BMCR 2004.12.07

Venvs ordinis. Der Wandel von Malerei und Literatur im Zeitalter der römischen Buergerkriege. Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des Altertums, Neue Folge. 1. Reihe: Monographien, 21

Andreas Grüner, Venus ordinis : der Wandel von Malerei und Literatur im Zeitalter der römischen Bürgerkriege. Studien zur Geschichte und Kultur des Altertums. 1. Reihe, Monographien ; n.F., 21. Bd.. Paderborn: Schöningh, 2004. 306 pages, 40 unnumbered pages of plates : 60 illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3506790714 €48.00.

Until recently few people tried to establish a connection between the low culture of decorated walls in Roman houses and the high culture of Latin literature. In general, the two never met, as the wall paintings were considered as a sort of (more or less luxurious) wallpaper, whereas the texts were estimated to last aere perennius. A striking example of the contrary is offered in this enthusiastically and well written monograph by a student of the Freiburg painting expert Volker-Michael Strocka and the Latinist Ulrich Eigler from Trier. The work is an excellent example of interdisciplinary studies in the worthy sense of the word.

The study focuses on three crucial moments in the last century before the beginning of our Common Era: the end of the civil wars around 100 BCE, the years around the death of Cicero in 43 BCE and the start of Augustus’ empire some twenty years later. The three data are turning points in the development of wall painting and literary taste. In the first we observe the change around 100 from the imitation of marble wall revetments with relief stucco (the so-called First Style), which have been in use for some 200 years at least, into the decoration of the wall with paintings (al fresco or not) showing numerous architectural elements, vistas and works of art. The artists got a free access, so to say, to the plain surface to unfold their fantastic views and suggestions of worlds beyond the real space. The richness and suggestion of space reached its acme in the middle of the first century in phase Ic of the Second Style, while in the following phases IIa and IIb — which might better be considered a new ‘style’ — the walls gradually lost these opulent architectural elements and their fictitious spaciousness. Instead, ornaments, fantasy (viz. not naturalistically rendered monstra, to speak with Vitruvius’ De Architectura 7.5.3), and figural scenes framed by slim aediculae or picture frames, got into fashion. This transition phase goes from 40 until the end of the first century and led to the classicist Third Style. Regarding literature, Grüner defines the first turning point as the introduction of Greek Hellenistic lyrics in the poems of Lutatius Catulus, the second involving the highlights of rhetoric and Catulian poetry, while the third is the phenomenon of the neoterics vs. the classicist epic poets.1

Grüner argues that these shifts in style of mural decorations run simultaneously with those in the literary tastes and practices of this period. As we know very little of the literary production before 100 BCE, apart from the comedies of Plautus and Terence and short fragments in the shape of quotations and characterisations by later authors, this first ‘turning point’ cannot be assessed as easily as the successive ones, when both literary and painted material abound. Nevertheless, the reasoning sounds very plausible. Catulus apparently was a new sort of poet, who introduced elegant style forms from the Greek Hellenistic poets and dared to show a very personal taste, not much appreciated by the traditional Romans, i.e. the love of boys and men instead of women.2 He paved the way for poets like Cinna and Catullus who were to be the most sophisticated and original writers of poetry in the coming generation. Their individualism and show of technical skill in playing with words, word order and other composition schemes were unsurpassed. As to prose, Cicero finished similar developments in rhetorics, the forerunners of which figured in his great treatises De Oratore and Brutus. Grüner compares these literary plays with those in wall painting, where realistic, architectonical elements are mixed with fantastic inventions. Later generations could not but look back and see that they were unable to proceed on the same way. They had to develop new means.

