Rosso pompeiano

October 11 2008

“While looking for pictures of Io, I found this slideshow of Roman frescoes from the BBC reporting on an exhibition [Rosso pompeiano] at the National Museum of Rome. Unfortunately the exhibition has finished, but you can still enjoy these.” – Roman History Books in June.

A pity this couldn’t travel further. The mural above, not in the exhibition, is at the Villa dei Misteri in Pompeii. It shows a woman being initiated into the cult of Dionysus.

What ancient painting remains? There are Egyptian murals and paintings on papyrus, but let’s look at Greeece and Rome.

Greek panels

The Greeks did panel paintings on wooden boards, using encaustic or wax-based paint or water- and egg-based tempera. We know the names of many painters of the Classical and Hellenistic periods from literature. We have descriptions of compositions. Pausanias describes public exhibitions at Athens and Delphi. But not one of the famous works of Greek panel painting has survived, nor any copies. The most important surviving Greek examples are the Pitsa panels (encaustic or tempera?) from c 530 BC, found in the 1930s near the village of Pitsa and the site of the ancient Sicyon, in Corinthia.

We have a larger group of much later Graeco-Roman archaeological survivals from the dry conditions of Egypt, the Fayum mummy portraits, from the Fayum oasis west of the Nile and south of Cairo. They date from the late first century BC and first and second centuries CE. The Italian explorer Pietro della Valle, on a visit to Saqqara-Memphis in 1615, was the first European to describe mummy portraits, which were attached to the mummy at the face. He took some, with their mummies, to Europe. They are now in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (Albertinum).

Those curly-haired patresfamiliarum of Fayum, large-eyed, thirty-ish, and their earringed wives, were part of an élite Greek minority whose culture had become synthesised with Egyptian culture. The early Ptolemaic Greek colonists married local women and adopted Egyptian religious beliefs, and by Roman times their descendants were viewed as Egyptians by the Roman rulers, although they saw themselves as Greek. Most of the portraits depict the deceased at a young age, either because that was the convention or because they died young. Many show children. It used to be thought that the wax portraits were completed during the life of the individual and displayed in their home; this is no longer the view. The patrons of the portraits belonged to the affluent class of military personnel, civil servants and religious dignitaries. Most mummies did not have portraits. Only a few people could afford them.

The Hadrian exhibition still on at the British Museum has at least one mummy portrait from Antinopolis, Boyfriend City, which is on the right bank of the Nile, up river from Fayum, and perhaps some from Fayum itself.

Byzantine icons are also derived from the encaustic panel painting tradition. So much for panels.

Greek wall painting

Wall painting in Greece goes back at least to Minoan (Knossos, Crete, unearthed by Sir Arthur Evans from the end of the nineteenth century) and Mycenaean (Tiryns and Mycenae, Peloponnese) Bronze Age sites. The Egyptian painters of the time painted their wall paintings in the fresco secco technique, but the Minoans used a “true” or “wet” painting method, using metal and mineral oxides and requiring quick execution. The painting of the subsequent Mycenaean age was influenced by the Minoan. It is not clear whether there is any continuity between these antecedents and later Greek wall paintings. Only fragments of them remain.

Greek wall paintings are described in Pausanias. Few have been preserved. The most notable examples are a monumental Archaic seventh century BC scene of armoured combat from inside a temple at Kalapodi (near Thebes, Boeotia; unearthed when?) and the frescoes from the fourth-century remains at Vergina (present central Macedonia), discovered in 1977, which is believed to be the burial site of the Kings of Macedon; the paintings here are at what is thought to be the tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, and at a tomb which may have been that of the founder of the Antigonid dynasty. Graves in Magna Graecia also had wall paintings, eg the Tomb of the Diver at Paestum (c 470 BC), discovered in 1968.

Some scholars suggest that the Roman frescoes at Pompeii are the direct descendants of Greek tradition, and that some of them copied famous panel paintings.

Greek vase painting

The most copious evidence of Greek painting survives on vases, but the techniques and subject-matter were different from those used in larger-scale painting. The earliest styles were geometric. Black-figure pottery (black on red) was late Archaic (c 620-480 BC) and a Corinthian invention. It reached its full potential in Athens. Red-figure pottery (red on black) was an Athenian invention of the late sixth century. It stopped in Athens after Alexander, but continued in Magna Graecia a little longer. Black figures on white (white ground technique) was developed in Athens at about the same time as red-figure pottery and died out at the end of the fifth century.

