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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Boscoreale: Frescoes from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor

Boscoreale, an area about a mile north of Pompeii, was notable in antiquity for having numerous aristocratic country villas. This tradition endured into the time of the Bourbon kings, as is attested by the region’s name, the “Royal Forest,” which implies that Boscoreale was a hunting preserve. Some of the most important wall paintings surviving from antiquity come from a Roman villa at Boscoreale built shortly after the middle of the first century B.C. The villa, which was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., is referred to as the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor, one of its owners during the first half part of the first century A.D. Excavated in the early 1900s, the villa’s frescoes are among the most important to be found anywhere in the Roman world.

The villa at Boscoreale is a variant of the so-called villa rustica, a country house of which only a small part functioned as a farmhouse (pars rustica). The majority of the villa served as a residence for the owner, a member of that class of wealthy Roman citizens who owned more properties of this kind and used them as country houses. The painted decoration of the villa at Boscoreale, which was executed sometime around 40–30 B.C., attests to the original owner as a rich man with exquisite taste. The fact that the mid-first-century B.C. decoration was not replaced by another, more contemporary, decoration in the first century A.D. is a clear indication that there was already an awareness of the quality of the frescoes in antiquity.

The surviving paintings are extremely fine examples of the late Second Style, the most renowned style in Roman wall painting. Throughout the frescoes from the villa at Boscoreale there are visual ambiguities to tease the eye, including architectural details painted to resemble real ones, such as rusticated masonry, pillars, and columns that cast shadows into the viewer’s space, and more conventional trompe l’oeil devices, such as three-dimensional meanders. Objects of daily life were depicted in such a way as to seem real, with metal and glass vases on shelves and tables appearing to project out from the wall. Cumulatively, these trompe l’oeil devices reveal the Republican owner’s evident pleasure in impressing guests at his comfortable summer retreat.

Luxury villas, like the one at Boscoreale, were often the setting for conspicuous consumption of Hellenistic art and culture by the Roman aristocracy. Although in public life, a senator aimed to cut a severe figure of traditional Roman values—austere, practical, conservative—his household and his villas were the settings for extravagant displays of refined living—of building, decorating, eating, and philosophizing. The inspiration for this came from the Greeks in the east, including the repertoire of ideas and the artists, decorators, and intellectuals. Roman villa architecture combined the core of a Roman house with peristyles and gardens borrowed from Greek gymnasia, palaces, and sanctuaries. The Roman aristocracy aimed to evoke the culture of Athenian academies, the charmed world of the Hellenistic pastoral, and the magnificence of Alexandrian palaces. Portraits of Greek philosophers and writers represented learning; statues of satyrs and nymphs re-created an idyllic Dionysian landscape; and wall paintings, rich in Greek myth and dynastic portraiture, provided majestic interiors.