ANCIENT ROMAN PAINTING

PAINTINGS IN ANCIENT ROME

20120227-Casa_Dei_Vettii_Hercules_Child.jpg
Casa Vettii Hercules and Child
The Romans were the first to employ the science of perspective in their art, a three-dimensional quality most notably employed in shroud paintings from the A.D. first to third century in the Egyptian areas of Hawara and Fayum but also present in some works from Pompeii. Perspective was not rediscovered until the Renaissance in the 13th century Italy.

Most of what is left of Roman painting comes from Pompeii. Pompeii is the source of what we know about a lot of things from ancient Rome. Paintings have also been found in other places, most notably in villas and tombs. In the mid-1990s, workers digging a foundation in Marsala, Sicily found a Roman tomb with paintings of angels, flowers, figures and baskets. Reached by a narrow flight of stairs, the 16-16-foot room was dated to A.D. 300.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The history of Roman painting is essentially a history of wall paintings on plaster. Although ancient literary references inform us of Roman paintings on wood, ivory, and other materials, works that have survived are in the durable medium of fresco that was used to adorn the interiors of private homes in Roman cities and in the countryside. According to Pliny, it was Studius "who first instituted that most delightful technique of painting walls with representations of villas, porticos and landscape gardens, woods, groves, hills, pools, channels, rivers, and coastlines." Despite the lack of physical evidence, we can assume that many portable paintings depicted subjects similar to those found on the painted walls in Roman villas. It is also reasonable to suppose that Roman panel paintings, which included both original creations and adaptations of renowned Hellenistic works, were the prototypes for the myths depicted in fresco. Roman artists specializing in fresco most likely traveled with copybooks that reproduced popular paintings, as well as decorative patterns. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, metmuseum.org \^/]

“The majority of Roman frescoes were found in Campania, in the region around the Bay of Naples. It is here that Mount Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79 A.D., burying much of the countryside, the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and nearby private residences. As so often happens in archaeology, a disaster served to freeze a moment in the past, allowing excavators to delve into the life of this region's ancient inhabitants. Frescoes from the villas at Boscoreale and Boscotrecase provide an unparalleled record of the life of wealthy Romans during this period.” \^/

Websites on Ancient Rome: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” forumromanum.org; “The Private Life of the Romans” forumromanum.org|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; Lacus Curtius penelope.uchicago.edu; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org The Roman Empire in the 1st Century pbs.org/empires/romans; The Internet Classics Archive classics.mit.edu ; Bryn Mawr Classical Review bmcr.brynmawr.edu; De Imperatoribus Romanis: An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Emperors roman-emperors.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu; Ancient Rome resources for students from the Courtenay Middle School Library web.archive.org ; History of ancient Rome OpenCourseWare from the University of Notre Dame /web.archive.org ; United Nations of Roma Victrix (UNRV) History unrv.com

Frescoes in Ancient Rome


Primavera di Stabiae from Pompeii

The Romans adorned the walls of palaces and villas with frescoes. Today, a fresco has come to mean any painting painted on a plaster or stucco wall. In the old days, it meant a painting on a stucco wall which had not dried yet. “Fresco” is an Italian word that means “fresh," a reference to the fact that plaster was still wet when the painting was made.

Roman made frescoes employing a technique known as buon fresco, using water- based pigments on a wet plaster wall. Especially during the rule of Augustus (63 B.C. to A.D. 14) fresco painting was all the rage, with images of gods, gardens and other landscapes in large interior spaces. Frescoes painters often didn't know exactly how their works would look until the paint dried. The colors looked different when they were soaked into the plaster.

To make a Roman fresco: 1) slow-drying plaster was applied to a wall with a mason's trowel; 2) before the wall surface hardened, the surface was smoothed with a sanding stone to produce a finish as smooth as marble; 3) background colors were applied before the hardening took places; 4) details were added with pigments that are mixed with honey or egg whites.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Some of the best evidence for the techniques of Roman wall painting is in Pliny's Natural History and in Vitruvius' manual De Architectura. Vitruvius describes the elaborate methods employed by wall painters, including the insertion of sheets of lead in the wall to prevent the capillary action of moisture from attacking the fresco, the preparation of as many as seven layers of plaster on the wall, and the use of marble powder in the top layers to produce a mirrorlike sheen on the surface. Preliminary drawings or light incisions on the prepared surface guided the artists in decorating the walls a fresco (on fresh plaster) with bold primary colors. Softer, pastel colors were often added a secco (on dry plaster) in a subsequent phase. Vitruvius also informs us about the pigments used by the Roman artist. Black was drawn from the carbon created by burning brushwood or pine chips. Ocher was extracted from mines and served for yellow. Red was derived either from cinnabar, red ocher, or from heating white lead. Blue was made from mixing sand and copper, and then baking the mixture. The deepest shade of purple was by far the most precious color, as it was usually obtained from sea whelks.” [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, metmuseum.org \^/]

