Who Were the Painters of Pompeii?

A new exhibition explores the ancient Roman “pictores,” who created beautiful frescoes preserved in ash from Mount Vesuvius’ eruption

Female Figure
Female Figure Courtesy of Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 C.E., it blanketed nearby towns with a thick layer of ash and rock. As surviving residents fled in the aftermath of the disaster, the debris preserved what they left behind, including vibrant wall paintings depicting beautiful landscapes, scrumptious foods, figures from Greek mythology and erotic encounters.

Those detailed frescoes, which archaeologists began systematically excavating in the 18th century, are the focus of “The Painters of Pompeii,” a new exhibition at the Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna in Italy. With more than 100 paintings on view, the show is much larger than earlier iterations held in Oklahoma and New York; it’s also unique in that nearly half of the frescoes have never been shown outside of their home at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, reports the Art Newspaper’s James Imam.

In addition to offering insights on the daily life and customs of ancient Rome, the frescoes shine a light on the at-times mysterious people who created them: the painters, or pictores. Archaeologists and art historians know very little about the pictores, who often did not sign their works but were obviously highly skilled craftspeople.

Actor with mask fresco
Actor With Mask  Courtesy of Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna

“What relationship did they have with their clients?” Mario Grimaldi, the exhibition’s curator, asks the Art Newspaper. “What was the difference contractually between public and private work? We can draw clues from a whole range of elements, which are like pieces of a puzzle.”

Painters probably weren’t very high on the rungs of the local social ladder, but they must have enjoyed some degree of economic success, as they were often responsible for purchasing their own materials and paints, some of which were very expensive, per the Art Newspaper. It’s possible they worked in groups and were seen more as decorators than artists.

“Painting was relegated to the work of freedmen, slaves, women and people incapable of political and military life,” Grimaldi tells the Guardian’s Roberto Serra.

Curators are telling the story of the painters by reconstructing some of the rooms and conditions in which they worked. They’re also exhibiting the artists’ tools, including cups of pigment, compasses, squares, sketches and plumb lines. On display alongside these excavated artifacts are various domestic objects, such as vases, jugs and oil lamps.

Philosopher with Macedonia and Persia
Philosopher With Macedonia and Persia Courtesy of Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna

“We have tools and pigments that have miraculously survived the eruption, which tell us a lot about the way Romans worked, and these wouldn’t have survived otherwise, if they weren’t buried in the eruption,” Rosie May, director of curatorial affairs and audience engagement at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, told the Oklahoman’s Brandy McDonnell ahead of the Sooner State’s exhibition last year.

Nearly 2,000 years after Vesuvius’ eruption, archaeologists continue to make important finds at Pompeii, Herculaneum, Boscoreale, Stabiae and other seaside communities buried by volcanic ash.

A recent excavation offered a window into the lives of middle-class Pompeii residents, who were “vulnerable during political crises and famines, but also ambitious to climb the social ladder,” said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, in a statement. In 2021, archaeologists found what they believe to be the home of enslaved individuals living in the ancient Roman city.

Research is also revealing new information about the diets and dining habits of people living in the shadow of the volcano, as well as the types of wildlife that called the area home.

The Painters of Pompeii” is on view at the Museo Civico Archeologico di Bologna through March 19, 2023.

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