Painting styles in ancient Rome were bright and colourful and the techniques with which the colours were applied were quite complex. Studies started in the 18th century, primarily on the basis of findings in Pompeii, Herculaneum and Rome, have allowed a general subdivision of Roman wall painting into four broad styles. These styles were not executed in strict chronological order but they do allow a means of categorizing these artworks.
Roughly speaking the first two styles were elaborated during the Republican period (up to Julius Caesar and a little before the birth of Christ). The third style was developed at the advent of the empire – with the advent of Emperor Augustus at the very end of the first century BC. The fourth style began about a century later.
All four styles have a rigid geometry as a base. This construction is rendered explicit through representation of architectural motifs such as columns, pediments and so on. Figurative elements are then included within the architectural superstructure as if they were themselves paintings framed by columns, brickwork and friezes. The first and second styles attempt to create illusion whilst the third and fourth move towards abstraction.
As might be expected, what has been categorised as the first style includes frescoes aimed at mimicking the effect of precious marbles and other materials and surfaces which themselves might have been used to form the wall surface. A sort of cheaper way of creating the colourful and sumptuous interiors of marbles and precious stones. Examples of this style of painting are found in roman houses as part of the architecture of Pompeii in the House of the Faun, with its wonderful collection of Roman mosaics and the House of Sallust.
What was the second style of Roman Art like?
The “second style” includes the creation of illusionary spaces and areas. Columns and walls leading to open spaces with false doors, windows, sky, gardens and buildings receding into the distance. As has already been mentioned it is interesting and surprising to note how three dimensional tromp l’oeil effects were relatively common in Ancient Rome. After the fall of the Roman Empire this artistic concept disappears right up to its rediscovery in the Renaissance.
Roman art third style moved towards abstraction
As with modern painting, realist tromp l’oeil evolved towards increasingly “abstract” concepts of the same theme. The “third style” reduces the columns and false architectural structures to simplified compositional devices which frame what we would nowadays refer to as “figurative paintings” of landscapes and still life.
The fourth style of Roman Art
The fourth style is the last, more than anything because the eruption of mount Vesuvius buries Pompeii and puts a stop to the source material rather than putting a stop to artistic production! With the fourth style the painter lets loose with a myriad of decorative motifs laid out in rectangular structures and framing smaller panels which we, the modern onlookers, might well have painted on a canvas and hung.
These “canvases” are generally framed by larger rectangular sections of white wall, itself framed by patterns, chains of leaves dotted with small figurines, birds and jars which have all escaped the formal world and became decorative pattern. The “canvases” mentioned above might indeed be painted on a separate panel in a workshop so as to enable greater care of execution. The panel would then be inserted and walled into the appropriate section of the overall composition and the edges rendered invisible.
The wall surface of the fourth style thus becomes a physical surface again. Rather than an illusion it becomes a support for the decorative medium (like the canvas of a painting).
It is interesting to note how the pictorial discoveries of the fourth style were to be used again and again. Quite recently, for example, during the industrial revolution to decorate mass produced consumables such as ceramics. The Romans who were so keen on mass decoration would have loved this and in fact did something quite similar themselves with the famous ancient Roman pottery with stamped reliefs.
Roman art from Nero’s Golden House to the Catacombs
A particularly impressive example of the fourth style was elaborated at the time of Emperor Nero is to be found in Nero’s Domus Aurea (Golden House) which was innovative in terms of construction techniques and architecture as well as painting and sculpture. Lavish sums of money were spent to assemble the best of the best.
Elements of the fourth style, possibly inspired by the Domus Aurea are then found in ancient Roman funerals, particularly the Christian burial areas and the Catacombs of the third and fourth centuries. Clearly these are of lesser technical quality than the sumptuous paintings of the emperor’s palace but there is a clear link from the fourth style through to an approach which aims at visual impact through chromatic effects.
Roman Plebeian art
Modern art history has paid particular attention to the wealth of knowledge and insight about Roman art that locations such as Pompeii and Herculaneum have enabled. However, we should also not forget that the majority of the ancient Roman population was made of the lower class Plebeians: There would have therefore been a strong undercurrent of Plebeian art which is less evident to us. Pompeii and Herculaneum have provided some insights to some graffiti art as well as frescos in poorer households, particularly in areas like the Lararium.
Plebeian art would have had a reduced access to bright colours and possibly more easily seen in the simple patterns of some of the more basic pottery and tableware, with simple geometric designs.
We also know that souvenir objects that could be purchased at or near public shows also existed, usually made of basic ceramic – like statuettes of gladiators or actors. Similarly household lighting at night would be with the aid of small hand-held ceramic lanterns: these too would typically have stamped artwork on them of varied types including geometric patterns, animals and birds, deities or even erotic scenes.
Last but not least simple Plebeian art can be found on many items of simple jewelry, usually of cheap bronze possibly coloured with glass enamels in simple geometric or stylised shapes.