The Social Life of Painting in Ancient Rome and on the Bay of Naples

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Overview

In this study, Eleanor Winsor Leach offers a new interpretation of Roman painting as found in domestic spaces of the elite classes of ancient Italy. Because the Roman house fulfilled an important function as the seat of its owner's political power, its mural decoration provides critical evidence for the interrelationship between public and private life. The painted images, Leach contends, reflect the codes of communication embedded in upper class life, such as the performative theatricality that was expected of those leading public lives, the self-conscious assimilation of Hellenistic culture among aristocrats, and the ambivalent attitudes toward luxury as a coveted sign of power and a symptom of ethical degeneracy. Relying on contemporary literary sources, this book also integrates historical and semantic approaches to an investigation of the visual language through which painting communicates with its viewers. It also offers a fresh perspective on the demography of Pompeii and the relationship between colony and Rome as reflected in its wall painting.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Leach, a leading scholar in Roman literature and art, has produced a superb study of the interrelationship of art and literature of the ancient Romans....Essential." Choice

"Relying on contemporary literary sources, and including 12 color plates and 212 black and white illustrations, the book also offers a fresh perspective on the demography of Pompeii and the relationship between the colony and Rome as reflected in its wall painting." - Alumnae Bulletin

"this is a rich book, amply documented with good-quality black and white photographs and plans, and a small number of not-so-sharp color images. The full bibliography of both ancient and modern sources, as well as the rich photographic documentation, will be valuable to specialist and non-specialist alike." - Zografia Welch, Department of Classical Studies, University of Waterloo

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521826006
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 2/29/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 370
  • Product dimensions: 8.62 (w) x 10.87 (h) x 1.18 (d)

Meet the Author

Eleanor Winsor Leach is Ruth N. Halls Professor of Classical Studies at Indiana University. The author of numerous articles and books on aspects of Roman literature and painting, she has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council for Learned Societies and served as President of the American Philological Association.

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Read an Excerpt


Cambridge University Press
0521826004 - The Social Life of Painting in Ancient Rome and on the Bay of Naples - by Eleanor Winsor Leach
Excerpt



INTRODUCTION


The World's Common Property




FATE HAS OFTEN PLAYED CAPRICIOUS TRICKS WITH PREDICTIONS, BUT never more perversely than with what the Elder Pliny wrote in his encyclopedic book on natural history during the first century A.D. concerning the survival of paintings in the public and private spheres. He has just mentioned Ludius, a painter of the time of Augustus Caesar who pleased many patrons by his invention of a novel and inexpensive mode of decorating walls inside their houses with villa landscapes. All the same, as Pliny would have it, such pictures sequestered within the domain of private individuals can never achieve the widespread or enduring reputation commanded by great examples of public art (NH. 35.118):

sed nulla gloria artificium est nisi qui tabulas pinxere, eo venerabilior antiquitatis prudentia apparet. non enim parietes excolebant dominis tantum, nec domos uno in loco mansuras quae ex incendiis rapi non possent . . . nondum libebat parietes totos tinguere, omnium eorum ars urbibus excubabat pictorque res communis terrarum erat.

[But the fame of artists is negligible unless they have painted tablets. By this token the wisdom of antiquity deserves our respect all the more. For they did not labor over walls for patrons (owners) merely, nor in houses which would remain stationary and could not be carried out of a fire to safety. Nor yet was it pleasing (to Apelles and Protogenes) to color entire walls. The art of all these stood sentinal out of doors in (their) cities and the painter was the common property of the entire world.]

By assigning greater importance to the public sphere than the private, Pliny here exemplifies a value system that was common to both the Greek and the Roman world. His gloria reflects that same craving for immortality that inspired both writers and actors in the political sphere. The famous Greek artists had certainly obeyed this impulse; whether it extended to such personages as Ludius is less certain. With historical accidents intervening, however, no certain traces have survived from the work of the Greek painters whose reputations had become international, nor from any of the works that once adorned the Roman public world, but those very walls that were hidden away in houses have, in a number of situations, survived the accidents of twenty centuries to exhibit a large repertoire of Romano-Campanian painting that has at last become "the common property of the entire world."

For many centuries now the value of this cultural heritage has been recognized while the extent of the known repertoire has been continuously on the increase by virtue of accidental discoveries and systematic excavations alike. Florentine painters working in Rome during the early Renaissance were the first publicists. Venturing into the buried chambers of Emperor Nero's Domus Aurea on the Esquiline, an area whose identity was at that time confused with the Baths of Titus, they came upon strangely configured designs that challenged their previous conceptions of a clean-cut classical style. Calling these motifs "grotesques" (grotteschi) from the "grottoes" (grotte) in which they found them, the artists integrated new versions of them into the frescoed ceilings and walls of palaces and chapels which they were decorating "in the antique mode."1

Investigation of Campanian painting began almost two centuries later but has been steadily pursued since the eighteenth century.2 Ultimately receiving much more widespread publicity, the designs adapted from this repertoire have found their way into currents of artistic production ranging from stuccoed walls in English country houses to ceramics and furnishings produced for the popular market.3 Even today the occasional interior designer whose imagination is fired by a glimpse of these paintings incorporates them into a domestic program.4 More surprisingly, perhaps, certain modernist painters responding to the fragments displayed in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art have translated Campanian figures and patterns into abstraction. Behind Willem De Kooning's large-eyed female faces the knowing spectator can see the enigmatically fixed gaze of the Boscoreale women, whereas Mark Rothko, initially impressed by the theatricality of the fragments, came to "recognize himself" in Pompeii, incorporating the large rectangular forms of paintings into his own work.5

