Fragments of ancient Roman frescoes have been uncovered across the Empire, but it is the more substantial and better-preserved sections from the cities around the Bay of Naples, sealed for centuries under the debris from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, that really capture the imagination. New discoveries from Pompeii continue to astound and add to the picture of the rich decoration of private homes and public eateries in the Roman world, their surfaces covered with vivid mythological narratives, erotic scenes, idyllic landscapes, and imitations of more costly marble. Indeed, it is from frescoes in and around Pompeii that scholars came to define the four styles that chart the development of Roman wall painting.
The wall paintings found in these buried cities are once again the subject of a major exhibition: I Pittori di Pompei (The Painters of Pompeii) at Bologna’s Museo Civico Archeologico. This time, however, the focus is on the painters who created these extraordinary artefacts in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae rather than on the cataclysm that obliterated them and their work. Three hundred years after the first discovery of these towns, researchers are able to provide precise information on the technical details of the famous Roman wall paintings that survived the eruption in AD 79, shedding light on the painters themselves, their tools, the pigments they used, and the pattern books that probably circulated within the society they lived and worked in and which sponsored them.
There are more than 100 painted panels in the exhibition from the collection of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, and they give an overview of production in the late Republic and the early Empire, from the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD. Many of the panels were cut out from the walls of the then newly discovered buildings of the lost cities of the Bay of Naples in the 18th century. They were framed and hung as standalone paintings in the summer palace of the Bourbon royal family at Portici, close to Herculaneum. Such was the success of these paintings that the king had to take measures to prevent theft from excavated sites and the widespread practice of manufacturing alluring forgeries, some of which mixed styles and materials such as mosaics in relief.
‘…fleeting as thought and as beautiful as if drawn by the hand of the Graces…’Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768)
Because of the lack of surviving easel paintings – with the exception of the outstanding, vividly realistic Fayum portraits – frescoes give us a clear and vital indication of the high-quality and sophistication of Roman painting in the Republican and Imperial centuries. The Fayum portraits, painted on wooden boards to cover the faces of mummies in Roman Egypt between the 1st century BC and 3rd century AD, have an almost-unsettlingly lifelike quality and a powerful intensity that puts them on par with some of the most-arresting masterpieces of Renaissance and later portraiture. The same liveliness and keen observation characterise the best of the Roman portraits sculpted in marble or painted on glass, as well as those inserted as medallions in the painted decoration of some of the houses in Pompeii. A portrait of an actor looking at the mask he will be wearing on stage is a good example of the Pompeian artists’ capacity for immediacy.
Basing his work mainly on the frescoes found in the Vesuvian area, the 19th-century German scholar August Mau identified four main stylistic categories in the evolution of Roman wall painting. His classification still stands. The earliest, the First Style (c.300-80 BC), is characterised by simple decorations largely imitating coloured marble facing; the Second Style (c.80-10 BC), by realistic renderings of architecture, shelves, and tables with objects on them, and framed landscapes or figures visible between columns; the Third Style (c.10 BC-AD 60) features mostly mythological scenes presented against a monochrome background; and finally the Fourth Style (from c.AD 60) has elaborate, large-scale narrative scenes, and figures and landscapes set within imaginary architecture and detailed decorative borders.
An interesting example of this Fourth Style in the exhibition is a complex, theatrical trompe l’oeil composition, enhanced with polychrome stucco, that was found in the tablinum (office) of the House of Meleager in Pompeii. The scheme includes a framed scene showing Io (the nymph and princess pursued by Zeus, who later turned her into a white heifer to avoid his wife Hera’s suspicion) and Argus (who in some versions of the myth is a many-eyed giant, appointed by Hera to watch over Io). The overall design of this flamboyant frescoed room also included landscape scenes and still lifes characteristic of the latest and most elaborate of the four Pompeian styles. Another beautiful framed scene comes from the adjoining atrium. It depicts a regal Dido, enthroned. This fabled founder of Carthage has a black servant holding a rhyton by her side and another woman nearby wearing small tusks in her hair. We are probably meant to understand these as elephant tusks, and thus the woman probably represents Africa. The ship of the Trojan prince Aeneas, driven by destiny to Italy, is already sailing away in the distance.
