-like tunnels for mines. The cata-combs were not solely Christian—the Jewish catacombs in Rome antedate the Christian ones—nor are they only in Rome: there are also catacombs in Naples, Syracuse in Sicily, and Alexandria. Christians, like Jews, did not cremate their dead, which was the prevailing custom in the pagan world until the later second century c.e., and the catacombs provided burial places that a Christian of modest means could afford. Most of the catacomb burials are later than 313 c.e. when Christianity was made legal by the so-called "Edict of Milan," and so the old romantic notion of persecuted Christian believers gathering secretly for worship in the catacombs must be abandoned. The dead were placed in niches (loculi) stacked one above the other like shelves lining the underground galleries, and in various places small rooms (cubicula) cut out of the rock served as funerary chapels. The paintings in the loculi and particularly in the cubicula are our earliest examples of Christian art. The style is similar to contemporary pagan art, though there is a charming naivete about the pictures. They are narrative art but they have an educational purpose: they give instruction in the Christian faith. Christ is usually shown either as a teacher or as the Good Shepherd, caring for his flock of sheep. In the early drawings he is depicted as a young man and beardless; he might pass for a young pagan god. The figure of Christ as a mature man with a full beard developed only later in Constantinople in the fifth century, and perhaps it reflects the impression made by Phidias' great gold-and-ivory statue of Zeus at Olympia when it was taken to Constantinople after the temple was closed by imperial decree in 391. The catacomb paintings were executed by journeymen painters who worked quickly in poor light, surrounded by decaying corpses, and they are not great art. They borrow heavily from the classical tradition. Yet their general aim was instruction in Christian piety, and though occasionally figures from classical mythology appear if they can be linked in some way with Christian teaching, the subjects are usually stories that convey a message from the Old and New Testaments.


John R. Clarke, The Houses of Roman Italy, 100 B.C.–A.D. 250 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

André Grabar, Early Christian Art from the Rise of Christianity to the Death of Theodosius. Trans. Stuart Gilbert and James Emmons (London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1967).

Michael Grant, Cities of Vesuvius: Pompeii and Herculaneum (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1976).

Philippe Heuzé, Pompéi, ou, Le bonheur de peindre (Paris: De Boccard, 1990).

Phyllis W. Lehman, Roman Wall Paintings from Boscoreale in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953).

Roger Ling, Roman Painting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

—, Romano-British Wall Painting (Aylesbury: Shire, 1985).

Amedeo Maiuri, Roman Painting (Geneva: Skira, 1953).

August Mau, Pompeii: Its Life and Art. Trans. Frances Kelsey (New Rochelle, N.Y.: Caratzas Brothers, 1982).

Frank G. J. M. Müller, The Wall Paintings from the Oecus of the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor in Boscoreale (Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben, 1994).

Ann Perkins, The Art of Dura-Europos (Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1973).

D. Talbot Rice, The Beginnings of Christian Art (London, England: Hodder and Stoughton, 1957).

Silvia Rozenberg, Enchanted Landscapes: Wall Paintings from the Roman Era (London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1994).

W. F. Volbach, Early Christian Art (London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1961).