Given that the majority of us are neither artists nor interior decorators, however, one may ask what else this "common property" is good for. Logically we might expect it to tell us something about the Romans themselves, but there remains the challenge of knowing which questions to ask. The final irony that chance visited upon Pliny's remark is that so many of the sequestered paintings that have survived up to our own day owe their preservation to that same natural cataclysm, the eruption in A.D. 79 of Mount Vesuvius, that caused Pliny's death. Since the eighteenth century, visitors to the buried cities and villas of Campania have experienced a certain voyeuristic frisson in confrontation with the empty but fully decorated houses that seem to provide one of the closest possible approaches to the manner in which life was lived in the Roman world. If Goethe initially found these spaces gloomy,6 Madame de Stael remarked melodramatically on the emotions inspired by glimpses of private life amid desolation: "Il semble qu'on attende quelqu'un, que le maître soit prêt à venir."7 With characteristically democratic humor, Mark Twain recorded a similar sensation in the role of unbidden guest. "We lounged through many and many a sumptuous mansion which we could not have entered without a formal invitation in incomprehensible Latin in the olden time when the owners lived there - and we probably wouldn't have got it."8 In a more objective style of discourse, the American scientist Benjamin Silliman professed that the experience of his 1851 visit had amplified the knowledge gained from ancient literature: "The resurrection of these cities from their forgotten tombs has brought Roman life vividly before us in all their family scenes, and at the period of their greatest power and luxury and glory."9 Many have echoed this sentiment, yet in the strictest sense, this notion of closeness can be illusory. If there was one point on which Pliny pronounced with fatal accuracy, it was the anonymity of these domestic wall paintings, in which condition, despite their physical durability, they now face the beholder. Paradoxically enough the anonymity that confronts us in Roman painting enforces the effectual silence of an art that originally existed as a mode of communication.

Subjective re-creations tempt the viewer. That the decoration of the individual residence must represent the taste of its owner has often enough, on the analogy of later practice, been assumed.10 Taste as a mirror of personality was the principle on which Edward Bulwer-Lytton matched fictive inhabitants to houses as he repopulated the city in The Last Days of Pompeii. As an owner for the House of the Tragic Poet, already much celebrated for its paintings of heroic and dramatic subjects, he created a sentimental Athenian expatriate: "Alcibiades without the ambition . . . passionately enamoured of poetry and the drama, which recalled . . . the wit and the heroism of his race." This Glaucus adorns his "fairy mansion . . . with representations of Aeschylus and Homer."11 Conversely the silly Fulvius, a mediocre Roman poet, is rumored to have decorated his house with pictures so "improper" that he does not show them to women.12 Amusing as these reconstructions may be, they do not advance our understanding of ancient practices because concepts of taste need interpretation within the larger frame of reference constituted by the cultural system to which they belong. This requirement pertains no less to the house of so celebrated a historical figure as Augustus Caesar than to that of a Pompeian magistrate known to us only as a name that fellow citizens supporting his candidacy for office had painted on a wall. Understanding this system involves not merely a knowledge of the aesthetic options available for selection at any given moment, but also the principles of decorum that the system embodied, the communicative purpose that motivated its deployment, and the way in which this communication was to be validated by its audience.

In this respect Pliny's excursus in the Natural History concerning artistic fame provides an apposite introduction to issues that will confront a person hoping to learn something about Roman culture from these paintings, not simply by virtue of the information he gives and the values he expresses, but also because of the silences he underscores. With his emphasis on lasting gloria and his distinction between public and private, he perfectly exemplifies Ferdinand Braudel's saying that "the unusual conceals the everyday" in historical sources.13 Despite his purpose of writing informatively, which he approached with a predilection for detail that surpassed most of his fellow Romans, he could scarcely imagine that inquisitive cast of mind a modern scholar might bring to the past in search of information now lacking because he and his compatriots took it for granted.

The serious challenge for the contemporary student of Romano-Campanian painting is that of reinstating its repertoire within the context of active social use. For this purpose the anonymity Pliny deplored can function as a positive advantage in directing our speculations away from elusive individual personalities toward the social system, thus ensuring our freedom from the kinds of preconception that prejudice investigations of fully attributed art.14 Confronting the condition of anonymity produces a sense of interpretive disorientation sufficient to remind us how we need to accept what is currently termed the "foreignness" of the past as a caution against easy familiarity. Keenly aware of the differences between present and past that the empty houses of the Vesuvian cities bring home to us, Bulwer-Lytton attempted to make his reconstruction of Pompeian culture sympathetic to his British contemporaries by choosing, as he put it, "Those aspects most attractive to a modern reader; the customs and superstitions least unfamiliar to him." With considerably greater resources of information to draw upon, scholars of the present day proceed differently. As the social historian Andreau remarked in the conclusions of his book concerning the business activities of the auctioneer-banker L. Caecilius Jucundus, one of the most publicized personalities in Pompeii, "The study itself is to make a person distrust a modern vision of the past. Neither profession nor professional association, individual or economic liberty can be judged in contemporary terms. Ancient institutions and modes of thought must be defined within the workings of the ancient economy."15

A similar philosophy pertains to painting. What we must discover as a first step toward reconstructing the functions a culture ascribes to art is not what can be comfortably assimilated to our own predilections and orientation, but what is different and strange and needs explanation within its own context.

PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SPHERES

As a preliminary, it is useful to consider briefly what was the full compass of ancient pictorial production within which domestic mural painting had its place. When Pliny distinguishes painted tabellae from painted interior walls, he is scarcely telling the whole story about the use of decoration in his world. The inhabitants of ancient cities were accustomed to seeing painted surfaces all around them occupying a far more conspicuous place in the urban landscape than is generally the case today. Contemporary Mediterranean buildings with painted stucco exteriors may give us some sense of this colorful spectacle, but by no means to the degree present in the ancient world. Romantic Hellenophiles once had difficulty accepting the knowledge that Greek marble sculpture was painted, but these polychrome reliefs and statues were only one element contributing to a gaudy scene. In Rome, where stucco coatings and terra-cotta played an important role in decoration, painting was virtually an aspect of architecture. Houses, shops, public buildings, and tombs were painted on both their exterior and interior walls. The Roman town or cityscape was one from which many modern spectators, and even dedicated classicists, might have turned in embarrassment, as did Goethe recording his first impressions of "richly detailed frescoes" as witness to "an artistic instinct and a love of art shared by a whole people which even the most ardent art lover today can neither feel nor understand and desire."16

When we look from exteriors to interiors, we find both archaeological and literary sources indicating an early origin for the practice of painting, although the frames of reference thus designated do not coincide. On the archaeological side the evidence is fragmentary. Remains of the two-story houses that were built in the Roman forum along the line of the Via Sacra as early as the sixth century show that these had painted plaster.17 The colors were red, yellow, and blue, but the designs, if there were any, are unknown. The buildings themselves may have been constructed under Etruscan influence; we do not know whether their colored walls should be understood within the same general rationale of decoration in which extant Roman houses participate, because they antedate these by some two or three centuries, yet the common Mediterranean tendency toward visual dramatization encompasses both.18

Turning from this fragmentary evidence to the sphere of literary documentation, we find attention focused on a more monumental kind of art. Wanting to establish a specifically indigenous tradition of painting, Pliny assigns its beginnings to an indefinable moment in early Italian history. He speaks of paintings still extant in the temples of Ardea and Lanuvium older than the city of Rome (NH. 35.17). These were figured paintings; those at Lanuvium portrayed mythological heroines, Atalanta and Helen, both nude and reputedly very beautiful. Furthermore they must have been frescoes because the condition of the plaster (tectorii natura) prevented Caligula from taking them off their walls. Some paintings at Caere, Pliny claims (NH. 35.16), were even more ancient; they antedated the coming of the Greek Ekphantos of Corinth, the painter said to have migrated to Italy in company with Damaratos the father of the Tarquin family. Whatever the genesis of these early paintings - and they were as likely to have come about under Greek influence as native Italic19 - the decoration of temples with figural work would seem to have constituted a tradition, whether continuous or not, that extended into the later Roman Republic.

Opportunities for historical commemorations within the context of temple dedications clearly contributed to the growth of the tradition.20 Pliny's first notice of a connection between painting and historical events discloses links with personal status. A member of the aristocratic Fabian family acquired the surname Pictor because of his work in the Temple of Salus at Rome (NH. 35.7.19). Tradition remembers these paintings as extensive (Val. Max. 8. 14. 6.) as well as clearly drawn and pleasingly colored (D. H. 16. 3 [6]). Probably they depicted historical events with reference to the military career of C. Junius Bubulcus, a hero of the Samnite Wars, who consecrated the temple vowed in 311 at the battle of Bovianum after he had become censor in 303 B.C. In this instance the prestige of the painter may have outclassed that of the patron, but additional testimony to commemorative representations of triumphing generals within the temples they dedicated leaves the painters unnamed, as when the lexicographer Festus (252) mentions that two persons, T. Papirius Cursor and M. Fulvius Flaccus, dedicators respectively of the Temple of Consus (272 B.C.) and a Temple of Vortumnus (264 B.C.) were shown wearing the triumphal toga (toga picta).21

Another set of paintings in the Temple of Hercules in the Forum Boarium is attributed by Pliny to the playwright Pacuvius working under the patronage of L. Aemilius Paulus, father of Scipio Aemilianus. For these we have no corroborating testimony, but they provided Pliny with the occasion for remarking that the fame of the stage made painting itself more lustrous (35.7.20: "clarioremque artem eam Romae fecit gloria scenae"). What he means by "glory of the stage" is scarcely clear, and possibly no more than a reference to Pacuvius' success as a playwright. Eventually, however, the connection between painting and the theatre would assume major importance in the traditions of pictorial imagery. We see this development forecast in another incident Pliny relates concerning the installation of painted decorations of an illusionistically architectural nature on a temporary wooden stage during the early first century B.C. (35.7.23).22

