Monday, April 7, 2014

Art History Everyone Should Know: Roman Art in Pompeii

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Roman Art in Pompeii
 
 

Pompeii 79 CE: Context:  Pompeii- on August 24, 79 AD a volcano on Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried two entire Roman resort towns near the coast under thousands of tons of volcanic ash. Poison gas was sprayed into the air and as it went down the heated gas killed all the people. The bodies which were covered with volcanic ash were destroyed but left a type of fossil impression in the dried ash and lava. The result was that the town and some of its people were completely preserved for archeologists and historians to uncover later. From the remains of the city we know how the people looked like, how they lived and how they did business. They had organized business and residential districts and paved streets. They even had hot and cold running water. The houses that were preserved by the ashes have left us with a good idea of what kind of lifestyle these people might have lead. 

These plaster forms were made by pouring plaster into the air pockets created by the bodies of Pompeiian who were covered with volcanic ash.  The bodies disintegrated or burned and left hollows.  Some of the gestures and expressions are so life like that we can almost guess as to what they were thinking and we can actually see some figures protecting other figures.

 
Form:  The city was walled and laid out in a logical grid line plan that was divided into several zoned sections that were defined by the main roads named the upper and lower decumanus and cardo maxiumus.  These names were invented by modern archeologists.  The sections were zoned as our own cities are today, with a forum (civic areas and shopping centers,) residential quadrants, entertainment areas with theaters and amphitheaters and combined areas. 
Iconography:  One would think that a city plan would not really be symbolic of anything but on closer inspection there is a lot of symbolism.  The city plan is evolved from both Greek and Etruscan culture's plans and in this way indicates that the Romans emulated them and saw themselves as heirs to these cultures.
The triumphal arch (Herculaneum Gate) which served as the entrance to the town was basically a useless arch that was there as a symbol.  The use of the arch and the symbolic gate it covered was a way of expressing just how Roman they were.
The city plans also install order on the plan of the city which represents the Roman mission in the world which they saw as civilizing the barbarians and bringing order to the world.  It also segregated, the way they spent their time and divided the rich from the poor, the sacred from the profane.

Street in Pompeii with stones for walking across.
Form: The cobbled city streets had drainage ditches, sidewalks and were laid out in a standard size because axle lengths were standardized throughout the empire.  The standardized sizes allowed the installation of walkways (the three stones across the street) that would allow pedestrians to walk above the street when it was filled with rain and avoid the horse poop and mud.  The stones also acted as a kind of "speed bump" because the carts would have to slow down to enable themselves to move through the ruts. Iconography:  The clichĂ© "all roads lead to Rome" applies here in the idea that the Romans really believed that a solid civic infrastructure symbolized order and civilization. 

 

Brawl in the Pompeii amphitheater,
Fresco from  House I,3,23 Pompeii
c. 60-79 CE  5'7"x6'1"
Naples National Museum
Empire Period
Form:  Fresco is a term that literally means "fresh."  There are two kinds, buon fresco and fresco secco.  This painting painting is made by coating a wall with plaster and while the wall is still damp, ground up pigments are mixed with water and lime and painted on the wall.  The paint soaks in and literally stains the wall up to a half an inch and becomes permanent.  This is called buon fresco (good fresh).  Details with more expensive colors (such as blue made from lapis lazuli) are added with tempera paint (egg yolks and glue) when the fresco is dry.  This is called secco fresco (dry fresh).  This fresco depicts Pompeii's arena which was there version of the Colosseum, where gladiatorial events took place.  The building is rendered with the illusion of space called intuitive perspective and isometric perspective.  (This kind of perspective is not as illusionistic as the linear perspective that is invented during the Renaissance around 1400 CE.)

Iconography:  Walls in both public and private homes were often decorated with frescos during the Roman era and it was a symbol of the person's status to be able to afford such decoration.  This fresco is rather like our posters and paintings of sports today and it expresses the importance of such activities in their culture.  Usually the gladiators who performed in such games were originally criminals or enemies of the state, however, if they were successful they became heroes of a kind and their careers were followed by fans.
Context:  In 59 CE Pompeii hosted a game in which they competed with their neighbors the Nucerians.  A brawl erupted and a riot ensued which was similar to the soccer riots of today.  The riots and loss of life and property were so severe that the central government issued a decree that Pompeii was forbidden to have gladiatorial games for ten years.
The fresco shows the velarium a cloth awning that protected arenas like this as well as the double set of steps that allowed the quick entrance and departure of the spectators.
 

