This week: Roman frescoes

Frescoes from the Cubiculum (bedroom) in the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, a mile north of Pompeii. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons

Over the past few centuries of European history, we have grown used to the notion of the artist as celebrity.

As far back as the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo and Michelangelo were famous in their own lifetimes. More recently, we can see from the careers of many modern artists – Picasso and Warhol among them – how personal fame and artistic prowess have become ever more closely entwined.

It may come as a surprise, therefore, to learn that the creators of some of the most admired of all Western artworks – the richly painted mythological, erotic and landscape frescoes preserved on the walls of Roman villas and public buildings around the Bay of Naples – were always destined to remain anonymous.

As we discover this week on The Past, Romans considered wall paintings not as individual works of art, but simply as part of a building’s overall decorative scheme. Accordingly, the identities of the individual pictores who worked to such extraordinary effect in the towns and cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Boscoreale and Stabiae were for the most part lost to history, even as the artefacts they created were sealed under a blanket of pumice and ash following the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

In the latest issue of Minerva magazine, Dalu Jones visits a major exhibition, I Pittori di Pompei (The Painters of Pompeii) at Bologna’s Museo Civico Archaeologico, that celebrates these brilliant but nameless Roman artists, and attempts finally to put the focus on their lives, careers, tools and techniques, rather than on the disaster which was to engulf their work.

Elsewhere this week, we have also been delving into the archives for more about Roman frescoes: we travelled to the Eternal City itself to marvel at the decorations at the Domus Aurea, Nero’s spectacular palace; we reported on a remarkable group of wall paintings unearthed at a rich Roman residence in the south of France; and we visited a fascinating temporary exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum which looked at how artworks reflected the place of food in Roman life.

And finally, if all that leaves you hungry for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around Pompeii. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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