You may wish to read a page on the town first.
House of Giulia Felix (one of the first buildings which was excavated - see its summer dining room and the facilities which were leased): (left) walls which were deprived of their small figurative paintings; (right-above) fragment depicting a "Nilotic" scene; (right-below) decoration of a niche
On Sunday we were in Pompeii. Many a calamity has
happened in the world, but never one that has caused so much
entertainment to posterity as this one. I scarcely know of
anything that is more interesting. The houses are small and
close together, but within they are all most exquisitely painted. (..) The
rooms, corridors, galleries and all, are painted with bright
and cheerful colours, the wall surfaces uniform; in the middle
some elaborate painting (most of these have been removed); on
the borders and at the corners, light tasteful arabesques,
terminating in the pretty figures of nymphs or children; while
in others, from out of garlands of flowers, beasts, wild and
tame, are issuing. Thus does the city, which, first of all the
hot shower of stones and ashes overwhelmed, and afterwards
the excavators plundered, still bear witness, even in its present utterly desolate state, to a taste for painting and the
arts common to the whole people, of which the most enthusiastic dilettante of the present day has neither idea nor feeling
and so misses not.
J. W. Goethe - Italian Journey - March 11, 1787 - translation by Charles Nisbeth
House of Siricus: Triclinium (dining room) with a central painting portraying Drunken Hercules
of the rooms are stuccoed and painted in a most beautiful
taste. On a brown, orange, or other strong-coloured
ground, the painter has traced light borders and flowing
garlands, encircling masks, animals, fruits, landscapes, or decorations of capricious architecture; it is remarkable that in
the representations of porticos and temples, the style is as
barbarous as that of the Gothic ages; the columns are slender to excess, the entablatures heavy and crowded with fantastic ornaments which I was surprised and shocked to find in
a city where the Greek taste in arts ought to have been
more religiously adhered to.
Henry Swinburne - Travels in the Two Sicilies - 1777-1780
The house was not yet excavated when Swinburne visited Pompeii, but it provides a good example of the capricious architecture which stunned Swinburne and other XVIIIth century travellers who had read J. J. Winckelmann's book on Ancient Art. The author regarded the art of Greece in the Vth century BC as the purest one and despised that which came after.
Villa of the Mysteries: painted wall imitating architectural elements and marbles; its somber colours impressed Mark Rothko who visited it in the 1950s
In 1882 German archaeologist August Mau developed a classification of Pompeii mural paintings into four chronological "styles/periods". In the first period, which ended with the war of 91-88 BC, paintings were mainly aimed at imitating slabs of marble. Walls were partitioned into stripes of different size and colour by fake architectural elements. This feature never totally went away and large areas of uniform colour can be found in paintings of the following periods.
A feature which characterizes paintings at Pompeii is their red background. It has become a standard tint known as Pompeian Red. Initially most paintings had a yellow background obtained from ochre, an easily available earth pigment. Red resulted from the addition of powder of cinnabar (an ore of mercury) or of minium (an ore of lead) to yellow ochre. This process was costly and it was mainly used for decorating the houses of the very rich. These two colours prevailed also in the decoration of the houses of Ostia.
Atramentum must be reckoned among the artificial colours, although it is also derived in two ways from the earth. (..) Painters, have been known to go so far as to dig up half-charred bones from the sepulchres for this purpose.
All these plans, however, are new-fangled and troublesome; for this substance may be prepared, in numerous ways, from the soot that is yielded by the combustion of resin or pitch. (..) The most esteemed black, however, that is made in this way, is prepared from the wood of the torch-pine. (..) Polygnotus and Micon, the most celebrated painters of Athens, made their black from grape-husks, and called it "tryginon." Apelles invented a method of preparing it from burnt ivory, the name given to it being "elephantinon".
Pliny the Elder - Historia Naturalis - Book 35 - Translation by John Bostock and Henry Thomas Riley.
Black backgrounds were not uncommon, although they were used less often than yellow and red ones. You may wish to see other examples of black backgrounds at House of the Black Hall at Herculaneum and at Villa Romana della Farnesina and also outside Italy, e.g. at Saint-Romain-en-Gal near Vienne in France.
Macellum, a marketplace; paintings in the courtyard
The second style was characterized by small images and fake architectures which "enlarged" the rooms where they were painted (for a Renaissance example of this technique see a hall at la Farnesina).
