by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Archeological Museum, Naples
Riot at the Amphitheatre in Pompeii, c.59 AD

The Chaos and Color of the Ancient World

By Roderick Conway Morris
RIMINI, Italy 27 June 1998


In 59 A.D., as Tacitus recorded in his 'Histories,' a fight broke out among rival fans at a gladiatorial contest in the circus at Pompeii.

Dozens of spectators were killed and injured, and the games at Pompeii were banned by the consuls for 10 years.

A vivid popular painting of the event, showing the mayhem on the terraces spilling over into the streets around the circus, has come to light on a wall at Pompeii - the site that has proved the greatest single source of our knowledge of painting in the ancient world.

This nearly 2,000-year-old snapshot of antique hooliganism is one of more than 170 exhibitions that have been brought from all over Italy to the medieval city hall in Rimini for the fascinating 'Roman Painting: From the Beginnings to the Byzantine Age' (which continues until Aug. 30).

Rimini is now chiefly known as a seaside resort, but the old town has a fine Roman bridge and triumphal arch, not to mention Alberti's Tempio Malatestiano church, a milestone in the Renaissance revival of the principals of classical architecture. Inevitably, many of the works on display are detached frescoes from the towns buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 and kept now at the Naples Archaeological Museum, which is still, alas, closing parts of sections and whole sections without warning. That makes the Rimini show particularly welcome, a blissful opportunity to see some of these exceptional pieces.

Time, the elements and the cleaning of ancient buildings, statues and artifacts have left us with a bleached and sanitized version of ancient Greece and Rome. In reality, as numerous discoveries and more scientific archaeology have revealed, the visual scene then was infinitely more chaotic and colorful than a visit to the average museum and monument would suggest.

The full color, even garishness, of the Roman urban environment was finally exposed by the unearthing of Pompeii and its neighboring sites. External walls were a riot of shop signs, advertisements, election slogans and random graffiti; even cemeteries did not escape the attentions of roving political propagandists, sports fans and amateur pen and brush artists.

In an attempt to deter vandals, one tomb at Pompeii has the minatory curse: 'Writer, pass this monument by. Any candidate who dares to put his name here will fail utterly and never be elected to any office.'

Courtyards were liberally decorated with images ranging from a ferocious-looking dog at an inn to deter troublemakers to elaborate garden and mythological scenes in the entrance ways of the houses of the well-to-do. Interiors, too, were filled with color, from simple overpainting of plaster in humbler dwellings to the elaborate fake marble and polychrome stucco and narrative fresco cycles in the mansions of the rich.

Statues were also routinely painted, and the show includes some telling surviving examples, including the so-called Venus in Bikini, from the Naples Museum, which retains not only remains of the tinting in her hair, lip rouge, gold necklace and bracelet, but also painted-on, semi-see-through, gold lamé brassiere, basque and knickers, evidently added not so much to cover the goddesses' charms as to increase her allure.

Although the vast majority of paintings that have come down to us are frescoes, this medium was not held in the esteem it later achieved. Easel painting, usually on wood, inspired by Greek originals that found their way to Italy, seems universally to have been regarded as the acme of the painter's art, while making frescoes was viewed as a semi-art, semi-craft activity.

At the upper end of the market there were both men and women practitioners - indeed one of the Pompeii frescoes on display depicts a female painter at work in her studio - and their products were hung on the walls or displayed on easels in the homes of the prosperous and shown at exhibitions and public galleries promoted by wealthy connoisseurs.

The refinement of composition, drawing skills and brushwork of this high art, not to be equaled again until the Renaissance, is well illustrated here by two exquisitely delicate paintings on marble from Herculaneum.

Famous paintings were avidly copied by fresco painters and mosaicists, who in this capacity offered a similar service to print and poster manufacturers today, making masterpieces available to a wider public. That exactly the same picture could turn up in both popular media is nicely demonstrated here by near identical scenes of street musicians, one in more durable mosaic from Pompeii and a later one in fresco from Stabia.

Portraiture as well reached a level of sophistication that was not matched for hundreds of years, even though, with the exception of the marvelous Fayum portraits from Egypt, very little has survived of the very best productions on wood.

Happily, however, in some cases the talents of the painters of frescoes were such that we can glimpse at least how fine and psychologically probing these Roman portraits could be.

Some beautiful pictures in inlaid marble are also included, and painted books, which thrived as an art form particularly after the rise of Christianity.

Something of a lacuna, though forgivable given the abundance of excellent material here, is the absence of erotic art, which was well-nigh ubiquitous in the imperial Roman world.

It was by no means featured only in brothels, but also in the locker rooms of the most exclusive baths where the most upright of Roman matrons went to perform their ablutions and socialize. Even the bedrooms of respectable married couples might well be enlivened with explicit sexual paintings.

For, as Roman painting more than any other art form demonstrates, the Romans had very few hang-ups about sex - though most Romans had equally few hang-ups about watching men kill each other in the arena, or runaway slaves, condemned criminals and, in due course, Christians being mauled to death by wild animals.

Curiously enough, while celebrated gladiators were seen as worthy subjects for art, the other cruel and bloody activities that took place in the circus received little attention, even from popular painters reflecting everyday events.

Except, of course, in a case like that of Pompeii in 59, when the spectators started killing each other.

But given the decade-long suspension that earned Pompeii, that really was news.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024