Habitats at Herculaneum and Early Roman Interior Decoration

Ruins of Herculaneum / Wikimedia Commons

Lecture by Dr. Diana E.E. Kleiner / 01.29.2009
Dunham Professor, History of Art and Classics
Yale University

Introduction and the History of Herculaneum

We’re going to look at several houses in Herculaneum, and then we’re going to move from there to [a brief look at] early Roman interior decoration, namely the First and Second Styles of Roman wall painting. [You’ll see] that in both the First and Second Styles, architecture is depicted in these paintings, and we’re going to see some very interesting relationships between that and the built monuments that we’ve talked about thus far this semester.

Location of Herculaneum / Wikimedia Commons

Just to remind you of the location of Herculaneum, which is usually called the sister city of Pompeii, because of that locale. We see it on the map here. Pompeii is down in this location. Herculaneum is to the northeast of Pompeii, closer to Naples than Pompeii is, as you can see. And note also the city of Boscoreale, Boscoreale, which is located between, almost equidistant — a little bit closer to Pompeii than Herculaneum — but in between the two. And I point it out to you now because we’re going to look at an important room, with paintings, from the city of Boscoreale, [later in this lecture]. Although most of the city of Pompeii has been excavated, only about a quarter or twenty-five percent of the city of Herculaneum has been excavated. So we have much less at Herculaneum than we do for Pompeii, and what we’re missing, for the most part, is the public architecture. We don’t have a great amphitheater from Herculaneum. We don’t have a theater and a music hall complex. We think we might have part of the basilica, but we’re not absolutely sure. We don’t have the great large forum space that we have in Pompeii.

So we’re missing a lot of that public architecture at Herculaneum, which gives us less of a sense of what the city was originally like, at least in its public face, although there’s no doubt that that material still lies beneath the ground. So we have only a quarter of the city, mostly the residential part of the city, or part of the residential part of the city. But there are several houses there that provide information, especially about what was going on between the earthquake and the eruption of Vesuvius, 62 to 79, that are extremely valuable in terms of giving us a sense again of the evolution of Roman domestic architecture. The reason [less excavation is] that the modern city grew up on top of the ancient city. And they were able at one point to clear part of it, for excavation, but they have not been able to clear the rest. It’s a political nightmare to have to deal–you have to relocate all the people who live in this area and have lived in this area for a very long time. That’s politically a very difficult thing to do. It also is extremely costly. So thus far only twenty-five percent of Herculaneum revealed. Let’s all hope that at some point someday Italy can sort this out and find a way to excavate the rest of this extraordinary city.

Herculaneum remains with modern residential structures in background / Wikimedia Commons

You can see very well here again what I’m talking about: the relationship between the ancient city, lower ground level, that has been unearthed through excavation. You can see a peristyle court of one of the houses here, for example. But you can see the way in which the modern city rings the site, and again what a challenge it would be to remove that modern city and to reveal the rest of Herculaneum.

With regard to the history of Herculaneum, it is very similar to the history of Pompeii. One difference is that the city of Herculaneum was supposedly founded by Hercules, hence its name Herculaneum. But in other respects the history again is quite comparable. We know, for example, that the city of Herculaneum was overseen for awhile by that same Italic tribe called the Oscans, who were then conquered by the Samnites, and the Samnites took over Herculaneum. And it was during the Samnite period in Herculaneum that we begin to see the same kind of architectural development that we saw also in Pompeii. We also know that those in Herculaneum, the citizens of Herculaneum, the leaders of Herculaneum, got involved in the Social Wars, as did those in Pompeii, and that the city of Herculaneum was conquered by Rome in 89 BCE. So Herculaneum becomes a Roman colony in 89 BCE. Thereafter we know–and of course at that point, just as in Pompeii, the Romans begin to build buildings in the Roman manner. From that point on we know again comparable development. We know that at Herculaneum they also witnessed that very serious earthquake, an earthquake that also destroyed significant parts of the city of Herculaneum, and they too went through that frenzied seventeen-year period of rebuilding. But again, just as at Pompeii, it was for naught, because the city of Herculaneum was also covered by the ash and lava of Vesuvius.

However, there’s one major difference that has to do with the way that ash and lava fell. We talked about the fact that at Pompeii there was actually quite a bit of notice, that the ash and lava came down on the city fairly gradually, and that there was time for people to escape, and that most of them did, except for those foolhardy souls who decided to wait it out, which we discussed a couple of lectures ago. But in Herculaneum, it happened much more rapidly, and in fact it became very clear, very quickly, that a huge blanket of lava was headed toward the city. And needless to say, that encouraged people to leave pronto, and we thought, at least for a very long time, that that’s in fact what had happened, that everybody had escaped the onslaught of Vesuvius. What happened after that blanket of lava engulfed the city is it hermetically sealed the city, hermetically sealed the city, in such a way that materials that have been lost at Pompeii were preserved at Herculaneum. And the best example of that is wood. We have almost no wood. Wood is not a material that withstands the test of time terribly well, and we have almost no wood from Pompeii. But from the city of Herculaneum, we have a considerable amount of wood, and this just has to do with the fact again that the city was so hermetically sealed by that blanket of lava.

Casa a Graticcio, Herculaneum / Wikimedia Commons

House of the Wooden Partition, Herculaneum / Wikimedia Commons

And I can show you a few examples of what survives in wood. For example, this bed, or part of a bed, that’s still preserved, as you can see here, with the wooden legs. A wooden partition in one of the houses, to divide one section, kind of like a modern pogo wall, to divide one section of the structure from another. You can see also the wooden frames around the doors and around the windows are also preserved, as are these wooden beams that you can see over the doorways and over the windows. And this is the most famous example, and one that everybody sees as you wander the streets of Herculaneum, the Casa a Graticcio — and you can see that even the balcony, which is made out of wood, is extremely well preserved. So this provides evidence that we don’t have from Pompeii that’s extremely valuable in terms of understanding Roman building practice.