Greek sculpture and architecture

Much of the figural or architectural sculpture of ancient Greece was polychromatic. So were the buildings themselves.

Etruscan art

Many of the Greek styles influenced Etruscan art. Etruria became a centre of red-figure vase painting. The Etruscan paintings that have survived are mostly wall frescoes from graves, and mainly from Tarquinia. They are the most important examples we have of pre-Roman figurative art in Italy. How much of the influence of Greek art on Rome came directly and how much through the Etruscans?

Roman panels

The Romans painted on panels, but almost nothing survives. The Severan Tondo, from c AD 200, is a tempera painting on a circular wooden panel (tondo), with a diameter of 30.5 cm. It is at the Antikensammlung in Berlin. It depicts the emperor Septimus Severus with his family. It is probably an example of imperial portraits that were mass-produced to be displayed in offices and public buildings throughout the empire. Some documents had to be signed in front of an image of the Emperor, which gave them the same status as if signed in his actual presence. With each change of emperor, they would have been discarded or replaced. The Berlin Tondo is the only known surviving specimen of this type of painting and appears to be of Egyptian origin.

Roman wall painting

Our knowledge of Ancient Roman painting comes mainly from the murals at Pompeii and Herculanum, which were preserved after the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. They were excavated in the eighteenth century.

Most of this wall painting was done using the secco (“dry”) method, but some wet paintings also existed in Roman times. There is evidence from mosaics and a few inscriptions that some Roman paintings were adaptations or copies of earlier Greek works, but some must have been done by immigrant Greek artists. There were triumphal scenes, paintings of animals, still lifes, pictures of everyday life, mythological paintings, erotic paintings, and some portraits. Paintings evoked the pleasures of the countryside and represented shepherds, herds, rustic temples, rural mountainous landscapes and country houses. There was architectural trompe l’œil. Four successive styles have been identified on the Pompeiian murals. In the late empire, after 200 AD, early Christian themes mixed with pagan imagery on catacomb walls.

Pompeian red became fashionable in Europe at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century, and is still used in some grand rooms. The discoveries at Pompeii influenced the Empire style and early-nineteenth-century neoclassicism. Were they a distant influence on the pre-Raphaelites?

The main innovation of Roman painting compared to Greek was the development of landscapes, incorporating techniques of perspective, though true mathematical perspective was developed 1,500 years later.

In Greece and Rome, wall painting was not considered high art. The most prestigious form of art besides sculpture was panel painting.

The Paestum diver

A Fayum mummy portrait

From a mural of the goddess Victoria at Pompeii, shown in the exhibition. At eternallycool.net. It seems incredible that Botticelli had not seen it.

4 Responses to “Rosso pompeiano”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    The Odyssey paintings found in a Roman house on the Esquiline (now in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Vatican City) are important.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    The influence of classical painting was felt well into the post-classical era. Kenneth Clark, Landscape into Art (1949):

    “In that precious document of the junction of two worlds, the Vienna Genesis, executed in Antioch about the year 560, the artist known as the Illusionist was capable of true impressions of atmosphere, of the totality of landscape, even when his figures were formalised in what we call the Byzantine manner. Even as late as the ninth century the Utrecht Psalter is full of landscape motives taken from Hellenistic painting, and its impressionistic scribbles still imply a sense of light and space. There is no simpler way to show the triumph of symbol over sensation in the middle ages than to compare its pages with those of the ‘copy’ made by the monk Eadwine for the monastic house of Canterbury in the middle of the twelfth century [Pl 2a and b].”

    What Hellenistic painting could the artist of the Utrecht Psalter have seen? No doubt it was only a tradition which was continuing.


  3. […] Mummy portraits in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt. The Fayum portraits are paintings on wood, but mummies of the most important ancient Egyptian figures, including Tutankhamun, wore sculpted masks. […]

  4. sorin Says:

    for many scholars the Fayum portraits are seen as the early “icons” (compare iconography of Sinai, 5th cen.)


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