To such personally commissioned decorations must be added pictures brought as booty from conquered countries that were exhibited initially in triumphs and then later placed on display. Many of the world-famous monuments Pliny celebrates came to Rome by this route. Although some were in the possession of individual owners, a large number stood in the public sphere. Again the idea of status is paramount, for the donor becomes associated with the donation and gains credit for public benefaction. Thus Cicero (de Officiis 2.21.75) praised L. Mummius, conqueror of Corinth, because he gave his captured ornaments to the state. By adorning Italy, "he made his own house more richly decorated." The inauguration of this practice is popularly assigned to Marcellus' sack of Syracuse in 211.23 The Porticus of Metellus Macedonicus built in 146 B.C., which was situated along the triumphal route close to the Circus of Flaminius, was probably the first building specifically created for display. Facing the facades of the two temples that the colonnades enclosed was a veritable crowd (turma) of equestrian statues brought from Macedonia that Alexander the Great had commissioned from Lysippus representing with recognizable fidelity his companions fallen at the Granicus with himself in their midst (Velleius 1.11.3-4).24 Although statues comprised the bulk of early imports, there is evidence of painting.25 From the title of a speech by Cato the Censor de signis et tabulis, we may infer that such imports had become familiar by the mid-second century.26 According to Pliny the first foreign picture to become state property was a representation of Dionysus by Aristides that L. Mummius placed in the Temple of Ceres (35.24). Mummius would never have recognized the value of this painting, it is said, had he not become aware that Attalus of Pergamon craved it for himself.27 Long before Pliny's time, however, many Romans had come to revere the tradition of famous artists.

Although the exhibition of artistic spoils frequently provokes critical ruminations on the notorious Roman arrogance of conquest, we must recognize the multiple purposes served by display. As Aqnès Rouveret points out, the spoils of conquest functioned no less as a component of public memory than did specifically commissioned monuments.28 Historian Erich Gruen defends the practice of exhibition on both religious and aesthetic grounds.29 One should also recognize the common desire to create an international identity on behalf of a city emerging as a world power. In these several capacities such artistic displays became one of the chief vehicles for personal and political statement, serving first the great personalities of the Republic and then Augustus. In some cases, artworks decorated buildings that existed to serve other purposes, such as temples, the Forum, or the Curia, but galleries constructed with exhibition as their primary purpose were increasing in number.30 The porticus of Pompey's theatre was among the most celebrated of such formal display places. It housed a collection composed of paintings and sculpture, several of the former by well-known artists and many of the latter commissioned expressly for the site.31 As a legacy to the Roman people, Julius Caesar willed his Transtiberine gardens and the statues and paintings with which he had furnished them; Mark Antony carried off the portable objects to properties that he had appropriated (Cicero Phil. 2.42.109). Testimony concerning the collection of Asinius Pollio mentions only sculpture,32 but paintings were installed in other porticoes endowed by Augustus and members of his family. The Porticus Argonauticum in the west colonnade of the Saepta Julia took its name from a painting of Jason and the Argonauts, and the facing Porticus Meleagri appears to have derived its name on similar grounds.33 Even Agrippa's baths housed paintings.

The works selected did not simply display the sponsor's personal taste but might also thematically express his policies or interests.34 Often a combination of acquired paintings with some expressly commissioned objects effectively served this purpose. As one example of the continuing tradition in Rome, Pliny mentions several paintings that Augustus displayed in the buildings he had given to the state. His tastes seem to have inclined toward the heroic and allegorical - no surprise in view of our other information concerning his high valuation of the moral possibilities of art. One may think that the single objects participated actually in a well-knit system of visual propaganda.

Such material had great influence on the course of Roman art, and we might wish that we knew more about it, especially with what kind of framing and in what relationship to each other such objects were displayed. The highlights Pliny sets forth are presented in such a manner as to reinforce his dichotomy of public and private spheres, yet the decorative faces that these two actually wore within the Roman world may have been closer in real practice than he leads us to assume, with the consequence that public and private are more accurately to be seen as indications of location than of style or subject. In some instances, as we shall see, public painting has apparently created the standards used in private houses; in other cases these would merely appear to share in a common mode. The earliest mural decoration of a public building discovered in Campania, that of the forum basilica in Pompeii, seems to establish a precedent for the treatment of domestic interiors of the same period or shortly thereafter.35 Later buildings of the forum area that contain traces of painted decoration seem less likely to have been trendsetting than to have participated in the prevailing stylistic current: for instance, the Temple of Jupiter, decorated at the inception of the Roman colony;36 the building of Eumachia, dating from the late Augustan period;37 the Temples of Apollo and Isis, both redecorated38 after the earthquake; or the Macellum, also completely refurbished in the last decade of the city.

One of our best insights into the exposure of art objects within the public sphere is afforded by the contents of a building that was fortuitously the first source of finds for the pioneering excavations at Herculaneum. Mistaken for a temple to Hercules during the initial stages of exploration, the large structure that has subsequently come to be known as a "basilica" was the civic benefaction of one M. Nonius Balbus, patronus coloniae. In a location that bordered on the ancient Forum (still unexcavated) the collonaded enclosure, in which scholars most recently have seen an Augusteum, houses a display of portrait sculpture encompassing members of several generations of imperial families.39 Behind an interior colonnade, the walls were structured into compartments by simulated architectural decoration rich in miniature grotesque motifs: "real and imaginary animals, heads of Medusa, landskips, views of houses.40 Two large-figured paintings of mythological heroes framed within niches probably imitate famous originals. Additionally there were painted representations of two sculptural groups - Achilles and Chiron, Pan and Olympus - whose originals were on display in the Saepta Julia in Rome.41 Certain themes emerge from the juxtaposition of figures and subjects within the gallery: the future of the city is adumbrated both by the exploits of the heroes and the nurturing of youth, while allusions both to Augustan monuments and to imperial families, seemingly irrespective of political mutations, enforce the bond between Herculaneum and Imperial Rome.42

