by Roderick Conway Morris

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National Archeological Museum, Naples
Philosopher with personifications of Macedonia and Persia from the Villa of Publius Fannius Sinistor, Boscoreale, near Pompeii, 1st century AD

The Art of an Empire

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 7 November 2009


Painting was more prized than sculpture by the ancient Greeks and Romans, and easel paintings more than frescoes, which were considered essentially decorative. Yet not a single easel painting of the kind described by Pliny the Elder in his encyclopedic 'Natural History' of the first century A.D. has come down to us. Accordingly, when it comes to understanding Roman painting, we are seemingly doomed to be equipped with only half the story.

An international group of experts led by Eugenio La Rocca has now confronted this obstacle in the exhibition 'Rome: The Painting of an Empire' by bringing together over 100 of the finest and most characteristic surviving examples of Roman painting, the majority of them frescoes, but suggesting a broader picture of painting in the ancient world despite the losses. Spanning more than four centuries, these works illustrate the principal genres, from mythological, religious and landscape painting to still life, the nude and portraiture, offering a panoramic view of unusual scope for a single exhibition.

While we do not have actual examples of ancient easel paintings, they appear in a number of frescoes. In the first room of the show, a mural from the House of the Criptoportico in Pompeii contains two of them - a religious scene and a still life of a basket of fruit and a live cockerel - with trompe l'oeil wooden doors folded back to reveal the images. Also here are some classic examples of mythological scenes - episodes from Homer's 'Odyssey' - from Rome and Pompeii, which display skillful handling of landscape and figure painting. Notably the artists have included shadows of figures and trees, a feature more common than often thought.

Julius Caesar is credited with starting the fashion for fine art exhibitions in public places and by the first century A.D. there were hundreds of works by famous Greek artists in the capital. Pliny the Elder certainly had the opportunity to study the paintings of more than 30 Greek artists he mentions in his 'Natural History.' Although fresco painting may have been considered more of a craft than an art, many of the practitioners were Greek and the most sophisticated of them undoubtedly drew inspiration from now lost easel paintings.

Landscape was a constant presence in Roman painting. Vitruvius lists as typical elements: 'ports, promontories, sea coasts, rivers, fountains, straits, groves, mountains, cattle and shepherds.' Pliny attributed the invention of this genre of painting to Studius (or Ludius), although rather than inventing it, he seems to have brought it to a new perfection. This artist could very well have been responsible for the marvelous landscapes found at Villa della Farnesina on the banks of the Tiber, and substantial sections of them can be seen here.

Painted alternatively on plain white and black backgrounds, framed by exquisitely delicate trompe l'oeil decorative architecture, the landscapes, buildings, human and animal images are sketched with deft Impressionistic brush strokes in pastel colors, creating an almost dream-like effect. These once adorned corridors and the walls of a dining room. The excellent lighting provided by the exhibition makes the frescoes rewardingly legible, but when seen by the flickering light of oil lamps in their original setting, they would perhaps have been even more elusively magical.

Tranquil landscape views came to reflect the peace and prosperity brought by the Emperor Augustus and his successors after decades of civil strife earlier in the first century B.C. This was also echoed in the popularity of still life images of abundant fruit, fish and fowl, another Greek genre that had its origins in the 'xenia,' the array of welcoming fruits graciously presented to guests.

Even more exuberant were the frescoes of Dionysus, often decorating dining rooms, celebrating food, wine and a convivial world of hedonistic myth. Mythological scenes could also be the occasion for the depiction of comely nude forms, some refined versions of which are on display here.

Much of what has been unearthed in the Vesuvian towns and plain was commissioned by only moderately well-off patrons and this is reflected in the modest level of the art. A stunning exception here is a more elaborate public painting from Herculaneum, a mythological scene of Hercules - the town's titular deity - and his son Telephus, for an Augusteum, or temple to the cult of the emperor. The model was evidently a Hellenic work from Pergamum and the sculptural quality of the figures, the elegant drapery, the command of detail and indeed the whole composition, give a tantalizing idea of what the best of ancient easel painting must have been like. Such standards were not reached again until the Renaissance.

The physiognomies of the protagonists of the Herculaneum fresco are clearly stylized, as befitted an allegorical image. But we know from literary sources how important was the making of more personal likenesses in the Roman imperial world. A remarkable survival of this portraiture is represented by the Fayyum mummy images from Egypt, pictures painted on wood, subsequently placed over the faces of their embalmed subjects. Preserved intact by the desert conditions, some of the most outstanding examples of these from European collections are on loan here.

The Fayyum portraits were painted in Egypt over a period of four centuries, but their subjects were consistently self-conscious members of the Roman imperial elite (including administrators, shipowners and senior military officers), as is demonstrated by their dress, jewelry and hairstyles - all following the fashions of the ruling family and the upper echelons of Roman society. That this high level of portraiture, unequaled until the Renaissance, was not just a local phenomenon, is supported by the presence here of some very rare miniatures from the Italian peninsula itself, preserved because they were engraved and painted on gold and encased in glass.

Rome. The Painting of an Empire. Scuderie del Quirinale, Rome. Through Jan. 17.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024