Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Augustan Villa at Boscotrecase

In antiquity, numerous Roman villas dotted the coast along the Bay of Naples. One of the most sumptuous must have been the villa at Boscotrecase built by Agrippa, friend of Emperor Augustus and husband of his daughter Julia. In 11 B.C., the year after Agrippa’s death, the villa passed into the hands of his posthumously born infant son, Agrippa Postumus. As the child was only a few months old, Julia would have overseen the completion of the villa. The frescoes, which are among the finest existing examples of Roman wall painting, must have been painted during renovations begun at that time. Most of the panels feature delicate ornamental vignettes and landscapes with genre and mythological scenes set against richly colored backgrounds. On the basis of their remarkable similarity to paintings in the Villa Farnesina in Rome, the Boscotrecase frescoes most likely were executed by artists from the capital city.

The frescoes from Boscotrecase are masterpieces of the Third Style of Roman wall painting, which flourished during the reign of Augustus. While earlier artists focused on creating an illusion of architectural depth with solid architectural forms, the artists at Boscotrecase presented the idea with whimsical, attenuated, and highly refined elements. At Boscotrecase, spindly canopies rest on improbably thin columns that seem to be made of alternating vegetal and metal drums. These almost weightless columns embellished with jewel-like decorations support pavilions, candelabra, and tripods. Other frescoes from the villa depict mythological scenes and Egyptianizing panels, ensembles that are at once colorful and complex. The occupants and those who visited the villa at Boscotrecase were not greeted by grand vistas of architectural splendor, but by slender, elegant, and especially decorative architectural forms, playfully alluding to contemporary cultural and political concerns.