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Ancient Art: Pompeii

Pompeii sank into ash before the printing press was invented, so stories (and advertising) had to get around in other ways. The most common was to spread information in the ancient world was, of course, through art. As the most famous and best-preserved Roman city, Pompeii is an amazing example of how art was used way back when, the interest in which is fueled immensely by the tragic story of how it came to be so well encapsulated in time.

And so it goes: In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted, sending ash and rubble to shroud the city and coat it all, effectively mummifying everything in the process. Both people and animals were buried alive, and the architecture, and the artwork on it, was kept out of the clutches of wear and age.

Now, Pompeii is an active archeological site, constantly being excavated, and is open to the public to walk around and view. Upon walking around, other than the ruins, one would notice a lot of red – a pigment called Cinnabar was very common in the Roman era – but the Pompeii’s version of red is much brighter than in other cities as the painters ground it very finely as opposed to other painters who used larger granules, before being mixed with water. The finest and best example of this paint being used is on a house (known as the House of Mysteries) adorned with frescos depicting a roman woman being initiated into a cult for the god Bacchus (better known by his Greek name, Dionysus) and the god himself with one of his consorts, Ariadne. The red grabs attention, and best captures the passion and vibrancy by which Bacchus’s followers lived their lives.

Another beautiful fresco in this bold red is in a residential villa – the House of Vetti – which was owned by two craftsmen who had bought their way out of slavery, and the art sits above the dining room. It depicts cupid, the son of Venus and Mars (Goddess of love and God of war) making and crafting a series of different artifacts from bread to gold. This fresco is amazing evidence of people using art to celebrate personal accomplishments and passions, and since cupid represents passion, the craftsmen were likely incredibly happy with their work indeed.

When you think of Roman art on a broader scale, you might think also of mosaics. There’s an amazing example of mosaics telling stories in the dubbed ‘Alexander Mosaic’ which depicts Alexander the Great in his battle with King Darius III of Persia, and is thought to either be depicting the battle of Issus or the battle of Guagamela, but experts are unable to agree on which; however I’m most interested in a mosaic found at the very entrance of a house, titled “Cave Canem” – which translates to “Beware the Dog”. The dog appears in the artwork wearing a chain and collar, ready to pounce, and is captured realistically (even with a shadow under its legs!) n a background of repeating diamonds. This is the most interesting mosaic to me here because we still have signs today that warn for dogs; the medium has changed incredibly, but it reminds me that humans are humans, and while centuries separate us, Romans were just like us today, using art to express, tell stories, and even to communicate that there is a dog on the premises.

Finally, an artform which is a bit more niche than the paintings and mosaics but runs rampant in Pompeii and Rome as a whole, is Graffiti. Unfortunately, a lot of Pompeiian graffiti is too explicit to quote on here, as it really captures the essence of Roman life and humor, but there are some heart-warming quotes I will leave you with to finish the article:

“ We two dear men, friends forever, were here. If you want to know our names, they are Gaius and Aulus.”

“Vibius Restitutus slept here alone and missed his darling Urbana.”

“If anyone does not believe in Venus, they should gaze at my girlfriend.”

And lastly,

“Epaphra, you are bald!”

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