Four Styles of Roman (Pompeian) Painting

Frescoes, murals and paintings in Pompeii are divided into four styles, which roughly match up with four periods, originally defined and described by the German archaeologist August Mau (1840–1909). Pompeii contains one of the largest group of surviving examples of Roman frescoes and wall paintings and it can be presumed the four styles can be applied to some degree to Roman painting in general. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The First style, also referred to as structural, incrustation or masonry style, was most popular from 200 to 60 B.C. It is characterized by the simulation of marble (marble veneering), with other simulated elements (such as suspended alabaster discs in vertical lines, 'wooden' beams in yellow and 'pillars' and 'cornices' in white), and the use of vivid color, both being a sign of wealth. This style was a replica of that found in the Ptolemaic palaces of the near east, where the walls were inset with real stones and marbles, and also reflects the spread of Hellenistic culture as Rome interacted and conquered other Greek and Hellenistic states in this period. Mural reproductions of Greek paintings are also found. This style divided the wall into various, multi-colored patterns that took the place of extremely expensive cut stone. The First Style was also used with other styles for decorating the lower sections of walls that were not seen as much as the higher levels. The wall painting in the Samnite House in Herculaneum (late 2nd century B.C.) Is a good example of this style. +

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: The First Style “was largely an exploration of simulating marble of various colors and types on painted plaster. Artists of the Late Republican period (second to first century B.C.) drew upon examples of early Hellenistic (late fourth to third century B.C.) painting and architecture in order to simulate masonry. Typically, the wall was divided into three horizontal, painted zones crowned with a stucco cornice of dentils based upon the Doric architectural order. The decline of the First Style coincided with the Roman colonization of Pompeii in 80 B.C., which transformed what had essentially been an Italic town with Greek influences into a Roman city. Going beyond the simple representation of costlier building materials, artists began to borrow from the figural repertoire of Hellenistic wall painting, depicting gods, mortals, and heroes in various contexts. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, metmuseum.org \^/]


First Style of Roman Painting at the Stabiae Stanza Villa di Arianna


Second Style of Roman Painting

The Second style, architectural style, or 'illusionism' dominated the 1st century BC, where walls were decorated with architectural features and trompe l'oeil (trick of the eye) compositions. Early on, elements of this style are reminiscent of the First Style, but this slowly starts to be substituted element by element. This technique consists of highlighting elements to pass them off as three-dimensional realities – columns for example, dividing the wall-space into zones – and was a method widely used by the Romans. It is characterized by use of relative perspective (not precise linear perspective because this style involves mathematical concepts and scientific proportions like that of the Renaissance) to create trompe l'oeil in wall paintings. The picture plane was pushed farther back into the wall by painted architectonic features such as Ionic columns or stage platforms. These wall paintings counteracted the claustrophobic nature of the small, windowless rooms of Roman houses. A good examples of second-style painting is found in the House of Marcus Fabius Rufus at Pompeii (mid-1st century B.C.). It depicts Cleopatra VII as Venus Genetrix and her son Caesarion as a cupid. [Source: Wikipedia +]

During the reign of Augustus, the style evolved. False architectural elements opened up wide expanses with which to paint artistic compositions. A structure inspired by stage sets developed, whereby one large central tableau is flanked by two smaller ones. In this style, the illusionistic tendency continued, with a 'breaking up' of walls with painted architectural elements or scenes. The landscape elements eventually took over to cover the entire wall, with no framing device, so it looked to the viewer as if he or she was merely looking out of a room onto a real scene. One of the most recognized and unique pieces representing the Second Style is the Dionysiac mystery frieze in the Villa of the Mysteries. This work depicts the Dionysian Cult that was made up of mostly women. In the scene, however, one boy is depicted. +

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The Second Style in Roman wall painting emerged in the early first century B.C., during which time fresco artists imitated architectural forms purely by pictorial means. In place of stucco architectural details, they used flat plaster on which projection and recession were suggested entirely by shading and perspective; as the style progressed, forms grew more complex. The Villa P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale is an exceptional example of the fully mature Second Style. Throughout the villa there are visual ambiguities to tease the eye, painted masonry, pillars, and columns that cast shadows into the viewer's space, and more conventional trompe l'oeil devices. Objects of daily life are depicted in such a way as to seem real, with metal and glass vases on shelves, and tables appearing to project out from the wall. At Boscoreale, the walls dissolve into elaborate displays of illusionist architecture and realms of fantasy. Some of the frescoes provide copies of lost, but presumably once famous, Hellenistic paintings. In the villa's triclinium, painted columns frame a series of figurative paintings presented as if seen through a window in the wall or as if lodged in the architecture. The intention of the owner was to create a kind of picture gallery, with the choice of subjects most likely based on the quality and renown of the original paintings. \^/


Second Style of Roman Painting at the Casa di Augusto


Third and Forth Styles of Roman Painting

The Third style, or ornate style, was popular around 20 - 10 B.C. as a reaction to the austerity of the previous period. It leaves room for more figurative and colorful decoration, with an overall more ornamental feeling, and often presents great finesse in execution. This style is typically noted as simplistically elegant. Its main characteristic was a departure from illusionistic devices, although these (along with figural representation) later crept back into this style. It obeyed strict rules of symmetry dictated by the central element, dividing the wall into 3 horizontal and 3 to 5 vertical zones. The vertical zones would be divided up by geometric motifs or bases, or slender columns of foliage hung around candelabra. Delicate motifs of birds or semi-fantastical animals appeared in the background. Plants and characteristically Egyptian animals were often introduced, part of the Egyptomania in Roman art after Augustus' defeat of Cleopatra and annexation of Egypt in 30 B.C.. Examples of this style are best illustrated at the Villa of Livia in Prima Porta outside of Rome (c. 30–20 B.C.) and the Villa of Agrippa Postumus in Boscotrecase (c. 10 BC).