Skeletons near sea wall in Herculaneum / Wikimedia Commons

We thought that all those who lived in Herculaneum had escaped from Vesuvius, but it turns out that was not in fact the case. As recently as the 1980s, some archaeologists were doing some excavating down at the sea wall of the city of Herculaneum, and lo and behold, they came upon a cache of skeletons. Those skeletons are in the same kinds of positions as the bodies that we saw at Pompeii, in that clearly a number of them have huddled together for protection, futile protection as it turned out. They found these skeletons near the sea wall, and what they’ve concluded from this, two things: one, again the difference in the lava that fell on Herculaneum. You can see that it not only preserved wood, it also preserved bone, which is why the skeletons are still visible here, whereas at Pompeii everything decomposed. So the situation is again quite different. But they’ve also been able to determine that what clearly happened here is again because there was so much notice, people fled. And where did they flee? They fled toward the water, because they were right on the sea, they had a lot of boats, and the hope was that they could ferry everybody out from the city. And for the most part they were successful, but there was a certain group that unfortunately got left behind, and it was their remains that were discovered in the 1980s.

A female skeleton of one of the inhabitants of Herculaneum, still wearing two rings on the left index finger, was found buried during an archaeological excavation. / Image by © Jonathan Blair/Corbis

Close-up of rings / Wikimedia Commons

Bracelets with same skeleton / Wikimedia Commons

It’s amazing what these bodies can tell us about some of the people who lived there, and I’ll just give you a little sense of a couple of the storylines. Here is the skeleton of a woman, and you can see that this woman has rings on two of her fingers – two rings with green and red stones. The red stone, you can see, has a little bird depicted on it. These were her rings. Consequently the archaeologists call her “the ring lady”; or it should be “the rings lady.” But here she is with her two rings. And you can see that she also had, next to her side, these two absolutely gorgeous golden snake bracelets, sort of à la Cleopatra, Cleopatraesque, that she obviously loved and took with her when she attempted to escape from the city.

Skeleton of woman and fetus, Herculaneum / Esqueltos via Pinterest, Creative Commons

Skeletal remains of child found in crib, Herculaneum / AFP Photo, Creative Commons

And an even more poignant story is this one. What we’re looking at here is the head of a woman; a young woman, the excavators have determined. At the top of her head (not shown here) is a tuft of hair is actually preserved. It’s actually blond. So they’ve been able to determine this was a young, blond woman, who lived in Herculaneum. And you can see the small size of the skeleton below. This is not hers; it’s obviously her fetus, the baby. She was seven months pregnant they’ve been able to determine, and so they have found the bones of the baby as well. And you can see them here and the excavators–the excavation reports — they talked about the fact that the bones of the  unborn child were so fragile that it was like picking up eggshells, when they were trying to piece this skeleton together. So it’s incredible the kind of information that archaeologists have been able to glean from those trying to escape Herculaneum on that fateful day in August of 79 CE. One other sad story is just that they did actually find the remains of one child – this is sort of like the story of the dog at Pompeii – one child whose remains were left in this little crib in one house. And again the bones are preserved, because of this circumstance of the particular configuration of the lava; the bones of that small child are also preserved in this crib in one of the houses in Herculaneum.

Houses at Herculaneum and the Samnite House

Herculaneum city plan / Wikispaces, Creative Commons

Triumphal arch in Herculaneum / Photo by Carlo Raso, Creative Commons

To turn to the city itself, I show you now a plan of Herculaneum that gives you some sense of what was there. And I’ve already mentioned that we simply won’t see any big amphitheater in plan, or any major forum complex, and so on and so forth. We simply don’t have that evidence in the excavated part. But what you do see is comparable to the residential area of Pompeii. You can see a series of major thoroughfares crossing with one another. We can’t be sure, since we don’t have the whole city, which is the main cardo and which is the main decumanus of the city, but they are certainly laid out at a quite regular pattern, with shops and houses interspersed with one another, as you can see extremely well here. Again, we don’t, as far as we know, we really don’t–well we’re quite sure we don’t have any of the major public buildings. But there are a couple of structures here and there that do tell us something. Here’s an arch, for example, that may have been on one of the more important thoroughfares of the city, and we certainly have shops and the like along the way.

Surface of a roman road in Herculaneum / Wikimedia Commons

House of Neptune and Amphitrite / Wikimedia Commons

Thermopolium in Herculaneum / Timetrips via Pinterest, Creative Commons

And I can actually show you a few views of shops and the city streets and so on, that give you a good sense that Herculaneum was very similar looking to Pompeii. If you look at the street here, you can see the same multi-sided stones for the pavement. You can see the same sidewalks. You can see the same drains in Herculaneum. You can see the same rut marks. What you don’t see–and I started a post on this yesterday–what you don’t see are stepping stones. There are no persevered stepping stones in Herculaneum. There are lots of preserved stepping stones in Pompeii. And I was mulling this over yesterday in a way, even beyond what I have tended to in the past about these stepping stones, thinking about could I think of any other examples in any other Roman city I’ve ever been, including Rome itself, where there’s actually quite a bit of preserved pavement here and there — out on the Via Appia, in the Roman Forum, and so on and so forth? And I can’t think of a single other site, off the top of my head, where we find stepping stones. So I just put that out as a thought question for all of us, to see whether I’m missing something, or whether it’s conceivable that Pompeii may have been exceptional in this regard, rather than the norm. Here we see amphoras, these clay amphoras in which wine or oil were kept, so a wine or an oil shop there. And then, of course, our favorite, the fast-food stand, the thermopolium; Herculaneum had plenty of thermopolia, very similar to those in Pompeii. So you can imagine, for the most part, a quite similar looking city.

Plan of the Samnite House / Wikimedia Commons

Samnite House atrium / Wikimedia Commons

I mentioned though that the evidence that we do have is mostly for residential architecture, and there are three houses in particular that I want to focus on, because they give us information that goes beyond the information that I’ve been able to give you from the houses that we looked at in Pompeii. The first one I want to look at is the so-called Samnite House at Herculaneum. It dates to the second century BCE, and you see it in plan here. It’s a very simple house, which is so second century BCE. That tells you what? It tells you that it’s early, but it’s already in that Hellenized-domus period, which began in the second century BCE. So we look to see which plan it conforms to. Does it conform to the domus italica, or the Hellenized domus? Well at first it looks like it conforms to the domus italica, because you can see it’s quite simple. It has the basic core. You come in here, into the fauces. There are cells on either side, the cellae. These cellae are indeed cellae. They open up only to the house and not to the outside. They have not been transformed into shops. We see the atrium here. We see the impluvium of the atrium, and there was, of course, a compluvium up above. We see a very small number of cubicula, just a couple over here. And we don’t seem to see the usual wings, unless this one over here–although there seems to be some sort of staircase on that side–served in part as the wing. And so and one of those rooms, probably the left one, served as the dining room. There’s no hortus, there’s no peristyle.

