The Four Pompeian Styles

Knowledge of pagan Roman murals that survive from the Roman classical world, is composed of frescoes from the area of Campania around Naples.

Campania includes Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other towns whose buildings, paintings, and sculptures that were preserved by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79.

The Four “Pompeian” styles of painted wall decoration, were identified by the German archaeologist August Mau (Pompeii, Its Life and Art), in the late nineteenth century.


Classification by style 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 (especially important in distinguishing III/IV Style) which originally surrounded the painting. Examples in museums have unfortunately been removed from their original context.

Pompeian Styles
Representation of The Four Pompiean Styles

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The first style, which could be called the masonry style, creates the illusion that a wall is composed of stone blocks (especially marble) of various colors and patterns. Sometimes other architectural elements (entablatures, pilasters) are also painted in. This style, adopted from the Hellenistic Greeks, flourished in the two centuries leading up to the Roman Empire period.

The three subsequent Pompeian styles, on the other hand, are highly developed and distinctly Roman. The first style may therefore be considered a prelude to the “real” history of pagan Roman wall painting. Together, the final three Pompeian styles stretch roughly from the beginning of the Roman Empire (which lies a few decades BC, though it is convenient to round this figure to year 0) to the eruption of Vesuvius (79).

Fresco on a wall in Villa di Arianna in "Stabiae".
Fresco on a wall in Villa di Arianna in Stabiae, (modern Castellammare di Stabia in Campania, Italy).

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The second style could be named the three-dimensional style. A scene is painted with realistic shading and deep perspective, creating the illusion that one is looking through the wall at a scene beyond. In some cases, the scene is framed with architectural elements, as though one were looking out from inside a building.

Fresco from the villa of Publio Fannio Sinistore in Boscoreale.
Fresco from the villa of Publio Fannio Sinistore in Boscoreale, currently located in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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In the third style, which could be dubbed the tapestry stylerectangular areas of solid colour are the dominant visual effect. Each rectangle is sparsely covered with fine decorative elements (arabesques, miniature figures), yielding the overall impression of a wall covered in large, lightly embroidered tapestries. Sometimes a realistic scene is embedded among the tapestries, as though it were a framed painting hanging on the wall.

Villa in Oplontis, the modern Torre Annunziata near Naples in Campania, Italy.
Villa in Oplontis, the modern Torre Annunziata near Naples in Campania, Italy. It shows one wall of the Caldarium, room 8. The motif in the middle represents Herakles in the garden of the Hesperides.

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The fourth style, which could be termed the hybrid style, simply merges the second and third styles. Deep perspective and three-dimensional architecture are merged with the rectangular “tapestries” and “framed paintings” described above.

Fresco on a wall in the fourth style
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 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, simply combining elements of earlier styles. The Christian catacombs provide an excellent record of painting in Late Antiquity, combining Roman techniques and Christian subject matter in unique ways.

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