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Roman painting

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Roman fresco depicting Amores playing hide and seek
Roman fresco depicting Amores playing hide and seek

Unlike Roman architecture, Roman painting is little known. For example, wall painting is known only from a few preserved examples and written communications. Easel painting, which, although we know from source texts, was popular, has not survived to this day.

Roman painting is said to have developed under great Greek influence. Some art historians are even inclined to treat them as a smooth continuation of Hellenic art; developing just under different political conditions. This view is justified by the fact that most of the empire’s painting decorations were made by Greek artists. However, one should remember: that if the Greeks sought harmony in art; the Romans valued representativeness and usability in it. For the former, art was the supreme value, while the others used it as a means to obtain the desired effect. Roman frescoes were closer to craft than art. Artistic value was less important than the manifestation of belonging to the elite of the ancient world.

Initially, Roman paintings were showing landscapes mainly conquered cities, painted on boards carried during triumphal marches. Before the 2nd century BCE, Roman houses were rather modestly decorated. A major leap in the development of Roman art followed the conquest of Greece and the influx of a large number of works of art from this area. Roman art was born for the second time, this time under the influence of the defeated.

Illusionist roman fresco

Nothing from Greek painting was given by sources of the names of great painters like Polignot, Zeuksis, Parrazjos or Apollodoros, who lived between the fifth and third century BCE. The work of these painters is known from literary descriptions and indirectly from preserved Roman copies. Their names are associated with the birth of painting not as a coloured drawing, as we have in Egyptian and Etruscan painting, but as an art of painting with a variety of colour effects, chiaroscuro (scigraphy) and the illusion of space. We find all this in Roman painting, which developed either by imitating Greek masterpieces imported there or by the activity of Hellenic artists called to work in Italy.

The Roman painting had an Egyptizing style and from the middle of the first century CE an illusionist. The Egyptizing style was distinguished by its decorativeness and the subsequent wide application of illusionist painting. The purpose of this type of decoration was dictated by practical considerations: spatial painting was to optically enlarge quite narrow rooms. The impression of space was obtained thanks to the use of illusionist painting; creating the illusion of enlarging the interior, or its “opening” to the garden or the wider landscape of the area. So, the “windows” through which the landscape was visible were painted – often the plant garlands, already known from the first style, hung in the foreground between the columns of these “windows”. At that time, the impression of depth was created, and the compositions created had two or three plans.

Villa of Fannius Synistor (around 40-30 BCE) in Boscoreale brought to explorers the most typical examples of this period. In the cubiculum between painted pilasters, the artist placed illusionistically depicted paintings, which, according to the opinion of many researchers, are based on Greek theatre decorations. Vitruvius mentions these types of paintings: “from which they proceeded to the representations of buildings, columns, and the projections of roofs. In spacious apartments, such as exedræ, on account of their extent, they decorated the wall with scenery, after the tragic, comic or satyric mode” (De architectura, VII, 5, 2).

Another style of this style, in turn, is an imitation of the extremely popular easel painting in Greece in the first century CE – paintings painted directly on the walls, with plant and animal ornaments between them very often typical of the Egyptian landscape, and even motifs of Egyptian, mythological animals. This element appeared in the play shortly after the conquest by Emperor Octavian Augustus of northern Africa. Hence, some researchers tend to call the whole style Egyptizing. However, in fact, it was a rather nod to Greek painting, entire walls were covered with copies of Greek mythological originals.

They were generally loved when the paintings referred to mythological scenes and elements from the life of the owner of domus. In this way, the aristocrat wanted to show his status. In latifundist villas, hunting scenes or nature rest were preferred. These types of villas later became the model for early medieval feudal lords and their castles. There, like the Romans, elements of nature, hunting and biblical scenes dominated.

The most magnificent paintings were found in the homes of cities destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE and named Pompeian (Pompeii city). They covered the walls of the rooms and atria. They depicted landscapes, scenes with people in lush greenery, still lifes, exotic animals, scenes from Greek mythology, as well as paintings depicting architecture that opened the illusion of depth to the viewer.

