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Frescoes 101

Frescoes 101

Emily Waldorf / ArtsEtoile

October 07, 2009

In light of the fascinating current Pompeii exhibition at LACMA, Pompeii and the Roman Villa, I thought it would be interesting to delve into frescoes. Many people know what frescoes look like but few know how they are made. There is a common misconception that frescoes are made with oil-based paint when in fact they are made with a mixture of colors and a binding substance soluble in water (lime mortar is an example) that is applied to wet plaster. As the plaster dries, the pigment becomes sealed within it. Frescoes can also be made with paint applied a secco (dry) but this technique is less durable.

Roman villas were decorated with elaborate frescoes depicting mythological scenes, landscapes with views of the Bay of Naples, still lifes, and even images of brothels (apparently there were as many bakeries as brothels – 35 – in Pompeii when the volcano erupted). The frescoes were part of a carefully conceived setting for entertaining, including busts of family members, marble tables, bronze sculptures, and gardens with fountains, pools, and aviaries.

Roman villas were much more than a simple dwelling, they were designed to impress on a grand scale and an important tool for demonstrating the patron’s power and wealth to his clients. Walking through the exhibition, I was struck by the similarities between large-scale houses on the Westside of Los Angeles and their ancient counterparts in Pompeii. Though the technology and construction methods are obviously different, they employ the same basic principles of scale, symmetry, and decoration to convey power and prestige. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Christopher Knight wrote a glowing review of the Pompeii show in the Los Angeles Times:

"Pompeii and the Roman Villa is a well-considered, beautifully installed examination of elite Roman taste roughly two millenniums ago, as manifest in the country houses of powerful nobles along the Neapolitan coastline . . . a large but not exhausting study of one culture absorbing and remaking the artistic legacy of another, to suit its own social purposes. Rome had vanquished Greece in the sack of Corinth in 146 BC, but the Romans didn’t denigrate Greek art as something foreign and inferior. Instead, they regarded it as magnificent, something worth emulating and, if possible, enhancing—a sign of Rome’s own much greater power and glory in having triumphed over a major civilization.”

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