Ancient Roman Wall Painting

The visual arts in ancient Rome included a long history of wall painting and much of what we know about it comes from the excavated ruins of Pompeii and the smaller nearby town Herculaneum.  Roman painting in general did not survive however the eruption of Mount Vesuvius near Naples in 79 AD buried the towns in volcanic ash, which served to preserve these works of art.

Rather than having windows, Roman homes were built around a central courtyard, therefore wall painting was both decorative and served the purpose of visually expanding the interiors.  They were expensive to commission and primarily found in the homes of the wealthy.

Dionysiac Frieze,Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii, Second Style, 60-50 BC

While there was quite a variety in subject matter, Roman wall painting is generally broken down into four main types.Eve D’Ambra in her book Roman Art describes each of the types as follows*:

-The First Style, also known as the Masonry Style, represented walls dressed with faux paneling of marble and other stones (200-80 BC).

-The Second Style opened up the wall with architectural vistas (80-20 BC).

-The Third emphasized the decorative architectural frameworks and created the illusion of pictures hanging on the wall (20 BC-40 AD).

-The Fourth incorporated many elements of the Third Style (40-79 AD) to represent textile patterns of wall hangings or views of vaguely defined architectural forms that seem to hang in space, together with mythological panels and floating figures.

In this blog post we will look at some examples of each of these styles.

Roman Wall Painting- First Style (200-80 BC)

Herculaneum: First Style, painted wall decoration, 2nd Century BC

The above is a classic example of First Style wall painting with large rectangular areas painted to look like colored marble or stone.  In these there was no further decoration or narrative and as said above this was also referred to as the Masonry Style.  This style dominated Roman wall painting for over a century before it was replaced by the entirely different Second Style.

Roman Wall Painting- Second Style (80-20 BC)

Below right
Cubiculum from the Villa of Fannius Synistor
Boscoreale, Second Style, 40-50 BC

Above left:
Walled Garden, House of Livia at Prima Porta,
Palatine Hill, Rome, Second Style, late 1st century BC

This style began around 80 BC and here we start to see a trompe l'oeil affect.  Wall paintings are now being used to "create" windows with imaginary views into towns and gardens, or to create columns and other architectural elements. 

Let's look at our two examples above, the one on the left was from the House of the Empress Livia, wife of the Emperor Augustus.  Shown is one section of a wall, this effect continued throughout the room, thus the wall painting is used to give the illusion of an open space.  The other example, found at the Villa of Boscoreale near Pompeii, creates a cityscape outside of an imaginary window.  

Both versions use the entire wall space and include painted marble "columns" to enhance the visual effect that these are real spaces.

A completely different type of Second Style wall painting can be found in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, so named for its interesting painting of individuals performing an unknown series of rituals in the triclinium (formal dining room).

Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii. Dionysiac Frieze, north wall, left side: 
Draped Woman, Woman and nude Boy, Girl with an offering plate, 
and Figures around a table, Second Style, 60-50 BC

The meaning behind the paintings in this Villa have intrigued historians since they were excavated in the late 18th century.  Above is one section of the rituals, but the scene wraps entirely around the room and the life size figures are set against a vivid red background in an illusion of another interior space.  It is thought that the figures here are performing rituals associated into the initiation into the cult of the god Dionysus (Bacchus).  This type of figurative frieze was not as common as the typical Second Style wall painting had full size invented architectural elements.

Roman Wall Painting- Third Style (20 BC-40 AD)

Boscotrecase: Villa of Agrippa Postumus: Room 16: north wall 
Third Style, 11-7 BC

The Third Style of Roman wall painting was more comparable to modern day wallpaper, having a decorative effect.  It can also be seen as a type of painting gallery, alluding to the owner's taste in the arts such as in the above example found in Boscotrecase (also outside of Pompeii).  Though actual framed paintings from the ancient world have not survived they have been written about and it is assumed wealthy patrons had them in their homes.  In our example below, from the Villa of Marcus Lucretius a rather detailed landscape is shown.

Triclinium of the Villa of Marcus Lucretius,Third Style, Pompeii

This was a popular version of the Third Style, using some of these small framed "paintings" and placing them in regular intervals against a wall painted in a solid color, or in large areas of solid color with created architectural elements such as columns or cornices.

Roman Wall Painting- Fourth Style (40-79 AD)

The Fourth Style combines elements of the Second and Third Styles and expands upon both.

Pompeii: House of the Vettii: wall painting, Red occus early Fourth Style: 
det.: Apollo victorious over Python, 62-68 AD

As D'Ambra wrote, the Fourth Style "represents textile patterns of wall hangings or views of vaguely defined architectural forms that seem to hang in space, together with mythological panels and floating figures."*

Here we see a very wide variety in styles and designs, there are painted windows, columns and cornices of the Second Style, used in combination with the decorative elements and "painted pictures" of the Third.

Domus Aurea: Room of the Landscapes
Domus Aurea (Golden House of Nero), Rome, Fourth Style, 64-69 AD

As so many of these wall paintings were found in the Bay of Naples area due to their preservation in volcanic ash, the four styles of Roman wall painting end at 79 AD with the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

For more information on this topic visit this link from the Met:
Metropolitan Museum of Art Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Thematic essay

*D’Ambra, Eve. Roman Art. (New York: Cambridge University Press,1998) p. 140.

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