Across the street from this building was another to which one of Balbus' own freedman had contributed: Aedes collegii Augustalium, which furnished the ceremonial quarters for meeting of a civic sodality made up of prosperous freedmen.43 On the ground floor of this "clubhouse" the social space was oriented around a central shrine decorated with paintings of clear thematic import depicting events in the life of Hercules which showed the eponymous mythological founder of the town as an example of social mobility.44 The decorative contexts within which these paintings were framed, as with those of the "basilica," are virtually identical with those in houses of the day. The same was true of the corridor walls in the Pompeian Macellum decorated during the Flavian period with a selection of mythological subject panels.45 Here the interweaving of architectural elements and painting was so rich that the building was for a long time considered a Pantheon dedicated to the Twelve Gods.46 Clearly during these years the same painters were being employed to execute both public and private commissions between which they made little artistic distinction.

Leaving aside these few extant traces of mural painting in the public world, the survivals from the private sphere are of two kinds: tomb painting and domestic wall painting, both closely connected with the structure of the individual life. Painted tombs in the Etruscan city of Tarquinia date from the sixth century onward. Their topics are primarily ceremonial and involve human figures. The typical ensemble covering the four walls of a large chamber tomb consists of a banquet representation, along with some manner of performance such as games, dances, sacrifices, or athletic activity, such as hunting or racing. Often these events are staged within vestigial landscapes represented by files of trees, and the interior of the tomb frequently depicts a structure, such as a tent. Presumably these representations perpetuated the events solemnizing the funeral, but they may also have predicated the conditions amid which the deceased might live in the other world.47 Certainly they signified status.

Such customs might be considered generally Italic. Some Lucanian paintings from the cemeteries around Paestum in southern Italy appear comparable in significance. In spite of the fact that these are closed tombs never intended to be seen after interment, status decorations are frequent; however, their symbolic "language," as Rouveret has called it, is very much the creation of their own cultural environment.48 Except for the symposiast "Tomb of the Diver," almost certainly painted under Greek influence during the early fifth century, banqueting is never shown. Funeral games, clearly designating the rich and influential members of the community, appear in the burials of both sexes.49 A figure to represent the deceased person is not uncommon, and often in male burials, especially those dating from the period of the Roman-Samnite Wars, this figure appears as a warrior returning victorious from battle with spoils.50 In the impressively life-scale, recently excavated paintings of the "Tomb of the Magistrates," this topic assumes a narrative dimension. On one side the warrior receives an honorific greeting in life as he comes home with his weapons and a captive in tow; on the opposite side two horses carry his equipment in a funeral procession, while the scene centered on the rear wall shows his reception after death by a noble ancestor as a worthy continuator of family tradition.51

Something of this Italic pictorial tradition might seem to be recapitulated in the funerary monument of a young Pompeian magistrate in the necropolis outside the Porta Vesuviana. The tomb of the aedile C. Vestorius Priscus, who died at age twenty-two, presumably during the period of his office in A.D. 75-6, stands within an enclosure some of whose painted interior walls commemorate his activities as magistrate while others carry depictions of banquets and games referring either to the young man's sponsorship or to his obsequies.52 The tomb of Vestorius, however, is unusually elaborate among known monuments in Pompeii, the majority of which communicate their messages through exterior relief sculpture. That this was not always the case in Rome is indicated by a few fragments on the Esquiline of an apparently nationalistic or historical cast. A narrative frieze from an Esquiline tomb pictures incidents in the legendary history of the founding of Rome from Aeneas to Romulus.53 Another fragment is historical, forming part of what would have been an extensive battle scene. Recent study suggests that the event portrayed is the conferral of an award on the Roman legionary M. Fannius. The Fannii gained political consequence after the third century. The incident portrayed here may have constituted the beginning of the family's rise in status.54 The military topic suggests another kind of painting that both Pliny and the historians mention: the reportorial account of events in a battle. The implications of this for composition and ethos will be discussed later.

The domestic painting with which this book primarily concerns itself is also employed as a status sign, but in a very different manner. Unlike historical painting or tomb painting, it employs human figures sparsely except when these appear as sculptural images or as personages in mythological narrative. Instead of commemorations and depictions of particular events, it creates backgrounds for the activities of everyday life. Within the structure of the Roman house, painted walls and ceilings figured as an aspect of interior furnishing. Indeed, in the greater number of cases these supplied the only fixed element of furnishing because the Romans furnished their rooms sparsely, and those essential articles used for seating or storage were portable enough to facilitate their transfer from room to room in accordance with seasonal needs. But the effect of painting was comprehensive. With floors, walls, and ceilings coordinated into a coherent ensemble, painting articulated the sense of spatial enclosure within a room and so conferred both an atmosphere and a visual conformation on the spaces of Roman life.55 Within this frame of reference domestic painting, however anonymous, cannot be considered as private, for it was seldom intended for limited personal contemplation but rather to display itself before the many persons whom the owner received and entertained in this house. Whatever the owner wanted to impress upon these persons concerning his individual preferences and judgments was mediated through a mutually understood code of communication. Thus painting was in the fullest sense an aspect of material culture with a function to fulfill.

