Beware: painters at work

On the morning of 24 August 79 CE a team of painters, perhaps three or four altogether, had turned up at a large house almost next door to the House of Julius Polybius to continue a job they had started a couple of weeks earlier. Exactly how large, or grand, this house was we do not yet know, for it has not been completely uncovered. What we have so far is only the rear portion of the property: a peristyle garden (described on p.87), the rooms around it, and a small entrance onto a side alley (Fig. 10). Between the back wall of the garden and the Via dell’Abbondanza there stood – in one of those characteristic Pompeian juxtapositions between upmarket residence and the economic infrastructure – a shop and a commercial bakery (which we shall visit in the next chapter). The main front door of this house, now known for obvious reasons as the House of the Painters at Work, must have opened onto a street to the north.

Major redecoration works were obviously going on. Piles of lime were found in the colonnades of the peristyle, as well as sand and mosaic tesserae and other flooring material in a dump near the kitchen. The painters were in the middle of their work in the most impressive room of this part of the house, some 50 square metres, opening onto the garden. They must have taken to their heels sometime around midday, leaving their equipment and paints behind almost in mid-brushstroke. Compasses, traces of scaffolding, jars of plaster, mixing bowls have all been found there, as well as more than fifty little pots of paint (including some – mostly empty ones – stacked in a wicker basket in one of the rooms to the north of the peristyle, which was obviously being used as a store during the building works).


Figure 10. The House of the Painters at Work. This house has still not been fully excavated. Its rear portions abut onto the Bakery of the Chaste Lovers. The front entrance must be somewhere to the north (above).

Thanks to the sudden interruption we get a rare glimpse of their handiwork before it was quite complete, and from that we can begin to reconstruct how they worked, in what order, how quickly and how many of them there were. One basic principle is – and it is not much more than common sense – that they started at the top and worked down. Although the uppermost levels of the room are now almost completely destroyed, it is clear that the very top sections of the wall had been finished and painted. So too, to judge from fragments found fallen to the floor, had the coffered ceiling. The very bottom level of the wall, below the ‘dado’, had not been given its final coat of plaster.

The painters were working, as the eruption began, on the large middle zone of decoration. They were using true fresco technique. That is to say, the paint was being applied to the plaster while it was still wet, which – as the paint bonds with the plaster – produces a much more stable colour, which does not flake off at a single knock. But it also means that they had to work very quickly, to be certain that the paint was on before the plaster had dried. Painters in the Renaissance had the exactly same problem and sometimes hung damp cloths over the plaster to keep it moist. Keen eyes have occasionally spotted what might be such cloth marks in other houses in Pompeii, but not here. So too, on other paintings, it is possible to detect the pressure marks, where the painter has pressed down on the plaster to try to bring the remaining moisture to the surface.


43. A half-finished wall, abandoned by the painters when the eruption came. At first sight this is not much to look at, but it is possible to reconstruct some of the painters’ methods. The central and right-hand panel had already been given their wash of colour – except for the central figured scene for which the design had been merely sketched out. The left hand section (just visible) was still covered in bare plaster. At the bottom of the central panel painted cupids are enjoying a perilous chariot race.

A closer look at the north wall gives a good idea of exactly the stage they had reached (Ill. 43). Two of the main panels, one black and one red, had already been completed. They were mostly plain, but enlivened by several groups of tiny figures: including what looks like an amorous god making off with a nymph, and some sporting cupids, racing their chariots pulled by goats (with a nasty accident to the leading pair). Separating these panels of colour were narrower sections, where fantastic architecture and impossibly attenuated columns were intertwined with flowers, foliage and precariously balanced birds. On the left, a whole section remained to be painted: the final layer of fine plaster was still wet and would presumably have been coloured in matching black by the end of the day – had disaster not struck.

Also in the final stages was the main picture that was to have been the focal point in the very centre of the wall. Here a rough drawing, in yellow ochre, had been made in the wet plaster to plan out the design and guide the painter in what would have to be speedy work on the final image. All that we can tell now is that it would have included a number of figures (someone seated on the left, and a several standing on the right) and that the upper portion, where some paint had already been applied, was to be blue: presumably, as many other surviving examples make almost certain, it would have been a scene drawn from the repertoire of mythology. In this panel, the under-drawing was relatively detailed, with some careful modelling of the anatomy.

The same was not true for those delicate architectural images. On the east wall of the room, these are still unfinished – but here the sketch in the plaster amounts to no more than some schematic straight lines, geometric curves (hence the compasses) and the occasional diagram of a tricky shape, such as urns. It is as if these elegant and apparently whimsical designs were so much the stock-in-trade of the painters that they could fill in the detail – the birds and the foliage, the architectural extravaganzas – from only the most skeletal outline.

We cannot be more certain about the planned subject of that central panel of the north wall for the simple reason that most of its under-drawing has been covered by a rough layer of irregular dripping plaster. But this turns out to give us another glimpse into how the painters were working. For this pattern of plaster can only have been caused by a bucketful of the stuff falling against the wall from a ladder or scaffolding, knocked over when the painters made their escape or when the eruption came. Underneath the central panel, the two holes at either side, with a line running between them, suggest that a temporary shelf had been rigged up here, to hold the paint pots of the man painting the main scene.

Chemical analysis of the surviving paints yields further hints. They were using seven basic colours (black, white, blue, yellow, red, green and orange), made up in different shades from fifteen different pigments. Some must have been easy to get hold of locally: soot, for example, gave them their black, and various forms of chalk or limestone produced white paints. But they were also using more distant or sophisticated ingredients: celadonite, perhaps from Cyprus, for green; haematite for red, also probably imported; and so-called ‘Egyptian blue’ made commercially by heating together sand, copper and some form of calcium carbonate (according to Pliny, this was at least four times as expensive as a basic yellow ochre). These paints came in two significantly different types. The first included an organic ‘binder’ (probably egg). The second had no such binder but had been mixed with water. This points to two different painting techniques. The binder was needed in the paint used for the finishing touches (extra twirls on the architectural designs, or even those racing cupids) which were applied secco, that is onto plaster or paintwork that was already dry. It was not used in the paint applied directly onto the wet plaster (fresco).

Putting all this evidence together, we can get a rough outline of the team which was doing this work, and of its division of labour. It must have involved at least three workers. On the morning of 24 August, one was busy on the central panel of the north wall. One was working next to him, charged with the less skilled task of putting on the plain wash of black paint (perhaps it was his bucket of plaster that fell). Another was painting the as yet unfinished architectural decoration on the east wall (the central panel there had not yet been plastered, so was due to be painted on a later day). Another may have been at work on the secco details. But as there was no time pressure with these (unlike the fresco), they would more likely have been added by the other painters when their fresco work was finished. A small business then: with an apprentice, son or slave supporting the work of a couple of more experienced craftsmen.

