The palette of Roman colors and painting methods evolved over time. Painting in ancient Rome and in particular frescoes (or Frescos) were a favourite method of interior decoration. This was particularly evident in the houses of the rich, but there are also instances of lower quality paintings in poorer settings.
The art of ancient Roman painting was initially inherited from the Etruscans who in the the 8th century already had a highly developed culture, at around the same time as the mythical founding of Rome. The painted surfaces were typically within a religious or votive context on surfaces such as plastered walls or on pottery. Nothing remains of Etruscan housing and a few remains have been found of their temples but there are many beautiful examples of ancient Etruscan painting found in tombs.
Foreign influence and styles in ancient Roman painting
There are evident developments and styles in ancient Roman art, though given the limited samples, it can be said that the classification is broad and general. During the Roman Republic, trade, dominions and influence grew out towards southern Italy and beyond. This brought increasing contact and influence from the art of other nations. Contact with the Greek colonies in southern Italy meant an immediate Greek influence on Roman painting, the same way that it also influenced Roman literature, theatre and music.
Agrowing economy, mercantile trade, urbanisation and growing literacy created a fertile art market and appreciation for painting. Painting was particularly useful as a means of decorating ancient Roman houses and other interiors such as food shops and even brothels. Interiors were otherwise relatively dark in nature because windows were generally small, partly for security reasons and also because Roman window glass was a later development.
Pompeii has been a great source of evidence of ancient Roman painting. On the positive side, it was in a region favoured by the Roman elite, and hence implying a significant demand, an inflow of money and access to the skills and resources. We should not forget however that the Pompeii samples are from a single instance of a secondary market town and from a specific point in time, to which a number of prestigious other upper class samples can be added.
The painters of such work were by and large roman immigrants, slaves and foreigners likely of Greek background but as with all situations where artists find themselves in a market thriving in liquidity and commissions much innovation followed. The art produced was a mixture of the artists’ abilities and the purchaser’s tastes so that a great variety of work was produced and innovation ensued. Some examples of innovation in ancient roman art and painting include the introduction of landscapes and idyllic settings, often with small figures dominated by the monumental setting (also mentioned by Vitruvius in De Architectura), another example might include still life work (I have no references or proof – it’s a suggestion worth following up!), not to mention the love of portraiture such as is seen in various techniques, for example gold leaf portraiture on glass or encaustic (wax) on wood such as found in north Africa, not to mention the portraits on fresco in Pompeii are all amazing.
As is always the case, some artistic innovations had their detractors, for example Vitruvius wasn’t very taken with the growing appreciation for fantasy creatures and settings which became increasingly frequent in 3rd and 4th style Roman painting.
Ancient Roman colours and palettes
Roman chroniclers mention 7 mineral colours and 9 mixed colours. The principal colours used by the Romans for their paintings were ocre (an earthy yellow), blue (very difficult/expensive to make), 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.
The early Roman painting palette of colours with some Egyptian inspiration
The earliest palette was made of basic earthy colours:
red earth (called Burnt Siena during the Renaissance),
yellow earth (Raw Siena, a Renaissance name and colour actually)
carbon black (charcoal).
By the fourth millennium BC Egyptian artists had increased the range of this basic pallette to include some bright colours, especially
malachite (green) and
azurite (blue) obtained by crushing the minerals.
Brighter forms of red extracted from cinnabar (a type of rock) and
yellow made from arsenic.
Egyptian artists also added a range of vegetable dyes as well as other ground materials such as glass.
Later developments in Roman color
Greek artists added other colours to this range including colours such as red, white and green from Lead and Copper salts.
The available pallette at the time of the Romans would therefore have been something like the following:
Black, Lead White, Chalk white, Raw Siena, Burnt Siena, Malachite green, Azurite (like French Ultramarine blue), Cinnabar red, Orpiment yellow, Cerulean blue (the name comes from the latin for sky), Indigo, Rose Madder, Verdigris green and Vermilion (a good component for painting skin tones especially if mixed with a little Burnt Siena and Orpiment Yellow.
Clearly the more brilliant colours tended to be the most expensive and difficult to manufacture. The colours were extremely durable because of the fresco technique utilised to apply them to the surface (usually a wall with fresh plaster). Some examples available today, such as the garden painted in the villa of Livia at the gates of Rome, or the Boscoreale villa removed to the Metropolitan museum are still astounding for their brilliance and variety of shades notwithstanding the effects of time.
Painting Techniques of the Ancient Romans
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 achieved from a long process of soaking the lime. 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 a particular area. This is a great example of the level of Job Specialisation and development of ancient Roman jobs.