Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Roman Stuccowork

Stucco has a long history in the Mediterranean world. Typically consisting of crushed or burned lime or gypsum mixed with sand and water, stucco was easily molded or modeled into relief decoration for walls, ceilings, and floors in both interior and exterior spaces (09.221.37). Stucco plaster was also used extensively in metalwork to form cores for Greek bronze sculpture and for cast impressions of bronze vessel decoration (31.11.16).

Roman stuccowork grew out of Hellenistic practices in the Mediterranean world, which, in turn, combined earlier Greek and Egyptian traditions. The ancient Greeks employed lime plaster in relief on walls to simulate monumental architecture, and Egyptians used gypsum stucco for figural reliefs, freestanding sculpture, and other types of objects.

Following Greek tradition, Roman stuccowork used white lime plaster, which was lightweight and easily worked. This type of plaster was also used in contemporary fresco painting, and its preparation and application is described in detail by ancient authors such as Vitruvius and Pliny the Elder. Stuccowork grew in popularity in late Republican and early imperial Rome as a result of the construction boom associated with brick and cement construction. While it is not as widely known today as other types of Roman decor, it played a significant role in well-planned and -executed interior spaces, complementing painted compositions (03.14.13a-g), mosaic floors (38.11.12), and sculptural assemblages with projecting architectural elements and relief schemes.

Artists working in Roman Italy created expansive stucco schemes in private homes, tombs, and public buildings, particularly in baths. On walls, architectural members such as balustrades, column capitals, pilasters, columns, cornices, and frieze borders were fashioned in stucco and integrated into painted schemes. The stucco elements enhanced the two-dimensional decorative surfaces with projecting architectural members, adding a play of light and shadow to the interior spaces. The pieces in high relief were secured to the walls with metal rods or nails. Some forms were molded before they were attached to the walls, but other shapes and designs, such as cornices or frieze borders, were stamped into semi-dry plaster after application to the wall or ceiling. The stamped patterns imitated the egg-and-dart and vegetal borders carved on monumental architecture, a fashion that is also seen in contemporary Roman wall paintings, particularly those painted in the Second Style.

The general compositions of Roman stuccowork on ceilings, vaulted arches, and lunettes in imperial Roman structures also reflect architectural forms. Influenced by the sunken framework of coffered ceilings in Hellenistic and Republican buildings, which were built in both stone and wood, Roman stuccowork formed panels framed with stamped decorative borders and cornices. Within the panels, artists modeled vegetal forms, animals (74.51.5869), items of armor, and mythological and imaginary figures. A series of stucco reliefs in the Metropolitan Museum (92.11.2-7,.9), which originally belonged to a large arch composition, provides a vivid example of an early imperial stuccoed vault. The panels depict single figures that were applied by hand after the white stucco background was partially set (in general, Roman stuccowork was left white, although in some situations the backgrounds were painted [26.60.85]). A fingerprint impression in the stucco highlights the quick practice of modeling. The artist’s deft handling of the stucco is apparent in the varying relief heights of the figures as well as the added details: incisions in the semi-dry stucco outline the forms and articulate the figures, clothing, and accoutrements; holes pierced in the soft stucco indicate eyes, hair, and ribbons.

The figures represented in the Museum’s panels share associations with Dionysus/Bacchus, god of wine and prosperity. A snarling panther rears slightly with a ribbon falling across its back. The dancing female figures hold drums, thyrsoi, garlands, and a fruit bowl. Floating Erotes also grasp thyrsoi and garlands, and one carries a cornucopia. A striding nude male figure, possibly a satyr, with a pelt on his shoulder, holds a hare in his left hand and a staff in his right.

The popularity of Dionysiac themes in Roman art, which were rendered in various media and contexts (17.194.10; 07.261; 1994.43.1,.2), reflects the deity’s multifaceted nature in Roman culture. Dionysus was linked to banqueting, the theater, hunting, agriculture, and the afterlife (55.11.5). Set within a domestic context, Dionysus and his retinue convey an attitude of a civilized life in opulent surroundings (92.11.2-7,.9).

The figural panels in the Museum’s collection evoke a sense of luxury and festivity not only with their subject matter but also with their material and artistic characteristics. These facets illustrate the extent to which stuccowork corresponded thematically with other decorative media and how it augmented interior spaces with a sense of dimension and play of light. Roman stucco traditions continued throughout late antiquity, in part influencing Sasanian and later Islamic traditions, and well after antiquity, as is attested, for instance, in late medieval and Renaissance traditions (32.150.13).