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.
The painters of such work were by and large 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
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. Roman chroniclers mention 7 mineral colours and 9 mixed colours.
But if we wish to go into a little more detail of what was available during the age of Roman rule….
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) and 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.
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 his own particular area.
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