Mural Paintings in Pompeii: Subject, Style & Technique

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

When archaeologists uncovered the city of Pompeii, which had been buried in volcanic ash for over 1,000 years, they discovered four styles of mural paintings. Learn about the First Style, Second Style, Third Style, and Fourth Style of wall murals. Updated: 11/04/2021


Have you ever wanted to be so famous that people would remember you 2,000 years in the future? Be careful what you wish for. The people of the ancient Roman city Pompeii are certainly remembered, but their fame came at an outstanding cost.

In 79 AD, a nearby volcano, Mt. Vesuvius, erupted, blacking out the sky with hundreds of tons of ash and soot. In a single day, several cities, including Pompeii, were buried so deep that they remained untouched for 1,700 years until archaeologists began to excavate them. It was a pretty bad day for the people of Pompeii, but for archaeologists, it was a chance to see what a Roman city looked like, frozen in time.

There are some incredible things that have been found in Pompeii, but amongst the most incredible are the wall murals, or frescoes. Since they were never repainted or replaced after styles changed, we can see what sort of art the ancient Romans used to decorate their homes and businesses. Pretty sweet for us and not so great for the people of Pompeii.

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  • 0:01 Pompeii
  • 1:07 The First & Second Style
  • 2:46 Third & Fourth Styles
  • 4:02 Lesson Summary
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The First and Second Style

The various murals in Pompeii can be categorized into four distinct styles. In the same way that we decorate our homes, certain styles became fashionable for a while and then were replaced by new styles. The First Style at Pompeii is characterized by murals painted to imitate marble walls. Marble was expensive, and only the wealthiest people could afford to build a home with marble. So, what do you do if you can't afford to build in marble? You paint your walls to look like marble! This style was originally found in ancient Greece but became popular in Italy from roughly the 2nd century BC on.

First Style
mural designed to look like marble

After around 80 BC, styles changed. The First Style was never completely abandoned, but more people started using the Second Style, which used large scenes to suggest optical illusions. More specifically, these paintings were meant to create the impression that there was no wall and that the room extended farther than it did. There were a few ways to do this.

One was with scenes of people, like this one:

Second Style, People
mural of people sitting in front of wall

In this image, the figures seem like they are in the same room as the viewer, and the wall is behind them. Other times, scenes of nature or the city appeared, to imply that there was no wall at all - just a nice view of the outside.

Second Style, View of Outside
mural of view of outside

Now, nobody was really fooled by these illusions; that wasn't the point. The point was to show off high artistic skill in the realistic representation of people and space. Tricks to create realistic depth, like 'foreshortening' and even earlier attempts at linear perspective, are abundant. After the fall of Rome, these techniques wouldn't reappear until the Italian Renaissance.

Third and Fourth Styles

Third Style
mural of tree

Around the year 15 BC, fashions changed again, leading to the Third Style. This style did not include wall-sized illusions of space but small, intricate and detailed landscapes and linear patterns on solid-color backgrounds. This was drastically different from the first and second styles, which were all about denying the presence of the real wall.

Fourth Sytle

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