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Art Through Time: A Global View

Domestic Life Art: Theatrical decoration with figures

» Unknown artist, Pompeii, Italy

Theatrical decoration with figures

Theatrical decoration with figures
Artist / Origin: Unknown artist, Pompeii, Italy
Region: Europe
Date: ca. 1st century
Period: 1 CE – 500 CE
Material: Fresco
Medium: Painting
Location: Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, Italy
Credit: Courtesy of Art Resource, NY/Photo by Erich Lessing

In the year 79, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum under layers of ash and lava.

Centuries later, archaeologists discovered that this volcanic debris had actually preserved much of the material culture at these sites. Our knowledge of Roman painting is largely based on the frescoes discovered in the domestic spaces of area residents. This particular example comes from a house in Pompeii and likely dates to the first century.

Wall paintings uncovered in Pompeii’s residential structures vary widely and cover a diverse array of subject matter from landscapes to still life to mythology. This fresco contains several of these themes, each contained in its own discrete space marked off by illusionistic architecture. Trompe l’oeil, painting intended to deceive the eye, was a popular feature of Roman wall painting from as early as the first century. In addition to providing entertainment and visual stimulation, seemingly realistic objects or architectural elements could create a sense of expanded space. Although this scene does not present an entirely convincing perspective, an open door and recesses framed by columns defy the solidity of the wall beneath. Scholars have divided Roman painting into four distinct styles each with characteristic traits. This fresco appears to belong to the fourth style, which prevailed at the time of the Vesuvius eruption and tended toward more fantastic scenes that have been likened to Roman theater backdrops.

Wall paintings like this decorated the homes of the elite as well as more modest houses. While many wealthy and aristocratic Romans had country villas in Boscoreale, an area north of Pompeii, Pompeii itself was inhabited largely by freedmen and the nouveaux riches who had their permanent residences there. Given the accelerated social mobility of the period, frescoes might be understood not just as a form of interior decoration, but also a proclamation of real or desired social status.

Expert Perspective:
Bettina Bergmann, Professor of Art, Mount Holyoke College

“There wasn’t a long tradition for domestic art in Italy before the Romans conquered the Greek Hellenistic world. So the import of Greek works of art and Greek artists into Italy really formed the tastes and the appearance of domestic art and architecture. But the Romans intentionally changed what they found in the Greek models. We have very few names of Roman artists—they were wall painters—and that is surprising considering the virtuosity of these walls. So Roman craftsmen did not have the same kind of status as painters have since the Renaissance in our culture.

The imperial residences had the same kinds of frescoes that small houses did. Sometimes the smallest, most modest little house will have one room that’s really beautifully decorated. So scale and design of a house don’t necessarily tell us who the owner was. The quality of the decoration doesn’t necessarily reflect the status of the owner.

I think in decorating a home, one is thinking about the audience, who is going to see this? You are thinking of somebody coming in. I think that they were competing with the Joneses—‘I think that big house down the street has beautiful mythological paintings. We want to have mythological paintings in our atrium as well.’ But they are all different, and that’s what’s so interesting is that every house, every room, every wall is different. You never find an identical copy. It’s very personal on a level, the choice of subject matter, and the choice of colors, so I think there is some personal expression.

We are really wowed by modern technology that takes us into virtual worlds. I wonder if when a Roman went into a room if something similar happened. Because one can spend hours, days, weeks in that room and it will never be the same, and your eye can move into so many different realms and zones because of this illusionism. And that was intentional. This was an art that was meant to be experienced over time.”

Additional Resources

Clarke, John R. The Houses of Roman Italy, 100 B.C.–A.D. 250: Ritual, Space, and Decoration. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1991.

Clarke, John R. Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans: Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.–A.D. 315. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006.

Kondoleon, Christine. “Timing Spectacles: Roman Domestic Art and Performance.” In The Art of Ancient Spectacle, edited by Bettina Bergmann and Christine Kondoleon, 321–342. New Haven: The National Gallery of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2000.

Mattusch, Carol C., ed. Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008.

Mazzoleni, Donatella, Umberto Pappalardo, and Luciano Romano. Domus: Wall Painting in the Roman House. Los Angeles: Getty Trust Publications, 2005.

Pappalardo, Umberto. The Splendor of Roman Wall Painting. Los Angeles: Getty Trust Publications, 2009.

Sellers, Vanessa Bezemer, and Geoffrey Taylor. “The Idea and Invention of the Villa.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/villa/hd_villa.htm(October 2004).

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Produced by THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG. 2009.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-888-2