BMCR 2000.09.09

A Catalog of Identifiable Figure Painters of Ancient Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae

, A catalog of identifiable figure painters of ancient Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000. xvii, 190 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0801862353. $49.95.

Over a century ago, Giovanni Morelli presented the fundamental principles of connoisseurship. Most familiar to classicists through Beazley’s work on Greek pot painters, the Morellian method for attribution distinguishes individual artists and workshops by careful, close study of certain repeated details, especially anatomical forms reproduced regularly in preliminary sketches and drawings of human figures. The more works with very similar or particularly idiosyncratic stylistic signatures, then the more convincing the attribution, especially when techniques and materials remain relatively constant and when figure types are repeated in different pieces. Since Morellian analysis relies on criteria that can be described, counted and, most important, documented through photographs, many have regarded it a precise and scientific method for identifying personal styles and regional traditions. Yet, despite some claims to “scientific rigor,” connoisseurship is as inherently subjective as any other sub-discipline of classical archaeology or classics in general for that matter.1 The acceptance of an attribution relies in great measure on the scholar’s reputation and ability to verbalize visual characteristics, on the supporting documentation and on the critical acumen of an experienced reader.

Until relatively recently, attribution dominated the study of Greek sculpture and vase painting, two media that generally conform to the desired conditions in those periods unburdened by the troublesome copy problem. For Roman art, on the other hand, attribution studies have been sporadic, overshadowed by iconographical, typological and contextual questions. Attempts to isolate painters or sculptors through stylistic signatures have met with varying degrees of acceptance or interest. Perhaps this is due in part to judgements that the Morellian method is too unfashionable or inapplicable for the Roman material. While it is true that connoisseurship has not been trendy lately, its potential for further clarifying the dynamics of Roman patronage and artistic processes has yet to be thoroughly explored.

It is against this background that Richardson’s study of Campanian figure painters stands out as one of the few recent attempts to apply Morellian analysis to Roman imagery in order to isolate individual artists. Yet, the scope of this book goes well beyond simply assigning figure panels to distinct yet still anonymous painters. Although R. makes it clear in both the title and preface that the focus is the substantial, 156 page catalog, the introductory chapter offers several thought-provoking observations on the working conditions of wall painters in the Campanian region, especially in Pompeii. Since this twenty-two page chapter summarizes the implications of R.’s painting attributions, I will spend most of this review discussing this portion.

Divided into two sections, the “Introduction” consists of a brief discussion of the dating and classification of Mau’s Four Styles and a longer section on the purposes, methods and results of R.’s identifications. The author begins by emphasizing the structural damage caused by the 62 earthquake, reminding readers that most buildings in the region were at various stages of repair and re-decoration when Vesuvius erupted. According to R., painters were not commissioned as fixed teams to decorate the entirety of individual homes; rather, different artists worked in different rooms (or even the same room) in spurts as repairs and wall resurfacing permitted. While R. concedes that painting styles were often influenced by the requirements of the room, he argues that the juxtaposition of different styles or variations within a style was more often the “consequence of time and different painters” (2). Considering recent theories on the contextual significance of stylistic groupings and Roman attitudes of decor, R.’s statement might meet some resistance. Certainly any number of factors, including scheduling problems, artist availability, intended ambience and room requirements, caused stylistic variations in the decoration of Pompeian homes — variations which R. observes were aesthetically appealing to Roman patrons. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, textual records offer little substantial information on the more practical aspects of painting commissions in the Campanian region.

Problems of style regularly lead to problems of date, and R. devotes much of this first section to a review of the chronology and classifications of Mau’s Four Styles. A word of caution is warranted here because R. assumes that the reader is already thoroughly familiar with basic design characteristics of each style. Without a description of the Four Styles, I wonder whether the “intellectually adventurous tourist” targeted as a potential reader in the jacket blurb could follow R.’s succinct summary of complicated and conflicting typological arguments.

Since figure panel painters are the focus, R. gives most space to the classifications of the Third and Fourth Styles. After a rapid-fire run through of the First Style (starting c. 200 B.C. with no end date given) and the Second Style (Sullan period to sometime after A.D. 3), R. dates the end of the “Transition” phase between Second and Third (often referred to as Late Second Style Phase 2B) well past the traditional point of c. 20 B.C. to the early Tiberian period.2 Meanwhile, the chronological development of the Third Style continues to be problematic. Rejecting much earlier dates for the “full blossoming” of the Third Style to the last decade of the first century B.C., R. argues instead for some time after Tiberius’ accession — quite late indeed! The problem centers on which phase one defines as the blossoming: the monochromatic walls with sacral-idyllic landscapes of Boscotrecase or the bold color blocks and large figural panels, for example, in the Casa di Cecilio Giocondo. Preferring the latter as the height of the style, R. goes on to suggest that, despite certain definable characteristics, the Third Style was exceptionally experimental and thus inherently resistant to modern classification systems. More skeptical readers might question the entire process of classifying wall paintings when they learn that it “is almost impossible to decide whether certain simple decorations are Third or Fourth Style” (6).