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Under Emperor Augustus (r. 27 B.C.–14 A.D.) in the second half of the first century B.C., there was a new impulse to innovate, rather than re-create, in architecture, sculpture, and painting. The Third Style (ca. 20 B.C.– 20 A.D.), which coincided with Augustus' reign, rejected illusion in favor of surface ornamentation. Wall paintings from this period typically comprise a single monochrome background—such as red, black, or white—with elaborate architectural and vegetal details. Small figural and landscape scenes appear in the center of the wall as a part of, not the dominant element in, the overall decorative scheme. The finest known achievements of the early Third Style are the frescoes from the Imperial villa at Boscotrecase, where attenuated candelabra and columns support exquisitely rendered vignettes. The early Third Style, which was in effect the court style of Emperor Augustus and his friend Agrippa, eventually gave way to a rekindled interest in elaboration for its own sake.” [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, metmuseum.org \^/]

The Fourth style — most prominent from A.D. 20 to 79 — is characterized as a baroque reaction to the Third Style's mannerism, It is generally less ornamented but much more complex than the Third style. It revives large-scale narrative painting and panoramic vistas while retaining the architectural details of the Second and First Styles. In the Julio-Claudian phase (c. 20–54 AD), a textile-like quality dominates and tendrils seem to connect all the elements on the wall. The colors warm up once again, and they are used to advantage in the depiction of scenes drawn from mythology. The overall feeling of the walls typically formed a mosaic of framed pictures that took up entire walls. The lower zones of these walls tended to be composed of the First Style. Panels were also used with floral designs on the walls. One of the largest contributions seen in the Fourth Style is the advancement of still life with intense space and light. Shading was very important in the Roman still life. This style was never truly seen again until 17th and 18th centuries with the Dutch. The best example of the Fourth Style is the Ixion Room in the House of the Vettii in Pompeii.


Third Style of Roman Painting at the Casa Lucretius Fronto in Pompeii


According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Characterized as a baroque reaction to the Third Style's mannerism, the Fourth Style in Roman wall painting (ca. 20–79) is generally less disciplined than its predecessor. It revives large-scale narrative painting and panoramic vistas, while retaining the architectural details of the Third Style. In the Julio-Claudian phase (ca. 20–54), a textilelike quality dominates and tendrils seem to connect all the elements on the wall. The colors warm up once again, and they are used to advantage in the depiction of scenes drawn from mythology.” \^/

Paintings from Pompeii

Dr Joanne Berry wrote for the BBC: “ House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto contains some of the finest 'Third Style' wall-paintings yet to be uncovered in Pompeii.Third Style paintings are characterised by ornate frameworks of pseudo-architectural elements, such as columns, which enclose central panel paintings. These central panels often depict mythological scenes, and in this house there are panels illustrating stories such as that of Narcissus, Theseus in the Labyrinth, and the love between Mars and Venus. “The sheer number and quality of the wall-paintings is this house is somewhat unexpected, since the house is of only modest size. [Source: Dr Joanne Berry, Pompeii Images, BBC, February 17, 2011 |::|]

One fresco from the Villa of the Mysteries “runs round all four walls of a room....The fresco is a megalographia (a depiction of life-size figures), and is unique in Pompeii. The panels of the fresco appear to show a series of consecutive events, and their interpretation is much debated. Most commonly, it is thought that the fresco illustrates the initiation of a woman into the secret rites of Dionysus, and it is this theory that gave rise to the name of the Villa of the Mysteries. In the scene pictured here, the initiate is flogged, while another woman dances beside her. |::|

“Lararia are shrines to the gods of the household, and are found in different shapes and forms in many Pompeian houses, ranging from simple wall-paintings to large and elaborate shrines. A lararium in the House of the Vetti imitates the form of a temple. Columns support a pediment, and frame a central painting. Two dancing lares (guardians of the family, who protect the household from external threats) hold raised drinking horns. They are positioned on either side of the genius (who represents the spirit of the male head of the household), who is dressed in a toga and making a sacrifice. Beneath them all is a serpent. Snakes are often depicted in lararia, and were considered guardian spirits of the family.”


