The Frescoes in Pompeii’s Lavish Villas Reveal the Fabulous Lives of Ancient Romans

Julia Fiore
Aug 28, 2018 10:14PM

I’m writing this on a perfectly blue-skied August 24th, trying to imagine the apocalyptic scene the Roman author, philosopher, and naval commander Pliny the Elder witnessed from his home along the Bay of Naples exactly 1,939 years ago today.

According to his 18-year-old nephew Pliny the Younger’s heart-stopping firsthand account, written to the historian Tacitus, the sky turned black as Mount Vesuvius erupted, spewing fire and ash over Pompeii and its neighboring towns. Within a matter of days, almost the entire Bay of Naples, as well as thousands of its inhabitants—including the eminently quotable Elder statesman—were buried. It was a movie-quality tragedy that today may incite a fear of increased natural disasters in our own age of rapid global warming.

But the event also served to freeze a moment in the past, and the perfectly preserved ruins—petrified over the centuries—offer the world’s most complete picture of ancient Roman life.

Second peristyle of the House of the Faun, Pompeii, Campania, Italy. Roman civilization, 1st century B.C.E. Photo via Getty Images.

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.

It is the picture galleries and lavishly painted rooms adorned with frescoes (in which pigment is applied to wet plaster), however, that speak most clearly to the inhabitants’ ambition and taste. The extraordinary splendor of the imperial villas set high standards in the region, and the sculptors and painters employed by the emperors were also commissioned to decorate the homes of the urban and suburban elite in Pompeii and Herculaneum. In Republican society, the home played a key part in reinforcing the patrician’s social position, as he would receive his clients in the atrium each day.

These wall works are also some of the only paintings from this time that survive in the present; the few ancient literary references to Roman painting usually concern portable examples on materials like wood and ivory. Because these have not survived, the history of Roman painting is almost entirely dominated by these durable frescoes. Although colors tend to last in frescoes, once exposed to light and air, they can fade significantly. It’s precisely because Vesuvius buried these cities that these works have remained bright and intact.

Detail with pine tree and pomegranate in the garden fresco from the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta in Rome at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome, 30–20 B.C.E. Photo by Carole Raddato, via Flickr.


Some of the best descriptions of Roman wall painting history and techniques can be found in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History and in Vitruvius’s manual De Architectura. According to Pliny, it was Studius “who first instituted that most delightful technique of painting walls with representations of villas, porticoes and landscape gardens, woods, groves, hills, pools, channels, rivers, coastlines.” The latter described fresco as “a blinding vision.”

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 artists like Joseph Wright and Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (who, in 1813, painted Pliny the Elder and his nephew witnessing the volcano’s eruption).

In 1882, German scholar August Mau published his History of Decorative Wall Painting in Pompeii, creating a system for categorizing 200 years’ worth of frescoes into a range of four decorative styles. His work still provides the standard framework for the study of ancient Roman painting. Mau observed that these styles fed off of one another over the centuries, becoming more detailed and complex as ambitions and social tastes shifted, and as artists learned new skills. How and why did these styles develop, and did they really reach their apex at Vesuvius’s eruption?

First Style a.k.a. Fake It Till You Make It

Reconstruction of a Roman cubiculum (bedroom) from Bilbilis, Spain, ca. 50 B.C.E. Photo by Juán José Ceamanos. Courtesy of Museo de Calatayud, Spain.

In temples and official buildings, the Roman government imported costly marble to decorate the walls. But for most citizens, such an expense was not affordable. Instead, the wealthier among them commissioned artists to paint imitations of precious materials like yellow, purple, and pink marble. Mau characterized this as the “Incrustation Style,” popular from approximately 200 to 60 B.C.E. Over time, painters became so adept at this technique that the faux-marble slabs even showed veins, with each rectangle of painted “marble” connected by stucco mouldings that added a three-dimensional effect.

Artists of the late Republican period drew upon examples of early Hellenistic painting and architecture (which came from Greece in the late 4th to 3rd centuries B.C.E.) in order to simulate masonry. Typically, the wall was divided into three horizontal zones, each crowned with simple stucco decorations based on the Doric architectural order.

Examples of this style can be found in the private homes known as the House of the Faun and the House of Salluste, both of which can still be visited in Pompeii. The decline of the First Style coincided with the Roman colonization of Pompeii in 80 B.C.E., which transformed what had essentially been an Italic town with Greek influences into a Roman city.

Second Style a.k.a. Tricking the Eye

Detail of the cubiculum (bedroom) from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, ca. 50–40 B.C.E. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The so-called “Architectural Style” (ca. 80–late 1st century B.C.E.) that followed is characterized by illusionistic renderings of architectural elements like columns, stoas, and buildings, as well as vivid landscapes. Artists also began to borrow from the figural repertoire of Hellenistic wall painting, depicting gods, mortals, and heroes (though the Second Style did retain elements of the First, such as faux marble blocks along the base of walls). Prefiguring Renaissance experiments by over 1,000 years, this style employed shading and perspective to trick the viewer into thinking they were looking through a window, for instance.

In the triclinium (dining room) of the Villa of Livia (named after the wife of Emperor Augustus), a stunning garden fresco decorates all four walls of the room with life-size representations of trees, flowers, fruit, and birds, creating the feeling of being outdoors. This style anticipates Rococo decorating schemes that sought to bring nature indoors, which were popular in 18th-century France.

