Wall painting on black ground: Aedicula with small landscape, from the imperial villa at Boscotrecase, last decade of the 1st century B.C. Early Imperial, Augustan. Roman, Pompeian. Fresco; Overall: 91 3/4 x 45 in. (233.1 x 114.3 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Rogers Fund, 1920 (20.192.1)
«When I think of the Greek and Roman Art galleries, the first color that comes to mind is white, thanks to the slick marble statues that fill the courtyards and halls with both a sense of calm and a buzzing chit-chatter. So I am always somewhat surprised and very delighted to stop in on this primarily black fresco. I love that it seems to be at odds with almost every other piece in the collection.»
The Romans had different styles in which they painted frescoes, and this particular fresco was completed in the so-called Third Style (learn more about Roman painting). Even though the three walls are a dark, rich black without any window openings, the black doesn't feel harsh or threatening. It is calm and peaceful in its own way. I particularly like the delicate, miniature details on the black surface. In the center of the wall, a small house is suspended effortlessly in the air. I feel so weightless looking at this precious little world that I could seemingly hold in my hands or hang on a tree as an ornament. The details and patterns somehow transform the black into a whimsical and pleasantly—perhaps playfully—mysterious color.
I love finding objects in the Met's collection that change how we think about the art of a particular culture. For instance, it may appear that ancient Greeks and Romans used colors only in their smaller, everyday objects, but many of their larger sculptures were once brightly painted. Although we have many questions about what certain objects looked like when they were created, the range of pieces suggests that ancient Greeks and Romans made art in a variety of styles.
I wonder how the Romans saw this black wall. Did they, too, have certain associations with particular colors? This fresco seems to contrast sharply with brightly colored frescoes that depict towns, myths, and other subjects. What emotions did they feel looking at this? Did they consider it first and foremost a black wall, or did they see the black as simply a backdrop to highlight the brightly colored details?
Related Essays on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History
The Augustan Villa at Boscotrecase
The Idea and Invention of the Villa