As far as the original works of classical antiquity are concerned, practically nothing has survived of the once large body of Greek panel and mural painting. The situation in regard to Roman painting is different primarily because of a single, cataclysmic act, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius on 24 August, 79 A.D. Examples of Roman wall painting were preserved in the burial of the ancient cities, which have subsequently been excavated.
The ancient city of Pompeii was not a small town by ancient standards, covering some 160 acres. It was situated on a small volcanic hill about 5-1/4 miles southeast of Vesuvius and was founded as an agricultural village perhaps as early as the 8th century B.C. Although Greek and Etruscan influences are evident in the early habitation layers, Pompeii was a Latin city from the late 5th century B.C.
After the Social War (91-88 B.C.), the city of Pompeii began to be influenced by Rome because it received Roman enfranchisement and also a colony of Roman army veterans. In particular, a strong Roman influence appeared in the architecture and wall painting.
At the time of its destruction, Pompeii was a prosperous town. It was a market for the produce of the rich Campanian country-side, a port with wide Mediterranean connections, and even an industrial center providing certain specialty products like wines, millstones, fish sauce, and perfumes, which supplied more than a local demand. With the eruption of 79 A.D., all of this ceased to exist, buried under 12 feet of lethal ash.
The survivors drifted away or were settled elsewhere, and what had been Pompeii became once again rich agricultural land. The knowledge that there had once been a town there lingered on in folk memory: in the 18th century, the area was still known as Civita (civitas, or "city"). But as far as the learned world was concerned, Pompeii had been wiped off the map. Since its rediscovery in 1748, excavations of varying intensity have continued and nearly four-fifths of the city has been uncovered.
A typical Pompeian house, such as the MIA fresco might have decorated, was essentially an inward-facing building, enclosed by bare walls and lit almost exclusively from within. Such a house stood flush with the sidewalk and its neighbors, with no open space between, in front, or in back; it embraced its own open space.
Through a narrow door, one entered a vestibule that led into the atrium. This was a large centrally lit hall, the roof of which sloped downward and inward toward a rectangular opening situated above a rectangular basin. Thus, it both admitted more light and helped to replenish the cisterns that were the house's principal water supply. Beyond the atrium was the peristyle, a rectangular, cloister-like, colonnaded courtyard which usually contained fountains and a garden. Around these two courts—one closed, one open—were grouped the other rooms of the house: the reception rooms, the dining room, and a series of small bed chambers and workrooms. Behind this complex a portico often led to a vegetable garden or orchard.
At every level of society, then, religion, was a matter of observance, not doctrine. By Cicero's time, the public face of religion was entirely in the hands of colleges of priests, prominent citizens who were elected or appointed to perform the proper ceremonials and rituals on behalf of the Unlike the Etruscans or the Greeks, the Romans placed less value on religious feelings, in terms of the mystic need to love and worship superhuman powers. Instead, traditional Roman religion was concerned with success: as Cicero remarks, "Jupiter is called the Best and Greatest not because he makes us just or sober or wise, but because he makes us healthy, rich and prosperous." As a result of this emphasis, the hierarchy of divinities worshipped in Rome differed from the assembly of easily recognized, individualized personages who made up the Greek pantheon. The Roman pantheon was something more abstract and utilitarian: it was an actual catalogue in which those who were interested could find the name of protective powers with special functions attributed to them and the rites which needed to be performed in order to purchase their favors. The Romans were a practical people, and they formed a religion which corresponded to their needs. Publicly, religion was kept up as a matter of state policy, and temples and statues were erected to the many gods worshipped throughout the Empire.
Privately a person might do as he or she chose, but most Romans were superstitious enough to choose something. It was important for them to feel sheltered from the perils which threatened either the group or the individual community they represented. Domestically the father of the family fulfilled the same office on behalf of the household under his care, offering daily prayers and gifts at the lararium or household shrine, within which were displayed the figures of the traditional household gods and of such other divinities as the family might hold in special honor. Here, too, were performed the rituals associated with important family events, such as a boy's coming of age. These simple rituals were a part of daily life that no prudent Roman would have willingly neglected, good and evil fortune being considered active forces that had to be no less actively fostered or diverted. Few, if any, classical sites can equal Pompeii for the light they throw on religion at this popular level. The household shrines that are such a prominent feature of the houses (over 500 were recorded in a 1937 archaeological survey) represent religion at its simplest level, where it operated as a part of everyday life.
Chief among the important household deities was Vesta, a virgin who was the goddess of fire and a symbol of idealized maternity because fire nourishes. Next came the genius of the head of the household, the presiding creative force believed to have engendered that individual. The Penates and Lares were other deities, protectors of the family's prosperity, preservers of food and drink. For the worship of these spiritual beings, shrines and altars were set up in various parts of the dwelling with votive statuettes and/or paintings representing them.
