Four Pompeian Styles

The knowledge of pagan Roman frescoes have survived the classical world, and it is based mainly on frescoes from the Pompeii region. So we’ll have the four Pompeian styles.

The peristyle of the house of Menander (Pompeii)
Image source: by Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany


The four styles of “Pompeii” wall decoration were identified by the German archaeologist August Mau in “Pompeii, Its Life and Art” at the end of the 19th century. A piece of this style refers to the decorated wall as a whole. When considering single paintings, as is often the case in museums, the ability to assign a specific style to a painting depends on three factors: the design of the painting, the date of the painting, and the type of decoration that surrounds it. The examples in museums have unfortunately been removed from their original context. The four styles can be classified as follows:

The 4 pompeian styles
Image source:
  • The first style (masonry) is characterized by the simulation of marble plating with other simulated elements, such as alabaster discs suspended in vertical lines, wooden beams in yellow and pillars or cornices in white. There are often bright colors, which was considered at the time as a sign of wealth.
Fresco on a wall in Villa di Arianna in Stabiae (modern Castellammare di Stabia in Campania, Italy).
Image source: by Mentnafunangann
Villa Arianna (Stabia)
Image source: by Mentnafunangann
  • In the second style (illusionism) the walls were decorated with architectural elements and “trompe-l’oeil” compositions. Elements of this style recall the first style, but it began to be substituted element by element. This technique consists in highlighting elements to make them look like three-dimensional realities, and was a method often used by the Romans.
Cubiculum (room) of the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor in Boscoreale
Image source:
  • the third style is a reaction to the austerity of the previous period. It is characterized by a more figurative and colorful decoration, with a more ornamental overall feeling, and often finesse in the execution. This style is generally noted as elegant simplistic. Defined as “fantastic style”, it is heterogeneous and incorporates elements of all previous styles. In addition, it can be best described as a combination of the previous three styles.
Villa in Oplontis, (Villa de Popea-Oplontis) modern Torre Annunziata near Naples (Campania, Italy)
Image source: by pablocabezos
Hercules, Villa Oplontis
Image source: by Amphipolis
  • the fourth style in Roman wall painting is generally less decorated than its predecessor. It is characterized as a baroque reaction to the mannerisms of the third style. In addition, it is more complex, it revives narrative painting on a large scale and the panoramas while retaining the architectural details of the first two styles.
Lucretius House (Pompeii)
Image source:

After the pompeian painting

August Mau takes us to Pompeii and the paintings there, but what about Roman painting after 79 A.J.? The Romans continued to paint their houses and monuments, but there is no fifth or sixth style. Later, Roman painting was called a pastiche of what came before. The Christian catacombs provide an excellent record of painting in late antiquity, combining Roman techniques and the Christian subject in unique ways.

Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome- Possible image of Mary nursing the Child Jesus (3rd century) Image source:
Catacomb in Via Latina (Rome)
Image source: by rokorumora
Detail of the catacomb in Via Latina (Rome)
Image source: by rokorumora
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