I would like to help you discover, or rediscover, the Roman frescos. There are not many examples of them. The most we have come from Pompei and Boscoreale. The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD preserved them in their original state. August Mau, a German archaeologist, classified them in four styles. But we have to remember those four styles are only for us, to make it easier, and the Romans didn’t know those styles. They ordered paintings they liked and there was an evolution, not strict rules.
Here are some characteristics of the styles which might help you understand and see the differences. The first style (2nd century BC – 100 BC) imitated walls and used stucco. The second style (100 BC – 30 BC) played on the illusion. It took the light into consideration. The wall appeared open on the outside and the details were realistic. The third style (30 BC – 50 AD) refused architectural illusions, and instead represented paintings. The forms are elongated. The fourth style (50 AD – 79/90 AD) was a return to architectural illusion. There were even more illusions than in the second style. There were also borders.
I chose to present to you a bedroom (cubiculum) wall from Fannius Synistor’s villa. This villa was in Boscoreale and this wall was painted around 40 BC – 30 BC. The Met Museum owns the bedroom and they made a really nice reconstitution where the visitor can enter the room and see all the paintings (picture at the end of the post). It almost feels like you are in Boscoreale.
The frescoes of the villa are part of the advanced second style. The wall is solidly structured by a theatrical architecture. This portico has a rhythm given by red columns at a regular interval. On those columns, you can see some golden Acanthus stems imitating the bronze ones that really existed. This portico, on a high stand, is in the foreground. Behind it there is another portico made of pillars. This disposition is supposed to show the distance between the room where the spectator stands and the imaginary architecture or the background landscapes. These landscapes were there to create a surreal atmosphere conducive to relaxation. The panel represented here is the alcove of the bedroom marked by two columns and two pilasters painted in white. These pilasters go down to the floor. Between the columns the wall is closed halfway up. In the center, we can see a tholos (round temple) and porticos on the sides. The porticos create a little court around the temple, while leaving the world behind it for the observers imagine as they please. In the foreground, in front of the tholos, there is an altar surrounded by fruits. This gives a religious note often depicted in the paintings of the second style. Those walls have numerous details which can create subtle allusions of some realities known only to privileged persons.
The fact that this decoration, created around 40 BC – 30 BC, was not replaced by another one before the Vesuvius eruption shows that the owner of the house was aware of the quality of his frescoes.