Preserved by layers of volcanic ash, the ancient city of Pompeii has been an invaluable resource for the study of the daily life of people of all classes during the early Roman Empire. Although the city itself was not of particular importance and was only mentioned in passing by Roman historians, Pompeii nevertheless remains the best source of information about Roman wall painting for art historians and scholars of Roman culture. Despite the centuries of research done on Pompeii since the town was first discovered in the mid 17th century, virtually no spatial analysis has been done in regards to the locations of wall paintings within the city. This project explores the locations of wall paintings within regio VI, the richest area of the city, looking for areas that show predominately one type of painting over another, and possible reasons why the spatial pattern present exists.
Although the houses in Pompeii appear to be made of bare stone and brick, almost all of the houses were once plastered and painted. Romans liked to imitate stonework and precious materials by creating elaborate frescoes. Most of the paintings followed rules. There was a “symmetrical division (of a wall to be painted) into three, five, or occasionally two vertical sections” and these paintings were generally in full view of the guests of the house since furniture was much more sparse in the Roman home than what we are accustomed to today (Stroka 302).
Wall painting within Pompeii has been used by art historians to construct a history of Roman wall painting styles, first identified by the German archaeologist August Mau (Strocka 304). First style wall paintings contain blocks of color, which imitate precious marbles. Each block is usually of a single color, but the colors are bright, such as ocher, red, dark green, and on occasion blue (Stroka 306). Occasionally this style incorporates architectural details like cornices (Strocka 305). These are the oldest wall paintings from the third to second centuries BC, and there are the fewest number of these paintings surviving in Pompeii. Stroka suggests that these paintings may have produced “the illusion of fabulous wealth and the playful distribution of structural elements that far surpassed reality,” a purpose which remains the same throughout the four styles of Roman wall painting (Stroka 305). The second peristyle of the House of the Faun contains an example of the first style of wall painting, which archaeologists have dated to 100 BC (Stroka 305).
Second style wall paintings, assigned a date from 100-20 BC, contain architectural vistas, some of which are quite complex. The scenes shown are “colonnades, peristyle courts, gardens, the sea or distant blue sky” (Strocka 308), or alternatively contain a “framed central painting,” generally on a mythological topic (Stroka 303). Garden paintings were common in large peristyles but could also be found in cubicula (Stroka 304). These paintings did not have single vanishing points, but used multiple vanishing points in order to show different viewpoints looking on the scene (Strocka 308).
Third style wall paintings, created during the period of 20 BC to AD 40, contain narrow, spindly columns framing blocks of color and architectural vistas towards the ceilings of the rooms, which are less realistic than the second-style wall paintings (Strocka 311). Sometimes the architecture shows “finely detailed ornaments of crystalline patterns or stylized plants and blossoms,” but these are placed in such a way that they do not impede with the “simplicity” and “strict symmetry” of the room, elements for which these wall paintings have been called “classicizing” (Strocka 313). Third style wall paintings also contain vignettes which depict mythological themes, landscapes, or gardens, but these are much smaller than in the second style.
Fourth style wall paintings are the most common in Pompeii, and are the most problematic to art historians, because they are a “mix” of the different styles. The simplicity of the third style is replaced by a profusion of colors and contrasts. Common elements are “undulating plants, animals, [. . .] [and] the filigree “embroidery” border” (Strocka 315). Anything goes in this style, which features fanciful architectural vistas, lavish jeweled columns, and grand mythological themes. This style features so much detail that it is very hard to look at one of these paintings and not be overwhelmed – they are designed to impress visitors.
Despite the clear intent to show off wealth with third and fourth style wall paintings, it is not clear if they belonged to rich freemen who made their fortunes in trade, or patricians from the upper crust of Roman society. The “newness” of the paintings and the nods to Greek mythology do not adhere to Roman traditions, which they referred to as the mos maiorum, or the way of the ancestors. Because of the sumptuousness of this style of art, and the criticism of excessive luxury by many prominent citizens such as Pliny the Elder and Cicero, conservative patricians may not have wanted these styles of painting in their homes. Plutrarch’s Satyricon satirized the newly rich Romans who may have preferred such gaudy scenes by creating the rich ex-slave Trimalchio who can’t help but display his bad taste.
Theoretical Approach and General Expectations
To approach this problem, I knew that I had to take into account the tectonic environment surrounding Pompeii, and other ways that Romans showed luxury, such as the presence of marble and atria. Marble is a particularly interesting case. Some uses of marble were acceptable, such as marble public statuary of heroic individuals. However, colored marble was considered to be ultra-luxurious and crude, the behavior of the nuevo-rich. The 1st century CE philosopher Pliny the Elder considered marble to be immoral, explaining in his work Natural History that “...the first man in Rome to cover whole walls with marble veneer […] was Julius Caesar’s chief engineer in Gaul," a Roman commoner who doubtlessly had grown wealthy from Caesar's personal war in Gaul. Even the mention of Julius Caesar would have caused the Roman elite to grit their teeth, because Caesar had flouted the conventions of the Senate and the aristocracy of Rome -- the behavior that had eventually led to civil war in Rome between Caesar's popularism and the Senate ultraconservatives who hated "New Men" and anything which broke with Roman tradition. Pliny continues his diatribe against marble and the nuevo-riche by commenting "that [the fad of marble interiors] was promoted by such a man makes it an object of contempt.” (Natural History book 36, section 48)
For the Romans, the atrium was the place where a successful man would meet his clientes, lower class citizens whom he sponsored. In turn, an aristocrat's clientes provided favors for the aristocrat when asked. In order to have clients, a Roman needs to be rich -- and the atrium / house need to be large. Therefore, the presence of an atrium should be an indication of the wealth and status of the home owner. My expectation is that there will be few if any atria in regio VI for two reasons: first, Pompeii was a decent place to live but never an "it" spot in the Roman world. The nearby town of Stabiae, for example, was more fashionable. Second, after the 62 CE earthquake which severely damaged Pompeii, very few wealthy and aristocratic Romans had a reason to remain there when all of the amenities of civilized life, such as the temples, the forum, and the public baths -- had all been destroyed during the earthquake. Nevertheless, for the non-aristocratic Romans who sullied themselves by engaging in commerce, there was plenty of money to be made during the rebuilding process.