Fourth Style of Roman Painting, Nile Architecture and Mask


Villa of Mysteries at Pompeii

James W. Jackson wrote in the Villa of Mysteries website: “This villa, built around a central peristyle court and surrounded by terraces, is much like other large villas of Pompeii. However, it contains one very unusual feature; a room decorated with beautiful and strange scenes. This room, known to us as "The Initiation Chamber," measures 15 by 25 feet and is located in the front right portion of the villa. [Source: James W. Jackson, Villa of Mysteries at Pompeii website]

“The term "mysteries" refers to secret initiation rites of the Classical world. The Greek word for "rite" means "to grow up". Initiation rites, then, were originally ceremonies to help individuals achieve adulthood. The rites are not celebrations for having passed certain milestones, such as our high school graduation, but promote psychological advancement through the stages of life. Often a drama was enacted in which the initiates performed a role. The drama may include a simulated death and rebirth; i.e., the dying of the old self and the birth of the new self. Occasionally the initiate was guided through the ritual by a priest or priestess and at the end of the ceremony the initiate was welcomed into the group.

“The chamber is entered through an opening located between the first and last scenes of the fresco The fresco images seem to part of a ritual ceremony aimed at preparing privileged, protected girls for the psychological transition to life as married women. The frescoes in the Villa of Mysteries provide us the opportunity to glimpse something important about the rites of passage for the women of Pompeii. But as there are few written records about mystery religions and initiation rites, any iconographic interpretation is bound to be flawed. In the end we are left with the wonderful frescoes and the mystery. Nevertheless, an interpretation is offered, see if you agree or disagree.

“At the center of the frescoes are the figures of Dionysus, the one certain identification agreed upon by scholars, and his mother Semele (other interpretations have the figure as Ariadne). As he had been for Greek women, Dionysus was the most popular god for Roman women. He was the source of both their sensual and their spiritual hopes.

Scenes in Villa of Mysteries at Pompeii

James W. Jackson wrote in the Villa of Mysteries website: “Scene 1: The action of the rite begins with the initiate or bride crossing the threshold as the preparations for the rites to begin. Her wrist is cocked against her hip. Is she removing her scarf? Is she listening to the boy read from the scroll? Is she pregnant? The nudity of the boy may signify that he is divine. Is he reading rules of the rite? He wears actor's boots, perhaps indicating the dramatic aspect of the rites. The officiating priestess (behind the boy) holds another scroll in her left hand and a stylus in her right hand. Is she prepared to add the initiate's name to a list of successful initiates?” Later, “The initiate, now more lightly clad, carries an offering tray of sacramental cake. She wears a myrtle wreath. In her right hand she holds a laurel sprig. [Source: James W. Jackson, Villa of Mysteries at Pompeii website]

“Scene 2: A priestess, wearing a head covering and a wreath of myrtle removes a covering from a ceremonial basket held by a female attendant. Speculations about the contents of the basket include: more laurel, a snake, or flower petals. A second female attendant wearing a wreath, pours purifying water into a basin in which the priestess is about to dip a sprig of laurel. Mythological characters and music are introduced into the narrative. An aging Silenus plays a ten-string lyre resting on a column.


Villa of Mysteries


“Scene 3: A young male satyr plays pan pipes, while a nymph suckles a goat. The initiate is being made aware of her close connection with nature. This move from human to nature represents a shift away from the conscious human world to our preconscious animal state. In many rituals, this regression, assisted by music, is requisite to achieving a psychological state necessary for rebirth and regeneration. The startled initiate has a glimpse of what awaits her in the inner sanctuary where the katabasis will take place. This is her last chance to save herself by running away. Perhaps some initiates did just that. The next scene provides hints about what both frightens and awaits the initiate.

“Scene 4: “The Silenus looks disapprovingly at the startled initiate as he holds up an empty silver bowl. A young satyr gazes into the bowl, as if mesmerized. Another young satyr holds a theatrical mask (resembling the Silenus) aloft and looks off to his left. Some speculate that the mask rather than the satyr's face is reflected in the silver bowl. So, looking into the vessel is an act of divination: the young satyr sees himself in the future, a dead satyr. The young satyr and the young initiate are coming to terms with their own deaths. In this case the death of childhood and innocence. The bowl may have held Kykeon, the intoxicating drink of participants in Orphic-Dionysian mysteries, intended for the frightened initiate.

“Scene 5: This scene is at the center of both the room and the ritual. Dionysus sprawls in the arms of his mother Semele. Dionysus wears a wreath of ivy, his thyrsus tied with a yellow ribbon lies across his body, and one sandal is off his foot. Even though the fresco is badly damaged, we can see that Semele sits on a throne with Dionysus leaning on her. Semele, the queen, the great mother is supreme.

“Scene 6: The initiate, carrying a staff and wearing a cap, returns from the night journey. What has happened is a mystery to us. But in similar rituals the confused, and sometimes drugged initiate emerges like an infant at birth, from a dark place to a lighted place. She reaches for a covered object sitting in a winnowing basket, the liknon. The covered object is taken by many to be a phallus, or a herm. To the right is a winged divinity, perhaps Aidos. Her raised hand is rejecting or warding off something. She is looking to the left and is prepared to strike with a whip. Standing behind the initiate are two figures of women, unfortunately badly damaged. One woman (far left) holds a plate with what appear to be pine needles above the initiate's head. The apprehensive second figure is drawing back.

