Frescoes 101


6a00d8341c630a53ef01156f7fae09970c-800wi by Emily Waldorf

In light of the fascinating current Pompeii exhibition at LACMA, Pompeii and the Roman Villa, I thought it would be interesting to delve into frescoes.  Many people know what frescoes look like but few know how they are made. There is a common misconception that frescoes are made with oil-based paint when in fact they are made with a mixture of colors and a binding substance soluble in water (lime mortar is an example) that is applied to wet plaster.  As the plaster dries, the pigment becomes sealed within it.  Frescoes can also be made with paint applied a secco (dry) but this technique is less durable.

Roman villas were decorated with elaborate frescoes depicting mythological scenes, landscapes with views of the Bay of Naples, still lifes, and even images of brothels (apparently there were as many bakeries as brothels – 35 – in Pompeii when the volcano erupted).  The frescoes were part of a carefully conceived setting for entertaining, including busts of family members, marble tables, bronze sculptures, and gardens with fountains, pools, and aviaries.

Roman villas were much more than a simple dwelling, they were designed to impress on a grand scale and an important tool for demonstrating the patron’s power and wealth to his clients.  Walking through the exhibition, I was struck by the similarities between large-scale houses on the Westside of Los Angeles and their ancient counterparts in Pompeii.  Though the technology and construction methods are obviously different, they employ the same basic principles of scale, symmetry, and decoration to convey power and prestige.  Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…


Christopher Knight wrote a glowing review of the Pompeii show in the Los Angeles Times:

Pompeii and the Roman Villa is a well-considered, beautifully installed examination of elite Roman taste roughly two millenniums ago, as manifest in the country houses of powerful nobles along the Neapolitan coastline . . . a large but not exhausting study of one culture absorbing and remaking the artistic legacy of another, to suit its own social purposes. Rome had vanquished Greece in the sack of Corinth in 146 BC, but the Romans didn’t denigrate Greek art as something foreign and inferior. Instead, they regarded it as magnificent, something worth emulating and, if possible, enhancing—a sign of Rome’s own much greater power and glory in having triumphed over a major civilization.”

Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5908 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Noon-8 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, noon-9 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.  Ends Oct. 4. $25. (323) 857-6000.

5 Responses to “Frescoes 101”

  1. 1 Michelle Gillette

    Next time you go to Florence you have to see the beautiful Frescoes at the Four Season’s. It used to be a Medici Palace and home to one of the Popes. It has been gorgeously restored and the grounds are absolutely stunning. As a guest there, you can opt to take an outdoor frescoe class taught by a local artist…great fun and so interesting.

  2. Oct08Jessica Saretta The Domus Aurea is a different coepmlx and is now closed to the public again.Hilda You’re welcome!Brattcat Yup, photos allowed, which I was happy about. Just no flash.Peter I know .I can only imagine how much better and detailed it would have been.

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