New light on Roman paintings


MSU art professor’s theory about ancient decorating choices casts new light on Roman paintings

Carol Schmidt

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Regina Gee, a professor in MSU's College of Art and Architecture says her research of wall paintings in the excavated rooms in the extravagant Roman villa buried by Pompeii show that the owner chose to "renovate and revive" wall paintings in an older style, rather than opting for the newest painting style of the time. Her findings may cause art historians to rethink timelines of ancient painting styles found in the ruins.

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The Garden Room of Villa Oplontis is one of three rooms that are the basis of Regina Gee's theory that, like contemporary decorators, Romans sometimes chose to renovate rather than redo with the current trends of decoration styles. Previously, art historians believed the frescoes in the ruins were painted sequentially, with the older styles done earliest. The villa is located on the Bay of Naples, five kilometers west of Pompeii in the current Italian city of Torre Annunziata. Photo by Paul Bardagjy, used with permission.

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Room 15 of Villa Oplontis is a good example of the wall paintings found in the Villa A Oplontis, an elegant Roman villa buried in 79 A.D. in the eruption of Vesuvius. Historians are not sure who owned the villa, which is considered the most extravagant excavated villa on the Bay of Naples and the site of some of the best examples of Second Style Roman paintings. Popular thought is that the 96-room villa may have belonged to Poppaea Sabina, second wife of Nero Caesar, and a native of the area. Photo by Paul Bardagjy, used with permission.

A four-year study of the wall paintings found in an elegant villa buried by Vesuvius in 79 A.D. indicate that ancient Romans -- just like modern decorators -- sometimes chose to renovate and revive older styles rather than redo in the latest techniques.

The research by Regina Gee, a professor of art history in Montana State University's College of Arts and Architecture, challenges the long-held assumption that Roman painting styles progressed in a linear fashion.

Gee presented her findings at the recent 11th International Colloquium of the International Association for Ancient Wall Paintings in Ephesus-Selcuk, Turkey. The title of her paper is "Fourth-Style Responses to 'Period Rooms' of the Second and third Styles at Villa A ('of Poppaea') at Oplontis."

Gee's findings are based on her four years of research of the wall paintings in the elegant Villa Oplontis (, located five kilometers west of Pompeii in the current Italian city of Torre Annunziata. The villa was 140 years old and had been renovated and enlarged several times before it was buried in the eruption of Vesuvius. Experts consider the villa to have the best and most extensive wall paintings preserved of any known Roman villa.

Researchers have defined four distinct styles --or date classification systems of Roman antiquities -- that help them judge the age of the buildings in the area. Gee's theory that Roman artists and craftsmen copied the workmanships and painting styles of an earlier era may cause a rethinking of the age of many buildings and of how art matured during this time period, which was between 40 B.C. and 79 A.D. The wall paintings in the villa are some of the best preserved examples of the four styles of Roman painting, and the Villa Oplontis is best known for its Second Style paintings, according to Erin Anderson, an MSU art history instructor who accompanied Gee to Villa Oplontis last summer.

Gee said her research found insertions of new paintings into some room's existing paintings, "providing evidence that the artist attempted to conceal his hand so that the new section carefully matches the old."

Gee said she believes there may have been some status associated with painting revival.

"It is clear that ... the owners made choices concerning whether to preserve an older style or to repaint in response to a new aesthetic. Instead of ... one aesthetic succeeding the next, the owners elect to keep selected rooms in one style, even refreshing them when necessary, while updating the decorative scheme of others according to current fashion."

Specifically, Gee argues that the elaborate wall decoration of the villa's atrium, presented in textbooks and scholarly articles as one of the most spectacular examples of the Second Style dating to 40 B.C. was a faithful recreation done some 100 years later

"It does mess with the chronology," she said. "I expect that the proposal will be met with vigorous debate."

Art historians don't know who the owner of the villa was, but do know that it is the most extravagant of the excavated villas on the Bay of Naples and likely belonged to a Roman of influence, such as a senator or general, Gee said. A vessel belonging to a slave of Poppaea Sabina, second wife of Nero Caesar, was found at the villa, leading to speculation that the villa belonged to the empress. In fact, the villa is officially called Villa di Poppaea at Oplontis.

Gee, who is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant for her work on antiquities in Rome, has worked on the Oplontis project with John Clarke, her mentor at the University of Texas at Austin, where she received her doctorate. Clarke is co-director of the Oplontis Project, a collaboration with the Archaeological Superintendency of Pompeii, which includes excavation and a study of the art and masonry of the building. Three years ago, Clarke asked Gee to be part of his international team during the summer excavation.

"It was such an amazing thing to be offered the chance to do this work," Gee said.

The ultimate goal of the project is a comprehensive multi-volume publication by the American Council of Learned Societies, of the history of the villa and its decorative systems, she said. Gee's responsibility is the description of all of the painted decoration with the villa's 96 rooms.

Gee teaches about the villa in her Roman art and architecture class and has taken MSU students to Rome. She hopes to bring the 2011 MSU School of Art's Spring in Italy students to the excavation site. Gee and Anderson will both return to work on the project next summer.

"I think it is important for students to understand the active research role of their professors, to know them as scholars, not just teachers, and I love sharing this work with them, "Gee said. "It makes the course more dynamic and provides a special kind of teaching moment."

Gee said future plans for the Oplontis Project include the virtual 3-D gallery of the artifacts that will be posted by King's Visualisation Lab at King's College in London.