Who exactly they were, how they were hired, what they charged or how the wall designs they were creating were chosen, we can only guess. Only two possible signatures have ever been found on paintings at Pompeii, and we have no local evidence of prices for such work. The best we have, in fact, comes from much later, in a set of imperial regulations about maximum prices issued in the early fourth century. In this a ‘figure painter’ (who may be the equivalent of those here who painted the central panels) could earn twice as much per day as a ‘wall painter’, and three times as much as a baker or a blacksmith. If the ‘figure painter’ is the equivalent of those who worked here on the central panels (rather than, as some scholars believe, a portrait artist), then such decoration must have been pricey, but hardly a luxury affordable only by the very rich. The negotiations between client and painter were probably not all that different from those we know today. A lot of money will buy you anything you choose. Otherwise it is a trade-off between the wishes and whims of the clients and the preferences of the painter, his competence and his established repertoire.


44. The painting that gave its name to the House of the Menander. The fourth-century BCE comic playwright Menander is here seen relaxing with a scroll of his own work.

What is certain is that the distinctive painting of Pompeian houses, their vivid decorative schemes, the colourful assault they make on the visual senses were almost all the product of the kind of working methods and small-scale business we glimpse in the House of the Painters at Work. A small property, down a back street just two doors away from Amarantus’ bar, was most likely the home base of one such painting business, or at least of a family which made part of its living in that way. Near the front door, a wooden cupboard originally stood, containing more than a hundred pots of paint, as well as other tools, such as plumb-bob and compasses, spoons and spatulas, and grinding equipment for turning the pigments into fine powder ready for mixing. Taking account of itinerant labour or even special commissions from prestige firms outside the area, a small number of workshops like this must have been responsible for the majority of the painted houses in Pompeii, and so there must be plenty of examples of the same painter’s work in different properties.

Spotting the work of the same ‘hand’, where there is no written evidence to help, is a seductive but dangerous business. One very distinguished archaeologist has even managed to convince himself that he can spot the very same painter at work at Fishbourne in England, in the so-called ‘Royal Palace’ of Togidubnus, and at Stabiae, just south of Pompeii. In Pompeii itself, all kinds of – sometimes wild – theories of ‘who painted what’ have been floated. So, for example, the work of the painter responsible for several of the main figured scenes in the House of the Tragic Poet has also been identified in more than twenty other houses in the town, from the famous painting of Menander in the House of the Menander (Ill. 44) to a matter-of-fact picture of a man relieving himself that decorates a corridor on the way to the latrine in a small house plus shop. Maybe – or maybe not. But, to indulge in the same game myself for a moment, the tiny vignette of the cupids in the chariot accident on the painted border of that north wall we have been looking at is so similar to a scene with cupids in the House of the Vettii (Plate 21) that it is hard to imagine that they are not by the same painter or painters.

Pompeian colours

If the painters had not been interrupted, the finished product in the House of the Painters at Work would have been something very close to the ‘Pompeian painting’ of modern imagination. For the rediscovery of Pompeii in the eighteenth century launched a widespread European fashion for ‘Roman’ interior design. Travellers who had paid a visit to the ruins, or those who had merely enjoyed some of the lavish early publications of the decorations found there, began to reinvent the walls of Pompeii in their own houses, whether in city-centre Paris or the English countryside. Anyone with the money could re-create the ambience of a Roman room by following a simple formula: walls painted in panels of that deep red colour now known as ‘Pompeian red’ (or in an almost equally characteristic yellow), decorated with fantasy architecture, floating nymphs and scenes drawn from classical myth. For us, this has become the stereotype of Pompeian domestic style.

It was not, of course, simply an invention. Indeed, this ‘Pompeian style’ reflects the commonest format of domestic decoration in the ancient town. That deep red was one of the Roman colours of choice, along with black, white and yellow (though we should not forget that the heat of the volcanic debris may have produced more red than there once was, by discolouring what was originally painted yellow). Many designs combine mythological scenes, ranging from such sultry subjects as Narcissus admiring his own reflection in the pool to the menace of Medea about to draw her sword on her children, with exuberant versions of architectural form. These are sometimes precariously spindly, sometimes so successful a trompe l’oeil, revealing vistas extending far into the distance, that the solid surface of the wall itself seems almost to disappear. Another distinctive feature, as we saw in the unfinished room and as is carefully replicated in modern imitations, is the three-fold division of the design into three vertical registers: a broad central section carrying the main figured scenes, with dado below and an upper zone carrying more decoration above the cornice (Ill. 45).



45. The walls of Pompeian houses often used painted columns, pediments and dadoes to create a vision of fantastical architecture. The effect of these two paintings is very different, but the standard division of the painting into three zones is clear in both.

Nonetheless, the imagination of the Pompeian painter and his patron was much more fertile than this. Looking around Pompeian houses, you would have spotted on their walls a range of subjects, themes and styles far wider than that modern stereotype suggests. Delicate landscapes were tucked away among the architectural fantasies, as well as touching portraits (Ill. 46) and still-lifes, not to mention stunted dwarfs, scenes of sex and fearsome wild beasts, both in miniature and on a grand scale. There were also styles of decoration much more like modern wallpaper than you would ever have predicted. Many householders painted long tracts of their corridors and service quarters with a black and white design, known for obvious reasons as ‘zebra stripe’, which would not have looked wholly out of place in the 1960s. Even a prestige room might be decorated in swathes of repeating geometric and floral patterns utterly unlike what we would think of as ‘Pompeian’ (Ill. 47). And all this variety was before you looked down at the floor, where, in the wealthier houses at least, almost anything that might be painted on the wall could also be turned into an image in mosaic, from guard dogs to the occasional full-scale battle. The ‘home decorating’ of Pompeii springs all kinds of surprises.


46. A striking image of a young woman with a stylus pressed against her lips, a detail less than 10 centimetres tall in the original. Modern imaginations have fancied – for no good reason – that she might be a portrait of the Greek poetess Sappho.

Particularly memorable are the large paintings that often plaster the whole back walls of garden areas. We saw the traces of painted foliage and other garden features on the wall of the House of the Tragic Poet, merging the real and imaginary garden. Other houses opted for something more exotic. Visitors to one relatively modest property (known as the House of Orpheus) would have been able to see straight through its front door to the peristyle garden at the rear – and to a well-over life-size figure of a naked Orpheus painted on the wall, sitting on a rock in a country landscape and strumming his lyre to the delight of a motley collection of beasts (Plate 2). On another garden wall, a colossal Venus emerges from the sea, sprawled out somewhat uncomfortably in her shell (Ill. 97). On another, a fantastic landscape, with palm trees in the foreground and grand villas in the distance, is the setting for a (painted) shrine of a trio of Egyptian deities, Isis, Sarapis and the child Harpocrates, the symbol of the rising sun.


47. Some of the wall decoration of Pompeii looks surprisingly modern. This patterned design from the House of the Gilded Cupids, believed to imitate fabric hangings, could almost pass for wallpaper.

Hunting scenes were also favourites (Plate 19). Even the small garden of the House of Ceii (named after its possible owners) offered visitors the thrill of the chase. The back wall of this space, not much more than 6 by 5 metres, is dominated by a dramatic hunt, with lions, tigers and other varieties of more or less fierce creatures (Ill. 48). But then turn to left or right, and the side walls are covered with images of the Nile and its inhabitants – pygmies hunting a hippo, sphinxes, shrines, shepherds muffled in cloaks, palm trees, sailing boats and barges (one loaded with amphorae). It is slightly clumsy workmanship. But the idea presumably was that to enter this tiny space should be to enter another world, part wild-animal park, part exotic foreign territory.