 

Portrait bust of a Boy from the 
Popidous Family of Pompeii
before 79 CE
plaster with traces of encaustic paint
Form:  The veristic style of the Roman Patrician above is also expressed in Roman portrait busts.  According to Gardner, the Romans, unlike the Greeks, believed that a sculpture of the head alone was enough to fulfill the requirements of creating a portrait of an individual.  The Greeks believed that one needed the whole body for an accurate portrait.  Nevertheless, in each of these busts, every feature is recorded faithfully, but, the age of the sitter and the verism of the portrait was probably influenced somewhat by the gender of the sitter.  This sculpture was originally part of a larger figure that was hurt or destroyed in an earlier earthquake or eruption.  The head was preserved and placed on a stand however the nose had been broken off.  The broken nose was replaced with a bit of plaster to fill in the broken off portion.
Iconography and Context:  Portraiture like this was probably valuable in both an economic as well as in more sentimental and  familial context and that would explain why, rather than creating a new sculpture they repaired this one.  This sculpture also provides us with a record of one of the catastrophes the people of Pompeii lived with before the final one of 79 CE.

Form:  Many of the streets of Pompeii were lined with two story town houses.  These homes were made from brick and concrete which was later veneered with stucco, plaster and even marble.  The rooves were made from wood and often had awnings which jutted out over the sidewalks.  The fronts of these buildings usually contained shops that opened out on to the streets.  The more elaborate stores were two level and had windows that opened out above.  Located through a short passageway was usually a more elaborate or expensive dwelling that was the home of a wealthier family.  (see the floor plan below or Stokstad figure 6-52) Iconography:  These home/shop organization was integral to and symbolized the economic health that supported the infrastructure of Rome and its towns.  To own such a home in itself demonstrated the wealth and prestige of the landlord.  The types of shops fronting the homes was also up to the discretion of the zoning of the town as well as the homeowner who lived behind the shop.
Context:  These houses had hot and cold running water and a plumbing system that ran underneath the house.  The center of the house had an open skylight above the atrium which caught fresh water and was stored in a cistern usually underneath or at the rear of the house's garden.

Form:  The typical atrium style house of Pompeii was fronted by the shops (1).  The structure usually housed a main house and sometimes even an additional ones (7) was rented out.  The fauces (latin for throat) or vestibulum (2) was a thin passageway that led into the atrium (8) in which the an open skylight above the atrium caught fresh water.  A similar open air peristyle courtyard (9) was located further in and the bedrooms, dining room, bathrooms, kitchen and other service areas radiated out from.  A vegetable garden in addition to the the flower garden provided delicacies such as fresh fruit and staples such as vegetables. Context:  These atrium style houses were really apartment houses and commercial districts combined into one structure.  As such, they were an incredible investment for the wealthy owner.  Not only were they self sufficient in terms of food, the rental on the shops and additional dwellings often paid for whatever loans and taxes owed on the complex.

Mosaic in the Fauces of an Atrium
Style House.
Form:  Mosaics were made from small blocks of stone, ceramic tile or glass called tesserae.  These blocks were then pushed into either plaster, for walls, or cement, for floors.  The blocks, when placed together combined together like the pixels on a computer screen to make an image.  When one looks at the the images from a distance the blocks of color one next to the other mix because the eye would blend them together.  This is called optical mixing.  Depending on the skill of the workman/artisan, the work could be extremely realistic of cartoonish.  These were a particularly durable form of decoration as they were impervious to staining and fading.  Further up in this photo you can see the impluvium (pool) of the atrium. Iconography/Context:  The location and subject of this mosaic makes a lot of sense.  The image of the dog in the front hallway is apotropaic and roughly the equivalent of an alarm sticker on a window or "beware of dog sign."  In fact some mosaics are accompanied with the latin "cave canum" which means literally translates "beware of dog" and indicates a high degree of literacy if they expected a thief to be able to read the warning.

 

Two atriums from houses in Pompeii

The lead pipes which moved the water through the houses.
The next stop in the house was the atrium.  The latin word for heart or chamber is atrium and  this room is where the water was gathered from an opening in the ceiling and then collected further back in the house in a cistern. In the center of the atrium was the impluvium or pool that collected the water.  In the image on the left you can see a fountain and a sink. This room, as almost every room in the house, had a mosaic floor, and frescoes on all the walls.  Depending on the home, some rooms even had special themes and addressed specific stories.
This room is where a guest could stop and wash up before meeting with the occupants.  Bathing was an important part of Roman culture and there were even bathrooms with hot and cold running water.  The pipes that moved the water were made from a soft lead which in itself is a bit of health hazard and probably caused the early death of some of the wealthier citizens of Pompeii who could afford such luxuries..

