The Pompeian Styles

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

The peristyle of the House of Menander (Regio I), Pompeii. House with columns along the front, blue skies in the background, courtyard with bushes in the center left.
The peristyle of the House of Menander (Regio I), Pompeii

Image source: by Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany


The Four Pompeian styles of wall decoration, were identified by the German archaeologist August Mau in “Pompeii, Its Life and Art“, in the late nineteenth century. A piece of this style 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 surrounding it. 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

The First Pompiean style, also referred to as structural, incrustation, or masonry style, has the simulation of marble veneering with other simulated elements, such as suspended alabaster discs in vertical lines, wooden beams in yellow, and pillars or cornices in white. There are often vivid paint colors, which was considered to be a sign of wealth, at the time.

Fresco wall Villa di Arianna Stabia: Fading painting on a wall, vivid blues, reds and golds are all that is left in the unidentifiable drawing.
Fresco on a wall in Villa di Arianna in Stabiae, (modern Castellammare di Stabia in Campania, Italy).

Image source: by Mentnafunangann

Villa Arianna in Stabia near Naples: Painted walls with vivid colors. Two panels of the wall side by side where gold, blue and red are visible in the painting.
Villa Arianna (Stabia)

Image source: by Mentnafunangann

The Second Style

In The Second style, or ‘illusionism,”  walls have architectural features and “trompe l’oeil” (trick of the eye) compositions. Elements of this style are reminiscent of the First Style, but substituted element by element. This technique consists of highlighting elements to pass them off as three-dimensional realities, and 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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Cubiculum (bedroom) in Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale: wall painting of a city and temple.
Cubiculum (bedroom) from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale

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The Third Style

The Third style is a reaction to the austerity of the previous period. Characterized by more figurative and colorful decoration, there is an overall more ornamental feeling, and often finesse in execution. This style is simplistically elegant. Defined “fantastic style,” it is heterogeneous and incorporates elements from all the earlier styles. Moreover, it is a combination of the prior three styles.

Villa de Popea (Oplontis): A wall painting of a temple fading from the wall. The temple is mostly gold and red, but large pieces of the painting have completely faded off the wall.
Villa in Oplontis,(Villa de Popea (Oplontis) the modern Torre Annunziata near Naples in Campania, Italy.

Image source: by pablocabezos

Oplontis Hercules: Wall painting of a man near a tree. He stands on a rock in front of a body of water. This photo exists within an arch, and the surrounding wall is painted a vivid red.
Oplontis — Hercules, Villa in Oplontis

Image source: by Amphipolis

The Fourth Style

The Fourth Style in Roman wall painting is generally less ornamented than its predecessor. It is baroque reacting to the Third Style‘s mannerism. Further, it is 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 Paintings

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 monuments, but there isn’t a Fifth or Sixth Style. Later, Roman painting are 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 in unique ways.

Image on the wall of Catacombs of Priscilla
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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Catacombs in Via Latina, Rome: Underground tomb with a light in the center. The light illuminates the ceiling, which is covered in paintings of horses, men, and buildings.
The Catacomb in Via Latina, Rome

Image source: by rokorumora

Image of horses and soldiers painted on the Catacomb walls
The Catacomb in Via Latina, Rome

Image source: by rokorumora

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