Naming Roman or Pompeian wall-painting?

The rediscovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii projected two provincial cities to the forefront of the Roman world and in so doing gave them a status beyond that which they originally possessed. Somewhat problematically, this caused the evolution of Roman wall-painting to be determined by the substantial amounts of well preserved examples found at both of these sites. Less well-preserved fragments found elsewhere were used to determine local iconological variations. In terms of nomenclature this presents a problem. What generic name do we give to these wall-paintings, are they Roman, Pompeian or Herculanean?

Rome, being the capital, is invariably considered to be the conceptual centre responsible for creating stylistic change, which is then adopted by the provinces. Hence, despite Pompeii yielding up the largest number of paintings, its provincial status confined it to being a 'testament' to the cultural and political power of Rome. And yet, for a brief moment in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century Pompeii became the tail that wagged the Roman dog, as increasing numbers of European stately homes became decorated in the ‘Pompeian’ as opposed to the ‘Roman’ style (figs.1-3). The problem associated with giving the wall-paintings a generic name is well illustrated in the title of the superbly illustrated La Peinture De Pompéi Témoignages de l’art romain dans la zone ensevelie par Vésuve en 79 ap. J.C., (Paintings from Pompeii Evidence of Roman art buried by Vesuvius in AD 79.) Éditions Hazan, 1999.

Pompeii and Herculaneum were by definition provincial cities, but certain factors seem to indicate that they had a status beyond being merely provincial. The eminent Roman philosopher Seneca once referred to Pompeii as ‘...the famous city in Campania,...’(Naturales Quaestiones, VI); an observation born out by the fact that many distinguished Romans such as Cicero and Pliny the Elder came to live in or near these cities and Sabina Poppea, Nero’s second wife, was the daughter of a rich Pompeian. Both sites had fishing and trading harbours, which made the Bay of Naples one of the main focal points for Magna Graecia and hence an important early gateway to foreign influence.

In the absence of any clear understanding regarding points of origin, there is always a tendency to sight the capital as the leading trendsetter. Rome was indeed the most powerful city of the day. Its very name was linked with national and later imperial identity. However, it was also very susceptible to acculturation, because ‘all roads lead to Rome’. Its supply and command routes not only gave it power but they also made it vulnerable to external influences. Rome’s main foreign supply harbour was located at Puteoli, near Neapolis on the bay of Naples. As Rome grew increasingly prosperous in the second century BC, Puteoli also became a thriving community with strong Greek links due to its eastern trading contacts. As a result Puteoli and its neighbouring ports would have exposed the whole of this ‘provincial’ region, including Pompeii, to all manner of foreign influences, some of which would have impacted locally before reaching Rome. It is also very likely that some of the painters who produced ‘Roman’ wall-painting were not Roman but Greek in origin, either coming from Magna Graecia or


Approaching the Wall-Paintings
Oslo Royal Palace 1849 1
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wall-painting by Constantine Brumidi Senate room Capitol Building Washington DC 2