 


Peristyle Court
Peristyle Court at the house of Vetii
Form:  These peristyle courtyards had ornate sculpture and flower gardens surrounded by a perimeter of stylos (latin for column).  The perimeter columns held up the roof overhang under which furniture was placed.  The columns were often made of marble and often there was marble veneer on the concrete and brick wall.  The wall of the courtyard were often decorated with mosaics and or fresco. Iconography/Context:  The peristyle is almost misnamed because it is truly the atrium (latin for heart) of the house.  This is where the family gathered and in essence it was an outside living room.  Here air and light flowed through the space but the occupants would not be bothered by the noises and smells of the street.

Mosaic portrait from Pompeii

 Fresco from the House of the Baker, 
The baker and his wife
Context:  The sculpture we have seen already demonstrates the Roman propensity and desire for accurate portraiture.  This desire to have a likeness made was not limited to just the wealthy or upper class but also to anyone who might be able to afford such work to be made.
The image on the top is a fresco.    Fresco is a term that literally means "fresh."  There are two kinds, buon fresco and fresco secco.  This painting painting is made by coating a wall with plaster and while the wall is still damp, ground up pigments are mixed with water and lime and painted on the wall.  The paint soaks in and literally stains the wall up to a half an inch and becomes permanent.  This is called buon fresco (good fresh).  Details with more expensive colors (such as blue made from lapis lazuli) are added with tempera paint (egg yolks and glue) when the fresco is dry.  This is called secco fresco (dry fresh). 
Mosaics were made from small blocks of stone, ceramic tile or glass called tesserae.  These blocks were then pushed into either plaster, for walls, or cement, for floors.  The blocks, when placed together combined together like the pixels on a computer screen to make an image.  When one looks at the the images from a distance the blocks of color one next to the other mix because the eye would blend them together.  This is called optical mixing.  Depending on the skill of the workman/artisan, the work could be extremely realistic of cartoonish.  These were a particularly durable form of decoration as they were impervious to staining and fading. 
Iconography:  The image on the left of the Baker and his wife depicts a couple how they would like to be seen.  The baker holds a scroll and his wife holds a wax tablet and a stylus that would have been used to scratch out notes and practice writing.  In all probability, the baker and his wife were either illiterate or semiliterate, yet they hold symbols of their literacy and therefore intelligence.  This is how they wanted to be seen.
In both images the portraits are verist images; however, as in the portrait of Augustus they were probably "prettied up" a bit.  Their features are a bit idealized and their hair a bit too styled.

 
Iconography:  Frescoes like this one depicting fruit and glasses or pure water were symbolic of the pleasures of every day life and perhaps of the delicacies one might desire.  Fruit was not available all year and it is one of the fleeting pleasures.  The depictions of fruit and other delicacies, such as Herakleitos' Unswept Floor (fig 6-58) are references to the wealth of the patron and the skill of the artist.  The clear vessel of water is what is referred to as an artist's conceit or concetto (italian for conceit) because painting a transparent vessel is one of the harder things to paint.