“Scene 7: The two themes of this scene are torture and transfiguration, the evocative climax of the rite. Notice the complete abandonment to agony on the face of the initiate and the lash across her back. She is consoled by a woman identified as a nurse. To the right a nude women clashes celebratory cymbals and another woman is about to give to the initiate a thyrsus, symbolizing the successful completion of the rite.

“Scene 8: This scene represents an event after the completion of the ritual drama. The transformed initiate or bride prepares, with the help of an attendant, for marriage. A young Eros figure holds a mirror which reflects the image of the bride. Both the bride and her reflected image stare out inquiringly at us, the observers.

“Scene 9: The figure above has been identified as: the mother of the bride, the mistress of the villa, or the bride herself. Notice that she does wear a ring on her finger. If she is the same female who began the dramatic ritual as a headstrong girl, she has certainly matured psychologically. Scene 10: Eros, a son of Chronos or Saturn, god of Love, is the final figure in the narrative.”


cubiculum from the Villa of P Fannius Synistor


Boscoreale: Frescoes from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Boscoreale, an area about a mile north of Pompeii, was notable in antiquity for having numerous aristocratic country villas. This tradition endured into the time of the Bourbon kings, as is attested by the region's name, the "Royal Forest," which implies that Boscoreale was a hunting preserve. Some of the most important wall paintings surviving from antiquity come from a Roman villa at Boscoreale built shortly after the middle of the first century B.C. The villa, which was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., is referred to as the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor, one of its owners during the first half part of the first century A.D. Excavated in the early 1900s, the villa's frescoes are among the most important to be found anywhere in the Roman world. [Source: Department of Greek and Roman Art, Boscoreale: Frescoes from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor", The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, metmuseum.org \^/]

“The villa at Boscoreale is a variant of the so-called villa rustica, a country house of which only a small part functioned as a farmhouse (pars rustica). The majority of the villa served as a residence for the owner, a member of that class of wealthy Roman citizens who owned more properties of this kind and used them as country houses. The painted decoration of the villa at Boscoreale, which was executed sometime around 40–30 B.C., attests to the original owner as a rich man with exquisite taste. The fact that the mid-first-century B.C. decoration was not replaced by another, more contemporary, decoration in the first century A.D. is a clear indication that there was already an awareness of the quality of the frescoes in antiquity. \^/

“The surviving paintings are extremely fine examples of the late Second Style, the most renowned style in Roman wall painting. Throughout the frescoes from the villa at Boscoreale there are visual ambiguities to tease the eye, including architectural details painted to resemble real ones, such as rusticated masonry, pillars, and columns that cast shadows into the viewer's space, and more conventional trompe l'oeil devices, such as three-dimensional meanders. Objects of daily life were depicted in such a way as to seem real, with metal and glass vases on shelves and tables appearing to project out from the wall. Cumulatively, these trompe l'oeil devices reveal the Republican owner's evident pleasure in impressing guests at his comfortable summer retreat. \^/

“Luxury villas, like the one at Boscoreale, were often the setting for conspicuous consumption of Hellenistic art and culture by the Roman aristocracy. Although in public life, a senator aimed to cut a severe figure of traditional Roman values—austere, practical, conservative—his household and his villas were the settings for extravagant displays of refined living—of building, decorating, eating, and philosophizing. The inspiration for this came from the Greeks in the east, including the repertoire of ideas and the artists, decorators, and intellectuals. Roman villa architecture combined the core of a Roman house with peristyles and gardens borrowed from Greek gymnasia, palaces, and sanctuaries. The Roman aristocracy aimed to evoke the culture of Athenian academies, the charmed world of the Hellenistic pastoral, and the magnificence of Alexandrian palaces. Portraits of Greek philosophers and writers represented learning; statues of satyrs and nymphs re-created an idyllic Dionysian landscape; and wall paintings, rich in Greek myth and dynastic portraiture, provided majestic interiors. \^/


wall painting from the from the Villa of P Fannius Synistor


Ancient Roman Mummy Paintings

The greatest Roman paintings were produced by Romanized Egyptians, who embalmed their dead, wrapped them as mummies, and painted portraits of the deceased on small wooden panels attached at the head of the shroud wrapped around the mummy wrappings. Sometimes these mummies were put on display before they were buried.

Mummy paintings were rendered from life using colored beeswax on wood panels bounded by linen strips on the outside of the mummy. Pigments mixed with hot wax were used by the Greeks to paint their warships. The Romans used this technique to make portraits on mummy cases in the Fayum region. It is nor clear whether it is the Egyptian influence or the Roman influence that makes the works so exquisite.

About 1,000 Romanized Egyptian mummy portraits have been unearthed at Harawa and Fayum, a fertile basin in the Nile basin. Dating between A.D. 25 and 259 and wonderfully preserved by the dry desert condition, the portraits are often beautiful works of art with shadowing and perspective more advanced than that found in the Middle Ages.