The "vocabulary" by which the code delivered its messages involved pictorial imitation, which employed a number of techniques to create illusions of form and depth. This predilection for the persuasively lifelike image emerges corroboratively from written testimony concerning painting. One Augustan Age writer states his convictions unambiguously (Vitruvius de Architectura 5.5.2): "a painting is an imitation of an image of something that did or will or can exist." Granted this emphasis on probability, we should, nevertheless, understand that the employment of illusion aimed less at deceiving the beholder - ancient viewers were scarcely so naive - than at soliciting his intelligently critical recognition.56 Allusion is a more appropriate term than illusion. As one scholar succinctly reformulates, "la théorie de la mimesis est un réalisme non de l'art, mais de la connaissance."57 Yet even this validation of the individual figure is only a first step in cognitive response because the value and meaning of the simulated image is determined not only by its effectiveness in persuasion but also by its participation in a complex system of communications within its larger contextual scheme.

ANCIENT SOURCES

One may safely say that we would be less confident about the aesthetics of mimesis in Roman painting were it not for the insistence of ancient literary sources. Although our impression of ancient art inevitably depends on the character of surviving examples, our understanding of these has always been influenced by the kinds of ancient descriptive writing that has come down to us. In our effort to see paintings as their original audience might have seen them, the articulation of impressions and assumptions supplied by literary evidence, in spite of all practical limitations, remains a valuable source of guidance. The present-day reader should consider it not only for the information it provides but also for its role in the formation of analytical discourse within the art historical field.

To study the communicative function of wall painting, it is necessary to accept its physical remains as a partial "text" to be read in connection with whatever surviving texts of either a literary or a material nature can help us to reconstruct the fabric of everyday life. Especially our present-day perception of the images should be informed by written documents recording ancient social experience. However valuable this evidence may be, it does require interpretation because not only the information but also the points of view it embodies and its mode of presentation are affected by context. Interpretation challenges our conceptions of contemporaneous social life because it involves the identification and tracing of patterns so closely interwoven into this fabric as to be practically indiscernible. For this reason the study of painting is an aspect of social history.

Written source material in four categories is available to assist our consideration of Romano-Campanian painting. Of these the most formal is ancient art history of which the chapters of the Elder Pliny's Natural History already mentioned constitute the chief exemplar. Art history of a kind also occurs in a brief passage in Vitruvius' Ten Books on Architecture, published during the Augustan Age. Apart from these directly pertinent and partially descriptive passages, information can be gleaned from historians or orators when their narratives mention customs or events with some bearing on art. The same is true when Cicero or the Younger Pliny mention relevant practical matters in correspondence. Finally ancient poems sometimes contain explicit descriptions of artworks. The tradition of such passages begins with Homer's Iliad and is perpetuated both for itself and as a deliberate echo of Homer. All four kinds of writing have their strengths and limitations as evidence.

Art histories and treatises on painting were not infrequently produced in the ancient world; some were written by practicing artists and others by philosophers analyzing the experience and the value of art. Naturally what the philosophers wrote accorded with the general structures of their philosophical systems. For Plato the mimetic aims that bind art to physical reality make it an inferior species of activity, whereas the writings of later philosophers more commonly framed their theories of perception with reference to the principles of their physics. Such, at least, we take to have been the case with the treatise On Painting written by the atomistic philosopher Democritus in the late-fifth or early-fourth-century B.C., which is a probable source for remarks on the visual effects of perspectival illusion ostensibly realized in Roman painting.58 Neither this nor any other of the treatises specifically concerned with art survives in its entirety, but some sense of the information they provided has been transmitted indirectly through excerpts embodied in different contexts.59 In the Roman world, this material was not only excerpted but also synthesized. The chief work of this kind was produced by Marcus Terentius Varro, a distinguished antiquarian and polymath, who lived during the late Republic. Varro's writing was, in turn, consulted extensively by the Elder Pliny, who is our chief extant source for the history of ancient art.60

We must approach Pliny with the understanding that he possessed no special expertise in the subject, save for his cultural legacy as an upper-class Roman, but this in itself is important enough to command attention. As a gentleman scholar he was driven by a passion for acquiring and transmitting knowledge to which he dedicated the greater part of his time. His nephew the Younger Pliny gives an affectionate picture of his uncle's disciplined lifestyle, which incorporated research into virtually every waking activity of the day (Ep. 3.5.7-17). His characteristic method was to make extracts from multiple sources and recombine them into encyclopedic wholes. His compendiary Natural History was the most ambitious of all his projects: a useful compilation of knowledge intended as much for reference as for reading. Although he dedicates his work to the new emperor, Titus, who was his personal friend, he conceives of his primary audience as the ordinary man who lacks access to sources of knowledge.61

Certain conceptual assumptions can be seen to underlie Pliny's expressions of opinion. As several scholars have recently pointed out, the Natural History is characterized by its author's consistent scientific interest in the relationship between the natural world and man.62 The relationship is a precariously balanced history of interactions wherein healthy progress in the creation of a civilized environment easily degenerates into the greedy exploitation of natural resources.63 The visual arts figure naturally in this treatise because they involve man's employment of natural raw materials: the stones and metals from which sculpture is shaped or buildings adorned and the pigments used for mixing paint. The five chapters of the Natural History devoted to sculpture, metalwork, and painting describe the evolution of the arts, the innovative contributions and the works of significant artists, and the status of art in contemporary Rome, which Pliny considered sadly deficient. These five chapters show certain similarities that not only attest to their derivation from common sources but also reflect the ideas and purposes underlying them. These assumptions should be considered as an important influence on the presentation of the material.