Small winged creatures, very often fantastic ones, characterized the third and fourth styles. They are a basic component of the grotesque decoration of ancient and Renaissance monuments of Rome, e.g. Casa di Augusto and Loggia di Paolo III at Castel Sant'Angelo.
Because of the earthquake which struck Pompeii in 62 AD many walls were repainted after the event so they are classified in the fourth style. The classification developed by Mau has been used for Roman paintings found in other locations too.
House of the Golden Cupids: details of paintings
Many of the paintings on the walls in the roofless chambers, or carefully removed to the museum at Naples, are as fresh and plain, as if they had been executed yesterday. Here are subjects of still life, as provisions, dead game, bottles, glasses, and the like; familiar classical stories, or mythological fables, always forcibly and plainly told; conceits of cupids, quarrelling, sporting, working at trades; theatrical rehearsals; poets reading their productions to their friends; inscriptions chalked upon the walls; political squibs, advertisements, rough drawings by schoolboys; everything to people and restore the ancient cities, in the fancy of their wondering visitor.
Charles Dickens - Pictures from Italy - 1846
Unlike the artists of the Renaissance, painters, sculptors and architects did not enjoy a high status in Roman society. They were regarded and paid as highly skilled craftsmen, but they did not sign their works and in Latin sources there are more references to chariot drivers and athletes than to them.
One of the features of the third style is the presence of miniature paintings inserted into a single colour background. They often depicted landscapes, birds, sea creatures and they were very carefully executed, by using very fine brushes, including one which Pliny calls penicillum (after which English pencil).
On the dado of the Atrium are
charming putti; and on the frieze above are groups of Cupids engaged in
various occupations. (..) The Large Room to the right of the peristyle is the finest of all in
point of ornamentation. On the black band above the dado are groups of Cupids.
Karl Baedeker - Handbooks for Travellers: Southern Italy and Sicily - 1900.
The House of the Vettii was excavated in 1894-1895 and it soon became a must see because of its very rich and elaborate decoration which was made after the 62 earthquake and is regarded as an example of the fourth (and last) style of Pompeii. Today it is best known for its apotropaic works of art.
Pictor musivarius (painter of mosaics) was the artisan in charge of the emblemata, the panels resembling a painting which were inserted in a geometric floor mosaic (see an example at Brescia). He might have been a real painter because a similar approach characterized also the painted decoration of the walls. In a way these small, usually square, frescoes at the centre of a wall, recall oil paintings in a XIXth
century sitting room and, when detached from the walls, they were placed in gilded frames.
Ixion attempted to win the love of Hera. Zeus made a phantom resembling Hera, and by it Ixion became the father of a Centaur. (..) Ixion, as a punishment, was chained by Hermes with his hands and feet to a wheel, which is described as winged or fiery, and said to have rolled perpetually in the air or in the lower world.
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology William Smith, Ed.
The painting portrays a muscular Mercury holding the caduceus and on the right Juno sitting on her throne. On the left is Vulcan (blond figure) standing behind the wheel, manning it, with Ixion already tied to it. See the same subject in a IVth century BC vase at Capua and in a IIIrd century AD relief at Side.
See a mosaic emblemata showing Pasiphae, Daedalus and the fake cow at the Museum of Algiers.
Archaeological Museum of Naples: (left) "Sappho" (from "Insula Occidentalis"); (right) Terentius Neo, the owner of a bakery, and his wife (from the House of Paquius Proculus)
Although the Romans excelled in portraits they did not hang paintings of themselves or of their relatives on the walls. Those shown above are not frequently seen. One of them is named after Sappho, the ancient Greek poet, but it most likely portrays a docta puella, a learned young woman in the act of thinking about what to write on her wax tablets. It may not have portrayed an actual person, but rather an idealized one. The couple portrayed in the other painting and the man in particular is not idealized. He holds a rotulus, most likely his appointment to a public office, while the woman is portrayed in the same pensive pose as docta puella. The overall purpose of the painting is to establish the couple as members of the good society of Pompeii.
Archaeological Museum of Naples: (left) House of the Dioscuri: Medea watches her children playing dice (see another fresco portraying Medea which was found in Germany); (right) House of the Tragic Poet: Achilles surrenders Briseis to Agamemnon (see the same subject in a floor mosaic at Merida)
Mythological tales and poems provided painters and landlords with a wide array of subjects. In some instances their choices fell on less known scenes which highlighted feelings rather than actions.
