22 March 2010

Arts and Music: Roman Wall Painting

By Michelle Styles

When most people think of Rome and art, they think about white marble statues, generally copies of Greek or busts of Roman senator. White on white. A bleached landscape.It is a shame because Rome was a city of vibrant colour. The place to see this colour is not in the statues but in the remaining mosaics and frescoes.

Until the Venetians invented painting on canvas, everything was either painted on wood or directly on plaster. The painting directly on to fresh plaster is known as a fresco. The Romans were masters at creating illusions with paint--trompe d’oeil.

The Romans did not live in a world of pastels but one where colour played an important part. Most of the frescoes that we can see today come from either Pompeii or Herculaneum. Some like the Maritime Villas from the House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto depict actual scenes. In this case, the seafront of Baia. (I found it very helpful when I was writing THE ROMAN'S VIRGIN MISTRESS as I had picture of the actual frontage from the right time period to use.) Others depict scenes from plays, or events or even idealised gardens.

Because of the very real problem of looting, most of the important frescoes have been removed from the sites and are now displayed in Naples. The ones left in Pompeii tend to be fragmentary. The other problem is that of conservation. The colours have become bleached with the passage of time.

However, the most evocative frescoes come not from Pompeii but from Rome, from the underground dining room of Livia's villa. The frescoes depict an idealised view of Livia's above ground garden in full bloom. From the paintings, scholars have been able to determine many of the plants that were being grown in Rome at the time. These include the bay laurel (Livia's favourite plant), the strawberry tree, oleander, date figs and cypress trees.

The frescoes were uncovered in the late 19th century and moved to the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome. You can only see them through timed ticket but it is worth taking the time. The tour also takes you through some of the better mosaics and a few other painted rooms but it is Livia's dining room which is the real highlight.

The frescoes were kept underground and never exposed to the light, and are completely intact, it is possible to get a sense of what the Romans, in particular Augustus and Livia must have actually experienced. Photographs do not do it justice (or indeed any fresco) and tend to bleach out the vibrant greens and blues. In fact, unless you have special permission are not allowed to take photographs of the walls.

Standing in that room, surrounded by paintings which go from the ceiling to the floor, you suddenly realise how much colour the Romans used and how vibrant their walls were. There is also a depth to the frescoes which is lacking in modern reconstructions. I know when I stood in that room, my whole conception of what Roman life must been like changed.

Michelle Styles's Roman set A NOBLE CAPTIVE is out now at eharlequin and will be available as an ebook everywhere from April.