These frescoes are the best-preserved examples of Roman painting. They allow you to learn about the development of this branch of art in Rome from the middle of the second century BCE to 79 CE Roman painting was known as the interior decoration of public buildings, houses and work workshops. The discovery in Pompeii allowed researchers to divide the Roman painting into four periods. In fact, Vitruvius has already given us three stages of the development of Roman painting in his work “On Architecture”. Until 1879, the German archaeologist August Mau distinguished three styles described by a Roman architect, calling them Pompeian, and added a devil who synthesized the previous three and appeared after the death of Vitruvius. Originally, scientists claimed that drawing this typology after the Pompeian extermination does not make sense. However, when it turned out that the frescoes in later Roman villas referred to previous styles and only the tastes of the owner decided how the paintings should look, it was recognized that the typology proposed by the German researcher makes sense.

Roman painting styles

Pompeian style first

Portrait of a married couple from the second half of the 1st century CE (third or fourth style).

The Pompeian style was first used from the 2nd century BCE to around 80 BCE in centres associated with Hellenic culture. It was also called the inlay or structural style. It was characterized by wall decorations using stucco imitating marble, and alabaster slabs placed on the walls. They introduced the division of the wall plane into three horizontal parts. The lowest belt imitated the pedestal and orthostats. The plinth colours, usually yellow, imitated wood. The orthostats were shaped as vertical panels.

The central part of the wall was decorated with flat panels arranged horizontally in colours imitating multi-coloured marbles. This part of the wall was crowned with stucco cornice decorated with teeth. The highest strip was a smooth, white wall, sometimes finished with a second cornice strip.

The division was supplemented by introducing pilasters from floor to ceiling in the corners of the interior and along the stucco walls, decorated with rich relief in the form of a head. The highest belt, cornices and pilasters were painted in white.

It is often believed that the style first copied the courtly lifestyle of the Macedonian rulers, and the paintings reflect the wall decorations of their palaces and tombs. For example, the famous mosaic from the House of Fauna in Pompeii – depicting the battle of Issos in 333 BCE – is probably a replica of the image of the Greek painter Philoxenos from Eretria.

Pompeian style second

Walls in the house of August in Rome. Made in the second style.

It developed in the period from around 90 BCE to 15 BCE. Illusionist paintings with representations of landscape and architectural motifs were introduced in it. The decoration was to introduce the impression of larger spaces. On the walls, there are imitations of blackboard paintings depicting mythological scenes played against the backdrop of the landscape. Stucco elements are gradually replaced by their painting counterparts.

The division of the walls is similar to the Pompeian style first. However, gradually introduced changes replace its individual elements. Up to about 70 BCE, a significant proportion of decorations are made in stucco. The colours are dominated by white, red, yellow, green and purple. After 70 BCE, painting illusions imitating the clearances in the walls are introduced. Painted columns divide the wall plane into three parts, of which the middle (intercolumn] is clearly dominant.

During this period, the first imitations of blackboard paintings appear adorning the upper parts of the walls. After 50 BCE, the changes introduced intensified the impression of space, the gaps in the walls, which more and more resemble theatre decorations. A garden landscape is introduced along with garden architecture. In the 1940s large compositions were introduced covering entire walls as if they did not exist or were transparent, and the visible landscape was viewed in nature. After 40 BCE, there is a fashion for the gradual closing of open gaps, more and more often decorations painted directly on the walls are used in the form of blackboard paintings.
During the style of the second style, pinaks decorations were characteristic, which were painted on plates placed between columns decorating the walls of skene. These types of decorations were used in Greek theatres.

Pompeian style third

Still life – fruit basket.

Also called Oriental or Egyptizing, it lasts from around 20 BCE to 50 CE CE A characteristic feature is a departure from illusionism. The strict symmetry of the wall division and the central composition of the decoration are observed. The divisible wall is horizontal and vertical. The division into three horizontal parts is still maintained: the plinth, and the upper-middle part. In a separated vertical division, the central part of the wall is allowed to divide into three or five planes separated by painting geometric or floral motifs in the form of girlads hung between slender columns resembling the bases of candelabra.

In the background appear delicate motifs of birds or partly fantastic animals. Plants and animals characteristic of the Egyptian landscape are often introduced.

