The history of Roman painting is essentially a history of wall paintings on plaster. Although ancient literary references inform us of Roman paintings on wood, ivory, and other materials, works that have survived are in the durable medium of fresco that was used to adorn the interiors of private homes in Roman cities and in the countryside. According to Pliny, it was Studius “who first instituted that most delightful technique of painting walls with representations of villas, porticos and landscape gardens, woods, groves, hills, pools, channels, rivers, and coastlines.” Despite the lack of physical evidence, we can assume that many portable paintings depicted subjects similar to those found on the painted walls in Roman villas. It is also reasonable to suppose that Roman panel paintings, which included both original creations and adaptations of renowned Hellenistic works, were the prototypes for the myths depicted in fresco. Roman artists specializing in fresco most likely traveled with copybooks that reproduced popular paintings, as well as decorative patterns.
The majority of Roman frescoes were found in Campania, in the region around the Bay of Naples. It is here that Mount Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79 A.D., burying much of the countryside, the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and nearby private residences. As so often happens in archaeology, a disaster served to freeze a moment in the past, allowing excavators to delve into the life of this region’s ancient inhabitants. Frescoes from the villas at Boscoreale and Boscotrecase provide an unparalleled record of the life of wealthy Romans during this period.
Art historians and archaeologists describe the development of Roman painting in four styles. The First Style (ca. 200–60 B.C.) was largely an exploration of simulating marble of various colors and types on painted plaster. Artists of the late Republican period (second to first century B.C.) drew upon examples of early Hellenistic (late fourth to third century B.C.) painting and architecture in order to simulate masonry. Typically, the wall was divided into three horizontal, painted zones crowned with a stucco cornice of dentils based upon the Doric architectural order. The decline of the First Style coincided with the Roman colonization of Pompeii in 80 B.C., which transformed what had essentially been an Italic town with Greek influences into a Roman city. Going beyond the simple representation of costlier building materials, artists began to borrow from the figural repertoire of Hellenistic wall painting, depicting gods, mortals, and heroes in various contexts.
The Second Style (03.14.13a-g) in Roman wall painting emerged in the early first century B.C., during which time fresco artists imitated architectural forms purely by pictorial means. In place of stucco architectural details, they used flat plaster on which projection and recession were suggested entirely by shading and perspective; as the style progressed, forms grew more complex. The Villa P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale is an exceptional example of the fully mature Second Style (03.14.4). Throughout the villa there are visual ambiguities to tease the eye, painted masonry, pillars, and columns that cast shadows into the viewer’s space, and more conventional trompe l’oeil devices. Objects of daily life are 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. At Boscoreale, the walls dissolve into elaborate displays of illusionist architecture and realms of fantasy. Some of the frescoes provide copies of lost, but presumably once famous, Hellenistic paintings. In the villa’s triclinium, painted columns frame a series of figurative paintings (03.14.5; 03.14.6; 03.14.7) presented as if seen through a window in the wall or as if lodged in the architecture. The intention of the owner was to create a kind of picture gallery, with the choice of subjects most likely based on the quality and renown of the original paintings.
Under Emperor Augustus (r. 27 B.C.–14 A.D.) in the second half of the first century B.C., there was a new impulse to innovate, rather than re-create, in architecture, sculpture, and painting. The Third Style (ca. 20 B.C.– 20 A.D.), which coincided with Augustus’ reign, rejected illusion in favor of surface ornamentation. Wall paintings from this period typically comprise a single monochrome background—such as red, black, or white—with elaborate architectural and vegetal details. Small figural and landscape scenes appear in the center of the wall as a part of, not the dominant element in, the overall decorative scheme. The finest known achievements of the early Third Style are the frescoes from the imperial villa at Boscotrecase (20.192.1; 20.192.17; 20.192.16), where attenuated candelabra and columns support exquisitely rendered vignettes. The early Third Style, which was in effect the court style of Emperor Augustus and his friend Agrippa, eventually gave way to a rekindled interest in elaboration for its own sake.
Characterized as a baroque reaction to the Third Style’s mannerism, the Fourth Style in Roman wall painting (ca. 20–79 A.D.) is generally less disciplined than its predecessor. It revives large-scale narrative painting and panoramic vistas, while retaining the architectural details of the Third Style. In the Julio-Claudian phase (ca. 27–68 A.D.), a textilelike quality dominates and tendrils seem to connect all the elements on the wall. The colors warm up once again, and they are used to advantage in the depiction of scenes drawn from mythology.
Some of the best evidence for the techniques of Roman wall painting is in Pliny’s Natural History and in Vitruvius’ manual De Architectura. Vitruvius describes the elaborate methods employed by wall painters, including the insertion of sheets of lead in the wall to prevent the capillary action of moisture from attacking the fresco, the preparation of as many as seven layers of plaster on the wall, and the use of marble powder in the top layers to produce a mirrorlike sheen on the surface. Preliminary drawings or light incisions on the prepared surface guided the artists in decorating the walls a fresco (on fresh plaster) with bold primary colors. Softer, pastel colors were often added a secco (on dry plaster) in a subsequent phase. Vitruvius also informs us about the pigments used by the Roman artist. Black was drawn from the carbon created by burning brushwood or pine chips. Ocher was extracted from mines and served for yellow. Red was derived either from cinnabar, red ocher, or from heating white lead. Blue was made from mixing sand and copper, and then baking the mixture. The deepest shade of purple was by far the most precious color, as it was usually obtained from sea whelks.