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see also Erotic art in Pompeii: Greece and Roman Art



From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The city of Pompeii is a partially buried Roman town-city near modern Naples in the Italian region of Campania, in the territory of the comune of Pompei. Along with Herculaneum, its sister city, Pompeii was destroyed and completely buried during a long catastrophic eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius spanning two days in 79 AD. The eruption buried Pompeii under 4 to 6 meters of ash and pumice, and it was lost for over 1,500 years before its accidental rediscovery in 1599. Since then, its excavation has provided an extraordinarily detailed insight into the life of a city at the height of the Roman Empire.

The archaeological digs at the site extend to the street level of the 79 AD volcanic event; deeper digs in older parts of Pompeii and core samples of nearby drillings have exposed layers of jumbled sediment that suggest that the city had suffered from the volcano and other seismic events before then. Three sheets of sediment have been found on top of the lava that lies below the city and, mixed in with the sediment, archaeologists have found bits of animal bone, pottery shards and plants. Using carbon dating, the oldest layer has been dated to the 8th-6th centuries BC, about the time that the city was founded. The other two layers are separated from the other layers by well-developed soil layers or Roman pavement and were laid in the 4th century BC and 2nd century BC. It is theorized that the layers of jumbled sediment were created by large landslides, perhaps triggered by extended rainfall.

The town was founded around the 7th-6th century BC by the Osci or Oscans, a people of central Italy, on what was an important crossroad between Cumae, Nola and Stabiae. It had already been used as a safe port by Greek and Phoenician sailors. According to Strabo, Pompeii was also captured by the Etruscans, and in fact recent excavations have shown the presence of Etruscan inscriptions and a 6th century BC necropolis. Pompeii was captured for the first time by the Greek colony of Cumae, allied with Syracuse, between 525 and 474 BC.

Pompeii. Temple of Apollo

Pompeii. House of the Ara Massima

In the 5th century BC, the Samnites conquered it (and all the other towns of Campania); the new rulers imposed their architecture and enlarged the town. After the Samnite Wars (4th century BC), Pompeii was forced to accept the status of socium of Rome, maintaining, however, linguistic and administrative autonomy. In the 4th century BC, it was fortified. Pompeii remained faithful to Rome during the Second Punic War.

Pompeii took part in the war that the towns of Campania initiated against Rome, but in 89 BC it was besieged by Sulla. Although the blunts of the Social League, headed by Lucius Cluentius, helped in resisting the Romans, in 80 BC Pompeii was forced to surrender after the conquest of Nola, culminating in many of Sulla's veterans being given land and property, while many of those who went against Rome were ousted from their homes. It became a Roman colony with the name of Colonia Cornelia Veneria Pompeianorum. The town became an important passage for goods that arrived by sea and had to be sent toward Rome or Southern Italy along the nearby Appian Way. Agriculture, water and wine production were also important.

It was fed with water by a spur from Aqua Augusta (Naples) built c. 20 BC by Agrippa; the main line supplied several other large towns, and finally the naval base at Misenum. The castellum in Pompeii is well preserved, and includes many interesting details of the distribution network and its controls.

Forum in Pompeii with the Temple of Jupiter in the center-left and Mount Vesuvius in the background.

Amphitheatre in Pompeji

The Amphitheatre of Pompeii is the oldest surviving Roman amphitheatre. It is located in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, and was buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, that also buried Pompeii itself, and neighbouring Herculaneum.

Built around 70 BCE, the current amphitheatre was the first Roman amphitheatre to be built out of stone, previously, they had been built out of wood. The next Roman amphitheatre to be built from stone would be the Colosseum in Rome, which postdates it by over a century. It was called a spectacula and not an amphitheatrum, since the latter term was not yet in use. It was built with the private funds of Quinctius Valgus and Marcius Porcius.

Around AD 59 CE, a deadly brawl occurred between Pompeians and Nuceria residents in the amphitheatre during games, which resulted in banning the events for 10 years. Amongst other events, it hosted gladiatorial games, which owing to the preservation of Pompeii has given insights into the gladiator culture of Rome.

Pompeii Waterway. Notice the stepping stones placed periodically across the waterway.

House of the Faun in Pompeii, Italy

The House of the Faun (Italian: Casa del Fauno), built during the 2nd century BC, was one of the largest, and most impressive private residences in Pompeii, Italy, and housed many great pieces of art. It is one of the most luxurious aristocratic houses from the Roman republic, and reflects this period better than most archaeological evidence found even in Rome itself.