The Three Graces
Fresco from Pompeii before 79 CE

Theseus and the slain Minotaur with the 
Athenian youths.
Fresco from Pompeii before 79 CE
Formal:  These two frescos depict idealized human figures, all standing in the classic contrapposto pose, rendered with light and shadow.  The use of light and shadow, or value structure, to depict volume is sometimes referred to as chiaroscuroChiaroscuro literally translates into Italian as light and shadow or dark and light. In the fresco depicting Theseus and the minotaur with the Athenian youths, is fairly complex in how it depicts space.  For example, the figures are placed in and around an architectural structure and the body of the Minotaur is depicted in a foreshortened pose.  As the head and torso of the Minotaur project into the foreground they begin to look shorter than if the view was a strict profile view.
Iconographic:  Both of these images are powerful symbolic statements of the kinds of values the Romans held.
The Three Graces, represent the three most important qualities a Roman could possess beauty, grace, and intellect (which was linked to virtue). 
The image of Theseus links him to the Doryphoros and to other images of athletic youths who possess kalos.  The Minotaur is a composite creature, that symbolizes antithetical qualities to our human hero.  The bull head represents certain negative qualities. 
Context:  The story of Theseus and the Minotaur at the heart of the maze would have a certain amount of resonance for citizens of the Roman empire because the maze represents the Minoan government lead by the evil King Minos and the Minotaur in its center, is represents the heart of Minos's problems as a ruler.
(see the Legend of the Minotaur in Stokstad page 134). or go here : http://www.bulfinch.org/fables/bull20.html
chiar.oscu.ro n, pl -ros [It, fr. chiaro clear, light + oscuro obscure, dark] (1686) 1: pictorial representation in terms of light and shade without regard to color 2 a: the arrangement or treatment of light and dark parts in a pictorial work of art b: the interplay or contrast of dissimilar qualities (as of mood or character) 3: a 16th century woodcut technique involving the use of several blocks to print different tones of the same color; also: a print made by this technique 4: the interplay of light and shadow on or as if on a surface 5: the quality of being veiled or partly in shadow fres.co n, pl frescoes
[It, fr. fresco fresh, of Gmc origin; akin to OHG frisc fresh] (1598)
1: the art of painting on freshly spread moist lime plaster with water-based pigments
2: a painting executed in fresco -- fresco vt
The term fresco comes from the Italian word for fresh.  The paint is applied quickly in fresh patches of plaster that haven't had a chance to dry yet.  This allows the paint to sink into the plaster and stain it sometimes up to a quarter of an inch below the surface of the wall.
In buon fresco, which literally means "good fresh," the water color and lime (the mineral not the fruit) are painted directly on damp plaster that has just been applied.
Fresco secco (Italian for "dry fresh") is a little less permanent and the paint sometimes can flake off the walls.  Paint and especially details and expensive colors are applied to sections of the mural that have already dried.  The medium in this case is either tempera (egg and water) or some kind of glue usually made from animal skin or some sort of dairy product.

According to the Brittanica,
 
Fresco is a method of painting water-based pigments on freshly applied plaster, usually on wall surfaces. The colours, which are made by grinding dry-powder pigments in pure water, dry and set with the plaster to become a permanent part of the wall. Fresco painting is ideal for making murals because it lends itself to a monumental style, is durable, and has a matte surface. Buon', or "true," fresco is the most durable technique and consists of the following process. Three successive coats of specially prepared plaster, sand, and sometimes marble dust are troweled onto a wall. Each of the first two rough coats is applied and then allowed to set (dry and harden). In the meantime, the artist, who has made a full-scale cartoon (preparatory drawing) of the image that he intends to paint, transfers the outlines of the design onto the wall from a tracing made of the cartoon. The final, smooth coat (intonaco) of plaster is then troweled onto as much of the wall as can be painted in one session. The boundaries of this area are confined carefully along contour lines, so that the edges, or joints, of each successive section of fresh plastering are imperceptible. The tracing is then held against the fresh intonaco and lined up carefully with the adjacent sections of painted wall, and its pertinent contours and interior lines are traced onto the fresh plaster; this faint but accurate drawing serves as a guide for painting the image in colour.
A correctly prepared intonaco will hold its moisture for many hours. When the painter dilutes his colours with water and applies them with brushstrokes to the plaster, the colours are imbibed into the surface, and as the wall dries and sets, the pigment particles become bound or cemented along with the lime and sand particles. This gives the colours great permanence and resistance to aging, since they are an integral part of the wall surface, rather than a superimposed layer of paint on it. The medium of fresco makes great demands on a painter's technical skill, since he must work fast (while the plaster is wet) but cannot correct mistakes by overpainting; this must be done on a fresh coat of plaster or by using the secco method.
Secco ("dry") fresco is a somewhat superficial process that dispenses with the complex preparation of the wall with wet plaster. Instead, dry, finished walls are soaked with limewater and painted while wet. The colours do not penetrate into the plaster but form a surface film, like any other paint. Secco has always held an inferior position to true fresco, but it is useful for retouching the latter.
The origins of fresco painting are unknown, but it was used as early as the Minoan civilization (at Knossos on Crete) and by the ancient Romans (at Pompeii). The Italian Renaissance was the great period of fresco painting, as seen in the works of Cimabue, Giotto, Masaccio, Fra Angelico, Correggio, and many other painters from the late 13th to the mid-16th century. Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel and Raphael's Stanza murals in the Vatican are the most famous of all frescoes. By the mid-16th century, however, the use of fresco had largely been supplanted by oil painting. The technique was briefly revived by Diego Rivera and other Mexican Muralists in the first half of the 20th century.