Samnite House atrium / Wikimedia Commons

So again at first it looks like a pretty simple example of the–an even simplified version of a typical domus italica. But when we walk into the atrium, which is very well preserved today, we see something quite different. The focus in this particular house was the atrium. You can tell it’s an atrium. You can see the compluvium up above. We’re looking here at the entranceway, through the fauces. These are the doors into the two cells, one on either side. This is a door into one of the only two cubicula in this structure. You can see also that the patron and designer of this particular house wanted to–you can see that this is a Hellenized domus, in the sense that they have incorporated pilasters here, on either side of the wall, next to the entranceway. But most interesting of all is what has happened in what seems to be a second story for the atrium. They have expanded, they have moved, they have developed the atrium even more vertically than has been the case before, by adding this blind gallery, up at the top, which on three sides is again closed–you can see the enclosed wall–but on the fourth side, which I don’t have an image to show you, the fourth side, it’s open. So there’s an open loggia, there’s open space between the columns.

So blind gallery on three sides, open loggia on the other side; the open loggia, of course, bringing additional light into the atrium. So a very elaborate treatment of the atrium, which shows us not only the esteem in which this particular patron held the atrium, but also this interesting incorporation of columns in a different way than we’ve seen before, making them the high point of this room by placing them in the second story. They are Ionic columns. Notice also this sort of latticework fence that encircles it. We’ll see that kind of latticework fence also in Roman painting. You can see, in fact, the remains of some paint on the walls. So the walls behind this were painted. So a very opulent atrium that shows again this interest in building vertically and adding some interest at the uppermost part, to create this sense of two stories. This is a development–this is in fact even early for that, in the second century BCE.

Further Developments in Domestic Architecture at Herculaneum: The House of the Mosaic Atrium and the House of the Stags


House of the Mosaic Atrium (left) and House of the Stags (right) plans / Wikimedia Commons

The two most important houses, however, at Herculaneum are the House of the Mosaic Atrium and the House of the Stags. And I want to look at both of those houses with you today. I’m going to start with the House of the Mosaic Atrium. You can see from this plan that they are literally side-by-side; they essentially share a wall, as you can see here. They are very important in terms of the development, not only of residential architecture in Campania in the late first century CE, but also as a premonition of what’s to come in much later residential architecture. Again, I’m going to look at both of them, and we’ll start first with the Mosaic Atrium.

If we look at the uppermost part, the north, you will see that if you enter the house at the arrow, and you look ahead, you would think you were in a typical domus italica type house. It’s got those three main elements. It’s got the fauces; it’s got the atrium with an impluvium and a compluvium, as we’ll see; and it’s got a tablinum, all on axis with one another. But as you’re standing in the atrium looking toward the tablinum, you’re kind of looking at this tablinum and saying to yourself, “This is not the tablinum I know, this is not the tablinum I’m used to, this is not the tablinum in most of the houses that I know.” It’s designed in a very different way. And what is it that we see in plan that indicates to us that it’s designed in a different way?

House of the Mosaic atrium / Wikimedia Commons

They’re square. So they’re either piers, or they’re columns on bases that are square. There are architectural members in here. It turns out they’re piers. What’s the relationship of those piers to the room design?

You’re looking at a central space, divided by two aisles, by architectural members, in this case by piers. A basilica. It’s a basilican plan: central nave, two side aisles. What’s a basilican plan doing in a house? Is this a basilica or a law court? No. It’s actually a winter banqueting room, but a winter banqueting room in the shape of a basilica. And I make a lot of that, because we’ll see this happening with increasing frequency in Roman architecture, and that is a certain building type that was developed for one kind of building–in this case a basilican plan developed for law courts–begins to be used for another kind of room, in this case a winter banqueting hall. And I like to call this the sort of inter-changeability of form — that you can develop a certain plan for a certain kind of structure, but then be creative enough to realize that you could use that same plan in another environment, in a different but interesting way. And that’s exactly what happens here. Now needless to say the scale is actually fairly large. But this does not look like a huge basilica. It’s brought down to domestic size scale, as you can see here. So that’s a very interesting development. It’s very well preserved, and I’ll show it to you in a moment.

House of the Mosaic peristyle / Wikimedia Commons

So once you get into the atrium, then you have to take an abrupt right in order to see the peristyle court. And the peristyle court is very, very large. We’ve talked about the fact that there was an increasing interest in the peristyle as a key component of a Roman house, and we see that very clearly here; in fact, the peristyle is really beginning to take pride of place away from the atrium. Because the atrium is almost beginning to go the way of the tablinum, in the sense that it’s becoming a kind of passageway; it’s not an end in itself, it’s becoming–or the atrium and tablinum aren’t ends in themselves, they are a passageway into this huge peristyle. If you look at the plan of the peristyle, you can see that there are columns, but those columns are engaged into the wall. And that’s well preserved. I’ll show it to you in a moment. And then also extremely interesting is now on axis with the atrium and the huge peristyle, is TR; TR is the triclinium or the dining room. And look at the size of that triclinium, and look at the fact that the triclinium opens both off the peristyle and also has an opening on this way, on this end, toward the front–toward the other side, excuse me–of the house. And this is the side, the southern side that faces the sea.

Herculaneum was very close to the sea. And these two houses were probably among the two most expensive houses in Herculaneum, because they had the best views of the sea. They were very high up, above the sea wall, and they looked right out at the sea. So the way they’ve designed this: very large triclinium, to benefit from being able to see both the peristyle and views out over the sea, even while you were dining. There seems to have been a colonnade over here – views through columns, out to the sea. There are also the diaetae (diaeta singular). These are rooms that are set aside for sort of summer pleasure, summer pleasures, near the panoramic window that you can look out to the sea. So a place to relax and enjoy the sunshine on the southern end; views of the sea; a special room set aside just for that kind of panoramic viewing and the like. So this move again toward vista, toward panorama, that we’ve been talking about before. So some very important changes here that signal where Roman residential architecture will go in the future. I’m going to wait on the plan of the Stags until we finish with the Mosaic Atrium.