A whole variety of other themes was on display in sometimes elaborate painted friezes – and in sometimes surprising locations. We have already explored the surviving sections of the frieze from the Estate of Julia Felix, with its images of Forum life. But this was only one among many. All around the entrance hall of the private suite of baths in the House of the Menander ran a series of caricatures of the exploits of gods and heroes, humorous parodies of famous myths: Theseus, in the guise of a barrel-chested dwarf, killing the minotaur; a middle-aged and none too lovely Venus busy telling little Cupid where to fire his arrow (Ill. 51). In the same house, painting spilled onto the cramped surface of the low wall which ran between the columns of the peristyle: here herons pranced among some luscious plants, while a motley collection of wild animals were on the chase, hound after deer, boar sniffing after a lion.


48. The garden wall of the House of the Ceii, covered with an animal hunt. The painting is crude and patchy in its survival. But it still vividly brings the wild countryside into the tiny urban garden.

In a much more modest property close to the Forum on the Via dell’Abbondanza, now called the House of the Doctor (after some medical instruments found there), the wall between the columns of the small peristyle was covered with a frieze of pygmies. These were pictured getting up to all kinds of adventures, and into all kinds of scrapes: some attempting to catch a crocodile (Plate 22), one being eaten by a hippopotamus (while a friend vainly tries to pull him out of the creature’s mouth), a couple having sex in front of an admiring throng of pygmy revellers. But the most striking image is the scene which appears to depict a pygmy parody of the Judgement of Solomon, or some story on very much the same lines. Here a soldier is already wielding a large hatchet above the disputed baby, ready to cut it in half, while one of the claimant women, presumably its true mother, is pleading with three officials watching the scene from their raised dais (Ill. 49). If pygmies are not an unusual presence in various decorative schemes in the town (they have been found, for example, painted on the sides of the stone couches in one lavish outdoor triclinium, as well as in the House of the Ceii), the scene with the baby has no parallel elsewhere in Pompeii.


49. In this painting pygmies play out the story of the Judgement of Solomon (or some very similar tale). The disputed baby lies on the table, ready to be cut in two. On the right, one of its competing ‘mothers’ pleads in front of a group of judges seated on a raised dais.

Even so, for visual impact and intriguing subject matter, pride of place among friezes must go to the even more extraordinary series of paintings found in the Villa of the Mysteries (part working farm, part lavish domestic property), just over 400 metres outside the Herculaneum Gate. These now rival the Vettii’s Priapus as the iconic symbol of Pompeian art. They are reproduced on the same range of modern souvenirs, from ashtrays to fridge magnets – and have the added advantage that you don’t have to be quite so careful about who you give them to.

Life-size figures, set against a rich red background, running around all four walls of a large room, almost enclosing the viewer in the painting, they are a stunning example of ‘saturation viewing’ (Ill. 50). At one end, the god Dionysus lounges in the lap of Ariadne, whom he rescued after she had been abandoned by the hero Theseus – itself a favourite theme of Pompeian painting. Around the other walls, we are faced with a curious array of humans, gods and animals: a naked boy reading from a papyrus roll (Plate 14); a woman bringing in a loaded tray turns to catch our eye; an elderly satyr plays a lyre; a female version of the god Pan (a ‘Panisca’) suckles a goat; a winged ‘demon’ whips a naked girl; another naked woman dances to castanets; a woman has her hair braided, while a winged Cupid holds up the mirror. And that is to pick out only about half of what is going on.

To be honest, this is all completely baffling, and no amount of modern scholarship has ever managed to unravel the meaning – or, at least, not wholly convincingly. Some have argued that the images refer specifically to initiation into the religious cult of Dionysus. Note, for example, the flagellation, and the revelation of what might be a phallus on the end wall next to the divine couple. If so, then the room itself might have been some kind of sacred precinct within the house. This is not impossible, but it is certainly in no sense hidden away, as you might expect an esoteric cult room to be. In fact, it opens onto a shady portico, with a lovely view of the sea beyond; while on another side it has a large window looking onto the mountains in the distance. Others have seen the paintings as a rather extravagant allegory on marriage, and the young woman admiring herself in Cupid’s mirror as the bride. In which case, we are dealing with nothing specifically religious – but a perfectly plausible, if somewhat idiosyncratic, set of decorations for a major entertaining room. The house has been called the Villa of the Mysteries, after the Dionysiac ‘mysteries’ of initiation, following the strictly religious reading of the frieze. The truth is that these paintings are mysterious in the popular modern sense of the word too.


50. The mysterious frieze of the Villa of the Mysteries. At the far end of the room the god Dionysus slumps in the lap of his lover Ariadne. On the left, opposite the large window, some of the figures that make up the procession are visible: a child reads from a scroll watched over by a seated woman, perhaps his mother. (See also Plate 14)

Most Pompeian houses have now lost their sparkle – their interior decoration, as we have already noted, sadly faded, or worse. Only tantalising fragments survive of those caricatures in the baths of the House of the Menander (Ill. 51). We will never be able to recapture that Egyptian garden landscape in all its gaudy freshness, for – thanks to the combination of rain, sun, frost and an earthquake or two – it has simply disappeared since it was first uncovered in the early nineteenth century. Go to visit the house now, and you will find hardly any plaster left on the wall, and on what does remain it takes the eye of faith to make out more than a few vague blotches. All that we have comes courtesy of the energetic artists who worked in Pompeii in the years after its discovery, copying paintings for armchair archaeologists and aesthetes. It had already gone, it seems, by the 1860s.


51. Parodies of the gods in the baths of the House of the Menander. This drawing of a now very faded painting shows a nasty little Cupid taking aim, under the instruction of a decidedly frumpish goddess of love.

But there are nasty shocks of a different sort too. What makes the frieze in the Villa of the Mysteries so memorable is not just its curious subject matter. It is the completeness of the images that surround you, the luscious red background behind the figures and the glistening sheen of the paintwork. Here is one of the few places in the city where the full ancient experience of the painted walls seems to have been preserved.

Sadly not. The fact is that this is no miraculous preservation, but the product of aggressive restoration after its excavation in April 1909. To be fair, what we now see may give roughly the right impression of the original. But the paintings were not in this perfect state when they were dug out of the ground, in a private-enterprise dig, by the local hotel keeper, and they were further damaged by the various strategies of conservation that followed. In the months after the discovery, these famous images were exposed to the elements, protected only by hanging cloths, which did nothing to prevent damage to the area above Dionysus in an earthquake in June 1909.

A worse problem was the rising damp. From the moment they were exposed, salts rose from the ground and leached through the paintings, leaving nasty white patches. Starting only days after the discovery, these were removed with a mixture of wax and petroleum which was repeatedly applied to the surface. Hence not only that impressive sheen, which (even though some wax might have been applied in antiquity) is not itself ancient at all, but also the deep hue. A recent ‘excavation’ back to the Roman paintwork has revealed a distinctly lighter background colour. More radically, though it was standard practice at the time, stretches of the original walls of the room were demolished and replaced with damp-proof versions, the paintings being first detached from their original surface then reset into the new. All this had happened before a German team arrived in the autumn of 1909 to restore the frescoes, and to return them so far as possible to their pristine state.