The same should be true for the painters, who showed a high degree of graecomania (p. 23) also encountered in Catulus’ poetry, but we have to cope with the great unsolved problem of the origins of this sort of paintings (cf. Grüner’s cautious remarks, p. 34-35). The connection of the oldest example known, the House of the Griffins, with Catulus and his literary taste is attractive but lacks firm ground. Grüner stresses the numerous comparisons made between visual and literary arts in the texts, especially in theoretical texts, such as Horace’s Ars poetica, the most famous phrase of which I quoted already. However, it is not sure that the paintings referred to in texts really are the ‘wallpaper’ decorations we still encounter in rather numerous houses in Rome and Pompeii, going from the House of the Griffins and the Villa of the Mysteries as the oldest examples to the Villa of Boscotrecase and the Aula isiaca. Nevertheless, it is attractive to admit that several houses and villas known from this period in the Vesuvius area show paintings which were still appreciated as late as 79 CE and adorned elite houses.

Painting and literature had the task “delectare” (p. 70), each in its own way. The lack of narrative scenes in painting and texts is similar and will change in the Augustan period, when the old epics become fashionable. The analysis of the structural, almost architectural character of Latin syntax and its comparison with the intricate structure of murals of the Second Style (p. 76-97) is a fascinating chapter. As a student of wall paintings I would never have thought that the writers were seen as architecti paene verborum (p. 87). Form follows function, and this is made clear for both branches (p. 131-135).

It is important to seek explanations for radical shifts in the modes we encounter in all sorts of arts. They may illustrate the political and cultural changes a society underwent and be a mirror of the people of those moments. The development from the First into the Second Style ideally does not exist: the Second Style is a creation of its own in which (p. 46) “Der Künstler arbeitete mit dem Paradoxon, eine Wand auf eine Wand zu malen.” The House of the Griffins proves the radical change.

The Second Style, in sum, is a “Lehrbuch der architektonischen Rhetorik” (p. 43). Pathetic elements will disappear in the run of the first century and the bizarre formal elements tackled by Vitruvius (7.5.4) were exactly those encountered in contemporary poetry and styled leptos and tenuis in lyrics (p. 173). Vitruvius might even be considered as one of the people who worked for the introduction of the new classicist way of painting in the Augustan Third Style, in which the vituperated monsters vanished (p. 249).

A sidestep into other categories of art could have been helpful to substantiate Grüner’s arguments. Ideal and narrative sculpture of the 1st century BC are especially useful to corroborate his reasoning. Let me take one example, the Laocoon. I think that Salvatore Settis (among others!) is right in attributing this vexed question of antique sculpture to the years 40-20 BC, exactly the period in which we see the shift from Second-Style recognisable architecture paintings into the bizarre fantasies criticized by Vitruvius.3 In his provocative monograph Settis argues that the baroque style is that of the Asianic mode, whereas at Rome itself the classicist style of Atticism was gradually developing simultaneously, with works by people like Pasiteles. As a matter of fact, the Laocoon exactly expresses what Grüner tries to illustrate in his work, the display of highly associative and not always coherent elements into a moving artistic product.

The weak methodological point of this study might be that wall painting is a rather modest branch of arts and crafts (as admitted by the author) when we look at the status of the makers but forms an enormously important aspect of the enhancement of private display during the period discussed. Not every scholar will like the one-to-one connections between two different branches of art production in the first century BCE.


1. Gilles Sauron recently tried to link the start of the Second Style to a person and a chronological fixed point. (La suicide de Catulus et la naissance du deuxième style théâtrale, Helmantica 50, no. 151-153, 1999, 677-696 [non vidi]; id., La révolution iconographique du ‘deuxième style’. MEFRA 113, 2001, 769-786.) The appearance of round temples in the wall paintings in the 50s-40s should reflect the erection of the tholos in the temple precinct known as the Largo Argentina at Rome after a victory in 101 BCE by Q. Lutatius Catulus: his homonymous son reused the motif of a Greek temple form introduced by his father who died by suicide in 78 BCE. (See on the building type S. Rambaldi, Monopteros. Le edicole circolari nell’architettura dell’Italia romana, Bologna 2003.) Grüner could not include this proposal, which in my opinion is highly speculative and lacks firm argumentation, but he might be pleased by the combination of text and monument made in Sauron’s essay.

2. Cf. for the cultural setting of homoerotic modes in Roman society C. Williams, Roman Homosexuality: ideologies of masculinity in classical antiquity, London 1999.

3. S. Settis, Il Laocoonte fama e stile, Rome 1999.