The key research question

One question above all others has shaped this investigation: why did the Italo-Romans in the early part of the first century BC introduce highly sophisticated perspectival wall-paintings into their living environments. The spatial and psychological sophistication displayed in these wall-paintings bares comparison to the virtual worlds created by today’s computerised technologies. Unlike much current experimentation, however, it was not driven by the entertainment industry. Nor does it appear to be trompe l’oeil for its own sake, or solely motivated by the desire to use paint to emulate the luxurious world of Hellenistic monarchs, as some have argued. The virtual worlds depicted in these paintings consist of a complex mixture of natural, mythological and symbolic references that seamlessly fuse with their domestic counterpart – theirs is a world of dissolution and becoming.

Despite their visual complexity the paintings have not been subjected to the kind of in-depth iconological analysis that was, for example, applied to the ancient pictorial vases found in southern Italy (Magna Graecia). Why should this be the case? The answer to this question involves a number of complex issues that are examined in detail in the course of this publication. The short answer, however, lies in the fact that the majority of wall-paintings were found in domestic locations. The vases, on the other hand, were discovered in graves and were therefore thought to have religio-symbolic or eschatological meanings attached to them.

No such esoteric assumptions were made in respect of the wall-paintings. Their domestic location linked them to the aesthetics of interior design and decoration and not symbolic meaning. Hence, from the outset the critical framework was determined by stylistic and typological forms of analysis and not iconological methodologies. As a result the wall-paintings were denied any symbolic dénouement that they may have once possessed. Removal for inclusion into palatial decorative schemes in the eighteenth-century and museum display in the nineteenth-century, further decontextualised them, thus making narrative sequencing and iconological forms of analysis even more problematical.

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