You can see why the house is called the House of the Mosaic Atrium, because of the very well-preserved black and white, striking black and white mosaic that we find there. And you can see how well preserved the impluvium is, with the mosaic decoration around that. You can also see, however, if you look carefully at this image–you’ve probably noticed it already–that the floor undulates. Why does the floor undulate? The floor undulates because of that heavy blanket of lava that entered into Herculaneum, that made its presence known and that distorted the shape of the floor of the atrium, but fortunately preserved it, at the same time, which is great. We’re looking from the atrium into the tablinum, and we see that basilican form that we described already before: a central nave, a back wall, side aisles on either–you can’t see this side, but the same on this side as on this side–side aisles and circulation of space among them.

There are windows that allow light into the system. When we talked about the Basilica of Pompeii, I mentioned to you that the Basilica at Pompeii did not have a clerestory, but that we would begin to see the development of the clerestory later. This appears in Herculaneum; this use of a clerestory with the placement of windows in that second story to allow light into the structure. It has been developed here. It’s a very important architectural development, and we’re going to see again the ramifications of that into the future.

Now let’s turn to the plan of House of the Stags shown earlier; the House of the Stags so called because of a sculpture that was found there, that I’ll show you a bit later. If we look at the House of the Stags, we see some interesting things happening as well, that seem to parallel the development we’ve already described. This house too, built between 62 and 79. The entrance in this case is on the uppermost right, right here, and you can see that you enter in along a fauces, along the throat of the house, into what is designated as the atrium. But that atrium is not like any other atrium we’ve seen thus far this semester. What’s missing?

The impluvium; the impluvium is missing. If there’s no impluvium, there’s no compluvium, which means that the room is not open to the sky. And we call an atrium that has no opening–and I’ve put this on the Monument List for you–an atrium testudinatum; an atrium testudinatum is an atrium that has no opening to the sky. And that’s the case here. That also tends to underplay the space, because it’s no longer as interesting as it was when it had that wonderful basin and the skylight and so on and so forth. And if you look at the plan, you’ll see it’s very interesting. It has lots of openings on various sides. So this is a really good example of what I was hinting at before, and that is the atrium beginning to go the way of the tablinum; the atrium beginning to become a passageway from one part of the house to another. It really is merely a passageway from the outside, from the fauces, into the other rooms of the house.


Restored view (left) and entrance (right) / Wikimedia Commons

What has received the greatest emphasis, by the patron and by the designer, is not the atrium, but is the triclinium or dining hall, and you can see that there are two of them, and they are placed in relationship to one another, axial relationship to one another. So they’re almost talking to one another; there’s a kind of dialogue, an architectural dialogue, between that smaller triclinium and this larger triclinium, across an open courtyard. So here we see again the triclinium beginning to emerge as the single most important room in the house, which obviously signals what’s going on in these houses — that people are beginning to use them even more than they did before, not only as places of business but as places to enjoy fabulous dinner parties, while you can look out over the sea. And, in fact, if you look at this triclinium, the larger one, you can see again it opens both off the garden court, and also opens toward the south, where you would have seen the views of the sea; all of this very deliberate. We see the diaetae here as well, these summer living spaces with views out over the water. And here we see an interesting detail, which is a kind of kiosk or gazebo that’s located in the front, and that actually still survives, and I’ll show that to you in a moment. So again quite momentous changes in residential architecture in Herculaneum and in Campania in general in the late first century CE.

This is a restored view — very helpful because we can use it to illustrate a number of things. We can use it to illustrate how close to the sea Herculaneum was. We can use it to look at the sea wall that I talked about before. We can use it to look at the harbor, the small boat dock that was down here, with boats waiting. This was the place that people ran to in order to escape the onslaught of the Vesuvius. And this is exactly — this sea wall is exactly where those bodies were found, so they made it this far but not far enough. And we can pick out both the House of the Mosaic Atrium, right here, and the House of the Stags, over here: both of them very large, as you can see. You can see in the case–here’s the northern end–you can see is this case, for the House of the Mosaic Atrium, the compluvium of the atrium that we described, the mosaic atrium. You can see the open court here. You can see the side that faces the sea and how opened up it is, how many windows there were, how open, the diaetae on either side, where you could get nice views. Here, the House of the Stags, same sort of thing. You see no opening whatsoever in the northern end, no opening in the ceiling, no compluvium. You see the two trinclinia facing one another across the open court, and you see that little gazebo entranceway, a gazebo that again looks out toward the sea, that distinctive detail.

You can still see those sea walls there, made out of concrete as you can see. They’re well worth taking a look at. You can see Vesuvius in the background, and you can see this is the House of the Mosaic Atrium, that we’ve been looking at. This is the House of the Stags. And you can tell the difference because of the little gazebo, little kiosk in front. And here you can see again so well the way this is positioned high up on the wall, with spectacular views of the sea, and this opening up of the wall to allow maximum vista, maximum panorama, through those spaces in the house.

House of the Stags garden / Wikimedia Commons

Note the kiosk here, and then note this other entrance; I’m going to show you both of those in detail. This is a little gazebo. As you can see, it rests on piers. It was obviously a very pleasant place to sit, with marble furniture, and to have a glass of wine out here, looking out over the sea. And you can see once again that the piers have been stuccoed over: white on top, red on the bottom, just as we have seen is so characteristic also of Pompeii. And right behind, that other entranceway, that I can also show you, where you can see–if you look very closely, you can see not only the red paint on the pilasters, but also the very elaborate decoration in blue and white of the pediment above.

