You may wish to read a page on the town first.
Villa of the Mysteries - Hall of the Initiation Rites
(for a better image click here - it opens in another window)
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 it were known. The discovery of the Roman grotesque paintings at Domus Aurea in the early XVIth century had a great influence on Renaissance artists, but mainly as a way to quickly decorate large walls and ceilings. Only the unearthing of some buildings at Pompeii revealed the existence of the grandes tabulas (large paintings) mentioned by Pliny, such as those at Villa of the Mysteries.
A feature which characterizes paintings at Pompeii is their red background. It has become a standard tint known as Pompeian Red. Initially paintings usually 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 used only for decorating the houses of the very rich.
Macellum (a marketplace which is shown in another page) paintings (1)
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 three horizontal stripes of different size and colour. This feature never totally went away and large areas of uniform colour can be found in paintings of the following periods.
Macellum paintings (2)
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 Galleria delle Prospettive 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 other Roman and Renaissance monuments such as 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.
Archaeological Museum of Naples: large painting from Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale (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 (IInd style)
A number of suburban residences have been found in the countryside surrounding Pompeii. Some were positioned by the sea (e.g. Villa di Poppea at Oplontis), others, as those 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.
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)
In a way the small, usually square, frescoes placed at the centre of a yellow or red wall recall oil paintings in a XIXth century sitting room. Although the Romans excelled in portraits they did not hang paintings of themselves or of their relatives on their 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.
(left) Menander at House of Menander (which is shown in another page); (right) a theatre scene at House of
The portrait of a Greek dramatist (the writer of more than a hundred comedies) and several paintings and decorative patterns related to comedians and their masks show how much the citizens of Pompeii enjoyed spending their evenings at the theatre (which is shown in another page).
House of Menander: details of paintings perhaps referring to the myth of Actaeon
Pompeii had a smaller covered theatre (which is shown in another page) for music and poetry. It is likely that the Metamorphoses of Ovid were recited there because many paintings depict events narrated in that poem (you may wish to see a page on it with some information on the myth of Actaeon).
Archaeological Museum of Naples: (left) Medea watches her children playing dice (from the House of the Dioscuri); (right) Achilles surrenders Briseis to Agamemnon (from the House of the Tragic Poet)
The 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
House of Romulus and Remus: remaining section of a painting depicting Orpheus taming the animals
The large amphitheatre of Pompeii did not house gladiatorial fights only. Some of the shows were more similar to those of a circus (of the past) where exotic animals from distant countries were one of the main attractions. Orpheus charming the animals by playing the lyre was the perfect subject for depicting a small personal zoo, and not in the children's room, but in that where the landlord received his guests. Of the many works of art depicting Orpheus in this website you may wish to see a statue at Sabratha (Libya) and a mosaic at Philippopolis (Syria).
House of the Golden Bracelet: fresco of the summer dining room
A garden with trees, flowers and birds was another subject Romans often chose for decorating the walls (and sometimes the ceilings) of their homes. The best known example was found at Villa di Livia and was moved to Museo Nazionale Romano al Palazzo Massimo. It is typical of the second style and some similar paintings were found at Pompeii and at Villa di Poppea.
Decorative patterns on a dark background: (left) House of Menander; (right) House of Casca Longus
It is interesting to note that in some frescoes depicting a garden a black background was chosen as if to show the shade one would enjoy there. 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.
(left) House of Venus in a Bikini: Dionysus; (right) House of the Ship Europa
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. Dionysus) might have lent to it, exception made for those which decorated the cubicula (tiny bedrooms), as at Mamfis in Israel. The topic is covered again in the page covering the economy of the town.
It is likely that the landlord of the House of the Ship Europa was a shipowner. The outline of the ship was incised on a wall perhaps to be painted at a later time. The name of the ship refers to the Phoenician girl abducted by Jupiter disguised as a white bull and carried to Crete. Perhaps the ship was so named because it travelled as far as Phoenicia.
Fresco at the thermopolium (tavern) of Lucius Vetutius Placidus (which is shown in another page
This fresco at the tavern of Lucius Vetutius Placidus shows the deities the owner of the tavern relied upon for the protection of his business. Genius, the divine element which is present in each person, place or object is portrayed at the centre. It can be compared to a guardian angel. When referring to a place (genius loci) such as a wood or a river it can be a deity of its own. Genius is flanked by two Lares, deities to which a small altar was erected in each house (it is shown in another page); they protected its inhabitants and when a family relocated they were carried to the new home. Because of his business Vetutius Placidus relied upon Mercury (far left), patron of tradesmen in general, and Dionysus (Bacchus) (far right), god of wine.
House of the Golden Cupids (it is shown in another page): symbols of Isis
The landlords of the House of the Golden Cupids had an altar dedicated to the Lares, but they had a painting depicting symbols of Isis at the opposite corner of the tablinum. The religion of the Romans and to a great extent that of the Greeks did not focus on an afterlife. Gods were immortal and men were mortal. The concepts of prize or punishment for one's deeds on the Earth existed, but they were not paramount. The religions of the Eastern Mediterranean countries and chiefly of Egypt had elaborated extensively on the concepts of an afterlife and when the Romans conquered those countries they were intrigued by their religious beliefs. Pompeii had a richly decorated temple to Isis (which is shown in another page).
House of the Golden Cupids: restored frescoes
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 Golden Cupids: details of paintings
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.
Archaeological Museum of Naples: mosaics from the House of Cicero: (left) women consulting a fortune teller; (right) street musicians
These two very fine mosaics are a rare example of signed works and they very much resemble paintings. They were made by Dioskourides of Samos.
The image used as background for this page shows a grotesque decoration in a house outside Porta Marina.