The Roman Artistic Revolution: 100-20 BCE.

Lecture 10, Thursday 22nd February 2018

Roman wall painting

A historical moment? 

Historical painting. Wall painting from a tomb on the Esquiline Hill, Rome. 3rd or 2nd c. BCE. Centrale Montemartini. H 34¼ in (87 cm). Figures are named with inscriptions “M. Fanio” and “Q. Fabio”. The fragment depicts: a walled city, two scenes of meeting, Roman dress (toga), a spear, spectators. Image: wikimedia.

Esquiline tomb painting annotated

[pdf] Roman wall painting from tomb on the Esquiline.

Ling 1991: 10: “The precise subject of the paintings is disputed, but M. Fanio (Fannius) and Q. Fabio (Fabius) have good Roman names, and the latter belongs to a distinguished family which produced several leading generals of the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE.”

Varro On the Latin Language 7.57: I’ve seen cavalrymen of this kind in a painting in the old Temple of Aesculapius [3rd c. BCE], with a label “ferentarii.”

Literary evidence for historical depiction in Roman painting 

Livy (24.16.15-19) [Tiberius Gracchus (cos. 215 BCE) on a defeat of Carthaginian army in 214 BCE]: The whole population of Beneventum poured out in crowds to meet them at the gates. They embraced and congratulated the soldiers and invited them to partake of their hospitality. Tables had been spread for them all in the forecourts of the houses. The citizens invited the men and begged Gracchus to allow his troops to enjoy a feast. Gracchus consented on condition that they all banqueted in public view, and each citizen brought out his provision and placed his tables in front of his door. The volunteers, now no longer slaves, wore white caps or fillets of white wool round their heads at the feast; some were reclining, others remained standing, waiting on the others and taking their food at the same time. Gracchus thought the scene worth commemorating, and on his return to Rome he ordered a representation of that celebrated day to be painted in the Temple of Liberty (Libertas), the temple which his father had built [238 BCE] and dedicated on the Aventine.

Pliny the Elder (NH 35.135): When Lucius Aemilius Paullus after conquering Perseus [=Battle of Pydna, 168 BCE] requested the Athenians to send him their most esteemed philosopher to educate his children, and also a painter to embellish his triumphal procession, the Athenians selected Metrodorus, stating that he was most distinguished in both of these requirements alike, as to which Paullus also held the same view.

Ancient painting pigments

Photographs of paint pots containing pigment from Pompeii. Images: Il Laboratorio Ricerche Applicate. Tweeted 30th Oct. 2017.

Chemical composition of Roman pigments

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 1.06.56 PM.png

The Royal Society of Chemistry () has prepared a document on the chemical composition of a variety of Roman pigments. Image: Royal Society of Chemisty. 

Roman painting techniques

Liversidge 1983: 97: “The preparation layer by layer of surfaces for painting and the methods used have been carefully described by Vitruvius (De Architectura VII.3), and the elder Pliny (NH, 35). After a rough rendering coat had been applied, Virtuvius recommended three coats of mortar made up of lime and sand or the volcanic pozzolana found in Campania. Then came three coats of lime mixed with powdered marble of increasing fineness. When dry, the surface was polished with pieces of marble, glass cylinders and cloths…The colours were applied when the wall was still damp (fresco), but tempera, paint applied to a dry surface and mixed with a binding agent, is sometimes used for details, and liquid wax might also be added.”

Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, 24th August 79 CE

Pliny the Younger describes his uncle’s death to the historian, Tacitus (Letter 6.16): You ask me to write you something about the death of my uncle so that the account you transmit to posterity is as reliable as possible. I am grateful to you, for I see that his death will be remembered forever if you treat it [sc. in your Histories]. He perished in a devastation of the loveliest of lands, in a memorable disaster shared by peoples and cities, but this will be a kind of eternal life for him. Although he wrote a great number of enduring works himself, the imperishable nature of your writings will add a great deal to his survival. Happy are they, in my opinion, to whom it is given either to do something worth writing about, or to write something worth reading; most happy, of course, those who do both. With his own books and yours, my uncle will be counted among the latter. It is therefore with great pleasure that I take up, or rather take upon myself the task you have set me.

