The art of ancient Rome

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Art in ancient RomeHistory of Rome: | The Origins of Rome | The seven Kings of Rome | The Conquest of Italy and the Punic Wars | The Republic and social struggle | The Republic in crisis | Julius Caesar and the end of the Republic | Augustus and the Empire | The Julio Claudian dynasty | The Five Good Emperors | Other Emperors | Emperor Constantine and Christianisation |Fall of the Roman Empire of the West |

Aspects of Rome: | Religion and Mithras | Schools | Literature | Games, Sport and Pass-times | Food | Social Structure and Class | Government & Law |Shopping | Economy of Ancient Rome | Roman Coins | Building and Engineering | Art | Dress and Clothing |Early Christianity |  The Gladiators | Gory Martyrdoms | The Vestal Virgins |

Art in ancient Rome: | Art in Ancient Rome - Introduction | The decadence of classical art | Foreign influence | The Greek revolution | Painting and Frescos | Painting Styles | Drawing | Mosaics | Glass, Pottery and other wares | Sculpture | Architecture | Literature and Theatre |

Painting and Frescos in Ancient Rome

Paintings and in particular frescoes (or Frescos) were a favourite method of interior decoration within buildings of ancient Rome. Particularly within the houses of the rich. The art of painting walled surfaces was inherited in part from the Greeks and in part from the Etruscans who as early as the 8th century were already painting the interior plastering of their tombs (nothing remains of Etruscan housing and a few remains have been found of their temples). Certainly temple buildings would also be painted.

Painting Techniques of the Ancient Romans

The principal colours used by the Romans for their paintings were ocre (an earthy yellow), blue, red also known as Pompey Red and black. These colours were used to mix a range of tones and other colours as necessary. The manner in which they obtained these colours is still under investigation, particularly the means of achieving the distinctive Pompeii Red. The raw materials were mineral, animal and vegetable matter. For example the powder of charred bones is still used to make an excellent black. Roman chroniclers mention 7 mineral colours and 9 mixed colours.

The raw colour powders were bound in much the same way as today: through mediums such as animal glues, egg yolk or gum extracted from plants to form a sort of tempera medium. These were particularly necessary if the paint was to be applied on top of a dry surface rather than being applied through the more durable techniques of fresco.

The techniques used to paint the frescoes have been handed down to us by writers such as Pliny the younger and the architect Vitruvius. As a small testimony of the influence of Roman thought and technique on art through the ages we should remember that Vitruvius was the source of inspiration for Leonardo's studies on human proportion and the famous drawing of a man inscribed in a circle and square, known as Vitruvian man.

The base for these paintings clearly had to be perfectly clean and smooth. This was obtained through repeated layering of plastering and fine sand which would be finally polished with a fine layer of marble dust which was rendered compact and hard.

The surface would then be dampened before the colours could be applied. The colour would be absorbed into the smooth compact, but porous, surface layers and become a permanent part of it. The finished painting would then be polished to a shiny finish probably through the application of oils and a final wax seal.

A more secure and longer lasting method employed a lime based mortar. The mortar would be applied in a smooth layer and the colour immediately applied whilst the surface was still damp. A rough drawing could be scratched on top of the plaster for the more difficult figures and forms before applying the paint. The chemical process within the lime mortar ensured that the colour was perfectly bound to the wall. Polishing would be as described above. This method of fresco (an Italian word meaning "fresh" or "cool") is exactly the same as the fresco method utilised a thousand years later during the Renaissance by artists such as Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel.

The artist had to be extremely skilled as mistakes could not be rubbed out but would have to be scraped out and re-plastered. He also had to be very fast in order to complete the plastered area before it dried out. As a result, only sections of wall would be plastered and painted at any one time and the resulting "joints" would have to be perfectly matched up and/or hidden as part of the geometrical composition of the painting. Plastering and painting would normally be executed in horizontal sections starting from the top of the wall so as not to spoil areas below.

Given the lengthy and complex procedures involved it is evident that a whole team of men would be required to undertake the different tasks involved in the process, with each person specialised in his own particular area.

Art in ancient Rome: | Art in Ancient Rome - Introduction | The decadence of classical art | Foreign influence | The Greek revolution | Painting and Frescos | Painting Styles | Drawing | Mosaics | Glass, Pottery and other wares | Sculpture | Architecture | Literature and Theatre |

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This page about Rome history was written by Giovanni Milani-Santarpia for - Rome apartments