Fresco depicting a Bacchian rite from the Dionysiac Mysteries in the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii, ca. 50 B.C.E. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Fresco showing a garden scene from the House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii, mid–1st century C.E. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps the most famous and beguiling example of the style can be found in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, which contains the renowned fresco of the Dionysiac Mysteries, generally thought to show the rites of initiation to an ancient religious cult dedicated to the god of revelry and wine. Amid architectural views and colonnades set against a red background (this favored pigment has since been named “Pompeii Red”) are life-size depictions of Dionysus and Silenus, who commingle with a priestess and a dancing satyr. The scale meant that viewers were implicated in the scenes, making for a powerful religious experience.

Those unable to travel to Italy can still experience something of this style’s unique majesty. In its Greek and Roman galleries, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has reconstructed the cubiculum (bedroom) from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale. A series of elaborately painted landscapes viewed through opulent, realistically rendered architecture creates the feeling that the villa’s walls are really windows.

Third Style, a.k.a. Flights of Fancy

Pair of swans from the imperial villa at Boscotrecase,  Pompeii, last decade of the 1st century B.C.E. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Egyptianizing scene from the imperial villa at Boscotrecase, Pompeii, last decade of the 1st century B.C.E. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

In contrast to its predecessor, the Third, or “Ornate,” Style (ca. 20 B.C.E.–20 C.E.) rejected illusion in favor of surface ornamentation. Broad, monochromatic fields of color (usually red, black, or white) were punctuated by tiny, intricate details. Instead of representations of architectural elements drawn from real life, this style depicted implausibly stylized columns and pediments conjured from the artist’s imagination.

Vitruvius took issue with this technique in De Architectura, criticizing the paintings for distorting reality: “For instance, reeds are put in the place of columns, fluted appendages with curly leaves and volutes, instead of pediments, candelabra supporting representations of shrines, and on top of their pediments numerous tender stalks and volutes growing up from the roots and having human figures senselessly seated upon them.”

Egypt was annexed by Rome after the death of Cleopatra in 30 B.C.E., and the Third Style also saw the introduction of Egyptian themes and imagery, including scenes of the Nile, as well as Egyptian deities and motifs.

Wall paintings on black ground: from the imperial villa at Boscotrecase, Pompeii, last decade of the 1st century B.C.E. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The stunningly elegant “Black Room” at the Met—a recreated bedroom from the villa of Agrippa Postumus at Boscotrecase—encapsulates this political moment. Agrippa, a friend of the emperor Augustus and husband of his daughter Julia, owned one of the most sumptuous summer homes along the bay, its paintings executed by artists working for the imperial household (the Met’s version incorporates surviving panels from the original room).

The room’s black walls appear at once flat and limitless. Renderings of spindly, almost weightless candelabra and columns embellished with jewel-like decorations support minute but exquisitely painted vignettes, tiny landscapes that float in the middle of the monochrome walls. On the back wall, small swans—the bird of Apollo, patron god of Augustus—perch upon delicate architecture. Decorations also include yellow panels with Egyptian motifs and painted medallions with portraits of members of the imperial family.

Such dwellings seem to evidence the tension between Apollonian restraint and Dionysian indulgence. Roman senator Cato the Elder and other moralists cautioned against the excessive display of wealth, but their words had more traction in the city of Rome than in the splashy villas along the Bay of Naples.

Fourth Style a.k.a. Now Mix Them All Together…

Fresco depicting a scene of sacrifice in honor of the goddess Diana in the triclinium of the House of the Vettii, Pompeii. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

The Fourth Style, politely called the “Intricate Style” (ca. 20–79 C.E.), can be best described as a combination of the three styles that came before it, and was a kind of baroque reaction to the Third’s mannerism. Pliny the Elder claimed that it was developed by an eccentric painter named Famulus, who decorated Nero’s famous Domus Aurea, or Golden Palace.  

As in the First Style, faux marble blocks appear along the base of walls. These frame illusionistic renderings and large-scale narrative paintings from the Second Style, which, in turn, inhabit large, flat planes of color and unlikely architecture, à la the Third Style. These paintings do look as busy as they sound, and feature heady combinations of mythological, genre, landscape, and still-life scenes. As scholar Paul Zanker has suggested, Fourth Style wall paintings are not only a pastiche of what came before, but endeavored to transform domestic spaces into pinacothecae (picture galleries).

At the House of the Vettii in Pompeii, brothers Aulus Vettius Conviva and Aulus Vettius Restitutus—who have been been identified as successful former slaves or freedmen—decorated their house to display their rising social status. The 12 large, detailed frescoes of mythological scenes that survive today reflect themes of divine reward and punishment. One painting illustrating the punishment of Ixion reinforces the omnipotence of Jupiter (a.k.a. Zeus) and his sons, while a scene showing a sacrifice in honor of the goddess Diana reflects the patrons’ humility. At the entrance of the house, a depiction of Priapus, the god of fertility, offers some levity as he weighs his frankly gigantic phallus on a set of scales (in fact, quite a bit of erotic art has been unearthed in the homes of Pompeii).

Following the eruption of Vesuvius, Romans in other parts of the empire did continue to paint their homes, yet there is no clear Fifth or Sixth Style; later Roman painting simply re-combined elements of earlier styles. Thus, the unearthed villas along the Bay of Naples crystalize a momentous development in ancient art, and reveal that Romans enjoyed lives that many contemporary viewers could only hope to live.

Julia Fiore