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Mural Decoration
(Part 11)


Roman Painting.

Roman Painting.— A very large number of Roman mural paintings now exist, of which by far the greatest quantity was discovered in the private houses and baths of Pompeii, nearly all dating between 63 A. D., when the city was ruined by an earthquake, and 79 A.D., when it was buried by Vesuvius. A catalogue of these and similar paintings from Herculaneum and Stabiae, compiled by Professor Helbig, comprises 1966 specimens. The excavations in the baths of Titus and other ancient buildings in Rome, made in the early part of the 16th centur, excited the keenest interest and admiration among the painters of that time, and very largely influenced the later art of the Renaissance. These paintings, especially the "grotesques" or fanciful patterns of scroll-work and pilasters mixed with semi-realistic foliage and figures of boys, animals, and birds, designed with great freedom of touch and inventive power, seen to have thoroughly fascinated Raphael during his later period, and many of his pupils and contemporaries. The "loggie" of the Vatican and of the Farnesina palace are full of carefully-studied 16th –century reproductions of these highly-decorative paintings. Of late years the excavations on the Palatine and in the garden of the Farnesina in Rome have brought to light some mural paintings of the 1st century of our era, perhaps superior in execution even to the best of the Pompeian series.

The range of subjects found in Roman mural paintings is very large—mythology, religious ceremonies, genre, still life, and even landscape (the latter generally on a small scale, and treated in an artificial and purely decorative way), and lastly history. Pliny mentions several large and important historical paintings, such as those with which Valerius Maximus Messala decorated the walls of the Curia Hostilia, to commemorate his own victory over Hiero II. and the Carthaginians in Sicily in the 3d century B.C. The earliest Roman painting recorded by Pliny was by Fabius, surnamed Pictor, on the walls of the temples of Salus, executed about 300 B.C. (H. N., xxxv.4).

Unfortunately no existing Roman paintings seem to be earlier in date than the Christian era, and all belong to a period of decline in art. Pliny (xxxv. 1) laments the fact that the wealthy Romans of his time preferred the costly splendours of marble and porphyry wall-linings to the more artistic decoration of paintings by good artists. Historical painting seems them to have gone out of fashion; among the numerous specimens now existing very few from Pompeeii Nocera, which happened 59 A. D.

Mythological scenes, chiefly from Greek sources, occur most frequently : the myths of Eros and Dionysus are especial favourites. Only five or six relate to purely Roman mythology. We have reason to think that some at least of the Pompeian pictures are copies, probably at third or fourth hand, from celebrated Greek originals. The frequently repeated subjects of Medea meditating the murder of her children and Iphigenia at the shrine of the Tauric Artemis suggest that the motive and composition were taken from the celebrated originals of these subjects by Timanthes. Those of Io and Argus, the finest examples of which is the Palatine "villa of Livia," and of Andromeda and Perseus, often repeated on Pompeian walls, may be from the originals by Nicias.[Footnote 42-1]

In many cases these mural paintings are of high artistic merit, though they are probably not the work of the most distinguished painters of the time, but rather of a humbler class of decorators, who reproduced, without much original invention, stock designs out of some pattern-book. They are, however, all remarkable for the rapid skill an extreme "verve" and freedom of hand with which the designs are, as it were, flung on the walls with few but very effective touches. Though in some cases the motive and composition are superior to the execution, yet many of the paintings are remarkable both for their realistic truth and technical skill. The great painting of Ceres from Pompeii, now in the Naples museum, is a work of the highest merit—the simple grandeur of the drawing and the delicate modelling of the flesh, executed in the easiest and most direct manner possible, are alike admirable. The round juiciness of the fruit in her basket, rapidly painted with a few telling strokes of the brush, recalls to mind in effect, though not in execution, the startling realism of the Dutch painters of still life, who laboured painfully to gain the effect produced with such rapidity and ease by the Roman artist. Fig. 8, from a Pompeian picture, is a fine example of good modelling of flesh.

Pompei wall painting image

Fig. 8 -- One figure from a Pompeian Wall-Painting -- Ariadne and Dionysius. Now in Naples Museum.

In the usual scheme of decoration the broad wall-surfaces are broken up into a series of panels by pilasters, columns, or other architectural forms. Some of the panels contain pictures with figures-subjects; others have conventional ornament, or hanging festoons of fruits and flowers. The lower part of the wall is painted one plain colour, forming a dado; the upper part sometimes has a well-designed friezed of flowing ornaments. In the better class of painted walls the whole is kept flat in treatment, and is free from too great subdivision, but in many cases great want of taste is shown by the introduction of violent effect of architectural perspective, and the space is broken up in a disagreeable way by complicated schemes of design, studded with pictures in varying scales which have but little relation to their surroundings. The colouring is on the whole very pleasant and harmonious—quite unlike the usual chromolithographic copies. Black, yellow, or a rich deep red are the favourite colours for the main ground of the walls, the pictures in the panels being treated separately, each with its own background.


(42-1) See Newton, Lect. on Painting of the Ancients, 1882.

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