Much is understood about the subject of Roman wall painting thanks to past generations of antiquarians and archaeologists such as Mau, but there is still much to explore, especially in light of fresh discoveries made in different areas of the Roman Empire and in the still partially unexcavated Vesuvian cities. In August 2022, an unexpected discovery was made at the 1st-century AD ruined temple at Cupra in central Italy: here, archaeologists found that the temple’s walls and a high ceiling had been painted in bright colours in the Third Pompeian Style, known to be popular further south. The frescoes found in recent years in Pompeii include the engaging images of a sea nymph, rooster, and ducks decorating the outer walls of the counter of a thermopolium (a fast-food shop); a gory depiction of gladiators from a stairwell that possibly lead to a brothel; and, from the bedroom walls of a private house, the mythological tale of Zeus in the shape of a swan, seducing the mortal Leda. This last fresco is just the latest of the many erotic scenes found in situ in Pompeii or hung in the archaeological museum in Naples.
Because of their subject matter, these paintings, as well as erotic sculptures and phallic objects, were the cause of much controversy and were shown only under special circumstances, until, in 2000, the ‘obscene’ collection in Naples was opened without limits. By taking the artefacts out of their original context, their meaning and function was often misinterpreted. By the mid-19th century, a special Gabinetto Segreto degli Oggetti Osceni (Secret Cabinet of Obscene Objects) at the Museo Borbonico (as the National Archaeological Museum of Naples was then known) was only accessible to ‘people of mature age and respected morals’, following the suggestion of the future king of the Two Sicilies, Francesco I. It was believed that to be able freely to view such objects would corrupt the observer – the working classes, women, and children especially.
What do we know of the pictores themselves, the painters of these and other scenes? Roman artists were almost always anonymous and their output often considered not as individual works of art on their own merits but merely as part of the overall decoration and furnishing of a house or a public building. Roman wall painters were classified and hired according to their skills, and paid accordingly. The pictor parietarius (wall painter) was responsible for the backgrounds and the borders, and left spaces for the centrepieces to be painted on the wet plaster by the pictor imaginarius (figure painter).
The pictor imaginarius, who according to a much later AD 301 edict under Diocletian was to be paid twice the fee of the pictor parietarius, would fill these spaces with more complex scenes, generally inspired by mythology, or with landscapes and still lifes. A variety of landscapes appear in Roman frescoes, but they are somewhat limited because they mainly served to create a backdrop of recognisable landmarks where certain events might take place. As the 1st-century BC architect Vitruvius noted in his De Architectura, they included features such as mountains, rivers, groves, fountains, seashores, harbours, and shepherds with their flocks. The still lifes that would be added by a pictor imaginarius were usually framed at the top of walls. Known as xenia, a Greek word referring to offerings to guests, they were meticulous renderings of fish and fowl, eggs and fruit, often displayed on shelves among metal and glass containers. They were an illustration of the generous attitude of the owner of the house towards visitors – and further evidence of his wealth.
Individual workshops included apprentices and craftsmen with specific tasks and from various social backgrounds: enslaved men, liberti (freedmen), and even women, it seems, could take on important roles. From the 1st-century AD writer Pliny the Elder, we know the names of some painters in Greece and Rome, including a few women. A panel in the exhibition shows a woman painting. One might imagine, however, that the artist added a subtle twist to the scene of the painter at work, by having a woman painting a phallic object, in this case a herm representing Priapus, the god of fertility, who was believed to protect homes and businesses and to ward off the evil eye.
The various phases of the work depended on the time needed for the plaster to dry and required a considerable number of artisans working quickly together with well-practised synchronicity. Walls were first prepared with one or more coats of mortar made of a lime-and-sand mix, and finely ground marble dust applied to it with a mason’s trowel. Before the wall surface hardened, it was levelled with a sanding stone to produce a finish as smooth as marble. Once the surface had been prepared, painters used a line-snapping technique: they fixed a string (often soaked in ochre) to the wall with two nails (one at either end) and snapped it hard on the fresh plaster in order to imprint vertical and horizontal guidelines for the compositions. Other tools in the painters’ arsenal included a plumb line and compasses to ensure precision.
Preliminary sketches were drawn in the wet plaster with sharp tools or ochre pigment. Background colours were applied while the plaster was still wet, and details were added with pigments that were mixed with honey or egg whites. This technique produced colours that have largely stood the test of time. The famous rosso pompeiano (Pompeian red) that is a much-admired feature of some of the best Pompeian frescoes was obtained from a mixture of rare and expensive ingredients: primarily cinnabar and iron oxide. Recent chemical analysis, however, suggests that the rosso pompeiano, originally used with extreme parsimony and later chosen as an ostentation of wealth, was not as ubiquitous as it is commonly believed to be. Some of the red walls were instead once yellow ochre, transformed by the extreme heat from the volcanic eruption. Vitruvius and Pliny the Elder both record that walls painted using cinnabar pigment were waxed because painters were aware of the instability of this red pigment, which may even turn black when exposed to light.
