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.