Last weekend I travelled to Toulouse to visit the fabulous exhibition on Roman frescoes being held at the Musée Saint-Raymond. The exhibition entitled ‘L’Empire de la couleur – De Pompéi au sud des Gaules’ (which translates as ‘Empire of colour – From Pompeii to Southern Gaul’) opened last November and runs through March 2015.
The majority of Roman frescoes were found in Campania, in the region around the Bay of Naples. It is there that Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, burying much of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, and nearby villas. The ash, lapilli, and mud that seeped into the houses acted as a preservative for wall paintings, but also for many households and decorative objects, as well as organic materials. Most of the paintings were detached from the houses of Pompeii and the surrounding area between the mid-eighteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. They represent an exceptional insight into the development of Roman painting from the Late Republic to the Empire.
This major exhibition, for the first time in France, is showcasing 79 works of art including fragments of painted walls from Italy and Southern Gaul, some of which were exceptionally lifted or restored for the occasion. Thanks to exceptional loans from the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, the Musée du Louvre and the museum of Saint-Romain-en-Gal (Rhône) among others, the exhibition aims to show the evolution of Roman painting in Southern Gaul by bringing them face to face with Italians “models”, particularly from the perspective of assimilation and interpretation of the four Pompeian styles.
Elaborate wall frescoes provided elite Roman citizens with an opportunity for conspicuous displays of affluence and social status. Roman paintings were often done in the fresco technique as was described by Vitruvius (De Architectura) and Pliny The Elder (Naturalis Historia). First, a layer of rough coating was applied on the support, a mortar composed of hydrated lime and coarse sand. A second layer consisting of hydrated lime and well-filtered fine sand was added and finally a third layer made of pigments and pure water was applied in several coatings with a brush to give a smoother finish. Colours were added when the surface was still wet.
The exhibition opens with the work of two restorers, Aude Aussilloux and Maud Mulliez, who worked for seven months to recreate a mural fresco decoration using the same techniques that would have been used in ancient times. They made their own brushes and tools and used non-synthetic pigments.
You can watch a video of the restorers at work here. It’s really impressive!
The two panels are two sections of a wall that decorated the peristylum (peristyle, inner courtyard surrounded by columns) of a Roman domus in Vienna. The images below show the original fresco fragments, on display at the Musée gallo-romain de Saint-Romain-en-Gal (Rhône, France).
The four “Pompeian” styles of painted wall decoration which appear throughout Italy and the Roman world were identified by August Mau, a prominent German art historian and archaeologist, in the late nineteenth century. This division was based on fundamental differences in the way the artist treated the wall and painted space. The first two styles began in the Republican period, and were outgrowths of Greek wall paintings, while the Third and Fourth styles are found in imperial times. This piece features a selection of several paintings from the exhibition for each of the Pompeian styles.
The First Pompeian Style
The first Pompeian style, or “Incrustation Style” (ca. 200–60 BC), consisted mainly of imitations of colored marble. Plaster was molded and painted to look like blocks or panels of colored stones. The First Style originated in the Hellenistic world in the late fourth century BC and was used in Roman homes in the last two centuries of the Republic. There is almost nothing left of the masterpieces of Greek painting but one painted wall panel dating to the 2nd century BC was found in the so-called House of the Plaster, in the Macedonian’s capital of Pella. In Pompeii, significant examples of this fist Pompeian style are found in the House of Sallust and in the House of the Faun.
The first style is hardly present in Gaul. This is not surprising since this old style gave way to a more fashionable and stylish type of frescoes. Only a few stucco fragments have been found at Île Sainte-Marguerite near Cannes which can be seen at the exhibition.
The Second Pompeian Style
The Second Pompeian style, or “Architectural Style”, began in Rome in the early years of the first century BC and was first seen in Pompeii shortly after 80 BC. This period saw a focus on architectural features and trompe-l’oeil compositions. The Second Pompeian style developed out of the First Style but the whole scheme changed in that three-dimensional objects, principally architectural features, were painted realistically rather than modeled in plaster. Some of the most famous examples of frescoes in the Second Style come from the villas at Boscoreale near Pompeii and particularly from the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor. Four panels from this lavish villa are exceptionally reunited in this exhibition, together with a model of the villa and computer reconstructions. They provide a great setting for these various frescoes which are now sitting in eight different museums throughout Europe and the US.