CULT OF THE LARES
The cult of the Lares became universal throughout the Roman world. Rather amorphous characters sexually, they are always represented as youthful deities but vary in characteristics that may be described as masculine or feminine. The earlier representations of the Lares had masculine characteristics. Later artistic depictions modified these aspects or even turned toward the feminine. By the 1st century A.D., the date of the Minneapolis fresco, hermaphroditic qualities were present in the artistic depictions of the Lares. (Note the suggestion of breasts on this figure.)
Though worshipped as protectors of the house in Roman times, the Lares were originally Etruscan divinities of locality.1 Within the Roman pantheon, like most Roman deities, they have no proper mythology. The stories outlining their specific divine origins are quite late and conflicting. There are two principal theories as to the origin of the Lares. One suggests that they were the ghosts of the dead. Whenever a bit of food fell on the floor during a meal, it was burnt before the Lares. Since the floor was a notorious haunt of ghosts and the food had gone to the ghosts' region, it was formally given to the ghosts. The Lares were also propitiated at the Compitalia, or festival of the crossroads, and ghosts supposedly had a fondness for crossroads as well.
The second theory emphasizes that the Roman dead, while often commemorated by busts and other statues, were not formally honored in the home but at their graves. In this view, the connection of the Lares to the Compitalia also takes on another aspect. A compitum, or crossroads, was originally a place where the paths separating four farms met. The Lares were then celebrated as guardians of the farmlands at these places, and their rites were, thus, in the nature of a purification, not a sacrifice. Eventually, their worship expanded from the farms and came into the houses, where they joined the circle of Vesta, the Penates, and various genii as protective deities.
FRESCO (Wall Painting)
The wall paintings found in the excavated ancient cities around Mt. Vesuvius are the most important documents for our knowledge of Roman painting because few frescoes survive in Rome itself, and ancient panel paintings have completely disappeared. This scarcity of material makes it extremely difficult to reconstruct the history of Roman painting. Few literary works have survived which comment on the techniques and styles of ancient wall painting, and the remarks of Roman writers like Vitruvius and the Elder Pliny describe art of a higher quality than that reflected in the more popular representations of the artistic examples from Pompeii. Therefore, although the paintings from the ancient cities around Mt. Vesuvius have been taken as typical of the general production at that time, we must remember that these are provincial examples, probably of lesser quality than those found in Rome itself.
The two major literary sources for information on ancient painting, Vitruvius and the Elder Pliny, also provide the best evidence on plaster and wall preparation. The plaster used by the Romans for architectural work was based on lime because it set slowly to produce a hard durable surface suitable for painting if so desired. (Lime plaster is also referred to as stucco.) Since lime itself does not occur naturally, it has to be obtained by the calcination of one of the calcium carbonates (calcite and its more massive varieties limestone, marble, and chalk). When any of these compounds is heated, carbon dioxide is released, and the material is converted into quicklime (calcium oxide). When it is broken up and receives sufficient water, this material gives off considerable heat and then crumbles into a white powder (slaked lime). The addition of more water and a type of grit to this powder produces the mortar and plaster used in wall construction. The grit added may take several forms depending on geographical location and the availability of materials: fine river sand, marble and alabaster dust, pozzolana or volcanic sand (especially around Pompeii). As the mixture dries, the material takes carbon dioxide from the air and reverts back to what it was at the beginning of the cycle: calcium carbonate.
The ancient authors do not agree in regard to the proportions of stucco ingredients—probably each craftsman had his own favored proportions of sand and lime for the variety of plasters necessary in construction. Here, too, there is a variance in practice: Vitruvius recommends at least three coats each of sand mortar and powdered marble stucco, as does the Elder Pliny. In reality, this technique occurs in only very wealthy residences, and at Pompeii the normal procedure apparently required only two or three layers, the lower one or two comprised of lime and sand with a surface layer of lime and calcite.
Regardless of the number of layers used, the surface was prepared for painting after the plaster application. Paintings of poorer quality or lesser expense were applied to the rough plaster surface. However, more effort and expense were dedicated to higher quality paintings before their application. The fine plaster surface layer was smoothed and polished with a stone burnisher or marble roller. The colors were then painted on to the plaster surface while it was still damp. This method is known as true fresco since it uses water as the vehicle for the pigments. Such paintings are quite durable because the pigments become bound to the plaster itself as it dries and the calcium carbonate crystals form. Background color was always applied to wet plaster, but detail could be added to the wall when it was either wet or dry. Some paintings (although not the MIA fresco) were polished again after paint application, and this accounts for some fuzziness in the lines and the absence of brushmarks. The speed of the painters was once thought to be vital to the successful fresco decoration. It is now believed that wall plaster dries more slowly than previously imagined, especially if it consists of numerous layers. When plaster was, indeed, too dry for the true fresco technique, it could be removed from the wall and replaced with fresh plaster, thus, allowing the painter to finish his work. The tempera technique enabled the artist to add details to a dried plaster background. Mixing a pigment with egg or honey for application of wet plaster was also done for colors like carbon black whose greasy nature made its use difficult with water alone.
