Two centuries after their discovery the wall-paintings are as tantalisingly enigmatic as the day they were found, and yet, along with other artefacts they changed perceptions of the ancient world and also shaped future cultural agendas. So much so that within decades of their discovery the world was gripped by Neoclassicism, the first truly global style. Despite making a major contribution to the creation of this style their social, semantic and semiological significance remains obscure, even though large quantities have been found throughout what was once the Roman Empire.

When the wall-paintings were discovered in the mid-eighteenth century, Romanesque Art, one of the first waves of post-colonial Roman influence, had come and gone by some 700 years, Renaissance Classicism had long since deferred to the emotional power of the Baroque, which in its turn was succumbing to the arabesque and ornate forms of the Rococo style. And yet, these newly discovered paintings from the turn of the first millennium appeared to contain elements that mirrored all of these artistic periods. Whilst it is true that Pompeii and Herculaneum ceased to exist on the 14th August 79AD, Italo-Roman society continued to develop and change as new ideologies and religions gained control of its destiny.

One of the most dynamic and far reaching of these was undoubtedly Christianity. After Constantine declared it the state religion in the 400s AD it became the dominant religion throughout the Roman Empire. In addition to Imperial patronage, it achieved hegemony by appropriating many of the symbolic images and objects that had hitherto been associated with pagan worship. Pagan Temples were transformed into Christian churches and new ecclesiastical buildings were created using architectural motifs that were originally pagan. For example, Roman Basilicas, which had hitherto performed mainly bureaucratic functions, became models for Christian Cathedrals and tholoi (circular shrines) became baptisteries. Pagan sculptural and pictorial motifs were also incorporated into the iconology that was used to spread the Christian faith. Venus and her winged companion Cupid became the model for the cult of the Madonna and the devil found visual expression via the demonic imagery that entered Roman art by way of Etruscan eschatology. In this way Christianity unwittingly preserved pagan imagery, if not its institutions.  Hence, when the early excavators unearthed pre-Christian wall-paintings, which uncannily bore the hallmarks of Christian iconography in the form of Madonna-like figures, winged angels and depictions of paradise, they may well have felt a sense of déjà vu. [For more on Christian appropriation of Pagan imagery see Jas Elsner 1997]

The early excavators of the Campanian sites were not archaeologists, since the discipline had yet to be defined. To a large extent the lessons learnt during the unearthing of Pompeii and Herculaneum shaped the discipline we now call archaeology. Unlike their modern counterparts, the early excavators did not have to contend with the distorting filters created by post-discovery appropriations of Roman culture. Their problem was one of déjà vu and a sense of uncanny familiarity. Our confusion arises from the various hybrid pseudo Greek and Roman neoclassical styles created by the discovery of Romano-Campanian wall-painting and other objects found at Herculaneum and Pompeii.




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Casa dei Triclini, Moregine