The Villa of the Mysteries is one house in Pompeii which does have a sparkle. But, despite its iconic status, that sparkle is not an ancient one. It is in large part the work of modern restorers.

What went where

When Cicero was buying sculpture to decorate his various houses and villas, he was very choosy about what went where. On one occasion in the 40s BCE, he wrote a cross letter to one of his friends who was acting as his agent. The unfortunate Marcus Fabius Gallus had, amongst other purchases, acquired a set of marble ‘Bacchantes’ – the female followers of the god Dionysus (or Bacchus), and a well-known symbol in the ancient world of wildness, intoxication and lack of restraint. They were, as Cicero admitted, ‘pretty little things’. But they were completely unsuitable for a (sober) library. A set of Muses, on the other hand, would have been just the ticket. And that was not the end of his complaints. Gallus had also come up with a statue of Mars, the god of war. ‘What good is that to me, the champion of peace,’ moaned the ungrateful Cicero.

The logic of Cicero’s schemes for interior decoration is clear enough. The subject has to fit the function of the room, or the image he wants to present. Can we trace that, or some other, logic behind the decorative choices made in the houses of Pompeii? Amidst all the variety, can we begin to explain why any particular painting was chosen for any particular room?

There must have been some element of personal whim involved. Whatever the precise meaning of the frieze in the Villa of the Mysteries (whether the sacred rites of Dionysus, an allegory of marriage, or any of the other bright ideas that scholars have come up with over the years), the whole ensemble is so lavish and distinctive that it points to a patron with strong views of what he wanted on the walls of this room, and the cash to pay for it. The same is true for the Alexander mosaic in the House of the Faun, a fabulously expensive installation, whether it was purpose-made for the spot, with its millions of tiny stone tesserae, or imported from the East. Someone very much wanted it to be there – though why, we cannot now hope to know. But decoration is not only a matter of personal whim. As we take for granted in our own world, there are cultural ‘rules’ which govern how houses are painted and decorated. Can we reconstruct those rules for Pompeii? And what do they tell us about life in the Roman town?

These questions have exercised archaeologists for generations. One of the favourite suggested answers, first floated in the nineteenth century, is that fashion or changing taste lie at the root of the many different styles we see on the walls of the city. To put it another way, there is a chronological development in painting, with different styles indicating a different date for the decoration. It is especially the stereotypical ‘Pompeian’ manner of painting, with its broad washes of colour, its mythological scenes and architectural frames and fantasies, that has been scrutinised in this way. Archaeologists have tracked down various clues to the precise dating of individual paintings – whether hints offered by Vitruvius or those coin impressions made while the job was still wet (p. 15) – to reconstruct a complete design chronology. What looks to the untutored eye like a fairly homogeneous series of paintings can, so this argument goes, be divided into four distinct chronological styles, one succeeding the next in a fashion-conscious city. These are what are known in archaeological jargon (which regularly spills into guidebooks and museum labels) simply as the ‘Four Styles’, found not only in Pompeii but throughout Roman Italy.

These styles are characterised by their different techniques of illusion, from the imitation blocks of coloured marble in the First Style to the sometimes baroque architectural confections of the Fourth. In between came the more solid architectural trompe l’oeil of the Second Style (often assumed to have been introduced to the town with the Roman colonists) and the delicate, decorative orna-mentalism of the Third, which reduced columns to mere stalks, pediments to twirls of foliage. Vitruvius, writing in the reign of the emperor Augustus, had no time at all for the then new-fangled Third Style, seeing it not just as unrealistic, but almost immoral: ‘How can a reed really support a roof or a candelabrum support gable ornaments? How can such a thin and pliant stalk carry a seated figure, or how can both flowers and half-length statues emerge from roots and shoots? Yet the people who look at these lies find no fault with them. On the contrary they like it, and they don’t pay any attention to whether any of it could actually exist ... No paintings should be sanctioned except those that obey the principles of authenticity.’ Had he lived to see it, the Fourth Style would have hardly appealed to him either. Ranging from relatively restrained compositions in white and red to breathtaking and sometimes frankly garish extravaganzas, it hardly displayed much concern for ‘authenticity’.


Figure 11. Four Styles of wall decoration. Top left, (a) The First Style. Second century BCE. Top right, (b) The Second Style. In Pompeii this is usually dated to after the arrival of the Roman colonists in 80 BCE. Bottom left, (c)The Third Style. From the Augustan period (c. 15 BCE) to the mid first century CE. Bottom right, (d) The Fourth Style. The style of the final years of Pompeii, from the mid first century CE on.

There is a lot to be said in favour of this model of chronological development in the house decoration of Pompeii. It is, after all, entirely plausible that Pompeian taste in interior design did change over time. Any modern builder who is used to working in old houses knows exactly what style of wallpaper to expect as he peels back the layers of the decoration that have been applied with each new fashion of the twentieth and nineteenth centuries. Why not the same sort of changes in Pompeii? In fact, there is plenty of evidence on the site that fits neatly with the idea of a progression of Four Styles. The vast majority – some 80 per cent – of the painted walls in Pompeii are done in Fourth Style, as you would expect for the latest in the chronological sequence. Besides, tentative as the dating of Pompeian structures and paintings often has to be, there is no evidence that a Fourth Style scheme was ever applied to a house wall before the middle of the first century CE.

All the same, the fixation of some modern archaeologists with the Four Styles is much too rigid. True, any visitor to Pompeii in 79 CE would have found painting in the Fourth Style dominating the domestic landscape. But it goes without saying (because they are still there for us to see) that all the other styles were on show too. One house, known for obvious reasons as the House of the Four Styles, sported decoration from each of the Four Styles, perhaps the result of piecemeal decoration at different periods. The House of the Faun, as we have already seen, had preserved a large stretch of First Style decoration, in its strangely old-fashioned, almost museum-style environment, and had even applied it afresh on rebuilt walls. And there were a number of other splendid examples of First Style painting which had been carefully preserved, and no doubt retouched and repainted, right up to the end of the city’s life. It even seems that in public buildings (such as the Basilica in the Forum, a multi-purpose legal, political and commercial building) First Style decoration was in regular use long after it was the popular choice for domestic property. Pompeian decoration, both inside and outside the home, was a combination of old and new.

What is more, as so often with such rigid schemes, the distinction between one style and the next is not quite so clear on the ground as the usual ‘type examples’ selected by most books (this one included) would suggest. Although a small band of archaeologists continue to work at refining the chronology and the stylistic categories, inventing more and more micro-subdivisions (Third Style Phase 1A, B, C, 2A etc.), the untutored eye may not be entirely wrong in suggesting that there are more similarities than differences in these styles. Generations of students have made their first visit to Pompeii, armed with book-learning about these stylistic divisions, only to discover, as I did myself years ago, that – distinctive though the First Style is – it is in most cases much harder to pinpoint the Second, Third and Fourth Styles than they had ever imagined. Even the specialists occasionally gesture at this problem, when they refer to the Fourth Style as ‘eclectic’, or ‘taking elements from what went before and putting them together in new and often unexpected ways’. One goes so far as to admit that the Fourth Style is ‘scarcely distinguishable from the Third’ – which leaves only the relatively few examples of First and Second as clearly distinctive.