Nurse: At first, to be sure, Medea had, even in Corinth, a good life with her husband and children, an exile loved by the citizens to whose land she had come, and lending to Jason himself all her support. This it is that most rescues life from trouble, when a woman is not at variance with her husband. But now all is enmity, and love's bonds are diseased. (..) She lies fasting, giving her body up to pain, wasting away in tears all the time ever since she learned that she was wronged by her husband, neither lifting her face nor taking her eyes from the ground. (..) She loathes the children and takes no joy in looking at them. And I am afraid that she will hatch some sinister plan. (..) But see, her boys are coming home after their games. They have no thought of their mother's troubles: it is not usual for young minds to dwell on grief. (..)
Chorus-Leader to Jason: Your children are dead, killed by their mother's hand.
Euripides - Medea - translation by David Kovacs
Though the camp was busy with all this, Agamemnon did not forget his quarrel with Achilles, or his threats, and he summoned his heralds and trusty attendants, Talthybius and Eurybates, saying: 'Go to Achilles' hut, seize the fair-faced Briseis and bring her here. If he refuses to release her, I'll go in force to fetch her, and so much the worse for him.' (..) They found Achilles seated by his black ship, by his hut, and it gave him no pleasure to see them. Seized by fear and awe of the king, they stood silently; but he in his heart knew their unspoken request, and said: 'Welcome, heralds, you ambassadors of Zeus and men, approach me. You bear no guilt, only Agamemnon, who sends you here for Briseis. Come, Patroclus, divinely born, bring out the girl, and hand her to these men. (..) At this, Patroclus obeyed his order, and leading fair-faced Briseis from the hut, handed her to the heralds, who returned beside the line of Achaean ships, with the unwilling girl. But Achilles withdrew from his men, weeping, and sat by the shore of the grey sea, gazing at the shadowy deep.
Homer - Iliad - Book I - Translated by A. S. Kline
Archaeological Museum of Naples - Gabinetto Segreto: (left) House of L. Caecilius Iucundus: Satyr and Maenad; (right) House of Meleager: Venus and Mars
In 1819 paintings and statues from Pompeii and Herculaneum which were deemed to violate decency standards were placed in Gabinetto Segreto, a special section of the Archaeological Museum of Naples, the access to which was restricted. Only in 1971 it was opened to the general public.
The Reserved Cabinet is a part of the museum to which access is, very properly, extremely difficult, no foreigner being able to obtain admission without an order from the Minister of the Interior, which is granted only on a special and written recommendation from the ambassador. Very few, therefore, have seen the collection; and those who have, are said to have no desire to repeat their visit. Murray
In popular culture the ancient Romans are often associated with debauchery. In the XIXth century many artists built upon this widespread opinion to paint "historical" scenes of orgies and sexual cruelties (e.g. The Roses of Heliogabalus (Wikipedia) and Tepidarium by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema - they open in another window). German photographers Wilhelm von Gloeden (Wikipedia) and Wilhelm Pluschow (Wikipedia) sold portraits of young Italian boys wearing just a laurel wreath as if the ancient Romans walked about naked in public places. The paintings of Pompeii in particular were cited as examples of debauchery. As a matter of fact they have rarely a strong sexual connotation even when the subject (e.g. Bacchus and Venus) might have lent to it, exception made for those which decorated the cubicula, but this was not typical of Pompeii (see examples at Rome, Tunisia and even Mamfis in Israel). Other aspects of sex in Pompeii are covered in the pages covering the houses, the religion and the economy of the town.
A garden with trees, flowers and birds was another subject Romans often chose for decorating the walls of their houses. It is interesting to note that a black background was likely meant to show the shade one would enjoy in the garden. The fig tree and the snake bring to mind the account of the Garden of Eden, but for the Greeks and the Romans they were both symbols of female sexuality and thus very suited for depiction in a bedroom. Many medieval artists depicted the Forbidden Tree as a fig tree, e.g. in the Cathedral of Orvieto.
House of the Orchard: "cubiculum" with the painting after which the house is named
This house had another cubiculum decorated with a view of trees and birds, but in this case in daylight and with the addition of some statues of Egyptian inspiration. One of the trees of the painted garden is a strawberry tree, which is mentioned by Ovid when describing the Golden Age of Man. The decoration of the room is typical of the second style and some similar paintings were found at Villa di Poppea. The best known example of this type of decoration was found at Villa di Livia, near Rome.