He was at Misenum in his capacity as commander of the fleet on the 24th of August [79 CE], when between 2 and 3 in the afternoon my mother drew his attention to a cloud of unusual size and appearance. He had had a sunbath, then a cold bath, and was reclining after dinner with his books. He called for his shoes and climbed up to where he could get the best view of the phenomenon. The cloud was rising from a mountain-at such a distance we couldn’t tell which, but afterwards learned that it was Vesuvius. I can best describe its shape by likening it to a pine tree. It rose into the sky on a very long “trunk” from which spread some “branches.” I imagine it had been raised by a sudden blast, which then weakened, leaving the cloud unsupported so that its own weight caused it to spread sideways. Some of the cloud was white, in other parts there were dark patches of dirt and ash. The sight of it made the scientist in my uncle determined to see it from closer at hand.

He ordered a boat made ready. He offered me the opportunity of going along, but I preferred to study-he himself happened to have set me a writing exercise. As he was leaving the house he was brought a letter from Tascius’ wife Rectina, who was terrified by the looming danger. Her villa lay at the foot of Vesuvius, and there was no way out except by boat. She begged him to get her away. He changed his plans. The expedition that started out as a quest for knowledge now called for courage. He launched the quadriremes and embarked himself, a source of aid for more people than just Rectina, for that delightful shore was a populous one. He hurried to a place from which others were fleeing, and held his course directly into danger. Was he afraid? It seems not, as he kept up a continuous observation of the various movements and shapes of that evil cloud, dictating what he saw. Ash was falling onto the ships now, darker and denser the closer they went. Now it was bits of pumice, and rocks that were blackened and burned and shattered by the fire. Now the sea is shoal; debris from the mountain blocks the shore…They tied pillows on top of their heads as protection against the shower of rock. It was daylight now elsewhere in the world, but there the darkness was darker and thicker than any night. But they had torches and other lights. They decided to go down to the shore, to see from close up if anything was possible by sea. But it remained as rough and uncooperative as before. Resting in the shade of a sail he drank once or twice from the cold water he had asked for. Then came an smell of sulfur, announcing the flames, and the flames themselves, sending others into flight but reviving him. Supported by two small slaves he stood up, and immediately collapsed. As I understand it, his breathing was obstructed by the dust-laden air, and his innards, which were never strong and often blocked or upset, simply shut down. When daylight came again 2 days after he died, his body was found untouched, unharmed, in the clothing that he had had on. He looked more asleep than dead.

Pompeii and Vesuvius Qfl247 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https:::creativecommons.org:licenses:by-sa:3.0) or GFDL (http:::www.gnu.org:copyleft:fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.JPGThe Roman town of Pompeii as it appears today, with Mt. Vesuvius in the background. Image: Qfl247 [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

Mt_Vesuvius_79_AD_eruption.svg.pngEruption of Mt. Vesuvius, covering over Pompeii, Herculaneum and other Roman towns. Image: MapMaster (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

National Geographic Video on Preservation and Study at Pompeii



Preservation and Destruction

Ramage & Ramage (6th edition) 2015: 98: “Most paintings from the Roman era have been found in Pompeii and Herculaneum and other towns in the Bay of Naples, because those cities, and the surrounding settlements, were buried and preserved by the catastrophic volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79 CE. The ash, lapilli (stony particles), and mud that seeped into the houses and covered the streets acted as a preservative not only of wall paintings, but also of many household and decorative objects, as well as organic materials. When first uncovered, the wall paintings had brilliant colors, as if they had just been painted; over time, with oxidation, weathering, and pollution, some have lost their brilliance, but others have been well protected from the elements.”

Pompeian Wall painting Styles
Classification invented by August Mau in 1882
nota bene: these styles overlap! 