But the bigger problem is that the theory of the Four Styles pays almost no attention to the possibility of a link between the function of a room and the type of decoration on its wall. In the modern house, this is a powerful factor in design choice. Walk into an empty property today and there is fair chance that, even without the beds or wardrobe, you will be able to tell the main bedroom from the sitting room or the children’s room, relying only on the colour and patterns on the walls. And Cicero suggested that a similar concern with function might dictate a rich Roman’s choice of statuary. Does the same thing apply in Pompeii, where – as we have already seen – household activities were rather less precisely tied to particular rooms or areas of the house than in our own domestic environment?

Yes – or, at least, up to a point. The zebra stripe design is very obviously associated with the service quarters. It is true that there are one or two more upmarket rooms in the town decorated in this style, but by and large this was the cheap wall decoration slapped onto latrines, slave rooms, utility areas and corridors (the ancient equivalent of a quick coat of white emulsion). We have also seen that the walls of a garden would often be decorated with themes which picked up the idea of verdant foliage, and hinted at an imaginary wilderness (populated by beasts, pygmies and other exotic figures) stretching in the mind’s eye far beyond the confines of the house. It is significant too that those parodies of well-known myths, treated with all due seriousness in most other paintings in Pompeii, are found in a private bath suite. For baths were a place of pleasure where social norms were relaxed, as is signalled in the House of the Menander by the mosaic on the floor at the entrance to the ‘hot room’: a dashing and scantily clad black slave, garland on his head, carrying two water flasks which rhyme in colour and shape with his (large) penis; underneath an arrangement of four strigils (oil scrapers) and a jar on a chain which is also decidedly phallic (Ill. 52).

But we can trace a few more-general links between the use of different areas of the house and the decoration on its walls, its colours and themes. In the modern Western home, pastel colours regularly signal bedrooms or bathrooms. In Pompeii, the householder often seems to have chosen black background paint for his grandest rooms, cheap though the basic ingredient of that paint could be (Pliny, interestingly, refers to various more-expensive black pigments, including one imported from India). Yellow and red were relatively high-status alternatives.


52. The mosaic floor at the entrance to the hot room in the House of the Menander. An almost naked black slave displays his large penis, while underneath the strigils used by bathers for scraping off the sweat and grease are arranged in a matching phallic pattern. What message was this for the naked bathers?

To judge from the cost and from the comments of Roman writers, one very special red pigment, cinnabar or vermilion (‘mercury sulphide’ to a scientist), which was mined in Spain, was the very height of luxury. This was so sought after that, according to Pliny, a maximum price was set by law (just over twice the price of Egyptian blue), to keep it ‘within limits’. He also notes that it was one of a small number of expensive colours which were usually paid for by the patron separately, over and above the standard contract price for the job. It’s not hard to imagine how those negotiations might have gone: ‘... well, of course, I could do it in cinnabar, sir, but it’d cost you. It’d have to come as an extra. You’d probably be better getting hold of some yourself ...’ Negotiations between client and builder may not have changed very much over the centuries.

Not only a very desirable shade of red, cinnabar was also tricky to handle (no doubt part of its allure). For in certain conditions, particularly in the open air, it rapidly discoloured, turning a mottled black, unless a special coating of oil or wax was applied. As if to drive the point home, Vitruvius tells the story of a lowly but rich ‘scribe’ in Rome who had his peristyle painted with cinnabar and it had changed colour within a month. It served him right for not being better informed was the moral. The work being done in the House of the Painters at Work was not in the cinnabar range. But that pigment has been discovered in two of the obviously most prestige decorative schemes in Pompeii: the Villa of the Mysteries frieze and one of the rooms off the peristyle in the House of the Vettii.

Different decorative styles also pointed to different functions or different levels of exclusivity with the house. The fact that the First Style is most often preserved in domestic atria and that it continued in use in public buildings in the town is probably no coincidence. Within the domestic sphere it came to signal public areas of the house. Likewise (though this argument is perhaps rather too circular for comfort) you can often spot rooms, large or small, that were intended to impress the invited guest by their concentration of mythological paintings, almost as if in an art gallery, and by their extravagant architectural vistas. One scholar has even suggested a simple rule of thumb, which works well enough for Second and Fourth Styles at least: ‘the greater the depth suggested by the perspective effects, the higher the prestige of the room.’

So decorative choices for the Pompeian householder came down to a trade-off between fashion and function. This was true right across the social spectrum. For, as we saw with the overall architecture of the house, there is no sign of any particular difference in taste, or in the underlying logic of their decor, between the properties of the rich and those of modest means, or between those of the old elite families and rich ex-slaves. Even if the houses of the poor had no public role, the householders followed the same cultural norms of decoration so far as they could afford it. And, despite many attempts by modern archaeologists to sniff out the vulgarity of the Trimalchio-style nouveaux riches, it has usually been more a projection of their own class prejudices than anything else. In the end, the differences between the paintings in rich and poor houses come down to not much more than this: the poor had fewer figured scenes, fewer dramatic extravaganzas of design and no cinnabar, and (notwithstanding a few second-rate daubings in elite properties) the quality of painting in their houses was generally much cruder. Pompeii was a town where you got what you paid for.

Myths do furnish a room

When the eighteenth-century excavators first discovered the paintings of Pompeii, it was the figured scenes in the centre of many of the Third and Fourth Style walls, not the extravagant or whimsical architectural fantasies, that caught their imagination. For these were the first visual representations of ancient myth ever to be discovered in such quantity. What is more, they offered a first glimpse of the lost tradition of painting which Pliny and other ancient writers hyped as one of the highlights of ancient art. True, Pliny was usually referring to masterpieces of easel painting by famous Greek artists of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, prize possessions of temples and monarchs; and these were panels painted directly onto the wet wall plaster of domestic housing in a small Roman town. But, in the absence of the original works by Apelles, Nicias, Polygnotus and the others, they were the best evidence available. Many of the most striking examples were cut out of the wall on which they were found and taken to the nearby museum – where, of course, they came to resemble ‘gallery art’ even more closely.

The range of myths chosen by the painters and their patrons is very wide. There are, it is true, some puzzling absences. Why, for example, so few traces of the myth of Oedipus in Pompeii? But some of the themes of Pompeian painting are old favourites for us too: Daedalus and Icarus, Actaeon accidentally (but disastrously) catching sight of the goddess Diana at her bath, Perseus rescuing Andromeda from her rock, the self-regarding Narcissus, and a variety of familiar scenes from the story of the Trojan War (the Judgement of Paris, the Trojan Horse and so on).