The first of these assumptions is the conceptualization of any manner of historical writing as a history of progress. This idea may well have colored some of Pliny's sources. It is a commonly used paradigm of ancient anthropology, particularly associated with Democritus and the Epicurean view of civilized development. As Gombrich points out, the concept of progress has affected our view of the development of naturalism in ancient sculpture.64 The concept pertains to painting as much as to sculpture and thus forms the basis for a history that commences with rough shadow tracings (35.15) and arrives at an ability to articulate the inner soul. Each individual painter of importance in this history figures as the discoverer or contributor of some particular characteristic to the common resources of art, until this evolutionary pattern reaches its culminating success in perfected naturalism. Following this, we see painters as the creators of individual refinements that make them competitors for honor within their own contemporary societies. From this period come many of Pliny's often-cited anecdotes concerning the styles and personalities of painters. Because the history, and especially these anecdotes, place a particular emphasis on naturalism, it is often considered as the governing principle of Pliny's own taste. Perhaps this is so, but it is more instructive to understand that the expression of personal taste is not Pliny's chief aim. Rather he shapes a history that often incorporates popular responses into its narrative.

In attempting to systematize the history of painting, Pliny is working on two fronts; on one hand he provides a history of the origins and development of the art that inevitably focuses on Greece; on the other he discusses the fortunes of painting in Rome. Consequently we should be alert to the museological purposes of his account as well as to its prejudices and opinions.65 Like all of the Natural History, the discussion of art aims to be of genuine practical value to readers who will find it most useful when they encounter sample works by an artist. Thus Pliny not only mentions the locations of artworks and the persons responsible for their placement, but also includes details needed to afford viewers an intelligent appreciation of works and their creators. These details range from biography to iconography. Their traditional and derivative character should not be held against them because they are intended to be nothing other than the standard offerings of a guidebook.

Pliny's museological orientation can also illuminate his disparaging remarks on the enforced obscurity of privately owned artworks and on painters who serve a single patron. Consistent with his pronouncements on the limited exposure of wall paintings is his comment that the works of one Fabullus, a painter of the Neronian period are "imprisoned" within the Golden House. These remarks not only distinguish past concepts from present, but also enter into an ongoing Roman moral debate concerning the social responsibility of art collectors. Potentates of the late Republic had become notorious for ornamenting their houses and villas - rural villas in particular - with the works of art they had collected during their foreign governorships and campaigns. "You really must hear," writes young Caelius Rufus to Cicero in 50 B.C., "that censor Appius Claudius is energetically making a wondrous inventory of [everybody's] statues and paintings"(Fam. 8.14.4: de signis et tabulis). Caelius invites Cicero to get a laugh from the fact that this vicarious washing down of contemporary indulgences is only calling attention to Appius' own venality.66 Pliny attributes to Marcus Agrippa an oration urging that all paintings and statues should be shared through public display (NH. 35.26).67 As a courtier of Vespasian, an emperor who drew heavily on Augustan precedent as the basis for his own politics of reassurance, the Elder Pliny not surprisingly shares in the Augustan spirit. Within the structure of his thought, private patronage is a manner of exploitation with artistic production as the vulnerable resource.68 Even so he once admits, almost in violation of his civic principles, that the crush of officia and negotia surrounding artworks in public places are detrimental to serious study, which demands both leisure and silence (36.4.27: "quoniam otiosiorum et in magno loci silentio talis admiratio est").69

For a more technical view of wall painting as a feature of Roman life, we should turn to an earlier writer, the architect Vitruvius, author of the Ten Books on Architecture [Libri Ⅹ de Architectura]. His own prefatory remarks indicate that he served as a military engineer in Gaul under Julius Caesar (Praef. 2). He dedicates his book to Augustus with praise of the princeps' current building campaign, which he aims to facilitate by the contribution of definite architectural rules. Vitruvius' "rules" express standards of taste and decorum, not mere mechanics. Nowhere are these standards more in evidence than in that chapter of his discussion of domestic architecture, which deals with the decoration of walls (7.5.1-5). Unlike Pliny, Vitruvius concerns himself with wall paintings as an integral aspect of houses and therefore as an accustomed product of patronage.

Here also we find a short history conforming to the concept of progress, but this one confines itself to Roman phenomena. Vitruvius' chronology of the initial stages is indefinite (7.5.1). Speaking of the initiators of decoration as antiqui (men of former days), he neither separates painters from patrons nor locates their positions in historical time. As we shall see, his discussion has proven controversial in its relationship to even the simplest paintings: those of the early period that, as he puts it, imitate pieces of marble in different juxtapositions. After this, as he points out, painters made such progress as to reproduce capitals and projecting cornices, a development that enabled painting to develop a mode of architectural illusionism. Henceforth there came a more varied repertoire and a code of decorum by which the determination of subject patterns or images was in some manner related to the nature or shape of the space to be decorated.