According to Smithsonian magazine: “Two thousand years before Picasso, artists in Egypt painted some of the most arresting portraits in the history of art. Between 1887 and 1889, the British archaeologist W.M. Flinders Petrie turned his attention to the Fayum, a sprawling oasis region 150 miles south of Alexandria. Excavating a vast cemetery from the first and second centuries A.D., when imperial Rome ruled Egypt, he found scores of exquisite portraits executed on wood panels by anonymous artists, each one associated with a mummified body. Petrie eventually uncovered 150. [Source: Smithsonian Magazine, February 2012 <->]

“The images seem to allow us to gaze directly into the ancient world. “The Fayum portraits have an almost disturbing lifelike quality and intensity,” says Euphrosyne Doxiadis, an artist who lives in Athens and Paris and is the author of The Mysterious Fayum Portraits. “The illusion, when standing in front of them, is that of coming face to face with someone one has to answer to—someone real.” By now, nearly 1,000 Fayum paintings exist in collections in Egypt and at the Louvre, the British and Petrie museums in London, the Metropolitan and Brooklyn museums, the Getty in California and elsewhere.” <->

20120227-Fayum mummy portrait ff.jpg
Fayum mummy portrait
Book: “The Mysterious Fayum Portraits: Faces From Ancient Egypt” by Euphrosyne Doxiadis (published by Harry N. Abrams Inc.) contains 180 portraits.

Ancient Roman Mummy Painting Masterpieces

Some of the Roman-era mummy portraits recall Modigliani and Rembrandt. Describing a portrait of woman painted around A.D. 55-70, Souren Melikian wrote in the International Herald Tribune: "The wistful aloofness tempered by the faintest suggestion of contentment as if inspired by happy recollections that cannot be shared makes it timeless masterpiece as great as anything the Italian Renaissance ever produced."

A splendid painting of a small boy was preserved after it was wrapped in a mummy with a body. This particular portrait was painted with pigments suspended in hot wax which helped preserve it as well as give it a "creamy" texture. Describing a portrait made between A.D. 190 and 220, Melikian wrote: It "shows a long oval face with huge eyes quizzically laughing as she looked the artist straight in the eye...Her dark eyes stare intensely at the viewer as if desperate for an answer to some haunting question."

According to Smithsonian magazine: “For decades, the portraits lingered in a sort of classification limbo, considered Egyptian by Greco-Roman scholars and Greco-Roman by Egyptians. But scholars increasingly appreciate the startlingly penetrating works, and are even studying them with noninvasive high-tech tools. “At the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum in Copenhagen, scientists recently used luminescence digital imaging to analyze one portrait of a woman. They documented extensive use of Egyptian blue, a copper-containing synthetic pigment, around the eyes, nose and mouth, perhaps to create shading, and mixed with red elsewhere on the skin, perhaps to enhance the illusion of flesh. “The effect of realism is crucial,” says the museum’s Rikke Therkildsen. [Source: Smithsonian Magazine, February 2012 <->]

“Stephen Quirke, an Egyptologist at the Petrie museum and a contributor to the museum’s 2007 catalog Living Images, says the Fayum paintings may be equated with those of an old master—only they’re about 1,500 years older. Doxiadis has a similar view, saying the works’ artistic merit suggests that “the greats of the Renaissance and post-Renaissance, such as Titian and Rembrandt, had great predecessors in the ancient world.” <->

Southern Italian Vase Painting

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According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “For nearly 300 years, Greek cities along the coasts of southern Italy and Sicily regularly imported their fine ware from Corinth and, later, Athens. By the third quarter of the fifth century B.C., however, they were acquiring red-figured pottery of local manufacture. As many of the craftsmen were trained immigrants from Athens, these early South Italian vases were closely modeled after Attic prototypes in both shape and design. [Source: Colette Hemingway, Independent Scholar, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, metmuseum.org \^/]

“By the end of the fifth century B.C., Attic imports ceased as Athens struggled in the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War in 404 B.C. The regional schools of South Italian vase painting—Apulian, Lucanian, Campanian, Paestan—flourished between 440 and 300 B.C. In general, the fired clay shows much greater variation in color and texture than that which is found in Attic pottery. A distinct preference for added color, especially white, yellow, and red, is characteristic of South Italian vases in the fourth century B.C. Compositions, especially those on Apulian vases, tend to be grandiose, with statuesque figures shown in several tiers. There is also a fondness for depicting architecture, with the perspective not always successfully rendered. \^/

“Almost from the beginning, South Italian vase painters tended to favor elaborate scenes from daily life, mythology, and Greek theater. Many of the paintings bring to life stage practices and costumes. A particular fondness for the plays of Euripides testifies to the continued popularity of Attic tragedy in the fourth century B.C. in Magna Graecia. In general, the images often show one or two highlights of a play, several of its characters, and often a selection of divinities, some of which may or may not be directly relevant. Some of the liveliest products of South Italian vase painting in the fourth century B.C. are the so-called phlyax vases, which depict comics performing a scene from a phlyax, a type of farce play that developed in southern Italy. These painted scenes bring to life the boisterous characters with grotesque masks and padded costumes.