The pigments used in Roman wall painting were obtained from mineral, vegetable, and animal sources. Colors such as the ochres were easily obtainable from widespread sedimentary rock deposits, but others could only be isolated from rarer heavy metals and were, therefore, expensive to use in painting. Substitutes were found or chemically made to overcome the scarcity and expense of these mineral pigments.
The same was the case for the expensive vegetable pigments, like indigo, and certain animal pigments, like Tyrian purple, a dye obtained from a species of sea mollusk.
The standing deity illustrated on this fresco fragment is a Lar, an ancient Roman household deity. The cult of the Lares was widespread throughout the Roman Empire, and nearly every household contained at least one lararium
, a shrine consisting of a mural painting and/or small bronze sculptures representing these deities.
The identification of this standing figure can be made with confidence based on the evidence of the pastoral scene in addition to the subject's pose, dress, and accessories. The deity holds a horn, a rhyton, in its upraised hand and pours liquid into a bucket, a situla, in its lowered hand. The knee-length tunic, swirling pallium, and tall fringed leather boots, in this case, with open toes, also help to identify our figure as a Lar.
Although it can stand on its own as an individual work of art, the Lar was originally part of a larger wall mural. This is evident by the fragmentary nature of the leafy green bough at the top of the fresco, which was more extensively draped over the longer scene, and the hints of vegetation on the lateral parts of the brown ground line still visible in pale brown and red.
Another figure of a Lar very much like the MIA example remains in situ in a kitchen in Pompeii. Its pose is a mirror image of the MIA figure and the major colors of the costume are reversed. This suggests that the fragment in our collection may have been part of that same mural, and therefore located in a kitchen.
The painting is on white ground, and the background has not been painted, except for the green festoon above and the brown earth below the standing figure. The broad watercolor brushstrokes in the festoon and the soil are well attested to in other Pompeian wall murals. The ancient artist even added some darker strokes to the brown soil to indicate the shadow cast by the standing figure. The flesh tones on the painting are even in color but subtly lightened in spots (knees, forearms, and shoulders) to imitate the sun's reflection. The reddish tunic with blue trim clings to the figure's breasts, waist, and part of the thighs, while part flaps in the air, appropriate for thin material in a stiff breeze. These folds and undulations are smoothly distinguished by careful shading and highlights. The green pallium swirls behind the deity and loops around the lowered left hand. This drapery swirl, which almost produces a halo effect, is well-documented in other Pompeian wall paintings. It provides an excellent contrast to the serene facial expression and stylized pose. The figure's face consists of fine features: a small mouth, straight nose, and large eyes. This face is framed by tight, wavy curls and surmounted by the delicate leaves of a woven wreath. The quality of the painting is quite high overall.
The red tunic of the figure on the Minneapolis fresco could have been produced by a pigment made of either cinnabar or hematite. The blue trim of the tunic was probably created by a pigment artificially prepared from copper, silica, and calcium. Blue could also be obtained from ultramarine or azurite. Indigo was also a more expensive possibility, but woad, a plant of the mustard family, was more readily available as a substitute. The green of the figure's pallium, as well as the leaves of the wreath and festoon, was commonly obtained from a pigment known as terre verte, made up of the two main minerals glanconite and celadonite. Malachite and verdigris were more rarely used as green pigments due to their comparative expense. The various shades of brown on the Minneapolis fresco, from the figure's boots, hair, and eyes down to the soil it stands on, were probably derived from sinopis, a red-brown ochre, and brown umber. Lighter flesh tones were often produced by the yellow pigments, such as yellow ochre, a natural pigment composed of clay and silica. These colors could be altered by adding various amounts of iron oxide. The black and gray colors on all paintings, visible in the horn and bucket here, were most commonly produced by a pigment made from carbon. White, visible in the eyes of the figure, usually came from lime white, a pigment prepared by the grinding and slaking of calcined marble or oyster shells.
The painting is dated after 50 A.D. and probably closer to 70 A.D. on the basis of its hermaphroditic character, the robust style of the painting, and the vibrant choice of colors.
(The above information is taken largely from Michael Anderson's article in The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin, LXIV: 94-103.)
Use on the following tours:
- Ancient Art of the Mediterranean
- How Was It Made? (as a method of painting)
Compare to the paintings of our Greek vases or the Egyptian Book of the Dead
for different effects of color and movement.
Discuss this protective figure in the context of examples from other cultures:
- a Christian saint
- the Kota reliquary figure from Gabon
- a Japanese Guardian, such as that by Joga or the Nio Guardian Figures
Use to discuss one aspect of Roman religion together with:
- the Cinerary Urn
- the Roman Portrait of an Older Woman
- John Ward-Perkins and Amanda Claridge, Pompeii AD 79: Treasures from the National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Vol. II (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1978), p. 190.