From a formal point of view the relationship between the location of the wall-paintings and the spatio-conceptual compositions defined by them, was so sophisticated that it remained uneclipsed for fourteen hundred years, and only then by artists such as Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca. Unlike the work of these eminent artists whose paintings were produced for the church and elite patrons, their nameless Roman counterparts, at the turn of the first millennium, created their paintings for domestic interiors belonging to broad cross-sections of society. The fact that the majority of the wall-paintings evolved within homes and not temples or palaces, makes their evolution unique within the history of art. The Italo-Roman domus (house and household) provided the social and spatial canvas for them to flourish. Modern concepts of ‘home’ and ‘domesticity’ have since skewed our reading of them by classifying them as interior decoration.

Roman society became the biggest colonial force of its day because it was a highly formulaic society. Therefore, it is very likely that decoration determined by individual aesthetic desire did not exist, or was at the fringes of what was permissible or understandable. Hence, it is far more likely that decorum (that which is becoming or appropriate) determined by broader social imperatives, shaped the visual culture of the day. When the wall-paintings from Pompeii and Herculaneum were discovered in the eighteenth century these imperatives no longer existed. Instead, they came into a world in which antiquity and retro-pastiche versions of antiquity had long since merged. Hence the paintings from the Campanian sites were inevitably associated with ‘ancient style’ decorations in influential locations such as the Vatican, Versailles and numerous other palatial villas throughout Europe.

The Vatican, in the early sixteenth-century, was one of the first places to display pastiche interiors derived from fragments of ancient Roman wall-painting. Several of these fragments were found in what were thought to be grottoes. As a result the fragments became known as grotesque and the motifs derived from them were later introduced into numerous interior design schemes throughout Europe. The grottoes were later found to be painted vaulted ceilings in the buried remains of Nero’s Golden Palace (Domus Aurea). Three hundred years after the fragments were discovered large wall-paintings emerged from the buried ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Like the previously discovered fragments they were rapidly incorporated into interior design schemes and manufactured objects for European and then global consumption. These copies and appropriations were collectively referred to as the ‘Pompeian or Empire Style’, part of what we now refer to as Neoclassicism. This association increasingly merged both pastiche and original and by the nineteenth century the language of interior design was used to describe both. The fact that the ancient wall-paintings were produced by a pagan society in which art, religion and politics overlapped and in some instances were indivisible, seems to have escaped the critical framework in which they have become embedded.




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Stufetta Vatican decoration ancient style