The Four Pompeian Styles

The knowledge of pagan Roman frescoes have survived the classical world, and it is based mainly on the frescoes from Pompeii.


The four “Pompeian” styles of wall decoration were identified by the German archaeologist August Mau in “Pompeii, Its Life and Art” at the end of the 19th century. The classification can be made by styles and 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:

Drawing of the four Pompeian Styles.
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 a sign of wealth at the time.
Fresco on a wall in Villa di Arianna in Stabiae (modern Castellammare di Stabia in Campania, Italy).
Fresco on a wall in Villa di Arianna in Stabiae (modern Castellammare di Stabia in Campania, Italy).
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.
Photo of a fresco designed according to the Illusionism style, in the Villa of P. Fannius Sinister, in Boscoreale.
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.
Photo of a fresco in a Villa in the odiern Torre Annunziata.
Villa in Oplontis, (Villa de Popea-Oplontis) modern Torre Annunziata near Naples (Campania, Italy)
Image source: by pablocabezos
  • 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.

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.

Photo of the remains of a fresco of Mother Mary nursing Jesus, found in the Catacomb of Priscilla, in Rome.
Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome- Possible image of Mary nursing the Child Jesus (3rd century) Image source:
Photo of a detail of the Catacomb in Via Latina, in Roma.
Detail of the catacomb in Via Latina (Rome)
Image source: by rokorumora
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