We have an accurate picture of the activities of a team of painters from the walls of a room in the House of the Painters at Work. This house in Pompeii was being renovated when Vesuvius erupted, leaving us a snapshot of the suddenly interrupted work in progress. In the centre of the northern wall, it is still possible to discern the preparatory drawings made with a brush soaked in an ochre pigment on the white background of the plaster. In the lower sections, two male figures wearing short tunics walk from right to left towards a seated female figure whose long robe with soft folds is also visible.
It is most likely that the head of a painters’ workshop would own a pattern book that reproduced popular subjects (primarily drawn from mythology) and decorative designs to show to prospective clients. It is also likely that the different workshops specialised in certain genres, for instance some might take on the most sophisticated cycles of frescoes suitable for the enhancing of aristocratic mansions, others the explicit depiction of the activities provided by brothels. The themes chosen would obviously reflect the taste, culture, and sexual propensities of the patron who commissioned them.
Because the visual language of Roman wall paintings used recurrent iconographic elements, we can now begin to discern workshops from the style of the compositions, the details of the subjects chosen, and possibly even their brushstrokes. Following the pioneering work of H G Beyen (1951), Eric Moormann (1995), and other international scholars, and the more-recent studies by Domenico Esposito and Francesca Bologna, a few workshops have tentatively been identified. The repetition of specific scenes points, for example, to a Vettii workshop, active in the years AD 69-79 and named after paintings prominent in the House of the Vettii. The workshop is likely to have decorated as many as 40 separate and contemporary private and public buildings. It is now clear that such prominent workshops would have had to operate as large and complex enterprises controlling artistic activities in several different sites at the same time.
Examples are also emerging of direct copying from one house to another in the Vesuvian cities: details of certain specific buildings or even entire figures are almost exact copies of each other in different contexts and with variations in scale and the substitution of key elements. For instance, the group of Mars and Venus from the House of Lucretius Fronto, showing the helmeted god standing behind the seated goddess and holding one hand over her breasts appears with the two figures in the same pose in a painting from the House of the Punished Cupid. Altogether, ongoing research on Pompeian fresco painting is still a lively field of study, with new and challenging avenues for discoveries.
Roman pattern books would have contained renderings of famous Greek paintings, which would also have been copied in mosaic form. A 1st-century BC mosaic believed to be a copy of an early 3rd-century BC Hellenistic painting representing the celebrated Battle of Issus (333 BC) was found in the House of the Faun in Pompeii. It shows the victory of Alexander the Great over Darius III, the king of Persia. Another instance of parallel crafts comes in the form of rare polychrome painted marble that has survived to this day. Twelve slabs found at Herculaneum are beautiful examples of this.
Alexander was evoked in Roman painting, too. A magnificent large wall painting from the main reception room (oecus) of the villa of Publius Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale near Pompeii (dated c.40 BC) in the exhibition presents an allegory of the conquest of Persia by Macedonia – Alexander the Great’s birthplace and kingdom. It was probably painted around the time when Julius Caesar was about to go to war against Parthia, and thus the overall theme of a victory over a rival power in Asia was seemingly considered appropriate.
Monumental figures slightly larger than life-size are painted against a flaming red background. The identification of the individual figures is a matter of debate among scholars, but the overall subject, a celebration of the Macedonian dynasty, seems clear. Macedonia is portrayed as a standing female figure holding a spear. Her shield is marked with the star that some consider a symbol of the Macedonian royalty. A seated woman with her hair wrapped in rich, dark red cloth, the personification of Asia, looks at her. Next to the two female figures is an old man with a long beard wrapped in a cloak and leaning on a walking stick. He may be a philosopher, underlining the importance that such personalities had at the Macedonian court, since Aristotle tutored Alexander. The majestic painting would have transformed the Roman mansion into a Hellenistic ruler’s palace. Other detached scenes from the same megalographia (large-scale painting), possibly showing Alexander himself and his mother Queen Olympia, were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1920 and are on show there.
Roman domestic interiors were often dark and windowless, small and claustrophobic: wall paintings would expand and lighten these spaces, creating a theatrical atmosphere of luxurious make-believe. The way Roman artists were able to use trompe l’oeil effects to bring the outside in and make limited spaces limitless is truly extraordinary. The paintings they imagined must be considered part of a great body of work and given proper recognition, on par with the great masterpieces of other periods.
ALL IMAGES: Naples, MANN.
The Painters of Pompeii (I Pittori di Pompei) runs at Museo Civico Archeologico in Bologna until 19 March 2023. See www.ipittoridipompei.it for more information. A catalogue is also available, in Italian with some explanatory text in English: I Pittori di Pompei: affreschi romani del Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, edited by M Grimaldi (MondoMostre; €32).