Finally, the Fourth Style receives its due, and the case begins straightforwardly enough. R. assigns the invention of the Fourth Style, already conclusively dated before 62 by M. de Vos,3 to the painters of Nero’s Domus Transitoria.4 Once invented, however, its further development cannot be traced, according to R., who ends by refuting various attempts to divide the Fourth Style into periods based on stylistic deviations from Third Style paintings. Given that most of the identified artists in the catalog are Fourth Style painters (a total of 17, with 4 artists assigned to the Second Style and 15 to the Third), I expected a more comprehensive discussion of the phases or manners of Fourth Style ensembles.

In the second section of the introductory chapter, R. spells out the purposes and methods of his project. By identifying individual hands, he hopes to shed some light on the economics and organization of the decorating industry as well as the tastes of Campanian patrons. Here we discover what factors are considered most important: the quantity of work produced by a specific artist, its location and evidence for collaboration with other painters. In order to identify specific painters, he applies the Morellian method and examines details of form, overall syntax and, to a lesser extent, palette. On the other hand, composition is deemed largely irrelevant. For so-called famous masterpieces or popular subjects like the marriage of Venus and Mars, R. argues that composition was determined more by models available in copybooks than by the painters; as such it is not a trustworthy indicator of personal style. Later in the chapter, however, we read that artists did not attempt faithful reproductions of masterpieces but instead adapted pre-established paradeigmata to suit the needs of the patron and the decorative program of the space. Likewise there are conflicting statements concerning technique. Since brushwork is significant for Morellian analysis, painting technique is an important criterion for any panel attribution (20). Yet, later in the same paragraph, the “niceties of brushwork” are of no value due to the deteriorated condition of most painted surfaces.

Interspersed throughout this discussion of the potentials and methods of attribution are several disconnected, oftentimes debatable, but nonetheless interesting observations on the working conditions of Pompeian painters. While Romanists generally acknowledge the separate specialties of the panel painter ( pictor imaginarius) and the decorative wall painter ( pictor parietarius), R. suggests that many of the subsidiary characters populating architectural frames were added by the panel painters who arrived after the wall decoration was complete. Since there are no plaster seams around these figures, they were probably painted in fresco secco or by a tempura technique. I find R.’s notion of focused specialization intriguing although I admit it requires the panel painter to have at his disposal not only a range of techniques but also the proper tools and materials. Unfortunately, there is little discussion of the relationship of the panel painters to the decorative painters, except to suggest that the panel painter was usually an independent artist advertising his skills and samples on market day. “The decorating industry was essentially a thing apart, but this is a question that must be explored by concentration on it alone” (16). Most perplexing here is the lack of references to John Clarke’s work on Roman interior decoration, certainly essential for understanding the practicalities and economic implications of painting workshop organization.5

Based on the quantity and quality of attributed paintings, R. suggests that painters could work together without necessarily being members of the same shop. While workshop studies have shown such collaboration is possible, I was not convinced by R.’s conclusion that paucity of production indicates an itinerant painter. Ancient artists frequently traveled for commissions, but certainly the limitations of the remains so far exposed and the unknown circumstances of artists’ lives have also influenced the numbers. With respect to patron’s tastes, the author argues that Pompeians were satisfied to have quality panels by a good artist in only one significant room of their homes (an exception being the Casa dei Vettii). The connections drawn between the quality of the paintings, their location in the house and the tastes of the patron need further explanation. The notions that patrons “did not care enough about their pictures” (17) and that paintings were “furnishing rather than art” and “background for other activity” (180) should spark conversation about the social functions of painted images in Roman homes.

The numerous sweeping conclusions offered in this relatively brief section highlight many of the methodological controversies associated with attribution studies. Some readers may find the qualitative assessments highly subjective and frustratingly vague. Those more familiar with connoiseurship will recognize that “skilled masters” and “incompetent hacks” frequently populate a Morellian world. For his part, R. believes that the majority of Pompeian painters were mediocre artists and that this, along with the poor state of preservation of many decorations, impedes attribution. Yet there is hope since “sometimes the sheer mass of a mediocre painter’s work in the ancient cities can be used to give a definite character to his mediocrity” (14). The introductory chapter ends with a chronological review of past attempts to identify specific painters, and most are criticized rather harshly, especially if the scholars under fire did not apply the Morellian method successfully. I found it odd that the entire paragraph reviewing the work of M. T. Andreae (20-21) is repeated verbatim in the catalog discussion of the painter connected with the signature Lucius (147-48).

