Roma Aeterna– Part Five (the Wall Mosaics)

If your mental picture of the Romans is a bunch of conservative folks wearing white sheets and living in bland houses, you would be wrong. The Greco-Roman world of homes is awash with color— on the walls, on the floors, on the columns, and not just any colors— bright colors. They were especially fond of bright red and bright blue. But not just any painter could paint the house of the wealthy, if they wanted frescoes, paintings done while the wet plaster is drying (or else it will be on the wall but not embedded as part of the wall). This post will illustrate what I am talking about. If you ask the subject matter of what was put on the walls, the following were common: 1) floral patterns, or animals scenes from nature; 2) scenes from Greek and Roman mythology; 3) paintings of doors, windows walls, to make the room look larger.

One of the typical things with Roman columns, especially as a cost cutting measure is that the core of the column would be brick, as you can see above, and then there would be a marble facade for show, or some other sort of stone facade. This was true of columns both within houses, and even in forums or courtyards….as in the column from the villa of the Tragic Poet below.

You will notice that the mythological frescoes tend to have painted frame images around them giving a feeling of hanging artwork. Of course much safer since thieves can’t steal a household wall! Not to mention a thief would not want to deal with Publius’ dog either….see the warning of ‘cave canem’ in a mosaic at the entrance to the house!

Here are some of the other wall frescoes, noting the dominant red, orange, yellow patterns…

Sometimes we find unusual images on these walls, in this case a snake and a wicker basket. Possibly the owner of the house was a priest at the temple of Asklepius (who had a snake and a staff as its’ image).

This one provides the answer to the perennial question— When is a door not a door? Answer— when it’s a wall.

Here we have bright colors on an household shrine. If you are getting the impression there was color everywhere in these villas of the wealthy, you would be mostly right, if we limit ourselves to the public spaces in the house, not the closets or privies for example. There were also plaster reliefs in various of these houses as well such as this one…