Five Wares of South Italian Vase Painting

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “South Italian vases are ceramics, mostly decorated in the red-figure technique, that were produced by Greek colonists in southern Italy and Sicily, the region often referred to as Magna Graecia or "Great Greece." Indigenous production of vases in imitation of red-figure wares of the Greek mainland occurred sporadically in the early fifth century B.C. within the region. However, around 440 B.C., a workshop of potters and painters appeared at Metapontum in Lucania and soon after at Tarentum (modern-day Taranto) in Apulia. It is unknown how the technical knowledge for producing these vases traveled to southern Italy. Theories range from Athenian participation in the founding of the colony of Thurii in 443 B.C. to the emigration of Athenian artisans, perhaps encouraged by the onset of the Peloponnesian War in 431 B.C. The war, which lasted until 404 B.C., and the resulting decline of Athenian vase exports to the west were certainly important factors in the successful continuation of red-figure vase production in Magna Graecia. The manufacture of South Italian vases reached its zenith between 350 and 320 B.C., then gradually tapered off in quality and quantity until just after the close of the fourth century B.C. [Source: Keely Heuer, Department of Greek and Roman Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, December 2010, metmuseum.org \^/]


Lucanian crater

“Modern scholars have divided South Italian vases into five wares named after the regions in which they were produced: Lucanian, Apulian, Campanian, Paestan, and Sicilian. South Italian wares, unlike Attic, were not widely exported and seem to have been intended solely for local consumption. Each fabric has its own distinct features, including preferences in shape and decoration that make them identifiable, even when exact provenance is unknown. Lucanian and Apulian are the oldest wares, established within a generation of each other. Sicilian red-figure vases appeared not long after, just before 400 B.C. By 370 B.C., potters and vase painters migrated from Sicily to both Campania and Paestum, where they founded their respective workshops. It is thought that they left Sicily due to political upheaval. After stability returned to the island around 340 B.C., both Campanian and Paestan vase painters moved to Sicily to revive its pottery industry. Unlike in Athens, almost none of the potters and vase painters in Magna Graecia signed their work, thus the majority of names are modern designations. \^/

“Lucania, corresponding to the "toe" and "instep" of the Italian peninsula, was home to the earliest of the South Italian wares, characterized by the deep red-orange color of its clay. Its most distinctive shape is the nestoris, a deep vessel adopted from a native Messapian shape with upswung side handles sometimes decorated with disks. Initially, Lucanian vase painting very closely resembled contemporary Attic vase painting, as seen on a finely drawn fragmentary skyphos attributed to the Palermo Painter. Favored iconography included pursuit scenes (mortal and divine), scenes of daily life, and images of Dionysos and his adherents. The original workshop at Metaponto, founded by the Pisticci Painter and his two chief colleagues, the Cyclops and Amykos Painters, disappeared between 380 and 370 B.C.; its leading artists moved into the Lucanian hinterland to sites such as Roccanova, Anzi, and Armento. After this point, Lucanian vase painting became increasingly provincial, reusing themes from earlier artists and motifs borrowed from Apulia. With the move to more remote parts of Lucania, the color of the clay also changed, best exemplified in the work of the Roccanova Painter, who applied a deep pink wash to heighten the light color. After the career of the Primato Painter, the last of the notable Lucanian vase painters, active between ca. 360 and 330 B.C., the ware consisted of poor imitations of his hand until the last decades of the fourth century B.C., when production ceased. \^/

“More than half of extant South Italian vases come from Apulia (modern Puglia), the "heel" of Italy. These vases were originally produced in Tarentum, the major Greek colony in the region. The demand became so great among the native peoples of the region that by the mid-fourth century B.C., satellite workshops were established in Italic communities to the north such as Ruvo, Ceglie del Campo, and Canosa. A distinctive shape of Apulia is the knob-handled patera, a low-footed, shallow dish with two handles rising from the rim. The handles and rim are elaborated with mushroom-shaped knobs. Apulia is also distinguished by its production of monumental shapes, including the volute-krater, the amphora, and the loutrophoros. These vases were primarily funerary in function. They are decorated with scenes of mourners at tombs and elaborate, multifigured mythological tableaux, a number of which are rarely, if ever, seen on the vases of the Greek mainland and are otherwise only known through literary evidence. Mythological scenes on Apulian vases are depictions of epic and tragic subjects and were likely inspired by dramatic performances. Sometimes these vases provide illustrations of tragedies whose surviving texts, other than the title, are either highly fragmentary or entirely lost. These large-scale pieces are categorized as "Ornate" in style and feature elaborate floral ornament and much added color, such as white, yellow, and red. Smaller shapes in Apulia are typically decorated in the "Plain" style, with simple compositions of one to five figures. Popular subjects include Dionysos, as both god of theater and wine, scenes of youths and women, frequently in the company of Eros, and isolated heads, usually that of a woman. Prominent, particularly on column-kraters, is the depiction of the indigenous peoples of the region, such as the Messapians and Oscans, wearing their native dress and armor. Such scenes are usually interpreted as an arrival or departure, with the offering of a libation. Counterparts in bronze of the wide belts worn by the youths on a column-krater attributed to the Rueff Painter have been found in Italic tombs. The greatest output of Apulian vases occurred between 340 and 310 B.C., despite political upheaval in the region at the time, and most of the surviving pieces can be assigned to its two leading workshops—one led by the Darius and Underworld Painters and the other by the Patera, Ganymede, and Baltimore Painters. After this floruit, Apulian vase painting declined rapidly. \^/