First Style Roman Wall Painting

I want to turn from Roman residential architecture in Herculaneum and the developments there, to early Roman wall decoration, painted decoration, and as I said at the beginning, specifically to the First and Second Styles of Roman wall painting, which are particularly interesting in the context of a course on architecture because, as we’ll see, they are so architecturally oriented. I want to begin with a wall from the House of Sallust in Pompeii. The tablinum was decorated with what we call First Style Roman wall painting. That’s obviously a modern, scholarly designation. They didn’t call it that in ancient Rome or Pompeii or Herculaneum. First Style Roman wall painting. This tablinum in this house was decorated in around 100 BCE, which is when we date most of the examples of First Style Roman wall painting. It is very well preserved, and it gives us a very good sense of what the Romans, or what, in this case, the Pompeians were trying to achieve.

House of Sallust, First Style wall in tablinum / Wikimedia Commons

This style, the First Style of Roman wall painting is also referred to as either the Masonry Style or the Incrustation Style. And the reason for this–both of those are good descriptions–because you can see that what is at work here is that the designers are trying to create a wall, they’re trying to create the illusion that what we’re looking at is not a stucco and paint wall, which is actually what it’s made out of, but a real marble wall. We can see that the wall is divided into a series of zones, architectural zones, which are exactly the zones that were used in Roman building technique. We don’t quite see it here. I’ll show it to you in another example. There’s usually, way at the bottom, a very narrow band, which is called a plinth. The plinth has above it what’s called a socle, s-o-c-l-e, which is a higher, a slightly higher element. Then what are called the orthostats, these blocks. And then the isodomic courses; you see those here. And then usually either a stringcourse, or more likely, or in addition to, a cornice, what’s called a cornice, a projecting cornice at the top. So plinth, socle, orthostats, isodomic blocks, and then the stringcourse and the cornice, which again corresponds to actual Roman building technique.

But more important than that terminology is again what they are trying to achieve here. It is clear when you look–well first of all keep in mind that this is not flat; it’s a relief, it’s a relief wall, and the wall has been built up in relief through stucco. They’ve taken the rubble wall, they’ve added stucco, and they’ve made that stucco look like a series of blocks that are divided by these stringcourses. Then what they’ve done is painted those blocks, and they’ve painted those blocks not all one color, not all Pompeian red, but all different kinds of colors: green and red and pink and beige, and sometimes multicolored, as we’ll see. What is the implication here? The implication here is that we are looking–that they’re trying to create the illusion, through stucco and paint, of a marble wall, of a marble wall that would’ve been very expensive to build, because you would’ve had to bring all of these multicolored marbles, which you could not find in Italy, from places very far away: from North Africa or from Asia Minor or from Greece or from Egypt. You’d have to bring it from very, very, very far away, and that would cost a tremendous amount of money.

House of Sallust atrium / Wikimedia Commons

So what they are saying here is, “I’m the owner of this house. I am wealthy enough to be able to afford bringing marble from all over the world and using it to decorate my tablinum.” Now was anyone fooled that this was a real marble wall and not a painted wall? Well probably not. But the idea was to give one the sense that this was a very expensive wall. And we’ll see one of the most–well I’ll hold that until later, that thought until later. Here’s another example in the same house. This is the House of Sallust. We are looking–we have just–here’s the tablinum wall that we just looked at. We are now in the atrium of the house, or what survives of the atrium of the house. We are looking at two of the cubicula that open off the atrium. And if you look at the walls, you can see again the same effect, that the rubble wall has been covered with stucco; that the stucco has been divided–the stucco has been built up in relief; that it has been divided into a series of architectural zones. And then the individual blocks, in the orthostat level and in the isodomic level, have been painted different colors, again to give this illusion that what we are looking at is a marble wall, not a painted wall. So an attempt to make something, to fictionalize and make something seem more than it actually is.

House of Sallust restored view / Wikimedia Commons

Here’s another view, a restored view, that gives you a sense perhaps of what this might have looked like when the colors were more vivid. We do believe that those cubicula had doors, probably wooden doors that no longer survive. And you can see not only the architectural courses here, but the effect that this would’ve had. Here’s one of these multicolored blocks, again, marble that would’ve had to be brought from North Africa or somewhere like that, where they had these kinds of multicolored marbles. But this gives you some sense of what the appearance would have been. And perhaps from a distance your eye really would have been fooled into thinking that this was a real marble wall.

House of the Faun restored atrium view / Paige Boyadis, Creative Commons

You’ll remember the restored view I showed you of the House of the Faun, where we stood again in the atrium, looking back at the statuette of the Faun, and I mentioned that the walls were decorated with First Style Roman wall painting. And so we see that again here. And we see the kind of effect it would’ve had if the entire space was covered with this kind of wall painting. You can also see the relationship between those paintings and the vista that one saw as one stood and looked back through the columns, on to the additional columns of the peristyle court.

First Style wall painting in the fauces of the Samnite House / Wikimedia Commons

Another example of a First Style wall, this one from Herculaneum, is the so-called Samnite House, which we saw earlier today, with that fabulous atrium. The Samnite House. And this is the fauces of the Samnite House; also dates to 100 BCE. You can see the same scheme as we already saw. One additional feature that you can see better here is the plinth, this very narrow band that we see at the bottom, the plinth. The socle here. The orthostats here. The isodomic courses here. The stringcourse, and then the cornice. So exactly the same scheme that we saw in the other house at Pompeii we see here in the Samnite House at Herculaneum, this one even better preserved.

But again, most important for us, is what they’re trying to do is create an illusion. They’re trying to create, make something look like something it really isn’t. They are using again stucco and paint to make a wall, to make a very plain wall, to make a rubble and stucco and painted wall into a very grandiose wall, that looked like walls that were probably the kinds of walls–in fact we’re sure they were the kinds of walls–that decorated the palaces of great Hellenistic kings in the Hellenistic East. We know that the great kings of Pergamon, and some of the other kingdoms, had palaces that had real marble walls. And we think it’s very likely that that is the sort of thing that they are trying to recreate here.

