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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Roman Painting

House of the Vetti, Pompeii
Having dealt at considerable length with great paintings from the last thousand years, I guess I should give at least some time to painting from the thousand years or so before that. Aside from some cave painting and that which the Greeks saw fit to decorate their ceramics, most of the rest of the history of painting can be summed up in that dating from the Roman Empire. And even here there is precious little of it from the BCE period. However, thanks to the Roman art of fresco painting, some minor earthquakes, and an unfortunately volcanic eruption near the Roman towns of Pompeii and Heraculeum, we do have barely enough two-dimensional art preserved for posterity to enable us to catch a glimpse of what Roman artists had to offer in the way of painting.

Domus Aurea ceiling, Nero's palace, Fabbulus,
Rome, first century CE.
Even by today's standards, it was surprisingly good. Roman artists had an excellent grasp of one-point perspective, even to the point of painting fool-the-eye architectural features on the frescoed walls of some of their finer homes. The newly restored Room of Masks in the House of Augusta has a theater scene expertly depicting a stage, curtains, columns, topped by a pagoda style roof. A similar wall in the House of the Vetti in Pompeii (above, left) has a painted window niche replete with a still-life on the sill and featuring a very deep illusionary perspective while the surrounding area is highly decorated with delicate, flowering vines and ivy. Near the end of the fifteenth century, the remains of the Domus Aurea, the palace of our friend the fiddling-firebug, Emperor Nero, was discovered beneath the Baths of Trajan. The vaults were heavily decorated by a painter named Fabbulus (above right), who apparently lived up to his name, painting in a manner to suggest marine grottos (as well as their supposed flora and fauna) found along the Italian coast of the Aegean Sea. The fifteenth century Italians loved it, and imitated it in what came to be know as the "Grotesque" style.

Roman couple from first century
However, one of the most interesting and striking paintings from the Roman era is a fresco dating from the first century CE of a man and woman, thought by some to be the lawyer Terentius Neus and his wife.  Others have held him to be the baker, Paquius Proculus and wife whose Pompeii shop was next door to the house where the portrait was found. In any case, the only slightly stylized features give us a good feel for not only their appearance and the state of the art insofar as Roman portrait painting is concerned, but a surprising degree of insight into their personalities. She thoughtfully clutches a stylus and a wax tablet used to keep records, while he holds a rolled scroll. Their eyes are somewhat exaggerated. Her features are otherwise quite delicate, his typically Roman with the prominent nose associated with his race. Both appear quite attractive and learned. It's probably not the greatest painting of the first thousand years in the history of art, but it's a good representative piece attesting to the considerable skills and highly developed artist's eye of Roman painters of the time.

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