Others, though obviously favourites in Pompeii, are to us rather more arcane. No fewer than nine similar paintings have been discovered depicting a tale which came to be told as a ‘prequel’ to the Trojan War: Achilles on the island of Skyros. At first sight their subject looks like any other heroic brawl. But there is a curious back story. The Greek hero has been hidden away by his mother Thetis to keep him out of the conflict; he is disguised as a woman and lodged with the daughters of Lycomedes, the king of the island. Knowing that Troy can only be taken with Achilles’ help, Odysseus arrives disguised as a pedlar and succeeds in ‘outing’ him with a cunning ruse. When he lays out his wares – trinkets, ornaments and an assortment of weapons – the ‘real’ girls go for the ornaments, while Achilles reveals his manhood by choosing the weapons. Odysseus, as we see here (Ill. 53), takes that as his opportunity to pounce on the renegade.


53. A tale of cross-dressing – and a favourite theme of Pompeian painting. Achilles, in the centre, is in hiding from the Trojan War, dressed as a woman and living among the daughters of the king of Skyros. But he is ‘outed’ by Odysseus, who grabs him from the right, to take him back to do his duty as a warrior.

An even stranger story appears in at least four paintings, plus a couple of terracotta statuettes (Ill. 54). It is the image of one of the most extreme forms of filial piety imaginable. An old man, Micon, has been imprisoned with no food and risks dying of starvation. He is visited, so the legend goes, by his daughter, who has recently had a baby. To keep her father alive, she feeds him with the milk of her breast. In one version, in the House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto (so called after the likely owner), the scene is explained and the message is underlined by some lines of poetry, painted next to the figures: ‘Look how in his poor neck the veins of the old man now pulse with the flow of the milk. Pero herself caresses Micon, face to face. It is a sad combination of modesty [pudor] and a daughter’s love [pietas]’. A superfluous explanation perhaps. For paintings of this story were notorious at Rome for their visual impact: ‘Men’s eyes stare in amazement when they see what is happening’, in the words of one roughly contemporary Roman writer.


54. A devoted daughter feeds her imprisoned father. This myth of filial piety caught the imagination of the Pompeians. Here it is represented in a terracotta figurine. Elsewhere it provides the subject for paintings.

Why so many versions of the same scene? Almost certainly, in some cases, because they were inspired by the same famous old master of Greek art. The archaeologists of the eighteenth century were not entirely wrong when they imagined that the paintings in Pompeii might give a glimpse of lost Greek masterpieces, faint as it might be. Occasionally, in fact, there are tantalising similarities between the images on these walls and the descriptions of much earlier paintings given by Pliny and others.

One of the best-known panels from the House of the Tragic Poet, for example, shows the sacrifice of the young Iphigeneia by her father Agamemnon before the Greek fleet sailed for the Trojan War – an offering to the goddess Artemis in return for fair winds (Ill. 55). The almost naked girl is being carried to the altar while her father, distraught at his own deed, covers his head in sorrow. This is exactly how both Pliny and Cicero describe a painting of the sacrifice of Iphigeneia by the fourth-century BCE Greek painter Timanthes: ‘the painter ... felt that Agamemnon’s head must be veiled, because his intense grief could not be represented with the paint brush.’ But, as a whole, what we see at Pompeii was nowhere near an exact copy of Timanthes’ masterpiece, in which Odysseus and the girl’s uncle Menelaus also featured, and Iphigeneia, rather than being carried as she is here, stood calmly by the altar awaiting her fate. There seems a fair chance too that some of the scenes of Achilles among the women of Skyros go back ultimately to a famous easel painting by one Athenion: ‘Achilles concealed in girls’ clothes when Ulysses [i.e. Odysseus] finds him out’, as Pliny briefly describes it; though the differences in detail from one Pompeian version to the next suggest again that they are variations on the theme, not exact copies of the original.


55. King Agamemnon, on the left, cannot bear to look as his daughter Iphigeneia is taken off to be sacrificed to the goddess Artemis, who is appearing in the heavens. This drawing (like Ill. 53) is from the famous nineteenth-century guide book to the site, Pompeiana by Sir William Gell.

In all likelihood the Pompeian painters were working from a range of well-known and ‘quotable’ masterpieces which had entered their own artistic repertoire. There is no reason at all to suppose that they had ever seen the original paintings or even that they had pattern books or exact templates to copy. These famous images were as much part of the common artistic currency as the Mona Lisa or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers are in the West today. As such they could be adapted to new locations at will, riffed and improvised, made to evoke the original rather than to reproduce it exactly. And not only in paint. Achilles on Skyros turns up in mosaic too, and one popular theory has it that the Alexander mosaic in the House of the Faun is a version of a painting by a Greek artist, Philoxenus of Eretria, mentioned by Pliny.

The big question, though, is what the Pompeian residents made of all these myths decorating their walls. Was it the ancient equivalent of wallpaper, occasionally glanced at and admired maybe, but always in the background? Would, in fact, many of the Pompeians have found it as difficult as we do to explain exactly what was going on in many of these images? Or were they carefully studied, loaded with meaning, and intended to convey a particular message to the viewer? And if so, then what message?


Figure 12. The House of Julius Polybius. This has an unusual arrangement of large entrance halls, as well as the standard atrium. It was in this house that the twelve victims of the eruption were discovered, in rooms off the peristyle.

Archaeologists divide on the question. Some see little more than attractive decoration in most of these images. Others like to detect complex, even mystical significance in the painted plaster. Of course, the paintings no doubt spoke differently to different people, and some observers were more observant than others. But there are a number of hints that viewers on occasion took notice of the images that surrounded them, or at least were expected to. Even if the most ingenious modern theories – which would see the interior decoration of many Pompeian houses as an elaborate mythological ‘code’ – are decidedly unconvincing, some painters and patrons astutely planned their content and arrangement.

Ancient writers tell vivid stories of the impact a mythological painting could make on a viewer. A Roman lady, about to part from her own husband, was once reduced to tears, it was said, at the sight of Hector, the Trojan hero, saying his final farewell to his wife Andromache (he was going off to battle, one from which he would never return). There are no tears at Pompeii. But one person who had a very good idea of what he was looking at, and took the time to reflect on it, has left a record of his reflections – and it probably was his – scrawled on a wall in the House of Julius Polybius (Fig. 12). In the grandest room off its peristyle garden is a large painting of another favourite scene in the repertoire of Pompeian myths: the punishment of Dirce – a gory tale, in which (to cut a very long story short) her victims take revenge on Dirce, the Queen of Thebes, by tying her to the horns of a wild bull, and so inflicting a slow, painful and bloody death. In Pompeian terms, there is nothing particularly remarkable about the painting, one of eight on the same theme discovered in houses of the city. But this particular version made enough of an impression on our writer that he advertised it, in a one-line graffito, found in one of the service areas of the property: ‘Look. There’s not only those Theban women, but Dionysus and the royal maenad too.’

