Roman Art V: Painting
by: P. Dionysius Mus

The modern viewer, whether expert or amateur, is apt to find painting the most exciting, as well as the most baffling, aspect of art under Roman rule. It is exciting because it represents the only large body of ancient painting after the Etruscan murals and because much of it, having come to life only in modern times, has the charm of the unfamiliar. Yet it remains baffling because we know much less about it than we do about Roman architecture or sculpture. The surviving material, with few exceptions, is severely limited in range. Almost all of the surviving examples consist of wall paintings, and the majority of these come from Pompeii and Herculaneum or from Roma and its environs. Their dates cover a span of less than 200 years, from the end of the second century BC to the late first century AD. Four phases of Roman wall painting have been distinguished, but the differences among them are not always clear, and there seems to have been considerable overlapping in their sequence. The earliest phase, known from a few examples of the late second century BC, must have been widespread in the Hellenistic world, since examples of it have also been found in the eastern Mediterranean. Unfortunately, it is not very informative, as it consists entirely of the imitation of colored marble paneling.

This so-called First Style began to be displaced by a far more ambitious and elaborate style that sought to open up the flat surface of the wall by means of illusionistic architectural perspectives and "window effects", including landscapes and figures. The architectural vistas typical of the Second Style are represented by figure 1. The artist is clearly a master of modeling and surface textures. The forms framing the vista have an extraordinary degree of three-dimensional reality. They effectively set off the distant view of buildings, which is flooded with light to convey a sense of free, open-air space. But as soon as we try to penetrate this architectural maze, we find ourselves lost. The individual structures cannot be disentangled from each other, and their size and relationship are obscure. We quickly realize that the Roman painter has no systematic grasp of spatial depth, that the perspective is haphazard and inconsistent within itself. Apparently we were never intended to enter this space.

The Third Style, from about 20BC until at least the middle of the first century AD, eschewed illusionism altogether in favor of essentially flat, decorative surfaces with broad planes of intense color sometimes relieved by imitation panel paintings. By contrast, the Fourth Style, which prevailed at the time of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, was the most intricate of all. It united aspects of all three preceding styles to extravagant effect. The Ixion Room in the House of the Vettii at Pompeii (figure 2) combines imitation marble paneling, conspicuously framed mythological scenes intended to give the effect of panel pictures set into the wall, and fantastic architectural vistas seen through make-believe windows, creating the effect of a somewhat disjointed compilation of motifs from various sources. This architecture has a strangely unreal and picturesque quality that is believed to reflect the architectural backdrops of the theaters of the time.

Portrait painting, according to Pliny, was an established custom in Republican Rome, serving the ancestor cult, as did the portrait busts discussed earlier. None of these panels has survived, and the few portraits found on the walls of Roman houses in Pompeii may well derive from a different, specifically Hellenistic, tradition. The only coherent group of painted portraits at our disposal comes instead from the Faiyum district in Lower Egypt. The earliest of them found so far seem to date from the second century AD. In our example (figure 3), the amazing freshness of its colors is due to the fact that it was done in a medium of great durability called encaustic, which means that the pigments are suspended in hot wax. At their best, these portraits have an immediacy and sureness of touch that have rarely been surpassed, thanks to the need to work quickly, before the hot wax set. Our dark-haired boy is as solid, sparkling, and lifelike a piece of reality as anyone might wish. The style of the picture becomes apparent only when we compare is with other Faiyum portraits. Since they were produced quickly and in large numbers, they tend to have many elements in common, such as the emphasis on the eyes, the placing of the highlights and shadows, and the angle from which the face is seen. Over time, these conventional elements stiffen into a fixed type, whereas here they merely furnish a flexible mold within which to cast individual likeness.

Clearly, the Roman artist, despite striving for illusionistic effects, is no more systematic in his approach to light than in the handling of perspective. However sensuously real the details, the work nearly always lacks a basic unifying element in its overall structure. In the finest examples, this lack is amply compensated for by other qualities, so that our observation must not be regarded as condemning the Roman artist to an inferior status. Like the preference for shallow illusionistic space, the absence of a consistent view of the visible world should be thought of instead as a fundamental characteristic that distinguishes Roman painting.
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