Sunday, 13 December 2009

Roman Painting in the ancient world

A beautiful exhibit of 100 works of Roman decorative paintings is on show currently at the Scuderie Del Quirinale (stables of the Quirinale Palace). The Scuderie built in 1722 by Pope Clement, is a palace of brick and stone across the square from the Quirinale Palace to house the coaches and horses of the Popes. The ground floor was used to park the coaches and equipment, the second floor was for the horses stalls, a gigantic staircase was especially built to allow the horses to walk up to their stalls, the third floor was for staff lodgings. The Scuderie was built on top of the ruins of the imposing Temple of the Egyptian Goddess Serapis.
The view from the top of the Quirinale hill is beautiful, in 1870 the new Government of United Italy confiscated the palace and the stables from the Pope and used the Quirinale as a Royal Palace for the Savoy family and the King. Today the Quirinale is the Presidential Palace of the Italian Republic and the Scuderie was refurbished 10 years ago and turned into a museum.

This exhibit of Roman paintings before 79 AD is very complete and gives a very good idea of how Romans decorated their houses, temples and public buildings. The 100 example of paintings represent the best preserved and the most detailed of this art form. After 79 AD (time of Emperor Titus) and the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius which buried the towns of Pompeii and Herculanum, paintings in houses was still popular however today little has come down to us. The ancient world was a coloured world, where historical, mythological events but also aspects of the nature and the daily life, were reproduced using realism and poetry.
All public monuments, statues and marbles were nearly always coloured: white marble was always inserted within a complex chromatic scheme. Sculptures and stuccoes were lively and charmingly painted.

Nevertheless, it has become commonplace to identify the “classic” with the transparency of white marble. Time cancels colours, destroys wood, washes and cleans so that all that is left is white marble and white stone. Of paintings and decorations in the houses and monuments very little is left and practically nothing painted on wood remains today.
This is why it is difficult to imagine the ancient world as a coloured world. The discovery of Pompeii and Hercolanum in the middle of the seventeenth century could have changed this attitude but under the influence of a classicist theory the ancient world has continued to be imagined as a white world.
This is very far from a historical reality: for Romans as for Greeks before them, real art was painting not sculpture: this is what this show is about.

Roman Imperial Painting is an exhibition that documents the development of roman painting through the centuries: born out Greek art, it will in turn be a model for the following centuries. At the Scuderie the visitor will be able to appreciate the quality of roman art in its highest form as well as the close but distant relationship between ancient and modern art: from the Renaissance to Impressionism all we know is linked to the ancient world.

Roman painters, for instance, like our modern impressionists, used a fast painting technique, in spots, with touches of color based on a subjective interpretation. Not only is this technique already present in roman times, but the qualitative level of some frescoes seems to anticipate artistic solutions of the 1500's and through to the 1800's.
But ancient art also diverged from modern techniques: we can see this in the spatial conception of a roman painter. Romans were not interested in the system of linear perspective which will be “invented” by Italian architects in the first decades of the 1400's: Roman distributed objects freely in space, without rigid perspective constrictions. In such a way there is no fusion between space and objects, who seem to be flanking one another, or one over the other, leaving an impression of instability.

The exhibition will first focus on landscapes, views of villas and rural sanctuaries populated by little figures that remember the Neapolitean presepi (crèches), followed by a choice of imagery from Greek mythology: Amore and Psiche, Polifemo and Galatea, Ercole and Telefo, Perseo and Andromeda just to name a few. But the exhibition will also highlight scenes of daily life, erotic images and still lives which abounded in roman imagery.

The Romans conquered Greece around 90 BC and turned it into a province of Rome called Achaia, however Greece was the mythical homeland of Rome and many of its most famous sons like Julius Caesar and his nephew Augustus claim direct Greek descent, through the heros of Troy. So the cultural influence of Greece on Roman art and education was enormous.

The Greeks loved art and poetry and decorated their houses with wall paintings a bit like we do today. The Romans wanted more, taste was for lavish and garish, bold bright colours, art was fine but it was more important to tell visitors how much you had spent on decorating the house. This was expressed by using expensive colors and elaborate themes. Some color shades like black or purple or red where extremely expensive, so if you wanted to impress you did a whole wall or walls, that way your visitors would be impressed with how filthy rich you were. A bit crass if you asked me but hey, that was the fashion.

Pompeii was a city of the new rich and many of them were also freed slaves or Liberati, the houses and their decoration reflect the new wealth. It was fashionable to paint the walls of your dining room black because it absorbed the light from outside and the heat of the sun. You added on top motifs of temples and deities or pastoral landscapes to comlete the whole. Garlands, cornucopias, dwarfs or satyrs or erotic scenes. There was also no division between private and public space, it was an unknown concept to the Romans, a house was not just the place you lived in, it was also a place to receive clients and visitors from dawn to dusk, so it was important to decorate the walls as a reflection of self.

Portraits are separate chapter. Visitors can admire a direct comparison of roman portraits on fresco, mosaic or on glass, unearthed in Italy, with the most celebrated roman portraits from the Egyptian oasis of El Fayyum near Cairo.

It was the fashion to have one's portrait made, usually at an age when you would be youthful looking. This portrait was then used after you died for your funeral, mixing beauty and virtue, the Romans believed that beautiful people, physically handsome people had beautiful souls, it went hand in hand. Ugly people were of course bad people, they had dark souls. It was also interesting to see that male figures in the paintings are always a bronzed skin color, where as women are a pale white color, pale color was a sign of weakness. Women are also shown with nice plump behinds, this was much prized in Roman culture, a big ass meant beauty and fertility, very good qualities in the Roman world.

A great exhibit and i am glad I saw it, the bookshop of the Scuderie is also very nice with lots of wonderful books on art and history.


  1. Planned to see it. And it still remain as a plan even today. Waiting for that time to come. Hoping.
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