From the background research that I did before engaging in this project, this is what I believe happened in Pompeii and what I expect to find from the distribution.
Instead of rebuilding, the rich people moved out of Pompeii to luxury properties in other towns, and the homes were sold off to bargain hunters, or people who intended to subdivide the homes and make a profit. The new homeowners wouldn't be part of the aristocratic or semi-aristocratic portion of Roman society, but just people who had a little bit of money and wanted to live in a really nice home, albeit a fixer-upper or in a town which didn't have many working amenities anymore, such as baths and temples and a forum. These mansions were decorated with fantastic wall paintings, which the original owners could not take with them, and even the subdivided units were likely to have a wall-painting or two.
Romans are a notoriously class-conscious society, and the new owners probably took pride in their fantastic new homes. Some even added to them -- with lower quality art, or art that was considered tasteless by snooty aristocratic Romans because of its sumptuousness. However, the new home owners in Pompeii weren't of the social class to know that. Instead, they saw a piece of the good life, even though the upper class Romans looked down their noses at these pretenders. The phenomenon of aristocratic Romans loathing the nuevo-rich Romans (and "uppity" Roman freedmen) is attested to Petronius' comedy The Satyricon, which tells the story of Trimalchio, a rich ex-slave who can't help but show his uncouth nature despite his attempts to fit in with the cream of Roman society. Trimalchio is attracted to all things ostentatious: "fourth style" wall paintings certainly fit the bill next to their more austere fore-bearers, especially when compared to the simple "first style" of wall painting. Even owning a small portion of one of these houses was a taste of upper-class life that was normally completely out of the average Roman's reach. . The presence of atriums in these small houses is explained if the newcomers were "aping" the richest Romans, whose discarded homes they now occupied. Even in today's society people always emulate the rich, hence the profusion of knock-off designer backs, and "rolex" watches that some people playfully refer to as "folexes" (faux rolexes). Although most people don't look too harshly at people who have clothes and bags that imitate the style of the rich, for the pedigreed, aristocratic Romans (especially those who had fallen on poor times) it presented a serious threat to their self-image and conservative class power.
I first took into account the tectonic environment surrounding Pompeii. The preservation of one type of wall painting over another could have been affected by the location of Mt. Vesuvius and the faults in Italy. I acquired tectonic data of Italy and plotted it against the location of Mt. Vesuvius. My next step was to digitize the insulae (city blocks) of regio VI, to calculate the areas of the properties in regio VI, and then to attach attribute information to each of the properties, which contained the name of the property (if it had one), the preservation condition of the property (intact or ruinous), the presence of wall paintings in any of the four styles, the presence of other luxury goods, and the presence of an atrium. Then I ran an analysis to see what areas of regio VI were the most damaged in comparison to the location of the volcano. This was a useful visual aid for understanding the distribution of wall paintings, for the lack of wall paintings in areas that were in a ruinous condition could be due to the eruption of Vesuvius or any of the many earthquakes that the area has experienced.
Damaged Areas Map -- the greatest damage seems to be in the areas located the closest to Mt. Vesuvius, but because regio VI is the closest region of the city to the volcano, and the closest to Italy's tectonic faults, most of the insulae had at least one building in a ruinous condition.
First style wall paintings -- I had previously believed that first style wall paintings would have been the rarest in regio VI, since they were considered to be the rarest in the city. However, this map shows otherwise.
Second style wall paintings-- second style wall paintings appear to be the rarest in regio VI.
Third style wall paintings -- third style wall paintings are more common in Pompeii.
Fourth style wall paintings -- fourth style wall paintings are the most common within Pompeii.
This is a map of the trace decoration, which I will overlay with the damaged buildings.
One of the most fascinating things that I have discovered from further research into luxury in Pompeii and my evaluation of the spatial distribution of luxury is that the new citizens who moved into Pompeii seemed to be mimicking the rich and the aristocratic. The co-location of mosaics of outstanding quality, such as the Alexander mosaic, which date back to before the 62 CE earthquake, with mosaics of low quality (and even crude) like the "bird" mosaic and the "have" mosaic (all from regio VI's House of the Faun) show at the very least a significant change in the taste of the owner, if not hint at a possible status difference. Not content with the existing decoration, the newcomers added to it, making new wall paintings and new mosaics, even if they could not own the more prestigious older wall paintings, which may not have been painted any longer, or could not afford to hire the most talented mosaic creators. The new homeowners were living amidst incredible luxury, so why not continue the fantasy?
However, the most compelling evidence for the newcomers "aping" the rich is the study of the atria themselves. Atria in regio VI are found attached to small properties. Because atria were used for large gatherings of people looking to hire themselves out to the very rich, it simply does not make sense that small properties would have atria. However, what does make sense is that the Romans living in these properties constructed the atria to get a "taste" of the good life, even if they were not actually using the atria for client meetings. As said before, there is nothing wrong with this kind of behavior, it is human nature -- there are many people who invest in fake designer items, or upgrade cheap cars with needless gadgets.
Strocka, Volker Michael. “Domestic Decoration: Painting and the “Four Styles.” In The World of Pompeii, edited by John J. Dobbins and Pedar W. Foss, 302-321. Routledge: New York, 2007.