Unearthed before the painting had been found, this message at first puzzled the archaeologists who were excavating the house in the 1970s. What was some scribbler doing in the kitchen, rambling on about Theban women? It only fell into place when it was put together with the nearby image. For, as well as the final punishment of Dirce with the bull, the painting also depicts the scene of her capture dressed as a follower of Dionysus (the ‘royal maenad’ of the graffito), as well as a shrine of the god and, in the foreground, a larger group of maenads (‘those Theban women’). Whoever wrote the graffito had not only paid careful attention to the painting, but knew enough of the story to identify the scene as Thebes, and Dirce (as written versions of the myth insist) as a follower of Dionysus. Exactly what prompted him to write, who knows? But whatever it was, he would no doubt have been amazed to discover that his words have become, 2000 years on, rare and clinching proof that some people in the city certainly cast an intelligent eye on the pictures on their walls.

On other occasions a particular subject in a particular location clearly implies some calculated choices on the part of painter or patron. Whoever decided to decorate the wall above one of the couches of the outdoor dining installation in the House of Octavius Quartio with a painting of the mythical Narcissus gazing at his own reflection in the pool must have thought that the diners would enjoy the joke. For this was one of those upmarket installations (as in the House of the Golden Bracelet), with a gleaming channel of water between the pair of couches on which the company reclined. Presumably as you gazed at your reflection in the water, you were supposed to enjoy a wry smile at the overlap between myth and real life, while reflecting, perhaps, on the myth’s lesson about the tragic consequences of falling in love with that image of yourself.

There may be a similar pointed reference lying behind the painting of Micon and Pero in the House of Lucretius Fronto, with its verses underlining the combined virtues of modesty or a sense of decency (pudor) and piety (pietas) which the story celebrates. Though some archaeologists have thought this an apt decoration for a child’s bedroom (a strange choice, if you ask me), there may be a more specific political resonance to the image. Is it just a coincidence that, in a couple of lines of poetry painted on the outside of this house as an electoral jingle, it is the pudor of Marcus Lucretius Fronto which is given pride of place?

If decency [pudor] is thought to help a man get on in life at all

To our Lucretius Fronto that high office which he seeks should fall

If Marcus Lucretius Fronto really was the occupant of this house (and the combination of graffiti inside and outside makes that very likely), then it looks as if the painting was meant to reflect one of his trademark public virtues.

But, even more often, the combination of subjects chosen to decorate a room seems to be significant. The removal of figured panels from their original setting to the safety of the museum certainly did much to preserve their colour and detail. Yet it also makes it hard to see them in their original context and the relationship between them in their original position. In the House of the Tragic Poet, for example, many of the paintings, now displayed in the Naples Museum as if they were individual examples of gallery art, once combined to make a connected cycle of themes from the Trojan War: Helen leaving for Troy with Paris; the sacrifice of Iphigeneia; his prized captive and concubine Briseis being removed from Achilles – the cause of his quarrel with Agamemnon which launches Homer’s Iliad and which was depicted in another panel in the house. There was more to this than a simple coherence of theme. In their original locations, all kinds of questions must have been raised in the clever visual juxtapositions and in the ‘provocative correspondences’ between individual paintings and their subjects.

Originally, it seems, the scenes of Helen and Briseis stood in adjacent panels in the atrium (Plate 23). These were two vignettes of women’s desertion, each one a linch-pin in the story of the Trojan War, and the parallels are underlined by the similar dress of each woman, her bowed head and the surrounding cast of soldiers. Yet, for anyone familiar with the Trojan story, the comparison must have prompted reflection on the differences between the two scenes as much as on the similarities. For Helen, the Greek queen, was leaving her husband Menelaus and embarking on an adulterous journey of her own free will – and in so doing would be the catalyst to the whole catastrophic war between Greeks and Trojans. Briseis, the Trojan prisoner of war, was leaving Achilles to be handed over to King Agamemnon, against her will – and Achilles’ anger at his loss would lead directly, as Homer’s epic tells, to the death of his friend Patroclus and of Hector, prince of Troy. Virtue, blame, status, sex, motivation and the causes of suffering are all at issue in this pairing. Whoever designed this series of images certainly knew their Trojan myths and must have expected the audience to do so likewise.


56. A little cupid stands at the doorway as Paris and Helen decide to elope, so launching the Trojan War. But this painting from the House of Jason is more loaded than it might seem at first sight. For here Paris is sitting down as if taking the female role, while Helen stands – and the architectural background is reminiscent of Pompeii itself, suggesting that the myth of adultery, elopement and domestic disruption was relevant to ‘real life’ too.

An unsettling undertone can be detected in another series of paintings, which also features Helen’s adultery with Paris. Three panels decorate a small room in the House of Jason, so called after a painting of the Greek hero Jason in another room. Each one depicts a moment of calm before tragedy strikes: Medea watches her children play, before killing them, to take revenge on the husband who has abandoned her; Phaedra talks to her nurse before killing herself in unrequited love for her stepson Hippolytus, accusing the innocent young man of incest in the process; while Helen entertains Paris at her marital home before their elopement – which is already signalled by the little cupid at the door (Ill. 56).

As with the series in the House of the Tragic Poet, visual rhymes between the paintings prompt the viewer to compare and contrast the different versions of domestic disaster on show. For example, both Medea and Phaedra are seated, as you would expect of a respectable Roman matron; but in the other scene it is Helen who stands, while her effeminate ‘Oriental’ lover takes the women’s place. But the architectural background adds a disturbing dimension. Its similiarity in each scene does not just bind the three stories together; the style of the architecture and those big heavy doors bear more than a passing resemblance to the style of upmarket domestic architecture in Pompeii itself. It is almost as if the paintings have a point to make about the relevance of the myth to contemporary Roman life, in exposing the tragic dysfunction – from adultery to infanticide – that can creep up on any family, anywhere.

A room with a view?

The decoration of Pompeian houses has kept scholars busy for centuries, figuring out the chronology, the aesthetic and functional choices made, the meaning of the myths on the walls. Fascinating details continue to be discovered on everything from the logic of the designs to the technical procedures of the painters who carried them out (the House of the Painters at Work only began to be unearthed in the late 1980s, and the excavations are still incomplete). But there is an important and obvious point about the domestic style of this Roman town which often gets lost among the detail.

To judge from their plans and the surviving remains, many if not most Pompeian houses would count as claustrophobic places. Only a few of the very richest exploited any kind of view onto the outside world; the vast majority were inward-looking, with hardly more than a couple of tiny windows, to bring in light, onto the street outside. Most of the rooms were small and dark. And although some (the wealthiest again) were endowed with lofty atria and with extensive internal gardens and walkways, in many even the atrium must have felt relatively cramped (especially when filled with all those cupboards and looms) and the garden was not much more than pocket-handkerchief size, more a light-well than a place of pleasure and relaxation.

Yet the painted decoration tells another story. The clever tricks of illusion suggest vistas that do extend beyond the confines of the house. In the most extravagant cases the internal walls seem to dissolve into a vision of competing perspectives, glimpses beyond the horizon and distant views. Around the borders of the tiny gardens, it must sometimes have been hard to decide at a glance where the domestic plants stopped and the wild landscapes or the river Nile started. Even in the more austere First Style, the viewer is confronted with the puzzle of what the wall they are looking at really consists in: is it painted plaster and stucco or the marble blocks that it pretends to be?

