Object: Fragmentary Wall Fresco

Fragment of wall Fresco
Pompeii, Italy
Ca. 60 C.E.
Materials:  Paint and plaster

This object is a fragment of a Roman wall fresco from Pompeii, Italy.  A faded ink inscription on the lower part of the fragment at the time of accession indicates it originated in the Casa di Fauno (House of the Faun), in Pompeii.  The section is 7.5” high and 7.0” wide.  Between two horizontal bands of green is a pattern of successive diamond-shaped panels formed of simple wreaths.  In each panel an appliquéd stucco comic mask is located.  This example has two masks preserved. The House of the Faun was first excavated by Carlo Bonucci between October 1831 and May 1832.  Accession records for this piece of fresco indicate it was collected from Pompeii in 1896.

The site of Pompeii is located in western Italy in a region called Campania, near the Bay of Naples.  The oldest buildings of Pompeii date to the 6th century B.C.E. and likely only occupied a small part of the south-western area, between the main Forum and the Triangular Forum. Pompeii gradually expanded toward the east and the north. Most of the ruins date back to its establishment as a Roman colony in 80 B.C.E.

On the morning of August 24th, 79 C.E. the volcano, Mt. Vesuvius, burst open with an earsplitting crack. Smoke, mud, flames and burning stones spewed from the summit of the mountain, sending a rain of ash and rock through the surrounding countryside. The mud seeped down the sides of Vesuvius, swallowing nearby farms, orchards and villas. Adding to the destruction were the noxious vapors that accompanied the falling debris; the fumes first caused deliriousness in their victims, then suffocated them. The unfortunate people who could not escape the disaster were killed by falling buildings, overcome by the volcanic gas, or simply buried by the rapidly falling ash. Their bodies were quickly covered by the volcano’s mineral deposits, which covered Pompeii in a layer more than 30 feet thick.

Watch a video that includes Pliny the Younger’s first hand account of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius here.

The House of the Faun was one of the largest and most expensive residences in ancient Pompeii, and today it is the most visited of all the houses in the famous ruins. The house takes up a whole city block, with an interior of some 3000 square meters. Built in the late second century B.C.E., the house is remarkable for the lavish mosaics which covered the floors, some still in place.

Although scholars are somewhat divided about the exact dates, it is likely that the first construction of the House of the Faun was built about 180 B.C.E. Some small changes were made over the next 250 years, but the house remained pretty much as it was constructed until August 24, 79 C.E., when Vesuvius erupted, and the owners either fled the city, or died with the other residents of Pompeii.

Fresco is the term for mural painting that has been done on the fresh, wet plaster of walls and ceilings.  Many of the frescoes uncovered at Pompeii are buon fresco.  In this style of fresco painting, a rough under-layer called the arricco is applied to the whole area to be painted.  It is then allowed to dry for several days.  Many artists would sketch their composition on this under-layer since it would never be seen.  When the artist was ready to paint, a smooth layer of fine plaster was added to the wall.  Usually, only an area large enough to be completed in a single was day was covered.  This work area was called the giornata, or “day’s work.” [Debra Taylor]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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