Wall painting on black ground: landscape, from the imperial villa at Boscotrecase

Roman, Pompeian

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 167

Many private summer villas were located along the coast near Naples. One of the most sumptuous must have been the villa built by Agrippa, friend of the emperor Augustus and husband of his daughter, Julia. It stood overlooking the Bay of Naples from a spot near the modern town of Boscotrecase. The villa was partially excavated between 1903 and 1905 after its accidental discovery during work on a railway. Wall decorations that still survived in four bedrooms were removed. The Metropolitan Museum acquired sections from three rooms and the Archaeological Museum at Naples received the rest.

Agrippa died in 12 B.C. and his son, Agrippa Postumus became the villa's proprietor in 11 B.C. as inscriptions found there indicate. The frescoes must have been painted during renovations begun at the time. Painted by artists working for the imperial household, they are among the finest existing examples of Roman wall painting.

The so-called Black Room was one of a sequence of bedrooms facing south toward the downward slope of the mountain and the sea. The source of light was a wide doorway giving onto a terrace or promenade.

This ambiguous and sophisticated decoration is a masterpiece of the so-called third style of Roman wall painting, which flourished during the reign of Augustus. The theme is a playful rendition of architectural motif. A low red dado serves as the base from which a skeleton of thin white columns appears to rise against a black background. There almost weightless columns support pavilions, candelabra, tripods, and a narrow cornice that runs around the room. They were embellished with jewel-like decorations. On the back wall tiny swans, the bird of Apollo, patron god of Augustus, perch improbably on threadlike spirals, and yellow panels with Egyptianizing motifs must have brought to mind the recent annexation of Egypt after the death of Cleopatra in 30 B.C. This architectural scheme creates almost no sense of depth or volume. The black walls behind appear at once to be flat and to dissolve into limitless space. Tiny landscape vignettes float like islands in the middle of this blackness. Burnished to a high polish, these walls must have appeared magical indeed when illuminated by lamps at night.

Wall painting on black ground: landscape, from the imperial villa at Boscotrecase, Fresco, Roman, Pompeian

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