The House of the Faun was built in the 2nd century BC, during the Samnite period (200 - 80 BC). There is evidence, most notably in the eastern walls of the tetrastyle atrium, that after the great earthquake in AD 62, the House of the Faun was rebuilt or repaired; yet, the building was only used as a house from the 2nd century BC until AD 79, ultimately rendered unusable by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Although the eruption was devastating, the layers of ash covering the abandoned town preserved artworks, like the mosaics of the House of the Faun, which would have otherwise been likely destroyed or decayed due to the passage of time.

The House of the Faun was named for the bronze statue of the dancing faun located, originally, on the lip of the impluvium, a basin for catching rainwater; it has been moved to the center of the impluvium, as seen in the picture to the right. Fauns are spirits of untamed woodland, which literate and Hellenized Romans often connected to Pan and Greek satyrs, or wild followers of the Greek god of wine and agriculture, Dionysus. It is purely decorative sculpture of a high order: "the pose is light and graceful," Sir Kenneth Clark observed, the modeling well understood, the general sense of movement admirably sustained," though he missed in its suavity the stimulus of sharper contrasts to be found in Renaissance nudes.

Archaeologists discovered an inscription bearing the cognomen Saturninus, suggesting that the dwelling was owned by the important gens, or clan, Satria; a ring bearing the family name Cassius was also found, indicating that someone of the Cassii family married into the gens Satria and lived in the House of the Faun.

Tile Mosaic, Satyr & Nymph, House of the Faun


Satyr and Nymph

Satyr Embracing a Nymph

The House of the Faun covers nearly 3,000 square meters, and occupies an entire city block, or insula. The house can be divided into five major parts: the Tuscan atrium, tetrastyle atrium, service rooms and corridors, first, or Ionic, peristyle, and second, or Doric, peristyle, and their corresponding dependent rooms. Like many ancient Roman houses, the House of the Faun had tabernae, or storefront shops, and a highly-sophisticated building plan, which details the many rooms. The entrance is decorated by the Latin message “HAVE”, a greeting both for meeting and parting.

Like other wealthy aristocrats of the Roman Republic, the owners of the House of the Faun installed a private bath system, or balneum, in the house. The bathing room was located in the domestic wing, which was to the right of the entrance, and along with the kitchen was heated by a large furnace. The servants’ quarters were dark and cramped, and there was not much furniture. The house features beautiful peristyle gardens, the second of which was created as a stage to host recitations, mimes, and pantomimes. Additionally, the house contained an entrance passage, a number of bedrooms (cubicula), dining rooms (triclinia) for both the summer and winter, a reception room (oecus), and an office (tablinum).

Karl Briullov, The Last Day of Pompeii (1830-33)


The modern viewer, whether expert or amateur, is apt to find painting the most exciting, as well as the most baffling, aspect of art under Roman rule. It is exciting because it represents the only large body of ancient painting subsequent to the Etruscan murals and because much of it, having come to light only in modern times, has the charm of the unfamiliar. Yet it remains baffling because we know much less about it than we do about Roman architecture or sculpture. The surviving material, with few exceptions, is severely limited in range. Almost all of the surviving examples consist of wall paintings, and the majority of these come from Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other settlements buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., or from Rome and its environs. Their dates cover a span of less than 200 years, from the end of the first century B.C. to the late first century A.D. What happened before or after remains largely a matter of guesswork. And since we have no original Classical Greek or Hellenistic wall paintings on Greek soil, except for some recently discovered Macedonian tombs of Alexander's time, the problem of singling out the Roman element as against the Greek is far more difficult than in sculpture or architecture.

287. ALEXANDROS OF ATHENS. The Knucklebone Players.
1st century B.C Marble panel, 16 1/2 x 15" (42x38 cm).
Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples

Greek Sources

That Greek designs were copied, and that Greek paintings as well as painters were imported, nobody will dispute. But the number of instances in which this can be proved is relatively small. The Battle of Isms (fig. 220) is one of the few in which such a link can be demonstrated. From documentary sources such as Pliny and Vitruvius, we can gain a very general idea of how Greek painting evolved, but not what it looked like. In several cases we possess more than one variant of the same composition derived ultimately from the same Greek source

but through different intermediaries; yet the divergences attest to how freely these were copied and altered. A small marble panel from Herculaneum (fig. 287) illustrates the difficulties in identifying Greek sources. An inscription tells us that Alexandras of Athens painted this scene. The delicate linear style plainly recalls that of the late fifth century B.C. (compare fig. 201). The execution nonetheless seems so much weaker than the conception that it must be a copy, or, more likely, an imitation in the Classical manner, comparable to the copies and adaptations of Classical Greek statues manufactured for the Roman market. It belongs to a special class of "collector's items." We may wonder whether anything as attenuated as this actually existed in Classical Athenian art.


