Battle of Issus, 1st century mosaic copy of a painting by Philoxenos of Eretria, c. 310 BCE.
Wall painting in ancient Rome was a highly developed art, continuing the advances made by Greek painters. The
fact that the Battle of Issus, which was copied from a famous Hellenistic painting, is actually a mosaic from a house
in Pompeii shows how much the Romans admired and imitated Greek works. Roman painting differs from Greek
painting (at least what survives of Greek painting) in two ways: Romans explored illusionism in more ways, and they
used a wider variety of subject matter in their works.
Art historians have divided Roman wall painting into four styles based on the degree of illusionism attempted by
the artist. The first style shows false marble panels; the second depicts scenes as if they are occurring beyond the
wall on a stage or in an outside area; the third shows illusionistic paintings set against the wall, as if the room were
an art gallery; and the fourth combines all three of these styles.
Perhaps the most famous series of murals made in the second style is found at the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii.
All the walls of one room are painted with scenes of a Bacchic initiation rite showing life-sized women in a frenzied
dance set against a blood-red background. Their actions take place on what appears to be a stage, just beyond our
own space.
Dionysiac mystery frieze, from the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii, 1st century BCE
The mural shown below is from a Roman palace and is done in the fourth style. At the lower level, small “paintings”
are set against imitation marble panels. Between the panels, narrow windows seem to open onto an open space.
At the upper level, an even more complex spatial illusion is created, and we seem to be looking out onto a rooftop
Previous Page Next Page