House of the Trident, drawing of a First Style Painting / Wikimedia Commons

And then a very, a particularly important point, I think, is the fact that even though I would love to lay claim to this particular style for the Romans, the Romans did not invent the First Style of Roman wall painting. They copied it from the Greeks. We know that the Greeks used this First Style of Roman wall paint — it wasn’t called the First Style of Roman wall painting, obviously, for them. But they used something comparable to the First Style, which we believe was derived from these Hellenistic palaces, ultimately. And you can see here a view of a wall, or a drawing of a wall, from the House of the Trident on the Island of Delos: late second, early first century BCE. The Island of Delos was strategically located between Italy and Greece and Asia Minor and so on. It was one of these crossroads of trade, and it was a place where Romans settled in the first centuries BCE. And we see houses there–probably some Greek owners, some Roman owners–that have this same kind of style. It’s painted. We see the same zones–I won’t describe them again–but the same architectural zones that we see in the First Style paintings in Pompeii and in Herculaneum. And we believe that those are based on Hellenistic precedents. But they show us again that this was used in the Greek East. It was probably picked up by some of the traders, brought back to Italy, and used there.

The fact that it’s a Greek import is extremely important, because then we can group it with all the other Greek imports that we’ve been talking about: the columns, the peristyles, the Alexander mosaic; all of the things that the Romans, the Hellenizing elements that we have seen the Romans be particularly fond of in this early period and have used themselves in their architecture and in their architectural decor. So we see that here, again, the taking over of a Greek style of organizing and decorating a wall for these Roman buildings.

House of Cupid and Psyche marble revetment / Wikimedia Commons

This is a house the port city of Ostia, the so-called House of Cupid and Psyche, and we see the two lovers here, on a pedestal in the center. The Romans do begin to revet some of their structures with marble; this begins already in the age of Augustus, and eventually it becomes part of house design as well. So while this isn’t as grandiose as a Hellenistic palace would’ve been, it does give you some idea of what a house would look like, or a palace would look like, that had marble on the floor and marble on the walls. And it’s this kind of thing that they are trying to create the illusion of, with the Roman First Style.

House of the Griffins Room III / Wikimedia Commons

We’re walking along the corridor of a great barrel vaulted room in the House of the Griffins in Rome, on the Palatine Hill, in fact, under the later imperial palace of the emperor Domitian. This particular room, which we call Room 3, dates to 80 BCE. It’s from this room that the house gets its name. You can get a glimpse of the griffins. There are heraldic griffins in a lunette, painted red in the background. They’re built up in stucco, and then the lunette itself is painted red. It’s from those griffins that the house got its name.

House of the Griffins Room III / Wikimedia Commons

If you look at the paintings on the walls, and on the back wall, the side wall or the back wall, you will see that although we are dealing with something that looks like a First Style wall–it’s very flat, it’s divided into architectural zones: the socle, the orthostats, the isodomic courses here–that is all done entirely in paint, as you can see. It’s not built up as a relief. The only relief here that we see is the relief that is used for the heraldic griffins, up in the uppermost part. When this was in better condition, a painting was made of it, and I show that painting to you here. And I hope this will give you a better sense than anything else I’ve shown you today of how glorious these things must have been in antiquity, and how again if you stood back from them, you might have been somewhat fooled. We see the wall here. We can see all the components that we’ve already described: the plinth, the socle, the orthostats, the isodomic courses, and then the lunette with the heraldic griffins. And again, the whole idea of this being to give you the impression that you are looking at a real marble wall, even though you are looking at a painted wall.

Second Style Roman Wall Painting

House of the Griffins Room II / Wikimedia Commons

Much more important for the development of Roman painting is another house that I’m going to show you here, which is Room 2, in the House of the Griffins. And this dates a little bit later; it was done between 80 and 60 BCE. And we look at this; we will see that there are beginning to be some important changes here. As you look at this–you see we’re looking at a barrel-vaulted room, once again — all three walls well decorated and very well preserved. So we can see exactly what’s going on here. As we look quickly, we see remnants of the First Style wall. We see that we have the same architectural zones–the plinths, the orthostats, the isodomic courses–and we have the same idea of marble. You can see that these variegated marble blocks and these red panels are meant to look again like marble, although this is done entirely in paint; there is no stucco used in this room whatsoever. Stucco is not used anywhere here. It’s completely flat and it is painted as an illusionistic view.

But as we look at this, we see although we get a sense that that First Style wall is kind of still present, we also see some again very important changes. We see the way in which they’ve treated the socle here, to create these kinds of illusionistic cubes that look almost as if they’re projecting out into our space. Look also at what they’ve done by adding columns, columns that stand on bases, this colonnade that seems to encircle the room, the way a peristyle encircles a garden court, this introduction of columnar architecture. Again clearly under the influence of Greek architecture and clearly commensurate with what they’re doing in temple architecture, what they’re doing in sanctuary architecture, and also in house architecture. So we see those columns. And it looks as if those columns are resting on bases that are represented as if they’re receding into the background. The artist has paid a lot of attention to trying to render them perspectivally. So although all of this is done in paint, we get the impression that what we’re looking at is a colonnade that is in front of the wall–it projects into the spectator’s space–and that what lies behind it is a kind of First Style wall.

This is the very beginnings of what we call Second Style Roman wall painting: this introduction of columns; this introduction of elements that project into the viewer’s space; this sense that you are looking at two levels of space, the level of space that is the wall, and then the level of space that projects in front of it. And look at the columns at the top of the columns. You will see they hold lintels, but those lintels also are shown as if they’re receding into depth, and you can sort of barely see–and you’ll see this better as you study this in the online images. You’ll be able to see the actual coffered ceiling that is represented on the top, underneath those lintels, which again indicate that this is being represented in depth. And here you can see exactly what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to use paint and only paint to recreate the sort of thing that we saw in built architecture in the oecus in the House of the Silver Wedding: these columns that project in front of a painted wall.

Villa of the Mysteries Cubiculum 16 / Wikimedia Commons

This is the pièce de résistance of what we call Second Style Roman wall painting. This is the preeminent example of mature Second Style Roman wall painting. It is a scene in the Villa of the Mysteries. It’s in one of the cubicula; cubiculum 16, at the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. It dates to 60 to 50 B.C. It’s a further development of what we saw in Room 2 of the House of the Griffins. We see the First Style wall is still present. We see the plinth; we see the socle; we see the orthostats; we see the isodomic blocks, although they are done entirely in paint. Again, no stucco here whatsoever. We see the columns have also been added, as is typical of Second Style. But here the columns are even more interesting, because we can see that the columns not only project from the wall themselves, but they support an entablature which projects out toward the spectator, and they tried to make that look as if it recedes into depth. We see another set of columns here that support a straight lintel. But then look, the lintel arches up in the center. This is called an arculated lintel, an arculated lintel. We have not seen an arculated lintel in built architecture. This is very early, 60 to 50 B.C. We are seeing it here. Why are we seeing it here and why are we not seeing it in built architecture is a very interesting issue and one we could debate in the online forum.

