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