Until recently much of the discourse on Roman wall-painting was predicated on stylistic concerns linked to chronology and typology. Although the results were significantly more analytical than those achieved by dilettantes and connoisseurs, it nevertheless decontextualised the paintings from their iconological significance. August Mau’s theory that Pompeian wall-painting evolved through four sequential styles proved to be the most enduring example of the typological approach (fig. 1-4). Subsequent writers built careers on his thesis by deciphering further sub-groups within each of the four styles, which are now thought to represent the evolution of all Roman wall-painting from its origin to the end of the first century AD. Ironically, the names that Mau gave to the four styles: Incrustation; Architectural; Ornate; and Intricate; proved less enduring than the numerical order currently assigned to them. For example, the Architectural Style is now generally referred to as the Second Style. In some respects this is preferable because it steers us away from the notion that each style was homogenous, either in a formal or in an iconographic sense. Mau's terminology was chosen in order to denote the key feature of each style. Unfortunately, not only was it insufficiently representative, but it also created false distinctions between the four styles. The Second Style does indeed consist of numerous architectural references, but at the same time it contains many figurative, ornate and intricate motifs. Equally, the Fourth Style in addition to appearing intricate and ornate consists of numerous architectural references.     

In contrast to hitherto typological approaches social historians, since the 1980s, have used Pompeian wall-painting to characterise certain aspects of Roman society. Generally speaking they focused on the projection and reception of personal status, defined by wall-paintings and their location within the house. The pioneers in this field were probing and somewhat restrained in their conclusions. Subsequent writers, however, have used their views without the various caveats that accompanied them. The result, especially in short articles, is that we are increasingly subjected to a version of Roman society that is more caricature than characterisation. The caricature uses wall-painting per se as evidence of luxury that is symptomatic of the owner’s hedonistic desire to imitate the luxurious trappings of Greek and Hellenistic culture. This in turn makes the wall-paintings symptomatic of the degeneration of traditional Roman stoic values and signifiers of nouveau riche desires that are purely status driven. This view strips the paintings of any inherent significance they may have once possessed. It presupposes that the owners had a concept of interior decoration governed by hedonism and not symbolic decorum. It is also uncanny that this view of Roman society and the significance of the wall-paintings came to the fore in the 1980s and 90s. An epoch that is now generally characterised, or caricatured, as the ‘me first’ society gripped by the pursuit of luxury and wealth.


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First Style 1
Fourth Style 4>