Domestic Interiors not Art Galleries

Previous chapters discussed the way in which the discovery of ancient Roman wall-painting in the mid-eighteenth century impacted on the modern world and its subsequent impact on the way we view them. This chapter goes on to provide an overview of the paintings themselves and their unique relationship to their domestic environment. At the same time it also touches upon key aesthetic debates, such as those surrounding August Mau’s late nineteenth-century stylistic classification that did so much to shape early-twentieth century attitudes to the paintings. His theories are re-examined along with other contentious issues relating to the use of trompe l’oeil and perspective as symbolic form. In addition to being mainly concerned with pictorial issues, this chapter also touches upon some of the socio-political events that very likely impacted on the development of the wall-paintings, such as the turbulent and bloody transition from Republican to Imperial rule.

It is very tempting to proceed straight to the wall-paintings themselves and to discuss them as if they were independent cultural artefacts or pictures in an art gallery. However, to do so would only increase the amount of formalist rhetoric that already engulfs them. Teasing out yet further subdivisions of August Mau’s stylistic typology would also tell us nothing more concerning the people who commissioned them or those who viewed them. Indeed, it may well do the opposite and lead us further and further away from the fact that the paintings existed in domestic interiors and were therefore subject to shifting cultural values, having been commissioned, viewed and added to by different generations or new owners. Although it is true that some paintings remained unchanged for over 150 years, others were replaced due to cultural imperatives, decay or destruction by natural forces such as earthquakes. Hence, discussing them in terms of ‘their original context’ becomes highly problematical.

When approaching the wall-paintings it is important to remember that the Romans did not live in the type of mega-visual world that we inhabit. They were not exposed to the level of mediated imagery that we are constantly subjected to via printed and electronic sources. Their iconography sometimes evolved over centuries, as opposed to years or decades, and was disseminated by much slower and more labour intensive forms of cultural distribution. This type of environment creates deeply rooted and highly identifiable visual-languages. Precisely the kind that was capable of supporting Roman hegemony as its colonial aspirations became ever more predatory.


Approaching the Wall-Paintings
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