House of the Golden Bracelet (Insula Occidentalis): detail of a fresco of in the garden
In 1980, fragments of a garden painting were found in the lapilli where they had fallen from the wall. In 1983 another part of the painting was found still on the wall. A lengthy process of restoration which included the addition of the missing parts has recreated the whole aspect of the painting. It is now often shown in temporary exhibitions related to Pompeii or Rome.
This house was redesigned after the 62 earthquake. It belonged to an important family of Pompeii, but it was rather small when compared to the nearby House of Giulia Felix. The landlords decided to increase its apparent size by having the end wall of the garden painted with trees, a great variety of birds, a statue of Mars and a fountain.
The wall faced south-west, thus it was in the direction of the sea, which could not be seen because the view was obstructed by the Great Palaestra; the sea was therefore painted on the wall itself with a beautiful Venus, who might have inspired Botticelli. Her divine nature is highlighted by the billowing velum (veil/ mantle) over her head (it can be seen in reliefs at Ara Pacis and in many mosaics portraying sea gods). The shell is a reference to the goddess being born out of the foam of the sea and it is seen in other portraits of Venus, e.g. in mosaics at Philippopolis and Trier. The portrayal of Venus explains why a statue of Mars was painted on the left side of the walls. The two gods played a major role in the foundation of Rome and they were often depicted together, e.g. at Ostia.
Painting was formerly illustrious, when it was held in esteem both by kings and peoples, and ennobling those whom it deigned to transmit to posterity. But at the present day, it is completely banished in favour of marble, and even gold. Pliny
Painting and sculpture have always competed for being considered the highest form of art. The value of ancient painting was underestimated for centuries, mainly because few examples of the grandes tabulas (large paintings) mentioned by Pliny were known. The discovery in 1929 of a hall painted with a large fresco attracted universal interest and led to a reassessment of the artistic value of ancient painting.
Villa of the Mysteries - Hall of the Initiation Rites: (left) a boy reads aloud the rules for the ceremony; (right) lustral water is poured and a follower of Dionysus/Bacchus plays the lyre
The interest for this hall was partly due to the subject of its paintings which was not easy to associate with a mythological or historical event. The depiction of apparently detached groups of persons called to mind Le Nozze Aldobrandini, a famous Roman painting depicting scenes associated with a wedding ceremony. They both appear filled to suspense to a modern viewer, because of the isolation of the groups of persons. This approach however can be noted also on sarcophagi, e.g. one currently in Florence.
Villa of the Mysteries - Hall of the Initiation Rites: (left) another follower of Dionysus/Bacchus and the god himself; (right) toilet of the bride(?)
Various interpretations have been put forward to explain the meaning of the scenes, but they all agree on considering them related to an initiation rite for the worship of Dionysus/Bacchus, perhaps for a bride or for a priestess. The painting is generally dated mid of the Ist century BC.
Archaeological Museum of Naples: large painting from Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, in the northern environs of Pompeii (IInd style)
Many statues which embellished the houses of the Romans were copies of Greek statues. Archaeologists think that also some of the paintings found at Pompeii were copies of Greek paintings. The right section of this large painting is assumed to portray a Macedonian king and his mother or personifications of Macedonia and Persia. The old man in the left section has been identified with a Greek philosopher, either Aratus of Soli or Menedemus of Eretria, who enjoyed the protection of Antigonus II Gonatas, King of Macedonia. Busts portraying Hellenistic kings have been found at Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum.
Archaeological Museum of Naples: another large painting from the same villa
A number of suburban residences have been found in the countryside surrounding Pompeii. Some were positioned by the sea, others, as that at Boscoreale, on higher ground. The decoration of these villas was often characterized by the illusionistic depiction of architectural elements, such as steps, columns, doors, etc. (see a similar painting at Villa di Poppea).
Italian archaeologists have always been very conservative in the restoration of ancient buildings and works of art. In a few instances at Pompeii they have "refreshed" the colours of paintings more than they usually do. There are pros and cons in such restorations: on one side the paintings are no longer "voices from the past", on the other we can appreciate better the skill of the painters in the choice of colours and in details such as the shadows of personages and objects. An "ordinary" painter at Pompeii mastered many aspects of his art which were eventually forgotten for centuries.
House of the Ara Maxima: a restorer at work in February 2020
In 2013 a major effort began for the preservation and restoration in situ of the paintings. It is an immense task when considering that almost all the buildings of Pompeii had painted walls.
The image used as background for this page shows a grotesque decoration in a house outside Porta Marina.