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Roman Painting
Having dealt at great length with great paintings from the last thousand years, I guess I should give at least some time to painting from the thousand years or so before that. Aside from some cave painting and that which the Greeks saw fit to decorate their ceramics, most of the rest of the history of painting can be summed up in that dating from the Roman Empire. And even here there is precious little of it from the BCE period. However, thanks to the Roman art of fresco painting, some minor earthquakes, and an unfortunate volcanic eruption near the Roman city of Pompeii and the small town of Heraculeum, we do have barely enough two-dimensional art preserved for posterity to enable us to catch a glimpse of what Roman artists had to offer in the way of painting.

Even by today's standards, it was surprisingly good. Roman artists had an excellent grasp of one-point perspective, even to the point of painting fool-the-eye architectural features on the frescoed walls of some of their finer homes. The newly restored Room of Masks in the House of Augustus has a theatre scene expertly depicting a stage, curtains, and columns, topped by a pagoda style roof. A similar wall in the House of the Vetti in Pompeii has a painted window niche replete with a still-life on the sill and featuring a very deep illusionary perspective while the surrounding area is highly decorated with delicate, flowering vines and ivy. Near the end of the fifteenth century, the remains of the Domus Aurea, the palace of our friend the fiddling-firebug, Emperor Nero, was discovered beneath the Baths of Trajan. The vaults were heavily decorated by a painter named Fabbulus, who apparently lived up to his name, painting in a manner to suggest marine grottoes (as well as their supposed flora and fauna) found along the Italian coast of the Aegean Sea. The fifteenth century Italians loved it, and imitated it in what came to be known as the "Grotesque" style.

However, one of the most interesting and striking paintings from the Roman era is a fresco dating from the first century CE of a man and woman. Thought by some to be the lawyer, Terentius Neus and his wife. Others have held him to be the baker, Paquius Proculus and wife, whose shop was next door to the house where the portrait was found. In any case, the only slightly stylised features give us a good feel for not only their appearance; and the state of the art insofar as Roman portrait painting is concerned; but a surprising degree of insight into their personalities. She clutches a stylus and a wax tablet used to keep records, while he holds a rolled scroll. Their eyes are somewhat exaggerated. Her features are otherwise quite delicate, his quite Roman with the prominent nose typically associated with his race. Both appear quite attractive and learned. It's probably not the greatest painting of the first thousand years in the history of art, but it's a good representative piece attesting to the considerable skills and highly developed artist's eye of Roman painters of the time.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
6 July 1999

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