Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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
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.
The Third Style remained popular for quite some time until new tastes emerged around 50 AD. For the people of Pompeii, it was the last time they would get to develop a new style of art. The Fourth Style blended illusions from the earlier styles with the abstraction of the third style. In these murals, linear, architectural designs cover walls, but the little windows showing views of the outside world reappear. Except this time, the windows don't show actual scenes of Pompeii, but random, and sometimes impossible, views of architecture, landscapes, and people. The Fourth Style was somewhat chaotic, using spatial illusions without any logical order or sense. It was, however, very popular. When Vesuvius exploded in 79 AD, this is how most houses in Pompeii were decorated.
The ancient Roman city of Pompeii suddenly made history when, in 79 AD, it was buried in ash during the eruption of the nearby volcano, Mount Vesuvius. This was pretty terrible for the people of Pompeii, but for archaeologists, this meant that the entire city was essentially frozen in time, undisturbed for over a thousand years. And this means that we can tell what kind of art they used to decorate their homes.
The First Style of wall murals created the illusion of marble panels. The Second Style created elaborate wall-sized illusions of spatial depth with scenes of people or landscapes. The Third Style was characterized by flat areas of color with linear, architectural designs and small, detailed landscapes. The Fourth Style, the last of those found at Pompeii, mixes illusionary spatial depth with randomly placed figures or scenes to create a distinct and somewhat chaotic impression. It's not every day that we get such a clear look into the fashions and styles of ancient people. But, hey, that's what makes Pompeii so famous.
Work through the lesson with these objectives in mind:
- Remember the way in which Pompeii came to be covered in ash and left undisturbed for a thousand years
- Recognize the importance of this preservation to archaeology
- Expound upon the four styles of Pompeii murals
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