Art during the era of Augustus and his successors (44 BCE-64 AD). Part II. Painting and mural decoration

Masonry Style: Samnite Villa from Herculaneum.


The triclinia, or formal dining rooms adjoining the atrium of the Roman houses, were decorated with marble and, more often, with painted stucco because of its cheaper price.  Ancient Roman painting decoration included four types called “the four styles of Roman wall painting” or “Pompeian Styles” because they were originally described based on the wall paintings found at Pompeii, which are one of the largest group of surviving examples of Roman frescoes*.  At first, the wall was decorated with a coating that included painted moldings that sometimes mimicked doors and pilasters directly applied on the wall.  This procedure is the first style of Roman wall decoration called the “Masonry Style” or the “Incrustation Style” because the simulated coatings of the frescoes seemed to represent inlaid materials of richer stones applied on the wall surface.




Architectural style: walls of the villa of Publius Fannius Synistor (now in the Met Museum) from Boscoreale.

The second style of Roman wall painting, somewhat more recent than the Incrustation Style, has been called the “Architectural Style” because different architectural elements were painted in perspective on the wall’s surface trying to give an idea of real buildings with their columns that seemed to stand out from the wall so as to produce a depth effect that “widened” the room’s interior space.  This architectural fantasy was exaggerated with the passing of time: the columns in the foreground seemed more real and completely detached from the walls, and between these columns were painted beautiful landscapes with great naturalism, or even windows with wide panoramas as background.  In the end, the whole wall was divided into columns with enough spaces between them to paint picturesque compositions.  The decorative principle here was the same: these paintings tried to widen the room with figurative perspectives.




Ornate style: villa of Marcus Lucretius Fronto from Pompeii.

The third style of Roman wall decoration is called the “Ornate Style” or the “Ornamental Style”.  Here it was no longer important to give the illusion of depth. Usually, the whole wall had a uniform tone.  It was white or black or deep red called Pompeian red, but over these intense colors thousand miniature ornaments were highlighted: small friezes with garlands, intertwined vertical strips, masks and little baskets and, especially, the hanging drapery.  All these elements were arranged in a way so that their complementary colors broke down the monotony of the uniformly colored background of the wall.  The richest part of this ornamental decoration were those areas filled with figures of cupids playing.  Nero’s Domus Aurea was decorated following this third style of mural painting.  The style of mural paintings used in the Domus Aurea greatly influenced the decorative style of the Renaissance of the sixteenth century.  Renaissance decorative elements are thus primarily derived from the third style of Roman wall paintings.

Wall decorative murals by Benozzo Gozzoli at the “Chapel of Magi ” (Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence) from 1463.
Illusionistic Style: house of the Vettii at Pompeii.

Finally, a fourth style of Roman wall decoration was adopted in the last days of Pompeii, around the first century AD.  It is called “Illusionistic style” because didn’t claim to give a natural or realistic effect, as the first and second types did, although it also used representations of architectural forms (small columns, friezes and windows), but all these painted in the most fantastic way.  The very thin columns were agglomerated in a maze of forms that sometimes produced a disorienting effect, not at all as the way they looked in real life.  This style included elements of exquisite imagination.  Sometimes, these small columns were supported by small animals, cupids climbed on the column’s fine shafts, spiral leaves twisted on themselves…  But most of all, its beauty lies in the myriad of bright colors that appeared and disappeared in a small wall space.  Usually, the center of the walls in both the third and fourth styles was used to reproduce a famous painting of the ancient Greek art.

Detail of a fresco from the Illusionistic style depicting Eros and Psyche (National Museum of Naples).

These four styles of Roman wall decor didn’t follow a strict chronological order, although it can be said that one succeeded the other according to the successive changes in fashion.

Portrait of the baker Paquio Proculo and his wife, fresco from Pompeii ( National Museum of Naples).


Fresco: (plural frescos or frescoes) a technique of mural painting done over a freshly-laid or wet lime plaster. Water is used to help the pigment to merge with the plaster layer, and after setting of the plaster, the painting becomes an integral part of the wall. The word fresco (Italian: affresco) is derived from the Italian adjective fresco meaning “fresh”. The fresco technique has been employed since antiquity.

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