Roman Illusionism

The earliest phase of Roman wall painting, known from a few examples of the second century B.C., does show a clear connection with the Hellenistic world, since it has also been found in the eastern Mediterranean. Unfortunately, it is not very informative for us, as it consists entirely of the imitation of colored marble paneling. About 100 B.C., this so-called First Style began to be displaced by a far more ambitious and elaborate style that sought to open up the flat surface of the wall by means of illusionistic architectural perspectives and "window effects," including landscapes and figures. Three phases of this more elaborate style have been distinguished, known as the Second, Third, and Fourth Styles, but the differences among them are not always clear, and since there is considerable overlapping in their sequence, we can largely disregard this classification here. The architectural vistas of the Second Style, as represented by our figure 289, are the most substantial and thus provide the best measure of the illusionistic devices by which Roman painters achieved these breakthroughs. Our artist is clearly a master of modeling and surface textures. The forms framing the vistathe lustrous, richly decorated columns, moldings, and mask at the tophave an extraordinary degree of three-dimensional reality. They effectively set off the distant view of buildings, which is flooded with light to convey a sense of free, open-air space. But as soon as we try to penetrate this architectural maze, we find ourselves lost. The individual structures cannot be disentangled from each other, and their size and relationship are obscure. We quickly realize that the Roman painter has no systematic grasp of spatial depth, that the perspective is haphazard and inconsistent within itself. Apparently we were never intended to enter this space. Like a promised land, it remains forever beyond us.

289. Architectural View. Wall painting from a villa at Boscoreale,
near Naples.
1st century B.C.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Fourth Style, which prevailed at the time of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, is the most intricate of all. Our example, a painting that adorned a corner of the Ixion Room in the House of the Vettii at Pompeii (fig. 288), combines imitation marble paneling, conspicuously framed mythological scenes intended to give the effect of panel pictures set into the wall, and fantastic architectural vistas seen through make-believe windows, creating the effect of a somewhat disjointed compilation of motifs from various sources. This architecture has a strangely unreal and picturesque quality that is believed to reflect the architectural backdrops of the theaters of the time. It often anticipates effects such as that of the Market Gate of Miletus (see fig. 261), which shares the same source.

288. The Ixion Room. House of the Vettii, Pompeii. 63-79 A.D.

When landscape takes the place of architectural vistas, exact foreshortening becomes less important, and the virtues of the Roman painter's approach outweigh his limitations. This is most strikingly demonstrated by the famous Odyssey Landscapes, a continuous stretch of landscape subdivided into eight compartments by a framework of pilasters. Each section illustrates an episode of the adventures of Odysseus (Ulysses). However, the narrative has large gaps, which suggests that the scenes have been excerpted from a larger cycle, although there is no reason to assume an earlier Greek origin. In the adventure with the Laestrygonians (fig. 290), the airy, bluish tones create a wonderful feeling of atmospheric, light-filled space that envelops and binds together all the forms within this warm Mediterranean fairyland, where the human figures seem to play no more than an incidental role. Only upon further reflection do we realize how frail the illusion of coherence is. If we tried to map this landscape, we would find it just as ambiguous as the architectural perspective discussed above. Its unity is not structural but poetic, like that of the stucco landscape in figure 274.

The Odyssey Landscapes contrast with another approach to nature that we know from the murals in a room of the Villa of Livia at Primaporta (fig. 291), which have no precedent in Greek art. Here the architectural framework has been dispensed with altogether, and the entire wall is given over to a view of a delightful, serene garden full of colorful flowers, fruit trees, and birds. These charming details have the same-tangible quality, the same concreteness of color and texture as the architectural framework of figure 289, and their apparent distance from the beholder is also about the same: they seem to be within arm's reach. At the bottom is a low trellis, beyond it a narrow strip of lawn with a tree in the center, then a low wall, and immediately after that the garden proper begins. Oddly enough, however, we cannot enter it. Behind the front row of trees and flowers lies an opaque mass of greenery that shuts off our view as effectively as a dense hedge. This garden, then, is another promised land made only for looking. The wall has not really been opened up but merely pushed back a few feet and replaced by a wall of plants. It is this very limitation of spatial depth that endows our mural with its unusual degree of coherence.