Alongside the frescoes from Boscoreale, the exhibition brings a number of fresco panels from a sumptuous Gallo-Roman domus which has been excavated on the plateau of La Sioutat, near the village of Roquelaure (Gers). The domus goes back at least to the time of Augustus and has produced polychrome frescoes in a the Second Pompeian Style. These have been restored and are on loan from the Musée des Jacobins of Auch.
The Third Pompeian Style
The Third Style, or “Ornate Style,”, which coincided with Augustus’ reign, came about in the early 1st century AD and was popular until about 50 AD. Instead of trying to create the illusion of the wall as a window that opened onto a landscape, the Third Style favored ornate and colorful decoration painted on monochrome backgrounds. It often presented great finesse in execution and was typically noted as simplistically elegant. The wall was frequently divided into three to five vertical zones by narrow, spindly columns and decorated with painted foliage, candelabra, birds, animals, and figurines. The Third Style also saw the introduction of Egyptian themes and imagery, including scenes of the Nile as well as Egyptian deities and motifs.
Well-known examples from this era include a series of beautifully intricate paintings from the Boscotrecase villa built by Agrippa, friend of Emperor Augustus and husband of his daughter Julia. The exhibition brings one panel from the so-called Black Room at Boscotrecase.
The Third style was introduced early in Southern Gaul, probably on the occasion of Augustus’ visit to Lugdunum (Lyon) between 16 and 13 BC. Wall panels from this style have been discovered in Perigueux, Aix-en-Provence and Perpignan. The decors became more sober and tended to produce decoration without depth set in monochrome backgrounds.
The Fourth Pompeian Style
The Fourth Pompeian Style, or “Intricate Style”, saw a resurgence in architectural scenes, although without the illusionary depth that characterized the second style. It became popular in the mid-first century AD and was seen in Pompeii until the city’s destruction in 79 AD. It also incorporated central panel pictures with mythological episodes, landscapes, scenes of daily life and still life images which appear in numerous paintings in the exhibition. Some of the best examples of Fourth Style painting come from the House of the Vettii which can also be visited in Pompeii and Herculaneum today.
Outside Pompeii and Herculaneum, the Fourth Style was used in Roman Wall Painting until the first years after 100 AD. The most important post-Pompeian wall painting evidence for the Fourth Style comes from Ostia Antica and Ephesus, where the trend carried on into Late Antiquity.
Painting in Gaul during the Flavian period was an original provincial creation. With the exception of Narbonne, no Gallic site has produced examples of Fourth Pompeian Style frescoes. Instead, the wall paintings created in Gaul from the second-half of the first century are developments of the third style and regional schools rapidly developed. The exhibition brings numerous fresco fragments which show these developments.
One of the fresco panels exhibited from Orange depicts a candelabra and two swans. The swans, the birds of Apollo, patron god of Augustus, may symbolize Augustus’s victory over Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Swans also appears as decorations on public imperial monuments erected at this time, such as the monumental Altar of Peace (Ara Pacis) in Rome.
Another fresco fragment from Aix-en-Provence (Aquae Sextiae) depicts a candelabra holding a tragic theatre mask.
Post Pompeian Paintings
Mau’s categorization goes as far as Pompeii. But what about Roman painting after 79 AD? The Romans did continue to paint their homes and monumental architecture and the artists of this era adapted some of the earlier styles. During this time we see a development in ceiling and vault paintings as they became more luxurious. Ornamental motifs became richer in color and had more detail.
The museum Saint-Raymond has produced a wonderful and richly illustrated exhibition catalogue (in French). You can order it online here.
The museum is among the best and richest archaeological museums in France. One can discover the Roman town of Tolosa, the sculptures of the villa Chiragan and the remains of a necropolis from late antiquity. Its collection, spread over three floors, gives a fascinating glimpse of the history of Toulouse and its area. The museum houses a great gallery of marble statues. Since the first excavation of the villa of Chiragan, in 1826, dozens of Roman marble portraits were unearthed. Today they form one of the most important collections in Europe and the second in France, after the Louvre’s collection.
Opening hours: The museum is open every day from 10am till 6pm.
Admission rates: 4 € fee (permanent collection) / 8 € fee (with exhibition).
Free for students, teachers at the Fine Arts School of Toulouse, and youth under 18 years of age.
A guidebook is available in three languages : french, english, spanish.
Address: 1 ter place Saint-Sernin 31000 Toulouse