This sense of something beyond the house is powerfully reinforced by the subjects of the wall paintings. Pompeii was, after all, a small town in southern Italy. Yet it is striking how far its cultural and visual reference points extend: across the Mediterranean, through the repertoire of ancient literature and art, to more exotic shores beyond. The imaginary world of decoration was not claustrophobic in the slightest. It embraced a galaxy of Greco-Roman myth and literature, from the Homeric epics on; it evoked and adapted the masterpieces of classical Greek painting; it exploited the cultural highlights of Egypt, from sphinxes and the goddess Isis, to satires and burlesques on its inhabitants and their weird customs. This is not, of course, all benign multiculturalism. The stereotyped pygmies chasing crocodiles or having riotous sex are portrayed with a mixture of aggressive humour and xenophobia. But the crucial fact is that these distant horizons were portrayed at all. On top of its mixed cultural roots in southern Italy, Pompeii was part of the global Roman empire – and it shows.

It shows also in the other forms of ornament and bric-a-brac that have been found in these houses. The Indian statuette of Lakshmi (Ill. 11) may be an extreme and unusual case of cultural ‘reach’. But there is plenty of other material to suggest how outward-looking the world of the Pompeian house could be, at least for those with enough cash to spare for decoration. There are, for example, columns, floor tiles and tabletops made from expensive coloured marbles, imported from far-off parts of the empire – from the Peloponnese and the Greek islands, from Egypt, Numidia and Tunisia in Africa, from the coastlands of modern Turkey. Overall Greece, and its history, was in the forefront: a rough-and-ready terracotta statuette identified on its base as ‘Pittacus of Mytilene’ (a sixth-century BCE Greek sage and moralist) and found in the Estate of Julia Felix; an elegant mosaic with a group of Greek philosophers chatting under a tree with what looks like the Athenian Acropolis in the background, unearthed in a villa just outside the city; and of course the Alexander mosaic.

One of the most striking discoveries is from the House of Julius Polybius. Packed away with other valuables at the time of the eruption, in the grand room with the painting of Dirce, was a fifth-century BCE Greek bronze jug. It had originally been, as an inscription on it declares, part of the prizes at the games held in honour of the goddess Hera at Argos, in the Peloponnese. After a chequered career in which it lost its handles (one suggestion is that it was used in a burial) and had a tap added, it ended up in Pompeii. Whether a prize purchase or a family heirloom, it was a nice reminder of a world and a history outside Pompeii.

How the painters in the House of the Painters at Work had intended to fill the large, as yet blank, panels we shall never know. Nor can we know if they took to their heels in time to escape to safety. But there’s little doubt that their job had been to create, in paint, ‘a room with a view’.


Plate 1. Mosaic of musicians, probably intended to depict a scene from a comedy by the fourthcentury Greek dramatist, Menander (pp. 253–4). It comes from the so called Villa of Cicero, just outside the Herculaneum Gate.


Plate 2. The whole of the garden wall of one house carried this striking scene of Orpheus charming the animals with his music (p. 128).


Plate 3. Is this the emperor Nero? This painting from a luxurious dining room in a building just outside Pompeii has been identified as Nero in the guise of the god Apollo. So, it has been suggested, this may have been where he stayed on his visit to Pompeii – if he really did visit Pompeii, that is (p. 50).


Plate 4. Reconstruction of a typically colourful façade on the Via dell’Abbondanza. On the far right a crossroads shrine, then an open bar or shop counter. Election notices are painted on the next door house. Above, wooden overhangs shade the street and entrance ways.


Plate 5. The carpenters display their craft in a procession. At the far left was a statue of their patron deity Minerva, though little more than her distinctive shield survives. In the middle is a model of their carpentry work (pp. 294–5).


Plate 6. The gaming table, from a painting in the Bar on the Via di Mercurio (p. 230–31). The brightly coloured, casual clothing contrasts with our image of white toga-clad Romans.


Plate 7. One of the best preserved of the scenes of Forum life from the Estate of Julia Felix. A group of men consult a written notice that has been displayed across the bases of the statues in front of the colonnade (p. 76).


Plate 8. This model of the House of the Tragic Poet shows a cross section of the house from the front door to the rear peristyle (see Fig. 6). In the central atrium, the well sinks down below the floor. The front part of the house has substantial rooms on the upper floor.


Plate 9. Model of the peristyle garden of the House of the Tragic Poet. The back wall is painted with a garden scene. Under the colonnade is the famous painting of the sacrifice of Iphigeneia (Ill. 55).


Plate 10. Painting from the wall of the large dining room in the Chaste Lovers bakery (p. 218). At first sight an elegant scene, with comfortable cushions and drapes, and glass vessels set out neatly on the table. But the woman behind is already so drunk she can hardly stand up and just visible between the two reclining couples a man has passed out.


Plate 11. Balancing act. A nineteenthcentury copy of a lost painting from the Bar on the Via di Mercurio. The tightropes are probably a figment of the modern artist’s imagination (pp. 231–2).


Plate 12. A typical Roman conceit. This gaunt elderly figure was designed to hold all kinds of titbits in his tray, for the benefit of wealthy diners (p.220).



Plate 13. Almost a ‘comic strip’ series of paintings on the wall of the Inn of Salvius (p. 230). The couple in the first scene used to be taken for two men until cleaning revealed that the left hand figure was female. Although the final scene is damaged, it is clear enough that that landlord is laying down the law: ‘If you want to fight, go outside.’


Plate 14. Among the gathering of humans and gods that makes up the Villa of the Mysteries frieze (p. 132), a boy reads out from a scroll, watched over by a woman, perhaps his mother. Part of the visual ‘joke’ lies in that fact that we the viewers can neither see nor hear what he is reading out.


Plate 15. The face of the defeated king Darius from the ‘Alexander Mosaic’ in the House of the Faun (p. 28).


Plate 16. The baths offered a glimpse of luxury to the ordinary Pompeian bather. This nineteenth-century painting recreates the ambience of the Stabian Baths (p. 246).


Plate 17. In the centre (tablinum) of the House of the Tragic Poet (Fig 6), this mosaic depicted a group of actors preparing to go on stage. The performance is to be a satyr play, hence the thespians are squeezing into goat costumes (pp. 254–5).


Plate 18. A painting from the sacred precinct of Isis in a nineteenth-century copy. The Greek priestess Io, one of Zeus’ lovers, is received in Egypt by the goddess Isis. According to the myth, Io had been hounded by the jealous Hera, Zeus’ wife – who at one stage had turned her into a heifer, hence the horns. She is supported by a river god (p. 306).


Plate 19. The garden wall of the House of the Ancient Hunt, named after this painting.


Plate 20. A nineteenth-century version of a miniature frieze in the House of the Vettii, showing cupids as metal workers.


Plate 21. Here, in the original paintwork from the House of the Vettii, the cupids have a chariot crash. (p. 126).


Plate 22. A vista onto a foreign world. In this painting, pygmies get into all kinds of adventures. One is riding a crocodile, another is apparently being eaten by a hippo, though help is at hand.


Plate 23. A composite image of the walls of the House of the Tragic Poet. On the lower left Helen departs on her journey to Troy. On the right, in another moment from the Trojan War, the prisoner Briseis is taken from Achilles to be given to Agamemnon (pp. 147–8).

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