While the architectural features of remaining Roman houses are notable for their pleasing form and function, the interior decorative features are striking in their own right, as well. The various wall murals which exist in preserved villas in Pompeii and Herculaneum provide examples of the four popular mural styles of the Late Republican and Early Empire periods. The conditions which ensued after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE helped preserve the interior spaces of several homes in the area. The murals, which are true frescoes in that the colors used were applied to wet plaster to create various images, deteriorate rapidly when exposed to outside conditions (Kleiner 189). Because of how well-preserved these murals are, they serve as an excellent record of changing tastes with regard to Roman interior decorative arts (Kleiner 189).
In the nineteenth century, German art historian August Mau determined four prominent mural styles which gained and fell out of favor from the second century BCE to the mid-first century CE (Kleiner 189). The First Style was a Greek import (the same style was utilized in Greek residences beginning in the fourth century BCE) and is intended to resemble a marble façade by utilizing painted stucco relief methods (Kleiner 189). One example of the First Style can be seen in the fauces, or entry way, of the Samnite House in Herculaneum. This mural’s artist used both earth-toned neutrals and shades of red to mimic the look of marble (Kleiner 189).

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The Second Style, which emerged after 80 BCE, represented a completely different approach to interior decoration. Instead of delineating inner borders like the First Style did by enforcing the image of walls, the Second Style opens space within a room by imitating the outside world and fantastical scenes with vivid colors and three dimensional techniques. Also unlike the First Style, many scholars believe the Second Style is a purely Roman aesthetic invention (Kleiner 189-190). An example of the Second Style is the Dionysiac mystery frieze in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, which dates from 60-50 BCE. The mural spans the walls of the rooms and depicts the initiation rites of members of the prominent cult of Dionysus. The depicted figures are life-size against a bright red backdrop, bordered by marbled edge, giving the mural the illusion of depth (Kleiner 190).

The Third Style emerged at the end of the first century BCE, during the reign of Augustus, and features both delicate, linear designs, monochromatic palettes, and framed images. The style represented a shift away from depicted open spaces toward a renewed primacy of a wall’s surface (Kleiner 192). An example of the Third Style is present in one of the cubicula, or private rooms, in the Villa of Agrippa Postumus in Boscotrecase. Dating to around 10 BCE, the mural features linear designs (such as floating landscapes and repetitive patterns) against a dark, monochromatic background (Kleiner 192).

The Fourth Style gained popularity in the mid-first century CE and incorporates themes and images from earlier styles. While architectural depictions become more realistic and walls become windows for other images again, the illusions become more surreal. The Ixion Room in the House of the Vettii serves as an excellent example of the heterogeneity of the Fourth Style. Composed in the 70s CE, the murals in the Ixion Room feature hectic, multi-colored images that combine scenic and architectural views, framed panels with mythological scenes, and more abstract First and Third Style decorations and designs (Kleiner 193).

  • Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: Backpack Edition, Book A: Antiquity, 15th Edition. Cengage Learning, 2016.