# of style name of style, characteristics of style approx. date of style examples location
First Style Masonry/Textural
“boring” style, stucco pretending to be marble
before 100 BCE House of Sallust (late 2nd c. or early 1st c. BCE) Pompeii VI 2, 4
Pompeian house (late 2nd c. or early 1st c. BCE) Pompeii IX 3, 2
Second Style Architectural
wall = “window”
cityscapes, perspective, 3D effect, shadows; luxury, theatricality, masks
80 BCE – c. 15 BCE House of Griffins (80 BCE) = early 2nd style Palatine, Rome
Villa of Poppaea at Oplontis
(c. 50 BCE)
near Pompeii
P. Fannius Synistor Villa (c. 50 BCE) Boscoreale
Rome Odyssey frieze (40 BCE) Esquiline, Rome
Garden fresco, Villa of Livia (20 BCE) Prima Porta
Farnesina House (c. 19 BCE) = transitional from 2nd to 3rd style Rome (substructure of Farnese palace)
Third Style Ornamental
rejected illusionism, “spindly” architecture, colour as compositional device; favours red, yellow, black; “sacro-idyllic”
end of 1st c. BCE – mid 1st c. CE Villa at Fondo Bottaro (before 62 CE)
Boston MFA
Villa of Agrippa Postumus (soon after 11 BCE) Boscotrecase
Fourth Style* Baroque
reaction against 3rd style, panoramic vistas, architectural details; eclectic, variety.
 The appearance of framed pictures.
c. 20 CE – end of 1st c. CE [many examples from 79 CE] Nero’s Golden House, Domus Aurea (between 64 and 68 CE) Rome
House of the Vettii (after 62 CE) Pompeii VI 15, 1
House of D. Octavius Quartio (later 1st c. CE) Pompeii II 2, 2-5

*The Fourth Style will be discussed in a lecture later in the semester.

First Style: Masonry/Textural

First Style: House of Sallust

Pompeii VI 2,4 House of Sallust Mau 1882 U Heidleberg First Style decoration in atrium.png

Colour lithograph of the decoration of the atrium of the House of Sallust (late 2nd c. BCE or early 1st c. BCE), Pompeii. Mau 1882, pl. IIb.

First Style: Pompeii IX 3, 2

Pompeii IX 3, 2 Mau 1882 U Heidleberg.pngPompeii IX 3, 2. Colour lithograph. Late 2nd c. BCE or early 1st c. BCE. Mau 1882, pl. IIb.

Pompeii March 2009 Garden area South wall w stucco decoration in the 1st style.jpgPompeii IX 3, 2. Late 2nd c. BCE or early 1st c. BCE. First style wall decoration in the garden. March, 2009. Image: pompeiiinpictures.com

Second Style: Architectural

Second Style: House of the Griffins (early second style)

yale House of the GriffinsHouse of the Griffins, from the bedroom of a house on the Palatine Hill, Rome. 80 BCE. Image: Yale Roman Architecture. We still see faux-marble panels, but, significantly, the columns are made to seem to stand out from the wall behind them.

Second Style: Villa at Oplontis

Oplontis-3.jpgRoom 15 of the Villa of Poppaea (wife of Emperor Nero) at Oplontis (c. 50 BCE). Image: By Tony Wirthlin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons. Columns now open up to an imagined view, the columns in the background create a sense of depth and receding space. Note tragic masks, and the peacocks, which we encountered in lecture 9.

Second Style: Villa of P. Fannius Synistor

2nd style Fresco from the cubiculum of the Villa of P. Fannius Sinistor, Boscoreale. 1st century BCE. New York Met. .jpg

Detail of a wall painting from cubiculum of the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor, Boscoreale, c. 50 BCE. Image: By Alethe (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 3.08.50 PMScreen Shot 2018-02-21 at 3.09.02 PMScreenshots from the Metropolitan Museum’s video showing a 3D reconstruction of how the wallpaintings would have appeared in the Villa itself (8 mins).