Lucanian crater with symposium scene attributed to Python

“Campanian vases were produced by Greeks in the cities of Capua and Cumae, which were both under native control. Capua was an Etruscan foundation that passed into the hands of Samnites in 426 B.C. Cumae, one of the earliest of the Greek colonies in Magna Graecia, was founded on the Bay of Naples by Euboeans no later than 730–720 B.C. It, too, was captured by native Campanians in 421 B.C., but Greek laws and customs were retained. The workshops of Cumae were founded slightly later than those of Capua, around the middle of the fourth century B.C. Notably absent in Campania are monumental vases, perhaps one of the reasons why there are fewer mythological and dramatic scenes. The most distinctive shape in the Campanian repertoire is the bail-amphora, a storage jar with a single handle that arches over the mouth, often pierced at its top. The color of the fired clay is a pale buff or light orange-yellow, and a pink or red wash was often painted over the entire vase before it was decorated to enhance the color. Added white was used extensively, particularly for the exposed flesh of women. While vases of the Sicilian emigrants who settled in Campania are found at a number of sites in the region, it is the Cassandra Painter, the head of a workshop in Capua between 380 and 360 B.C., who is credited as being the earliest Campanian vase painter. Close to him in style is the Spotted Rock Painter, named for an unusual feature of Campanian vases that incorporates the area's natural topography, shaped by volcanic activity. Depicting figures seated upon, leaning against, or resting a raised foot on rocks and rock piles was a common practice in South Italian vase painting. But on Campanian vases, these rocks are often spotted, representing a form of igneous breccia or agglomerate, or they take the sinuous forms of cooled lava flows, both of which were familiar geological features of the landscape. The range of subjects is relatively limited, the most characteristic being representations of women and warriors in native Osco-Samnite dress. The armor consists of a three-disk breastplate and helmet with a tall vertical feather on both sides of the head. Local dress for women consists of a short cape over the garment and a headdress of draped fabric, rather medieval in appearance. The figures participate in libations for departing or returning warriors as well as in funerary rites. These representations are comparable to those found in painted tombs of the region as well as at Paestum. Also popular in Campania are fish plates, with great detail paid to the different species of sea life painted on them. Around 330 B.C., Campanian vase painting became subject to a strong Apulianizing influence, probably due to the migration of painters from Apulia to both Campania and Paestum. In Capua, production of painted vases concluded around 320 B.C., but continued in Cumae until the end of the century. \^/

“The city of Paestum is located in the northwest corner of Lucania, but stylistically its pottery is closely connected to that of neighboring Campania. Like Cumae, it was a former Greek colony, conquered by the Lucanians around 400 B.C. While Paestan vase painting does not feature any unique shapes, it is set apart from the other wares for being the only one to preserve the signatures of vase painters: Asteas and his close colleague Python. Both were early, accomplished, and highly influential vase painters who established the ware's stylistic canons, which changed only slightly over time. Typical features include dot-stripe borders along the edges of drapery and the so-called framing palmettes typical on large- or medium-scaled vases. The bell-krater is a particularly favored shape. Scenes of Dionysos predominate; mythological compositions occur, but tend to be overcrowded, with additional busts of figures in the corners. The most successful images on Paestan vases are those of comedic performances, often termed "phlyax vases" after a type of farce developed in southern Italy. However, evidence indicates an Athenian origin for at least some of these plays, which feature stock characters in grotesque masks and exaggerated costumes. Such phlyax scenes are also painted on Apulian vases. \^/

“Sicilian vases tend to be small in scale and popular shapes include the bottle and the skyphoid pyxis. The range of subjects painted on vases is the most limited of all the South Italian wares, with most vases showing the feminine world: bridal preparations, toilet scenes, women in the company of Nike and Eros or simply by themselves, often seated and gazing expectantly upward. After 340 B.C., vase production seems to have been concentrated in the area of Syracuse, at Gela, and around Centuripe near Mount Etna. Vases were also produced on the island of Lipari, just off the Sicilian coast. Sicilian vases are striking for their ever increasing use of added colors, particularly those found on Lipari and near Centuripe, where in the third century B.C. there was a thriving manufacture of polychrome ceramics and figurines.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Rome sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Late Antiquity sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Forum Romanum forumromanum.org ; “Outlines of Roman History” by William C. Morey, Ph.D., D.C.L. New York, American Book Company (1901), forumromanum.org \~\; “The Private Life of the Romans” by Harold Whetstone Johnston, Revised by Mary Johnston, Scott, Foresman and Company (1903, 1932) forumromanum.org |+|; BBC Ancient Rome bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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