Roman Frescoes

Fresco is a technique of mural painting executed upon freshly laid (“wet”) lime plaster. Water is used as the vehicle for the dry-powder pigment to merge with the plaster, and with the setting of the plaster, the painting becomes an integral part of the wall.

The main purpose of these frescoes was to reduce the claustrophobic interiors of Roman rooms, which were windowless and dark. The paintings, full of colour and life, brightened up the interior and made the room feel more spacious.

Banquet scene from the House of the Chaste Lovers, Pompeii.

Most wealthy residents of the Roman Empire would have had frescoes on the walls of their homes, as well as businesses to advertise their wares. Unfortunately, the majority has been lost to us and only under special circumstances have they survived.

The best known and most important pocket is the wall paintings from Pompeii, Herculaneum and other sites nearby, which show how residents of a wealthy seaside resort decorated their walls in the century or so before the fatal eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

Just like Roman mosaics, these frescoes provide many examples of mythology; a follow on from adopting Hellenstic ideas.

As well as an insight into their daily lifes, through food, clothing, activities and flora and fauna.

Pompeian Styles

The Pompeian Styles are four periods which are distinguished in Roman frescoes. They were originally delineated and described by the German archaeologist August Mau, 1840–1909, from the excavation of wall paintings at Pompeii.

This has been a huge help to archaeologists in dating Roman houses and buildings, in which frescoes are present.

There are four main styles of Roman fresco that have been found: incrustation, architectural, ornamental, and intricate. Each style is unique, but each style following the first, contains aspects of each style previous to it. The first two styles (incrustation and architectural) were a part of the Roman Republican period and the last two styles (ornamental and intricate) were a part of the Roman Imperial period.

First Style

The First Style, also called encrustation style, was popular from 150-80 BC and can be recognised by the shiny stucco decoration imitating marble lined walls. The final result is achieved by inserting a variety of colours into different partitions for the lower panel, for the smooth paintings and for the rusticated paintings.

First style. House of Sallust, Pompeii.

Second Style

The Second Style, also referred to as the architectural style, is characterised by the fact that for the first time the walls of the house create an illusion of being open to the outside world. This style was common between 80 BC – 14 AD and involved the depiction of architectures which extended the physical space of the house towards imaginary landscapes. The decoration does not merely attempt to imitate marble patterns but makes good use of perspective to create two or more levels of depth. These compositions included columns in the foreground and colonnades in perspective disappearing into the distance with the figure subjects or large painting, a mythological, heroic or religious theme, in addition to small panels with doors set between the architectural features. This highly scenographic decoration seems to have been inspired by a growing theatrical taste.

Second-style. The House of Marcus Fabius Rufus, Pompeii. It depicts Cleopatra VII as Venus Genetrix and her son Caesarion as a cupid.

Third Style

The Third Style, up the year 62 AD, abandons the use of space and architectural features as the subject matter of the composition with the result that the over-all decoration loses depth. The columns, balustrades, architraves and shelves are flattened against the wall conserve a purely ornamental function. Columns are often used in an elongated form to frame large figure paintings inserted in large areas of plain coloured wall. Landscapes are reduced to miniatures inserted into a single colour background now painted in new shades of sea-green and golden yellow.

It is also referred to as pseudo Egyptian because of the presence of typically Egyptian elements: lotus flowers, small stars, rosettes, coloured fillets and a band running above the skirting with details of still life scenes, gardens with bulrushes and elegant birds in a variety of poses. The wall decorations depicting large scale subjects inspired by gardens with trees, fountains, pools, small columns and birds in flight also belong to this period.

Third Style. Villa Farnesina, Trastevere.

Fourth Style

The Fourth Style was used from the earthquake of 62 AD up to the town’s destruction in 79 AD. These were also said to be in the ornamental style because the whole wall is treated simply as a free ornamental composition. The architectural features no longer have any reference to reality and are reduced to unreal designs, a mere flight of fancy in which ornamentation is often excessive. There is also frequent use of bas relief stucco work, as in the Second Style. Figure paintings become smaller or disappear altogether. Formal subjects are chosen; often inspired by philosophical or exotic themes, although we still find paintings that draw on the everyday life or news reports of important events, such as the riot that took place in the Amphitheatre.

The Fourth Style was a sign of wealth that typified the houses of the rich merchants of Pompeii before the catastrophe. Several experts believe that this tendency drew inspiration from the models adopted in the Domus Aurea, Nero’s imperial palace in Rome.

Fourth Style. House of the Vettii, Pompeii.

Back to Roman Art