Frescoes of Pompeii.

Before its catastrophic end, Pompeii and its surrounding cities were something like the Hamptons of Rome. Prominent Romans would retreat to their villas on the picturesque bay, a single day’s sail from the hustling imperial capital. Julius Caesar and the emperors Caligula, Claudius, and Nero all owned houses in the town of Baiae. Augustus vacationed in Surrentum and Pausilypon, and bought the entire island of Capreae (Capri). His son Tiberius built multiple villas on the island, and even ruled the empire from there in the last decade of his life. The great orator Cicero, who dubbed the bay “the crater of all delights,” had several properties where he would work on his writing, and the poet Virgil also had a residence in the area.

The richly adorned villas of this region were pure pleasure palaces, offering everything a hardworking professional would possibly need to relax: gymnasia, swimming pools, and libraries; courtyards and gardens watered by aqueducts; baths heated and cooled with snow from the peak of Vesuvius; and loggias and terraces with sweeping vistas of the sea and the countryside.

These elaborate paintings remained hidden until Pompeii was rediscovered in the 16th century, though it was only in 1748, under Bourbon King Charles III of Naples, that excavations began, largely to procure precious antiquities and works of art for the king. During this treasure hunt, frescoes were stripped from walls and framed, though many others were damaged or irreparably destroyed.

These elaborate paintings remained hidden until Pompeii was rediscovered in the 16th century, though it was only in 1748, under Bourbon King Charles III of Naples, that excavations began, largely to procure precious antiquities and works of art for the king. During this treasure hunt, frescoes were stripped from walls and framed, though many others were damaged or irreparably destroyed.

The discoveries generated a wave of antiquity fever in Europe, inciting the Neoclassicist movement in art and architecture, as well as inspiring Enlightenment thinkers who adopted “rediscovered” Greco-Roman ideals. The site of the disaster also won a place in the public imagination: During the 18th and 19th centuries, the still-active volcano was a popular stop on the Grand Tour and a fixture in paintings by many artists.

In the Villa of Mysteries, a farm villa at the edge of Pompeii, some wall paintings reveal details of the lives of women. In a few rooms, cut off from the rest of the villa, the only adult males shown are either statues or gods. The paintings on the walls show various female rituals including a text reading, a shared meal, and cleansing. In the last painting a young woman’s hair is being done in the fashion of Roman brides, making it clear that these rooms were used by women preparing themselves for marriage.

The suburban baths are full of erotic art with different scenes; their significance is debated today.  Perhaps these pictures advertised prostitution services; perhaps they were just a form of decoration for enjoyment.  Some scholars suggest another explanation: the different paintings served as an orientation to help the bather remember where he left his clothes.

Modern viewers are sometimes puzzled about the skin tones in Roman paintings. But it is just an artistic convention. Usually, men were painted with dark skin while women were painted with white.

That is because Roman men were supposed to be outdoors, under the strong Italian sun, either playing sports or taking part in military campaigns. While the women, at least the virtuous ones, were supposed to stay indoors. So a deep tan was considered manly, while white skin was feminine.

Aside from their unique preservation, one of the reasons why the frescoes retain such bright and original colors today is due to the painting techniques used by their creators. A thin layer of limestone plaster, known as intonaco, was spread over the wall surface and then painted on while it was still damp. The paint pigments mixed with the intonaco and, on drying, the paint was sealed into the wall. This process produced colors with a distinctive radiance and vividness which has largely withstood the test of time.

The Pompeian frescoes are so much more than wall paintings from an ancient world. They are vivid expressions of personal aspirations, ideals and titillations. Tinged with tragedy, they present beautiful snapshots into the lives of people not so very different from us, two thousand years later.

The following sources have been used for this post:

Artsy.net, the article by Julia Wolkoff

Kreolmagazine.com, the article Art on the Walls of Pompeii

Knowledgesnacks.com

Thecollector.com, the article by Laura Hayward