There are few things that could be more fascinating for historians than Pompeii, a city that was buried in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1979 A.D. Archeologists have found many artifacts under the ash, giving us a wealth of information about ancient Roman civilization. The mosaics, paintings, and murals that line the city’s walls are the most prominent.
The definitive guide to Pompeii’s art
The art of Pompeii has always fascinated both archeologists as well as art historians, from mythic retellings and scandalous frescoes. It’s a good reason. Roman society was dependent on art, which can tell a lot about its values and traditions.
Although Pompeii is a well-known tourist destination, it’s also an active archaeological site, meaning that new discoveries continue to occur, many of which include frescoes or artwork. From the techniques used to the stories shared, is your ultimate guide to the incredible art preserved in time at Pompeii.
What was the significance of art in Pompeii and why?
Art was one of the strongest means of communication in ancient times. It is difficult to emphasize how important it was in Pompeii. Paintings were the primary means of telling stories and learning about history and mythology long before photography and filmmaking. Like any ancient civilization, the Romans had many myths and legends that helped them understand themselves as well as how they fit in with the rest of the world. It is no surprise that mythology was one of the most prominent themes in the art found at Pompeii.
Art in Pompeii, on a smaller scale, was used for decorative and aesthetic purposes. It was a way to make houses status symbols that were worthy of respect for the Roman elite. Rich Romans would spend huge amounts to commission grand frescoes for their walls to impress their guests. These wall paintings were so prominent that archeologists who found the Roman villas named them after them. This is still a way for us to identify most of Pompeii’s villas.
Seeing red: Pompeian cinnabar
If you’ve been to the Roman city, you will have seen the red pigment used in many frescoes. We recommend taking a tour with Walks of Pompeii. Archeologists discovered the source of the red color from cinnabar, a toxic mercury-sulfide mineral that contains a bright red pigment. This was based on extensive testing and study.
Cinnabar was used extensively in Ancient Rome’s cities. Researchers have noticed something distinct about the Pompeii type. It turns out that the mineral was ground into a finer granule in Pompeii, and then mixed with liquid to create a brighter shade of red. This is in contrast to larger grains, which produce a duller color and are used elsewhere.
Although the original color may have been dulled by the dust and ash, the pigment is still a remarkable testament to the creativity of the city’s painters 2,000 years later.
Initiation frescoes at the House of the Mysteries
Just outside of Pompeii is The House of the Mysteries, or Villa Dei Misteri. Its name comes from the extensive series of frescoes found in the residential area. The vivid red used in the fresco is often considered to be the most important example of the cinnabar that was used throughout Pompeii.
It is believed that the wall paintings depict an initiation into an ancient Roman mystery religion. This was likely to be Dionysus or his Roman counterpart, Bacchus. The wall’s back fresco shows Ariadne, the god, in her lap. Others depict a young woman going through the steps of initiation into this cult.
Ancient Roman society was very interested in the Cult of Bacchus. Roman god Bacchus presided over wine and revelry, as well as dramatics. These were all integral aspects of Roman life. However, the cult was known for its bizarre rituals and chaotic gatherings that challenged the rigid rules of Roman Society. Livy, a contemporary Roman historian, provides a shocking account of their practices and rituals in A History Of Rome. He said, “When the wine had enflamed their minds, and the dark evening and the intermingling men and women, both young and old had smothered any feeling of modesty,” depravities began to occur because each person had access to whatever perversion his thoughts might lead. Although his views were exaggerated, they still provide fascinating insights into the perception of the cult at the time.
The rich colors can be seen as a representation of the cult’s vibrant and dynamic energy. Meanwhile, the life-sized portrayals of the subjects are noted to add a sense of community to the scene. This in turn invites the viewer to join the ritual.
The House of the Faun is the most significant and impressive villa found in Pompeii’s excavations. It’s not surprising that this house was dedicated to Alexander The Great.
Roman appreciation of Greek themes, history, and art was important. This mosaic is a great example of how Greek culture could be repurposed in a Roman context. This mosaic shows an incredible scene from the Battle at Issus, which took place in 333 BC. It depicts Alexander and his army defeating Darius the Persian King. Alexander is remembered as one of the most famous names in history. He conquered many nations and instilled Greek culture into them. This was something that the Roman Empire clearly admired, and was trying to emulate.
It is notable that Alexander’s breastplate features the head of the Greek mythology gorgon Medusa, which is widely believed to be a protection spell against evil.
Riot at The Amphitheatre Fresco at The House of Actius Anicetus
Gladiator games were not limited to the Colosseum. However, that is the best place to go if you want to follow in the footsteps Gladiators. Pompeii’s arena is the oldest preserved amphitheater from Ancient Rome, built around 70 BC. It has many fascinating stories to tell.
One of these stories is found in a fresco that was discovered in the House of Actius Anicetus. It depicts a riot between the citizens of Nuceria and the people of Pompeii in 59CE. Gladiatorial games, similar to modern football games, often ignited rivalries between towns in Ancient Rome. The riot resulted not only in death, maiming, and bloodshed but also a ban on Pompeii’s amphitheatre from holding any games for the next ten years.
Tacitus, a Roman senator, and historian gave us an account of the event. He writes in The Annals that “About the time a trifling start led to frightful violence between the inhabitants Nuceria, Pompeii, and a gladiatorial display exhibited by Livineius Regulus who had been, I have told you, expelled from Senate.” They began by using abusive language against each other, then they took up stones, and finally weapons, with the advantage of the Pompeii population, where the show was being displayed.
Although there are some questions about whether this house’s owner was an ex-gladiator, it is interesting that this villa proudly depicts an event that earned Pompeii its fair share of reproaches from members of the Senate.
The House of the Vettiiis a significant villa in Pompeii for its art. The fresco in the Triclinium, or dinning area, depicts a group of Cupids doing various tasks, including making perfume and being bakers, goldsmiths, and oil merchants. Cupid, the Roman god of passion, was the son of Venus, the Roman goddess of love, and Mars, which is why he was called Cupid. This series of frescoes could represent a passion for one’s work. Notable is also the fact that many of these trades relate to the senses, which feeds into his symbolic nature of a god of love or desire.
Two brothers, thought to be craftsmen, are believed to have owned the House of the Vettii. It’s easy to see why they would place so much emphasis on whistling as you work.
This fresco of Hercules is located in the House of the Vettii. It depicts a famous scene of the hero’s childhood.
Hercules, the focal point of many religious cults and regarded as a protector of the area, was worshipped all over Pompeii. He was honored as the founder of Herculaneum (the neighboring town) and, ironically, the town’s destroyer, Mount Vesuvius.
Legend has it that Hercules’ mother, Queen Alcmene, was tricked into sleeping with Jupiter by her husband. His mortal parents discovered that Iphicles was her husband’s son (King Amphitryon), and Hercules was the son of Jupiter. Juno, Jupiter’s wife became angry at her husband’s treachery. Jupiter, King of the gods, was a difficult target. Juno sent two snakes to kill the young Hercules and instead of taking her fury out on him, she chose to target Jupiter as King of the gods. The demigod child was strong enough to defeat 10 men, and he did so easily. Legend has it that Juno, Hercules’s wife, and child, possessed the strength of 10 men and dispatched them both easily. He performed 12 labors in atonement – the rest of the story is a legend if it’s not history!