Ancient painting techniques

By Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Hellenistic architecture (-60 a.C. ca.)Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

The paintings of the Vesuvian cities provoked immediate amazement upon their discovery, but it tookmore than two centuries to understand the technique used to create them. The decorations took the formof frescoes: the colours were laid onto plaster while it was still wet, so as to be indelibly embedded in itupon drying out. Some details could be added later, either by reactivating the process of colourabsorption in the plaster of the area concerned, or by simply painting over it.

Sinopia (55-79 d.C)Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

The walls were covered with layers of increasingly refined plaster. A sketch known as a sinopia wasdrawn on the penultimate layer, called the arriccio. The sketch's name derives from the fact that it was originally executed in ochre from Sinop, a city on the Black Sea.

Wall with a sacral-idyllic landscape (-11 ca. a.C.)Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

The last layer of plaster, the so-called intonachino, was applied at the last moment to the portion of thewall destined to be worked on that day. The entire decorative pattern was then quickly engraved on it:using fishing line to create guidelines, the pictor parietarius squared off the structure of the painting andemployed punches and compasses to outline the architectural elements of the background and framealong with the purely decorative accessory elements, which would then be finished with colours.

Panels (-30-20 a.C.)Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Inside the frames with a white background, you can clearly see the guidelines that were traced to centre the decorative motifs and create the borders.

Predella (20 a.C. -37 d.C.)Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

The loss of colour has left the outlines traced to define the figures visible.

Ceiling (45-79 d.C.)Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

The use of paintings as decoration could also extend beyond the walls: here, we find a rare pictorial decoration of a ceiling, which is adorned with a lacunar pattern.

Ares and Aphrodite (1-25 d.C.)Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

The pictor imaginarius was responsible for creating the figurative paintings, which required a higher level of specialisation. These pictures were painted once the work of the pictor parietarius was complete: only then was the last layer of plaster (the intonachino) applied to the section of the wall destined to be painted.

Dionysiac symbols (55-79 d.C)Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Figurative paintings could also be produced elsewhere, on movable supports, and subsequently embedded into the already painted walls. The painting with objects alluding to the world of Dionysus was discovered "hung on the wall with an iron hook".

Actor, dresses as a king (30-40 d.C.)Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

A few small paintings were found lying on the ground in the gymnasium in Herculaneum, probably waiting to be repositioned after the wall had been restored.

Artemis e Callisto (45-79 d.C.)Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

The work of the pictor imaginarius also called for a certain amount of mass production. Roman painters were mostly considered to be skilled copyists who reproduced, more or less faithfully, models of greatGreek paintings. The identical repetition of similar subjects suggests the existence of "cartoons" that allowed these images to be circulated. The picture featuring Artemis and Callisto thus has an exact replica in a painting found in the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.

Perseus freeing Andromeda (20-45 d.C.)Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Thanks to tools such as the proportional compass, which consisted of two arms hinged two thirds of the way along, a subject could be reproduced with different dimensions. The painting of Perseus freeingAndromeda, from the House of the Prince of Montenegro in Pompeii, which measures approximately one metre across, has an exact replica in a painting from the gymnasium of Herculaneum, which is only 38 cm wide.

Perseus freeing Andromeda (45-79 d.C.)Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

This is a smaller, scaled-down picture of the previous painting. A further replica of the same subject, similar in size to the painting from the House of the Prince of Montenegro, was discovered in the House of the Dioscuri in Pompeii and is also on display at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.

Female painter (50-79 d.C.)Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Literary sources reveal the names of the great Greek painters of the Classical and Hellenistic ages, but there is scant information about Roman painters. Through Pliny, the names of the painters who decorated Nero's Domus Aurea have lived on: Fabullus and Studius (or Ludius). However, written sources tell usal most nothing about the numerous artists active in Pompeii: a single signature, Lucius pinxit, was found beneath the painting of Pyramus and Thisbe in the House of D. Octavius ​​Quartio. Pliny also names a painter, Iaia of Cyzicus, who lived around 100 BC and specialised in portraits. Two paintings from theArchaeological Museum of Naples document the activities of painters: in both of them, a woman is painting a picture that lies on an easel.

Apobates (-20a.C.-37d.C.)Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Most of the ancient paintings known to us are on plaster, but there was no shortage of paintings on other surfaces. Whilst almost nothing is left of the paintings on wood due to the perishable nature of the material, there are more examples of paintings on marble, around a dozen, and all come fromHerculaneum. They have long been considered monochrome, because only the outlines and strokes remain to define the details provided by the ochre colour. More recent analyses, however, have revealed the use of colours: pink for skin tones, pink and yellow for clothing, red and black for sandals and hair.

Building with door and masks (-60 a.C. ca.)Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

The Vesuvian cities have not only handed over the paintings but the tools used to make them too including the pigments needed to produce the colours. The pigments used are described in detail by Pliny. These could be of mineral, vegetable or animal origin: the latter were among the most expensive such as the purple obtained by macerating molluscs or the black created by burning ivory. Based specifically on their value, Pliny categorised them as "plain" (more common and affordable for everyone)or "florid" (more expensive but brighter). Ochre was used for yellows and, when heated, for reds. The most precious red was cinnabar, the minium of the ancients, which had a rich, brilliant hue. For greens they turned to minerals, the most precious of which was derived from malachite. The most wide spread blue was produced in Alexandria and was known as "blue frit"; or Egyptian blue; from the time of the LateRepublic onwards, it was also produced in Pozzuoli by a friend of Cicero, C. Vestorius. More valuable blues, meanwhile, were armenium, which was obtained from azurite, and scyrthicum, made from lapislazuli. Whites were calcium carbonates, whilst blacks derived mostly from the combustion of plants(resins, barks, etc.), although those produced by burning bones were also prevalent.

Credits: Story

Photo credits Luigi Spina

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