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The Roman Painting Style

The Roman Style

Romans painters concentrated on murals and were masters of trompe-l'oeil effects. Their houses were small and the rooms tended to be dark and with a single small window.  Roman murals favored rich red backgrounds and often used gold and silver leaf to give the walls some razzle dazzle. Decoration was lavish and tended to be somewhat gaudy, usually to show the wealth and status of the family. 

Origins of The Roman Style

According to noted historian, Hendrik van Loon "The Romans, like their Carthaginian rivals, were too busy administering other people and making money to have much love for “useless and unprofitable” adventures of the spirit. They conquered the world and built roads and bridges but they borrowed their art wholesale from the Greeks. They invented certain practical forms of architecture which answered the demands of their day and age. But their statues and their histories and their mosaics and their poems were mere Latin imi- tations of Greek originals. Without that vague and hard-to- define something which the world calls “personality,” there can be no art and the Roman world distrusted that particular sort of personality. The Empire needed efficient soldiers and tradesmen. The business of writing poetry or making pictures was left to foreigners."

Roman painting Techniques and Formula

Roman artists created their masterpieces using homemade pigments. Pigments were made according to ancient Greek recipes. Artists used many different ingredients to achieve the desired colors, including burnt apple seeds, pulverized semiprecious stones such as lapis lazuli, charcoal,  animal and human bones, naturally occurring earth pigments such celadonite and chlorite,  pomegranate juice and ground up ibulio beetles. Each artist mixing up his own a batch to use as needed.

Egg tempera is a radiant, semi-translucent paint that dries almost immediately.  The process of setting up the paint was time consuming and technical. The artist used 1  egg, 1 tsp. raw olive oil, a few drops if vinegar added to ground pigment.  The process to make just one color took about 30 minutes. Brushes were made from squirrel hair, hogs bristle and cat whiskers. 

Artists painted on portable panels and directly onto the plaster walls (fresco) of their rooms.   For interior rooms Romans loved  trompe-l'oeil effects and mythological and erotic scenes. Frescoes uncovered under volcanic ash 2,000 years ago in Pompeii depict animated bedroom activities involving multiple partners. 

Classical Roman paintings mainly survived in cities that were buried under the volcanic ash thus preserving the art. 


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