Guides to Fine Arts Like Painting, Designing, Architecture, Sculpture, Photography and More

Fig. 5.—Etruscan Wall-painting.

The works of the ancient painters which still remain in various countries are wall-paintings, paintings on vases, mosaics, paintings on stone, and certain so-called miniatures; and besides these principal works there are many small articles, such as mirrors, toilet-cases, and other useful objects, which are decorated in colors.

We will first speak of the mural, or wall-paintings, as they are the most important and interesting remains of ancient painting. We shall only consider such as have been found in Italy, as those of other countries are few and unimportant.

The Etruscan tombs which have been opened contain many beautiful objects of various kinds, and were frequently decorated with mural pictures. They often consist of several rooms, and have the appearance of being prepared as a home for the living rather than for the dead. I shall give you no long or wordy description of them; because if what I tell you leads you to wish to know more about them, there are many excellent books describing them which you can read. So I will simply give you two cuts from these Etruscan paintings, and tell you about them.

Fig. 5 is in a tomb known as the Grotta della Querciola. The upper part represents a feast, and the lower portion a boar-hunt in a wood, which is indicated by the few trees and the little twigs which are intended to represent the underbrush of the forest. If we compare these pictures with the works of the best Italian masters, they seem very crude and almost childish in their simplicity; but, if we contrast them with the paintings of the Egyptians and Assyrians, we see that a great advance has been made since the earliest paintings of which we know were done. The pose and action of the figures and their grace of movement, as well as the folding of the draperies, are far better than anything earlier than the Greek painting of which there is any knowledge; for, as we have said, these Etruscan works are essentially Greek.

Fig. 6.—Human Sacrifice Offered by Achilles to the Shade of Patroklos.
From an Etruscan wall-painting.

Fig. 6 belongs to a later period than the other, and is taken from a tomb at Vulci which was opened in 1857 by François. This tomb has seven different chambers, several of which are decorated with wall-paintings of mythological subjects. A square chamber at the end of the tomb has the most important pictures. On one side the human sacrifices which were customary at Etruscan funerals are represented: the pictures are very painful, and the terror and agony of the poor victims who are being put to death make them really repulsive to see. On an opposite wall is the painting from which our cut is taken. This represents the sacrifices made before Troy by Achilles, on account of the death of his dear friend Patroklos. The figure with the hammer is Charon, who stands ready to receive the sacrifice which is intended to win his favor. Your mythology will tell you the story, which is too long to be given here. The realism of this picture is shocking in its effect, and yet there is something about the manner of the drawing and the arrangement of the whole design that fixes our attention even while it makes us shudder.

The ancient wall-paintings which have been found in Rome are far more varied than are those of Etruria; for, while some of the Roman pictures are found in tombs, others are taken from baths, palaces, and villas. They generally belong to one period, and that is about the close of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire. Modern excavations have revealed many of these ancient paintings; but so many of them crumble and fade away so soon after they are exposed to the air, that few remain in a condition to afford any satisfaction in seeing them. But fortunately drawings have been made of nearly all these pictures before they fell into decay.

Fig. 7.—The Aldobrandini Marriage.
From a wall-painting in the Vatican.

Some of the ancient paintings have been carefully removed from the walls where they were found, and placed in museums and other collections. One of the finest of these is in the Vatican, and is called the Aldobrandini Marriage. It received this name from the fact that Cardinal Aldobrandini was its first possessor after its discovery, near the Arch of Gallienus, in 1606.

As you will see from Fig. 7, from it, there are three distinct groups represented. In the centre the bride veiled, with her head modestly bowed down, is seated on a couch with a woman beside her who seems to be arranging some part of her toilet, while another stands near holding ointment and a bowl. At the head of the couch the bridegroom is seated on a threshold. The upper part of his figure is bare, and he has a garland upon his head. On the right of the picture an ante-room is represented in which are three women with musical instruments, singing sacrificial songs. To the left, in another apartment, three other women are preparing a bath. This is charming on account of the sweet, serious way in which the whole story is placed before us; but as a painting it is an inferior work of art—not in the least above the style which we should call house decoration.

