The Four Pompeian Styles

The knowledge of pagan Roman murals have survived from the Roman classical world, and is mostly based on frescoes from the area of Pompeii.

File:The peristyle of the House of Menander (Regio I), Pompeii (15162693341).jpg

Image source: by Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany


The Four “Pompeian” styles of painted wall decoration, were identified by the German archaeologist August Mau in “Pompeii, Its Life and Art“, in the late nineteenth century. A classification can be made by styles and properly refers to the decorated wall as a whole. When considering paintings in isolation, as often 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 originally surrounded the painting. Examples in museums have unfortunately been removed from their original context. A classification of the four styles can be made as follows:

Picture of the Pompeian Styles
Representation of The Four Pompiean Styles

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  • The First style, also referred to as structural, incrustation, or masonry style is characterized by the simulation of marble veneering, with other simulated elements like suspended alabaster discs in vertical lines, ‘wooden’ beams in yellow and “pillars” and “cornices” in white. It also used vivid color, which was considered to be a sign of wealth.
File:Villa Arianna 51.JPG
Fresco on a wall in Villa di Arianna in Stabiae, (modern Castellammare di Stabia in Campania, Italy).

Image source: by Mentnafunangann

File:Villa Arianna (Stabia) WLM 137.JPG
Villa Arianna (Stabia)

Image source: by Mentnafunangann

  • In The Second style or ‘illusionism’  walls were decorated with architectural features and “trompe l’oeil” (trick of the eye) compositions. Elements of this style are reminiscent of the First Style, but this slowly starts to be substituted element by element. This technique consists of highlighting elements to pass them off as three-dimensional realities and was a method used by the Romans.
Cubiculum (bedroom) from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale
Cubiculum (bedroom) from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale

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File:Cubiculum (bedroom) from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale MET DP170950.jpg
Cubiculum (bedroom) from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale

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  • The Third style is a reaction to the austerity of the previous period. It is characterized by more figurative and colorful decoration, with an overall more ornamental feeling, and often presents great finesse in execution. This style is typically noted as simplistically elegant. Defined “fantastic style”, it is heterogeneous and incorporates elements from all of the earlier styles; it can be best described as a combination of the three styles that came before.
Villa de Popea (Oplontis)
Villa in Oplontis,(Villa de Popea (Oplontis) the modern Torre Annunziata near Naples in Campania, Italy.

Image source: by pablocabezos

Oplontis — Hercules
Oplontis — Hercules, Villa in Oplontis

Image source: by Amphipolis

  • The Fourth Style in Roman wall painting is generally less ornamented than its predecessor, it is characterized as a baroque reaction to the Third Style‘s mannerism. The style was much more complex, it revives large-scale narrative painting and panoramic vistas while retaining the architectural details of the Second and First Styles.
Fresco on a wall in the fourth style in Lucretius House, Pompeii
Lucretius House, Pompeii.

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After Pompeian Painting

August Mau takes us as far as Pompeii and the paintings found there, but what about Roman painting after 79 B.C.E.? The Romans did continue to paint their homes and monumental architecture, but there isn’t a Fifth or Sixth Style, and later Roman painting has been called a pastiche of what came before. The Christian catacombs provide an excellent record of painting in Late Antiquity, combining Roman techniques and Christian subject matter in unique ways.

Madonna catacomb.jpg
Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome- Possibly an image of Mary nursing the Infant Jesus, though this is disputed. 3rd century, Catacomb of Priscilla

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The Catacomb at Via Latina, Rome

Image source: by rokorumora

The Catacomb at Via Latina, Rome

Image source: by rokorumora

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