What are Pompeii’s Frescoes?

The historic city of Pompeii is famous for its tragic demise by Mount Vesuvius. A past prosperous city that thrived in the Roman Empire’s reign. The area was covered in a thick layer of volcanic debris, swallowing the city up for thousands of years underground. Archaeologists have unearthed incredible artefacts, including lasting frescoes that cover the walls of ancient Pompeii.

What are Frescoes?

Frescoes are a painting made out of water-based pigments on freshly applied plaster. The pigment is absorbed by the wet plaster, and when dry, reacts with air causing it to fix the pigment particles into the plaster. When the painting was completed, a fine layer of wax was painted over the work, ensuring the illustrations lasts. Due to this method of preserving paintings, the frescoes in Pompeii were kept reasonably restored due to the natural time capsule. Over time, the colours of each fresco have faded, but when thinking of them being buried for 1500 years, they are still exceptionally vibrant.

Pompeii’s Frescos

The Frescoes hidden within the city of Pompeii have given us a better understanding of the ancient Pompeii people. With insight into their indulgences, their beliefs, and their customs. Frescos were used throughout the city, in both public and private buildings. A large amount of rooms in Pompeii were small and without windows, so the citizens used the bright paintings to their advantage. Painting bright skies in windowless rooms to make the chambers seem larger. Other scenes such as erotic acts or myths of the Gods were painted to create a stimulating atmosphere, and to beautify the space. making it seem larger than it actually was. For public rooms, many of the frescos were used to decorate. The style of the fresco developed over time in Pompeii, starting from 150 BC all the way until its end in 79 AD. There were four major styles worth noting; Incrustation, Architectural, Ornamental, and Illusionist.

How have they survived the eruption?

During the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, a large wave of volcanic debris rained down onto the city. This was named the ‘pyroclastic flows’ which contained toxic gas, ash, and rock. The wave instantly killed the citizens of Pompeii, burning them alive with the temperature reaching up to 700 degrees Celsius. However, once the people perished, the ash remained, creating a thick layer of ash and dirt to cover the entire area. Soon this debris hardened and became rock, hiding the city below the ground for it to remain for an estimated 1500 years. This preserved many of the paintings within the city, as it was a natural time capsule. Even many of the bright colours, predominately red remained stunningly vivid once they were rediscovered.

The Frescoes Re-discovery

It is rumoured that the first re-discovery of the city’s frescos was by the architect Domenico Fontana in 1599. The architect was constructing an underground channel to divert the river Sarno and came across a series of frescos when digging. However, Fontana quickly covered these frescoes up again, as they were said to be quite sensual scenes which contradicted the times morals. The next rediscovery starting in the eighteenth century, and lead to many excavations to begin of the decorative remains. Nowadays there are numerous frescoes still remaining in the archaeological site.

Frescos You Can Still See Today

Brothels

The Brothels of Pompeii are home to the most famous frescoes of Pompeii. These paintings were used for both decoration as well as essentially displaying a menu. The brightly coloured pieces displayed erotic scenes of attraction tanned men and beautifully pale women in a number of sexual acts. The numerous positions and services were listed with descriptions, acting as a menu for the services these brothels provides. They were also there to enhance a sensual atmosphere for the men waiting in the lobbies.

The Villa of Mysteries

The Villa of Mysteries was once a rich roman’s home, beautifully decorated with paintings, statues, and more. Nowadays, only the frescoes remain, with some of the most preserved scenes in all Pompeii. The different frescoes acts as one story, with each scene apart of the series. An individual is meant to read these frescoes as a single narrative, walking from one to the next as if listening to a story. The story has a number of interpretations, the two most likely stories are that it is an illustration of a religious ceremony, with the other idea being it is a bride initiating into the Bacchian Mysteries in preparation for marriage.

Leda and the Swan

The most recent Fresco unearthed this is one hidden in a private home. It depicts the famous scene of Leda and the swan; a mythical story involving the God Zeus and the mortal women Leda. The story goes that the God Zeus was entranced to the married Leda and turned into a swan to seduce her. Why he thought turning into a swan would help his chances are unknown, but in any case, it worked, and Leda soon fell pregnant with his child. This fresco illustrates this unusual act of a woman having sex with a swan. Although it is defiantly a strange sight to see, it wasn’t an uncommon scene in Pompeii, however this particular fresco is quite exceptional, with a couple factors making it unique to others. The first is the scene displays the actualy act mid-sex, which was never usually done, only displaying the pre-act or post-act. Another amazing feature is that Leda is looking right at the audience, which may have been done to enhance the sensual feel this fresco was created for.

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