We see that that First Style wall has been built with a coffered ceiling; the brown coffered ceiling up at the uppermost part. The First Style wall–this is a very complex painting and a very interesting painting intellectually. The First Style wall has been–it’s there, but it’s been dropped down. It’s been dropped down, and now we can see something that lies behind that First Style wall. We see a view of this round structure, called a round tholos. It’s like the tholos that was at the top of the Sanctuary of Fortuna Primigenia, at Palestrina. It’s a shrine of some sort, and that shrine is surrounded by blue sky. So that’s something that’s presumably outside. So the First Style wall has been dropped down, and now we have this vista or panorama of something that lies outside the wall.

So we, in a sense, have three zones of space. We have the columns that project into the spectator’s space. We have the First Style, or what’s left of the First Style wall. And then we see a view through the wall, to something that lies beyond: a vista, a panorama, a window. It’s like opening up the wall as a window, to what lies beyond. It’s fictive again, in the same way that First Style wall painting was fictive. It creates an illusion of something that is there, that isn’t really there. And it coincides certainly with the kind of development we’ve been tracing also in built architecture: this opening up of the house; opening up of the windows; opening up bay windows, to views that lie beyond.

Because of this, and because of the columns, the projecting columns, many scholars have suggested that there’s some relationship between this and theatrical architecture–theatrical architecture that was probably stage sets and the like, that were probably initially made out of wood, that don’t survive any longer ans may imitate some of those stage sets.  The Second Style of Roman wall painting is without any question a Roman innovation, and an extraordinary Roman innovation at that, and one that is very closely allied with developments in architecture, as we’ve described them.

Villa of Publius Fannius Sinistor / Wikimedia Commons

This is another example, the Villa of Publius Fannius Sinistor: Second Style painting. Dates to 50 to 40 BCE. It was in that town of Boscoreale that I showed you on the map before, between Herculaneum and Pompeii, and it was removed from there at one point and made its way to New York. It is now in the Metropolitan, and has been for a long time, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; it is usually referred to as The Met Cubiculum. And if you haven’t seen it, you should go down and see it. It is most extraordinary. They’ve tried to recreate–the paintings are all ancient–but they’ve tried to recreate the ambience by putting a black and white mosaic on the floor and giving us a nice, comfortable, sort of, bed, and a footstool over here, that are just the kind of thing that you would’ve seen in that room, although they don’t actually belong. And they’ve added a window and so on and so forth. But the paintings are all genuine ancient paintings. And what’s amazing is we have the entire spread of the room. And actually there are mirror images, the scenes are mirror images of one another, across the two long walls.

This is a detail from that room that shows a tholos seen through columns. Once again we see here–this is an example of Second Style, but it’s a little bit more developed here, because you can see that the First Style wall has really been dropped down now, and, in fact, it doesn’t even look like a First Style wall anymore, it just looks like a red parapet with a green frieze and a little cornice at the top. But it doesn’t really look like a First Style wall. In fact, it looks like a wall with a gate that doesn’t look like there’s any knob or anything like that; so we kind of wonder, can we get into this? Do we have to jump over it? How do we get from here into what lies beyond? We’re not absolutely sure. But we see a tholos once again, one of these sort of sacred shrines. And here you can see it is surrounded by a peristyle, by columns: a peristyle just like one might find in a house, or in a villa.

Villa of Publius Sinistor fresco of multistoried buildings / Wikimedia Commons

So what are we looking at here? We see columns that support a pediment. The pediment if you look–a triangular pediment. What’s interesting about it is it’s broken at the bottom. The Greeks would never break their pediments. The Romans have broken this pediment to allow space for the tholos to rise up between it. And it’s a very interesting thing to do, and it shows while on one hand they respect ancient Greek architecture, they’re also willing to depart from it and break the rules, so to speak. And we’re going to see that’s emphasized by the Romans later on. So the tholos here. So we have these different elements. We have the columns projecting toward us. We have the wall of the gateway. We also have this view through the window, a picture window, into what lies beyond. And we seem to have these black curtains again; in fact, we have three of these black curtains. So we ask ourselves again, what are those exactly?


Villa of Publius Sinistor (left) and House of the Faun (right) comparison / Wikimedia Commons

Another view, just showing you this in relationship to the House of the Faun, and this whole idea of vista and panorama, from one part to another. We see the same thing happening in painting as we see happening in that. And then one last detail of the Publius Fannius Met Cubiculum over here. A very interesting detail, and I urge you to explore this on your own, because it’s so fascinating in detail, this doorway. And then most interesting of all this panoply of structures that seem to be piled, one on top of another, in a series of stories. This again is very early. It’s 50 to 40 B.C. We don’t see anything like that in built architecture then. We only see second stories beginning to be added in Pompeian structures, Herculaneum structures, between the earthquake and Vesuvius, between 62 and 79. But here, already, in the mid-century B.C., we see this depicted in paint. Is this fanciful? Is it based on something that was built in wood that no longer survives? These are questions, perhaps unanswerable questions, but ones well worth pondering.

Second Style Roman Wall Painting and the Family of Augustus

Plan of the House of Augustus and adjacent Temple of Apollo / Wikimedia Commons

I want to show you just two more houses. They belong to the emperor and empress, to Augustus and to Livia. Augustus purchased some property on the Palatine Hill. He wanted to live–as Rome’s first emperor of Rome–he wanted to live where Romulus had lived before him, of course. And he buys some property up here and restores a house. He puts a temple to his patron god, right next door, Apollo, and then Livia has her own house right across the street: his wife Livia. She lives with him in his house, but she’s also got her own house right across the street. And both of these houses were decorated with paintings.

