The caustic humor of Vesuvius has preserved for us some 3500 frescoes- more paintings at Pompeii than can be found in all the rest of the classic world. Since Pompeii was a minor town we may imagine how many such murals brightened the homes and shrines of classic Italy. The best survivors have been removed to the Naples Museum; even there their lithe grace impresses us; but only the ancients knew them in the full depth of their color and in the architectural framework that gave each picture a function and a place. In the House of Vettii the murals have been left in situ: in a dining room Dionysus surprises the sleeping Ariadne; on the opposite wall Daedalus displays his wooden cow to Pasiphae; at the farther end Hermes looks on calmly as Hephaestus fastens Ixion to the torturing wheel; and in another room a succession of humorous frescoes shows carefree Cupids parodying the industries of Pompeii, including the wine business of the Vettii. The bite of time has gnawed into these once brilliant surfaces, but enough remains to shock the visitor into modesty; the figures are almost perfectly drawn, and so colorful with the flesh of life that they can still make the blood stir lustily in living veins.
It is by reference to these Pompeian paintings that connoisseurs have tried to understand the nature, and classify the periods and styles, of pictorial art in ancient Italy. The method is precarious, for Pompeii was more Greek than Latin; but what remains of classic painting in Rome and its suburbs falls in tolerably well with the Pompeian development. In the First or Incrustation Style (second century B.C.) walls were often colored to resemble inlaid marble slabs ( crustae ), as in the “House of Sallust” at Pompeii. In the Second or Architectural Style (first century B.C.) the wall was painted to simulate a building or facade or colonnade. Often the columns were represented as seen from within, and open country was pictured between them; in this way the artist gave to a probably windowless room cool vistas of trees and flowers, fields and streams, peaceful or playful animals; the imprisoned dweller could fancy himself in Lucullus’ gardens by merely looking at the wall; he might fish or row or hunt, or indulge a fondness for birds without suffering their untimeliness; nature was taken into the house. The Third or Ornate Style (A.D. 1-50) employed architectural forms purely for ornament, and subordinated landscape to figures. In the Fourth or Intricate Style (A.D. 50-79) the artist let his fancy riot, invented fantastic structures and shapes, placed them in positions gaily scornful of gravity, piled gardens and columns, villas and pavilions, upon one another in modernistic disarray, and occasionally achieved the impressionistic effect of a picture supplemented by unconscious memory and suffused with light. In all these kindred styles architecture was handmaid and mistress to painting, served it and used it, and gave body to a tradition that reawoke, after sixteen centuries, in Nicolas Poussin.
It is a pity that the subjects of the major extant paintings so seldom venture beyond Greek myth. We tire of these same gods and satyrs, heroes and sinners- Zeus and Mars, Dionysus and Pan, Achilles and Odysseus, Iphigenia and Medea; though a like charge could be brought against the Renaissance. There are a few pictures of still life, and here and there a fuller, an innkeeper, or a butcher shines on Pompeian walls. Love often dominates the scene: a girl sits brooding over some secret longing not unrelated to the Eros who stands beside her; young men and women gambol amorously on the grass; Psyches and Cupids frolic as if the town had never known anything but love and wine. If we may judge from their representation in these murals, the women of Pompeii deserved to have life center about their comeliness. We see them engrossed in the game of “knucklebones,” or leaning gracefully over a lyre, or composing poetry with a meditative stylus at the lips; their faces are quiet with maturity, their forms are healthily full, their robes fall about them with Pheidian amplitude and rhythm, they walk like Helens conscious of their divinity. One of them performs a Bacchic dance, apparently in thin air; her right arm, hand, and foot are as lovely as anything in the history of painting. Some male characters must be included with these masterpieces: Theseus victor over the Minotaur, Hercules rescuing Deianira or adopting Telephus, Achilles angrily surrendering the reluctant Briseis; in this last picture every figure nears perfection and Pompeian painting is at its best. Humor is represented, too: a disheveled pedagogue stumbles forward on his staff; a jolly satyr shakes his shanks in sardonic revelry, a bald ribald Silenus is caught in a mood of musical ecstasy. Taverns and brothels came in for appropriate decoration, and no eager tourist need be told that Priapus still flaunts his precious powers on Pompeian walls. At the other end of the gamut, in the Villa Item, is a series of religious pictures, suggesting the use of the place for celebrating the Dionysian mysteries: in one fresco a little girl, palsied with piety, reads from an apparently sacred book; in another a procession of damsels advances, blowing pipes and bringing sacrifice; in a third a nude lady dances on tiptoe while a neophyte kneels exhausted by some ritualistic whipping. Finer than any of these is a mural found in the ruins of Stabiae, presaging Botticelli and called Spring: a woman walks slowly through a garden, gathering flowers; only her back is seen, and the graceful turning of her head; but seldom has any art conveyed so movingly the poetry of this simple theme.