This coordination of spaces and patterns is one of Vitruvius' most intriguing scraps of information, but also among the most problematic. Some of the subjects he lists whose selection might be related to spatial context are landscapes, images of divinities, heroic subjects drawn from ancient epics, and designs imitating the decoration of the stage. All these meet his criterion for naturalistic representation. In his opinion painting should offer recognizable images of actual or possible objects. By this standard he criticizes the decorative fashions of his own period for diverging from natural probability. At this point the architect turns moralist, changing his style of observation from narrative to polemic. To moralize the history of progress is an open invitation to hypothesizing decadence. So he complains that perversities have invaded design; proportions are ignored and nature is violated (7.5.3-5). The logical interrelationship between architecture and painting is no longer respected. Blame sits equally on the painters who indulge wayward fancy in creating such "monstrosities" and the patrons who have made artistic caprice into fashion through their encouragement.

Vitruvius' descriptions of artistic license have universally been taken as a confirmation of his Augustan dates and, by the same token, have corroborated the identification of the Augustan Age as a time when changes began to take place in the pictorial architectonics of the wall. In the historical discussion of painting, Vitruvius' few chapters have drawn no less attention than many celebrated passages of poetry within the history of their genres. Like a talismanic Golden Bough they give access to the realms of painting, but not without controversy concerning their practical points of reference. Quot homines tot sententiae. Many of the problems of interpretation taking rise from this text can be seen as the consequences either of a too-literal application or else a too-liberal one that stretches the evidence beyond its implications. In spite of its provocations and limitations, the de Architectura is an important visual witness to whose testimony my discussion will again and again have resort. No small part of its value is owing to the fact that its information is not confined to direct observations on painting. Instructions concerning the design and function of houses, while no less traditional in their outlook, embody social as well as personal codes and bear repeated consideration in their relevance to the house as a context for decoration.

The importance of Vitruvius and Pliny to the formation of Roman art historical discourse owes much to the surrounding void in which their sustained discussions exist. As I have noted, one of the conditions that require our constant piecing of scraps and hints to gain knowledge of Roman culture is the infrequency and spareness of descriptive writing in Roman literature. Nonetheless, we find some descriptions of artworks in Roman poetry, particularly epic and lyric. The artworks that epic incorporates belong to a world of heroic culture; they comprise public paintings, tapestries, toreutics, decorated shields - all of which play some role in the action of their poetic narratives. Although these roles highlight their fictional status clearly enough to prevent our searching for them among real objects, the continuous literary tradition to which such ekphraseis belong provides a background against which to identify innovations in style and taste that may be likely to reflect that of the author's own time. Beyond this, the rhetoric of literary ekphrasis as a narrative simulation of viewing is no less productive of insights into contemporary habits of experiencing and responding to art than Pliny's or Vitruvius' writings. Whereas the descriptions in epic are fictive, those in elegiac poetry and also in epigrams are more likely to refer to specific objects.

The descriptive epigram, a genre developed in Hellenistic literature, provides considerable insight into the process of viewing through its use of rhetorical techniques that approximate a spectator's interaction between the object and the reader. Many examples accompany dedications particularizing either the object or the place where delivered.70 Others were composed as tributes either to an artwork or to an artist. Often the work itself, speaking with the voice of a personified subject, addresses the reader with instructions for viewing.71 Instructions for viewing and interpretive information are even more common in prose versions of ekphrasis such as descriptions in Greek romances or the Imagines of Philostratus: a collection of bravura decriptions of the second century A.D. that showcases their author's rhetorical mastery for the declared purpose of teaching young persons what to notice and appreciate in painting. These texts generally adopt an aesthetic of mimesis as they focus the manner in which their execution effects persuasion of the beholder or else his wondering bedazzlement. The subjects have a way of assuming life and action within the text that often transforms the descriptive process into narrative. Although the student of decoration may find it frustrating that such concentrated attention on figurative painting bypasses contexts,72 iconographical studies have found Philostratus' images particularly valuable in showing some of the classic postures for the representation of mythological subjects.

The chief value that all literary, non-art historical sources possess in common is their ability to show us works of art participating in contexts as they are perceived from contemporary points of view, and sometimes even undergoing active use. In this area, finally, lies the greatest fascination of Roman painting, not merely as an index of that elusive quality called taste, whose definition will always remain somewhat speculative, but also in its reflection of customs and institutions.




© Cambridge University Press
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Table of Contents

Introduction : the world's common property 1
1 Domestic context 18
Spaces open to all visitors 21
Spaces Propria Patribus Familiarum 40
2 Panels and porticoes 55
Status and interior furnishing 56
Some late republican houses of Campania 68
Mimesis and meaning 85
3 The model of the Scaenae Frons 93
Roman theatres and theatre decoration 100
Stages in domestic decoration 104
Augustan self-staging and the Scaenarum Frontes of the Palatine residence 110
Imperial revival of the Scaenae Frons 114
Epilogue : breaking theatrical boundaries 121
4 Gardens and picture galleries 123
Garden decorations 124
Pinacothecae : representing representation 132
Galleries and houses of the third style in Campania 142
The Pinacotheca and period aesthetics 152
5 The style of luxury 156
Domus aurea 156
Claudian luxury 166
Written luxury 167
Two Pompeian houses : M. Lucretius Fronto and L. Caecilius Jucundus 176
6 The final decade : demography and decoration 186
The neighborhood of the Via di Mercurio 187
Houses of the candidates 211
Limited fourth style additions 220
Incomplete decorations 232
Hierarchy and environment 241
Private enterprise 250
Big circuits and high-powered connections 261
Conclusion : beyond A.D. 79 in Rome and Campania 265
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