House of Augustus “Room of the Masks” / Wikimedia Commons

I want to show you first the ones in the House of Augustus, the most famous room in the House of Augustus, called the Room of the Masks. And here is where we see most clearly the possible relationship between Roman wall painting of the Second Style–because this is also Second Style Roman wall painting–and the theater. It looks like a typical theater façade, as we think it would’ve looked–a theater stage building, as we think it would have looked early on; possibly made out of wood, again, rather than stone–you can see it has a central section with a pediment, and then it has two wings. And we see the same scheme here: the central section, which is called technically a regia in theater architecture–r-e-g-i-a–and then two wings that are technically called hospitalia, h-o-s-p-i-t-a-l-i-a; hospitalia. So this tripartite scheme of a Roman theater. And if that is lost on us, note that there are masks, one on either side, theatrical masks that also give us a hint that we are looking at a theater set.

House of Augustus “Room of the Masks” / Wikimedia Commons

The House of Augustus on Palatine Hill, Rome / Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a more vivid view of one of the walls, where you can see that tripartite division into central section and two wings. You can see the masks, and you can see a view into some sort of landscape. The sky is no longer blue, it’s white, but it does continue back beyond, behind the architecture. So you get the sense that you’re being beckoned into–in fact, there’s no barrier here at all. The wall is gone here. There’s no gateway. You can walk right in to this. What is this? There’s no blue sky, so it doesn’t look as real as the others did. It’s not the sort of thing that might have been right outside your window, of a house. It’s some kind of sacred landscape, some kind of strange sacred landscape, with a curved colonnade, with a tree, and with a very phallic-looking shrine here in the center; some kind of sacred space. We call these sacro-idyllic landscapes: sort of idyllic and sacred at the same time that you’re being beckoned into to explore.

The other interesting thing about the Room of the Masks in the House of Augustus is that some scholars have claimed that, although it is usually said that one-point linear perspective, in which all lines converge at a single point in the distance, was invented in the Renaissance, a case can be made that it was invented in Roman times. And if it happened, it happened here in this house where–and scholars, even of the Renaissance, have studied the way in which these points converge in this painting, all the way to a point at the end. So if that’s true, the Romans may have done that, perhaps inadvertently, perhaps on purpose. They were very interested in perspective. I’ll say a bit more about that in a moment. But if they invented it here, they quickly rejected it, as we’re going to see in next week’s lecture.

House of Augustus mask close-up / Wikimedia Commons

Just a couple of details: the mask and the beautiful way in which this very talented artist, probably one of the best artists of the day, has built up this mask out of touches of grey and white and black; an extraordinary thing. And then again I really do urge you to look at these paintings in detail, because if you do you will be very rewarded. You’ll see all kinds of strange creatures, like winged figures, this very strange thing lurking up there. Is that vegetal? Is it animal? Is it human? What is that? These wonderful, what look like swans, golden swans that decorate this. When you look very close, you can see there’s a figural frieze here. And look at that wonderful representation of the fruit or vegetables in a bowl, a bowl that is represented so magnificently and translucently by the artist.

Villa of Livia fresco / Wikimedia Commons

I want to show you one last painting, and it’s a very special painting indeed, and I think it ties together everything that we’ve been talking about today. It is a painting from, not the House of Livia, but from a villa of Livia, located north of Rome at a place called Primaporta: the Villa of Livia at Primaporta. And it is in a sense the ultimate example and a very last gasp of Second Style Roman wall painting. The villa was put up in 30 to 25 B.C. A barrel-vaulted room was decorated with this gardenscape. Now as you look at this, you’d probably say to me: “That doesn’t look like anything we’ve looked at today. There’s no architecture there, there’s no remnants of a First Style wall. There are no projecting columns. There are no black curtains. And so on and so forth. It’s very different from anything we’ve seen.”

Villa of Livia garden room / Wikimedia Commons

But we categorize this as a Second Style wall. Why do we do that? Because there’s a division between where we stand as spectator and the space that lies beyond the fence. There is a fence that divides our space from the space that lies outside, but it’s a very delicate fence, a white, kind of lattice fence, not unlike the one we saw in the Samnite House on the second story. We don’t have columns, we have trees, a different kind of upright here. But what connects this to the Second Style is that it is the ultimate example of a Roman painting as a panoramic picture window. This is what they hoped you would see when you looked out of the rooms of your house, of your great bay window in the Villa of the Mysteries. If you didn’t see the sea, you would see some glorious landscape, a gardenscape, outside of your window, with beautiful trees.

Villa of Livia fresco / Wikimedia Commons

If you look at these with care, you will see that this is an artist who understood nature and observed it, who knew the difference among the fruits that would be on trees like this–there are fruit trees here– who had a sense of the way in which birds would alight on a leaf, if they were headed toward one; who had a sense of the way in which leaves would rustle in the breeze; who had a sense of the way in which light can fall differently on a leaf, so that you sometimes see the lighted side or the side in shadow. This is an artist who has really observed nature and has depicted what he saw. And here are a couple of details where you can see that very well, of this tree. You see what I mean by some leaves cast in shadows; some leaves have light shining on them. You get a sense of the breeze. You get this wonderful way in which this black bird alights on the edge of a leaf, this bird over here surveying this piece of fruit, deciding whether he wants to peck it or not.

Villa of Livia fresco / Wikimedia Commons

This is very sophisticated stuff. And you can also see, if you explore this painting a bit more, that it has and that it partakes of what we call today atmospheric perspective, not one-point perspective, but atmospheric perspective. What is atmospheric perspective? If you look at this carefully, you will see that all of the items that are in–all the objects that are in the foreground have very distinct outlines; whereas those in the middle ground are a little fuzzier; and those way in the background are fuzzier still. And there are actually–you probably could barely see them–but there are actually mountains in the distance, and those mountains in the distance are so fuzzy in their silhouette that you can barely see them. But you get this sense of space, of moving back, because of this use of atmospheric perspective. So this, the ultimate Roman painting, Second Style, the Roman painting as panorama, that again corresponds so well to all the discussions we’ve been having the last couple of lectures of this move towards increased vista, increased panorama, both in painting and also in architecture.