290. The Laestrygonians Hurling Rocks at the Fleet of Odysseus. Wall painting from a house on the Esquiline Hill, Rome.
Late 1st century B.C. Vatican Museums, Rome

291. View of a Garden. Wall painting from the Villa of Livia at Primaporta. ñ. 20 B.C. Museo delle Terme, Rome


On a large scale, such restraint does not occur often in Roman mural decoration. We do find it, though, in the still lifes that sometimes make their appearance within the intricate architectural schemes. These usually take the form of make-believe niches or cupboards, so that the objects, which are often displayed on two levels, remain close to us. Our example (fig. 292) is particularly noteworthy for the rendering of the translucent glass jar half-filled with water. The reflections are so acutely observed that we feel the painter must have copied them from an actual jar illuminated in just this way. But if we try to determine the source and direction of the light in the picture, we find that this cannot be done, because the shadows cast by the various objects are not consistent with each other. Nor do we have the impression that the jar stands in a stream of light. Instead, the light seems to be imprisoned within the jar.

Clearly, the Roman artist, despite striving for illusionistic effects, is no more systematic in the approach to light than in the handling of perspective. However sensuously real the details, the work nearly always lacks a basic unifying element in its overall structure. In the finest examples, this lack is amply compensated for by other qualities, so that our observation must not be regarded as condemning the Roman artist to an inferior status. The absence of a consistent view of the visible world should be thought of instead as a fundamental barrier that differentiates Roman painting from that of the Renaissance or of modern times.

The illusionistic tendencies that gained the upper hand in Roman murals during the first century B.C. may have been anticipated to some extent by Hellenistic scenographic painters, but in the form in which we know them they seem to be a specifically Roman development, as against the reproductive or imitative works we had examined before. Echoes of the latter persist in the mythological panels that occur like islands within an elaborate architectural framework (see fig. 288). While these scenes sometimes give the impression of straightforward copies after Hellenistic originals, they often have the somewhat disjointed character of compilations of motifs from various sources.

292. Peaches and Glass Jar. Wall painting from Hercukneum. ñ 50 A.D. Masco Archeologico Nazionale, Naples

293. Hercules and Telephus. Wall painting from Ilerculaneum. c. 70 A.D. Musco Archeologico Kazionale, Naples


A characteristic example of the latter is the picture of Hercules discovering the infant Telephus in Arcadia, from the basilica at Herculaneum (fig. 293). Although it surely reflects a painting made in Pergamum around the time of the Great Altar, what stamps this as the handiwork of a Roman painter is its oddly unstable style. Almost everything here has the look of a "quotation," so that not only the forms, but even the brushwork vary from one figure to the next. Thus the personification of Arcadia, seated in the center, seems as cold, immobile, and tightly modeled as a statue, whereas Hercules, although his pose is equally statuesque, exhibits a broader and more luminous technique. Or compare the eagle of Jupiter and the Nemean Lion, emblem of Hercules, which are painted in sketchy, agitated dabs, with the precise and graceful outlines of the doe. The sparkling highlights on the basket of fruit are derived from yet another source: still lifes such as figure 292. And the mischievously smiling young Pan in the upper left-hand corner is composed of quick, feathery brushstrokes that have an altogether different character.


There exists, however, one monument whose grandeur of design and coherence of style are unique in Roman painting: the great frieze in one of the rooms in the Villa of the Mysteries just outside Pompeii (fig. 294). Like the garden view from the Villa of Livia (fig. 291), it dates from the latter part of the first century B.C., when the Second Style was at its height. So far as the treatment of the wall space is concerned, the two works have more in common with each other than with other Second Style murals, for both of them are conceived in terms of rhythmic continuity and arm's-length depth.

294. Scenes of a Dionysiac Mystery Cult. Wall painting frieze, ñ 50 â.Ñ Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii


The artist who created the frieze in the Villa of the Mysteries has placed his figures on a narrow ledge of green against a regular pattern of red panels separated by strips of black, a kind of running stage on which they enact their strange and solemn ritual. Who are they, and what is the meaning of the cycle? Many details remain puzzling, but the program as a whole represents various rites of the Dionysiac Mysteries, a semisecret cult of very ancient origin that had been brought to Italy from Greece. The sacred rites are performed in the presence of Dionysus and Adriadne, with their train of satyrs and sileni, so that human and mythical reality tend to merge into one.

We sense the blending of these two spheres in the qualities all the figures have in common: their dignity of bearing and expression, the wonderful firmness of body and drapery, the rapt intensity with which they participate in the drama of the ritual (fig. 295). Many of the poses and gestures are taken from classicism. An artist of exceptional greatness of vision has filled these forms with new life. Whatever the relation to the famous masters of Greece whose works are lost to us forever, our painter was their legitimate heir in the same sense that the finest Latin poets of the Augustan age were the legitimate heirs to the Greek poetic tradition.

295. Woman with a Veil.
Detail of wall painting frieze, ñ. 50 B.C.

Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

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