How did the ancient Pompeii Decorate?

Since its discovery, all sorts of artefacts have been unearthed at Pompeii. But what can these tell us about the Roman’s relationship with art and design?

Before its disastrous end, Pompeii was a flourishing and wealthy city, known for its lush fashion and stunning embellishment. A popular holiday spot for rich Romans, the streets were filled with sensual brothels, boutique fashion shops, and markets filled with foreign goods. Beautiful things were Pompeii’s speciality, with archaeologists unearthing an amazing array of frescos, mosaic, and artefacts.

  • Brothels

    Frescos played an important role in Pompeii’s many brothels. Many rediscovered brothel houses have lasting frescoes painted on their walls. Archaeologists assume each fresco was used as a documentation of the brothel’s menu. Depicting the services, positions, and companions on offer, using these highly erotic drawing to enhance the shop’s sensual atmosphere. It is believed that when these erotic images were first being unearthed in the 19th century they were locked away and even covered again! Thought to be too immoral for public eyes. For 200 years the images were opened, closed and re-opened again until they were finally made accessible for viewing in 2000.

  • The Villa of Mysteries

    This well-preserved suburban villa contains some of the most exquisite frescos in Pompeii. In one room lies a series of paintings that works as a single narrative. Frescos were used in private homes to show off the family’s wealth, create an enchanting atmosphere, or give the appearance of more space, as some homes in ancient Pompeii had very few, if no, windows. The meaning behind this villa’s frescos are up to interpretation. The two most common explanations are that the design depicts either a religious ceremony or a bride initiating the Bacchian Mysteries in preparation for marriage. The Bacchian Mysteries, or Dionysian Mysteries, was a cult that focused around a ritual of ancient Greece and Rome, where an individual would take intoxicants to liberate themselves so they could return to a natural state. These are just interpretations, however. Like modern art, there is only so much we can dicpher, but with the artist unknown and no one from that time to ask, this makes interpretation a little harder.

  • Leda and the Swan

    Unearthed very recently in November 2018, archaeologists found this fresco in a small house within the city. Thought to be painted on someone’s bedroom wall, the fresco depicts a sensual scene of the Roman God Jupiter, disguised as a swan, and a legendary queen of Sparta from Greek mythology. The image shows Leda being impregnated by the god in swan form as he tricks her into being intimate with him. A famous story at the time, the image was a common decoration theme in Pompeii and Herculaneum. There was some debate around whether Leda’s impregnation was consented to or not. In some stories, the disguised Jupiter manager to seduce her, whilst in others he uses his swan form as a way of getting close to Leda before she can get away. This remains unclear, although the fact that this fresco details Leda protecting the swan with her cloak as the bird sits on her lap suggests either the first tale or that this is the moment prior to intercourse. What makes this artefact rather remarkable are the vividity of the frescos colours and the way in which Leda appears to watch the spectator with a pronounced sensuality.

  • Mosaic

    A mosaic is a piece of art or image made from assembling small pieces of material together. These could be bits of coloured glass, stone, or other materials. This gives the effect of a whole, textured image, but on closer inspection, the viewer can see that the image has actually been made using many little bits of material. Although not as popular as frescos, mosaic ornamentations was a widely used decoration in ancient Pompeii. It was often seen displayed on floors and outdoor structures, depicting either geometric or figurative motifs. A beautiful example is the mosaics featured at the ‘House of the Small Fountain’. This private home has an outdoor fountain brilliantly decorated with colourful mosaics and shells. Recently restored, the fountain also features a magnificent bronze statue of a fisherman and an angel. First excavated between 1826-1827 the cement roofs have now been repositioned to their original height, allowing the old volume of the house to be perceived once again.

  • Sculptures

    As we have already seen, much of Roman art was inspired by Greek antiquities, with wealthy citizens commissioning pieces which depicted important scenes from Greek literature and mythology. The sculptures of Pompeii are no exception. You can see some of the most notable ones in the Archaeological Museum of Naples, including the bronze statue of Apollo and Artemis and the dancing Satyr. These were not the only designs sculptures were subject too. Many of the sculptures were commemorative of the emperors and the imperial family, as well as worthy citizens of Pompeii. These would be displayed in the forum, the main square or in the portico of Macellum. As for sculptures in Pompeii’s homes, these were predominantly displayed in rooms, gardens and fountains. Although not all sculptures survived, the ones that did tell us that the people of Pompeii preferred smaller sized statues when using them in their homes. Whilst the larger statues would be used to decorate public buildings. The only surviving larger statues found were only within the Forum. Bronze statues were by far the most popular, with other materials being marble, tuff and terracotta.