The planes thus separated are decorated with imitations of an array of images. The middle place is occupied by a stage with figural representation. The lateral planes are decorated with single motifs in the form of figures, smaller pictures, etc. After 25 CE there is a certain return to the illusion by introducing in separate quarters paintings depicting a view of the open space (e.g. the image of clearance or a window with an architectural landscape visible in the distance).

Pompeian style fourth

A lady from a rich family.

Its duration is 50 – 100 CE It gained particular popularity during the reign of Nero and in Pompeii during work related to the reconstruction of the city after the earthquake (after 63 CE).

This style was also used in Rome. In 64 CE, the construction of the Golden House of Nero began, the walls of which were covered with paintings depicting huge clearances, in which further rooms and chambers were visible with open doors and windows, loggias, and balconies. The architecture depicted was unreal (hence the name of the style also known as the style of fantastic architecture), the buildings and their fragments did not meet the requirements of the perspective or the principles used in contemporary construction. The purpose of these piled-up paintings was to create the illusion of depth.

The development of the fourth style is divided into two phases – Claudian and Flavian. At first there was a disappearance of the wall closing the interior – the whole wall was painted in clearances, open doors and windows, behind which there was a rural landscape, with buildings visible from afar (this type of procedure is called the so-called transparent wall). In this phase, the classic triple division of the middle wall strip surface also disappears.

In the Flavian phase, a return to the second style is visible – the central composition system returns, copies of easel paintings with mythological scenes, and stage paintings. There is also no so-called transparent wall.

The style is dominated by warm colours, especially red, brown and yellow. In addition to the illusionist paintings, there were again copies of mythological pictures of array paintings.

Independently from the main trends in painting styles, decorations on a different subjects also developed. In the dining rooms, there were often paintings depicting still lifes consisting of fish, birds, fruit, and glass vessels with water. Portraits of homeowners, most likely painted directly on the walls, are also found.

Pompeian painter with a painted statue.

Painting during the empire is virtually unknown. There are a few examples of frescoes from the 2nd century CE made in the tombs and a few examples from the 3rd century CE decorations for residential interiors found in Rome and Ostia. On this basis, it can be concluded that two styles prevailed during this period: illusionist and late Roman. The first is the images of characters with landscape or architectural elements in the background. The second style is represented by figural painting on a neutral background in boxes framed with red stripes.

Scholars believe that throughout the Roman Empire there were specific templates from which property owners chose matching paintings and mosaic decorations. The style and theme were practically the same, but different materials were used depending on the region.

In addition, some researchers believe that some paintings were preferred in different parts of domus or buildings. For example, erotic scenes and female nudes were to appear especially in bedrooms or lupanaries. However, this is not certain, because Roman rooms did not always have permanent functions. It is also worth remembering that the houses changed their owners or simply needed renovation. This caused, for example, in 2005, researchers unearthed the villa of the Valerius family on Caelian Hill in Rome. It was found that some of the rooms in the building were painted after the building was erected in the 1st century BCE, then in the 2nd century CE, the decoration was changed to be repainted again.

What is worth emphasizing is that Roman painting is practically anonymous. The contractor of the paintings was usually a Greek slave who had the reputation of a craftsman rather than an artist. To this day, few names have survived, e.g. Studius during the reign of Octavian Augustus or Famulus during the reign of Nero. It was painted in such a way that the undercoat was made by a helper so that the master could then start the proper work.

Still life made in Pompeian style II. A painting from the house of Julia Felix.

Art historians say that the Romans in the late period did not forget how to paint proportionally. Along with the spread of Christianity, simply new aesthetics and a different form of communication began to dominate. Nature was no longer mapped, and the focus was on symbolism and an attempt to show inner light.

  • Encyklopedia sztuki starożytnej, Warszawa 1974
  • Krzemińska Agnieszka, Ściany mitów i iluzji, "Polityka" nr 34 (3023)
  • Kumaniecki Kazimierz, Historia kultury starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu, Warszawa 1965
  • Piszczek Zdzisław (red.), Mała encyklopedia kultury antycznej, Warszawa 1983

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