Although ancient writers had spoken of landscape paintings, it was not until 1848-1850, when a series of them was discovered on the Esquiline in Rome, that any very satisfactory specimens could be shown. These pictures number eight: six are complete, of the seventh but half remains, and the eighth is in a very imperfect state. They may be called historical landscapes, because each one has a complete landscape as well as figures which tell a story. They illustrate certain passages from the Odyssey of Homer. The one from which our cut is taken shows the visit of Ulysses to the lower world. When on the wall the pictures were divided by pilasters, and finished at the top by a border or frieze. The pilasters are bright red, and the chief colors in the picture are a yellowish brown and a greenish blue. In this scene the way in which the light streams through the entrance to the lower world is very striking, and shows the many figures there with the best possible effect. Even those in the far distance on the right are distinctly seen. This collection of Esquiline wall-paintings is now in the Vatican Library.

Fig. 8.—Landscape Illustration to the Odyssey.
From a wall-painting discovered on the Esquiline at Rome.

Besides the ancient mural paintings which have been placed in the museums of Rome, there are others which still remain where they were painted, in palaces, villas, and tombs. Perhaps those in the house of Livia are the most interesting; they represent mythological stories, and one frieze has different scenes of street life in an ancient town. Though these decorations are done in a mechanical sort of painting, such as is practised by the ordinary fresco painters of our own time, yet there was sufficient artistic feeling in their authors to prevent their repeating any one design.

One circumstance proves that this class of picture was not thought very important when it was made, which is that the name of the artist is rarely found upon his work: in but one instance either in Rome or Pompeii has this occurred, namely, in a chamber which was excavated in the gardens of the Farnesina Palace at Rome, and the name is Seleucus.

We have not space to speak of all the Italian cities in which these remains are discovered, and, as Pompeii is the one most frequently visited and that in which a very large proportion of the ancient pictures have been found, I will give a few illustrations from them, and leave the subject of ancient, mural paintings there. Many of the Pompeian pictures have been removed to the Museum of Naples, though many still remain where they were first painted.

The variety of subjects at Pompeii is large: there are landscapes, hunting scenes, mythological subjects, numerous kinds of single figures, such as dancing girls, the hours, or seasons, graces, satyrs, and many others; devotional pictures, such as representations of the ancient divinities, lares, penates, and genii; pictures of tavern scenes, of mechanics at their work; rope-dancers and representations of various games, gladiatorial contests, genre scenes from the lives of children, youths, and women, festival ceremonies, actors, poets, and stage scenes, and last, but not least, many caricatures, of which I here give you an example (Fig. 9).
 
Fig. 9.—The Flight of Æneas
From a wall-painting
The largest dog is Æneas, who leads the little Ascanius by the hand and carries his father, Anchises, on his shoulder. Frequently in the ancient caricatures monkeys are made to take the part of historical and imaginary heroes.

Human Sacrifice Offered by Achilles to the Shade of Patroklos From an Etruscan wall-painting
Fig. 10.—Demeter Enthroned.
From a Pompeian wall-painting.

Human Sacrifice Offered by Achilles to the Shade of Patroklos From an Etruscan wall-painting.
Fig. 11.—Pompeian Wall-painting.

Fig. 11 shows you how these painted walls were sometimes divided; the principal subjects were surrounded by ornamental borders, and the spaces between filled in with all sorts of little compartments. The small spaces in this picture are quite regular in form; but frequently they are of varied shapes, and give a very decorative effect to the whole work. The colors used upon these different panels, as they may be called, were usually red, yellow, black, and white—more rarely blue and green. Sometimes the entire decoration consisted of these small, variously colored spaces, divided by some graceful little border, with a very small figure, plant, or other object in the centre of each space.
Fig. 12.—Nest of Cupids.
From a Pompeian wall-painting.

Fig. 10, of Demeter, or Ceres, enthroned is an example of such devotional paintings as were placed above the altars and shrines for private worship in the houses of Pompeii, or at the street corners, just as we now see pictures and sacred figures in street shrines in Roman Catholic countries. In ancient days, as now, these pictures were often done in a coarse and careless manner, as if religious use, and not art, was the object in the mind of the artist.

Fig. 12, of a Nest of Cupids is a very interesting example of Pompeian painting, and to my mind it more nearly resembles pictures of later times than does any other ancient painting of which I know.

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