Second Style: Rome Odyssey Frieze

Odyssey FriezeWall painting discovered in a house Esquiline Hill, Rome, depicting Homer’s Odyssey, Books 10 and 11 behind a colonnade “frame”. This part of the frieze shows Odyssey Book 10: meeting the daughter of the King of the Laestrygonians (left);the Laestrygonians attacking the ships of Odysseus (right). Characters’ names are inscribed in Greek. 40 BCE. Image: Vatican Museum.

Giesecke 2007: “This is the sole surviving exemplar of the ‘Odyssean wanderings through varied landscapes,’ that Vitruvius (7.5.2) recommended as subject matter suitable for painted decoration on walls of ambulationes ‘spaces of passage’.”

Second Style: Painted Garden, Villa of Livia 

Painted garden from Villa of Livia (wife of Emperor Augustus) at Prima Porta, c. 20 BCE. Rome, National Museum of the Terme. Partially subterranean chamber (12m x 6m) to create a cooler temperature for the hot summer months. Dispenses with the architectural “frame” traditional of the second style, and brings nature inside. Image: by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta (own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons. See a video of the whole room here from Khan Academy.

Transition from Second Style to Third Style: Farnesina House 

“Sacro-idyllic” landscape from the Farnesina House, stucco relief. c. 20 BCE. Image: by Miguel Hermoso Cuesta (own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Ling 1991: 45: “From the Farnesina villa come the remains of several decorations executed in delicate, all-white stuccowork…Above all, the figured and ornamental reliefs (landscapes, Dionysiac scenes, Victories with candelabra, busts, grotesques and floral motifs) have become the dominant element of the composition.”

Liversidge 1983: 101: “The House of Livia and the Farnesina House foreshadow the appearance of Style III, the ‘ornamental’, when the substantial architecture of Style II is replaced by frameworks of fantastic invention which makes no serious pretence at solidity.”

Third Style: Ornamental 

Third Style: Villa at Fondo Bottaro 

The following images are both digital recreations and ancient wall painting. James Stanton-Abbott has digitally reconstructed the third style wall paintings of the Villa at Fondo Bottaro, whose frescoes are now in the Boston MFA and in the Rhode Island: Museum of Art.  The Boston frescoes are currently in the Gallery 213 at the MFA. See info about the black frescoes here; the yellow frescoes here.

Ramage & Ramage (6th edition) 2015: 107: “The Third Pompeian style began in the Augustan age, and grew out of the Second. It treats the wall as the flat surface that it is, rather than as a window upon a distant space. With rectilinear and organic patterns against a monochromatic background, it emphasizes the ornamental value of designs…There is no interest in showing substantial architectural structures, nor the illusion of three-dimensional space.”

James Stanton-Abbott Villa Fondo Bottaro near Pompeii peristyle .png

James Stanton-Abbott.pngJames Stanton-Abbott VILLA FONDO BOTTARO black.png

James Stanton-Abbott VILLA FONDO BOTTARO red

Third Style: Villa of Agrippa Postumus

Wall painting- Perseus and Andromeda in landscape, from the imperial villa at Boscotrecase.jpg
Wall painting: Perseus and Andromeda in landscape, from the imperial villa at Boscotrecase built by Agrippa, friend of Emperor Augustus and husband of his daughter, Julia. Agrippa died in 12 BCE, and the villa was inherited by his son born in 11 BCE, Agrippa Postumus. Image: Metropolitan Museum. Elements of third style: intricacy, dreamy brush-strokes, a sacro-idyllic scene (pastoral elements = goats, sheep, shepherds, trees, flowers, with religious shrines).

IMG_4560Close-up of the sea monster in the Perseus and Andromeda panel. Image: Čulík-Baird.

Further readings:


2 thoughts on “The Roman Artistic Revolution: 100-20 BCE.

  1. Pingback: Octavian to Augustus | CL 102 — World of Rome —Spring 2018

  2. Pingback: Lecture 23: Envoi. | CL 102 — World of Rome —Spring 2018

Comments are closed.