This observation brings me to the substantial catalog of painters, the details of which cannot be discussed at any great length here. Suffice it to say that there are well over 700 images assigned to 36 painters. With this formidable and valuable collection of data, R. again proves himself a careful and skilled connoisseur. The descriptions of features are clear and precise, though there is a tendency toward repetition — an unavoidable consequence of any comparative study of visual details. Although I found many of the attributions sound, there were a few that I felt were less convincing. For example, R. assigns a winged caryatid herm in IV Ins. Occ. 41 to the Villa dei Misteri Painter, the same artist responsible for both the famous megalographic figures in oecus 5 and the Bacchic figures in cubiculum 4 of the Villa dei Misteri outside of Pompeii. In my judgement he is correct here, since the herm appears very similar stylistically in a number of ways to the female figures in the megalographic frieze, especially in their facial features, expressions and the disposition of the heads. Yet I was not convinced by his attribution of several winged caryatid herms in oecus 12 of the Casa di Cesio Blando to the same artist. Despite the fact that the Cesio Blando figures are very poorly preserved, enough survives to see that the facial designs and proportions are significantly different. In terms of stylistic signatures, the herms in the Casa di Cesio Blando are probably all the work of the same painter. In my view, this painter is not the same artist as R.’s Misteri Painter.

One of the most prolific painters in R.’s catalog is the Boscotrecase Painter, to whom the author assigns nearly one hundred figural, landscape and naumachiae panels decorating both public and private structures in Pompeii, Boscotrecase, Herculaneum, Stabiae and Boscoreale. Based on stylistic and especially technical similarities, I agree that the mythological panels in triclinium b of the Casa del Sacerdote Amando are by the same painter (R.’s Boscotrecase Painter). However, in this long list of attributions, R. also assigns the panels of Diana and Acteon, Eteocles and Polynices, Fall of Icarus and the Punishment of Dirce in triclinium 11 of the Casa del Frutteto to the Boscotrecase Painter. To my eyes, these paintings are distinctly dissimilar with respect to overall figural proportions, highlighting techniques and the execution of repetitive details such as wave designs. On the other hand, R.’s connection of the Origins of Rome painting in triclinum R of house V, iv, 13 with the painter of triclinium b in the Casa del Sacerdote Amando seems sound. No doubt other readers will discover attributions they feel are more or less convincing as they delve into the dense catalog.

However, the publishers have not made testing R.’s attributions easy. There are no illustrations in this book on Roman painting; thus, readers should have handy at least all the hefty volumes of Pompei: Pitture e mosaici.6 Thankfully, R. has supplied references to available illustrations for nearly every image. I appreciate that substantial photographic documentation would have raised the price of the book enormously. Nevertheless, a few black and white reproductions for selected painters could have been provided for an acceptable cost. For this reason alone, I suspect only specialists in Roman painting or in ancient workshop organization will have the resources and patience to fully investigate the catalog.

R.’s study is a monumental achievement, clearly the result of a lifetime of careful scrutiny and sensitivity to painted forms. Due to the sheer mass of data collected and the practical difficulties in assessing his comparisons, it will take some time before Romanists can fully appraise R.’s application of Morellian analysis for understanding Campanian wall painters and their patrons. And until many eyes test the attributions, the conclusions drawn from them must remain speculative. Certainly the author is both aware of the limitations of the remains and cautious about the conflicting implications of his attributions. “The results have been a maze of contradictions, both large and small, and much work still needs to be done on sorting out the implications of anomalies” (16). R.’s significant contribution should inspire students to rediscover Morellian analysis and attempt the arduous sorting that is needed.


1. Connoisseurial methods and much of the jargon of attribution (for example, such qualitative terms as “master”, “genius”, “hackwork”) continue to receive criticisms from all regions of the academic spectrum. Richard Neer provides a succinct and provocative discussion of related issues in BMCR 00.01.02.

2. Second Style Phase 2B paintings are generally dated to 30-20 B.C. See R. Ling, Roman Painting (Cambridge 1991) 31-42, and J. R. Clarke, The Houses of Roman Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250: Ritual Space and Decoration (Berkeley 1991), 49-53.

3. M. de Vos, “Primo stile figurato e maturo quarto stile negli scarichi provenienti dalle macerie del terramoto del 62 d. C. a Pompei,” Mededelingen van het Nederlands Intsituut te Rome 39, n.s. 4 (1977) 29-47.

4. The well-preserved vaulted ceiling and lunette painting fragments from a corridor of the Domus Transitoria are on display in the recently reopened Museo Palatino in Rome.

5. J. R. Clarke, The Houses of Roman Italy, especially 30-77.

6. G. Pugliese Carratelli and I. Baldassarre, eds., Pompei: Pitture e mosaici. Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana. 10 volumes to date. (Rome 1990). Because almost 44% of the paintings attributed are not in PPM (for example, any painting from outside the town of Pompeii proper, Herculaneum, Stabiae, Boscotrecase, Boscoreale, and several unidentified buildings in the Campanian region), readers must also turn for illustrations in several publications on wall painting, including R. Pedicini and L. Pedicini, Le collezione del Museo Nazionale Napoli, i mosaici, le pitture,… (Rome 1986) and both volumes of G. Cerulli-Irelli, M. Aoyagi, S. De Caro, and U. Pappalardo, eds., La Peinture de Pompéi (Paris 1993).