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Exploring the Ancient Past

Early Roman Styles of Decor

By Natasha Sheldon
 

Augusto Mau identified four major decorative schemes in elite Roman Republican and Imperial houses. They are still used to classify Roman interior décor today.

From the second century BC until the late 1st century AD, four decorative styles dominated Roman domestic décor: They were:

 

First (Masonry/Incrustation Style),

Second (Architectural Style),

Third (Ornamental Style)

Fourth (Fantastic/Illusionary Style.)

 

Each decorative style followed a chronological sequence. Often, several styles survived together in one particular residence. In other houses, one scheme replaced another as fashions were updated.

 

While these schemes cannot be used to definitively date Roman buildings, they can be viewed as a way of understand the development of the language of status within the roman house.

 

First Style: Masonry/Incrustation Style.

 

Predominantly in use between approximately 200 and 80 BC, the incrustation style used painted plaster to create illusions of the marble and alabaster slabs usually found adorning palaces and public buildings rather than in ordinary homes.

 

This imitation of palatial decor was the sign of aspirational romans’ desire to associate themselves with their society’s leaders.

 

Examples of first style décor can be found in the fauces of the Samnite House in Herculaneum and the House of the Faun in Pompeii. The style’s imitation marble panels were often accompanied by subtle architectural features.

This architectural theme remained a focus of the successive decorative scheme: architectural style.

 

Second Style: Architectural Style.

 

Developed between 80 and 30 BC, second style décor took emblems from palatial and public architecture a stage further. Colonnades, porticos and pediments were now used to create 3D illusions of perspective that enhanced grand rooms and acted as framing devices to draw attention to visual motifs. The result was a more complex and imaginative décor style that reflected the growing complexity of the social statements expressed within the private homes.

 

There were two elements to the Architectural Style: one which framed a closed view, and the other which created the illusion of overlooking a vista beyond the bounds of the house.

 

This vista was either a landscape or composed of monumental figures, as in the famous triclinium of the Villa of the Mysteries. Either way, the effect was to increase the scope of the house and therefore the standing of its owner.

 

Third Style: Ornamental Style.

 

Despite its name, this ornamental style, popular roughly between 30 BC and 45 AD, was less dramatic and abandoned the use of architectural framing. Synonymous with the Augustan revival, it was two dimensional and had a more restrained format.

 

Typically, designs were flat, consisting of a plain painted panel of one color, usually in red or black that framed a small central picture or figure. These panels would be delicately bordered with motifs of foliage, arabesques, candelabras, ribbons and masks.

 

But elements of the second style still remained. The Arcadian vistas formerly framed by architecture now appeared as standalone pictorial representations of rural landscapes and gardens, often taking up whole walls.

 

Fourth Style: Fantastic/Illusionary Style.

 

In use from 45 AD onwards, these styles are best exemplified in houses from the Bay of Naples, preserved after the eruption of Vesuvius.

 

Fourth style is believed to have been inspired by the décor of Nero’s Golden House. It combines the architectural features of the second style and paneled vistas of the third with fantastical and mythical scenes and theatrical imagery. The result was the most elaborate of the decorative schemes. For the bay of Naples’ houses, it represents the last example of the use of palatial inspired décor as a statement of status and wealth.

 

Sources

D'Ambra, E, (1993), Roman Art in Context: An Anthology.

Pompeii: Archaeological Guide. Istituto Geografico de Agostini.

Wallace Hadrill, A, (1994), Houses and Society in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Princeton University Press: New Jersey.

Wilkinson, P, (2003) Pompeii: The Last Day, BBC Books.