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Art & Color in Pompeian Houses

The ornament of Pompeii has been so ably and so fully illustrated in Zahn's magnificent work, that we have thought it only necessary for this series to borrow from him the materials for two plates, to illustrate the two distinct styles of ornament which prevail in the decorations of the edifices of Pompeii. The first (Plate XXIII.) are evidently of Greek origin, composed of conventional ornaments in flat tints, either painted dark on a light ground, or light on a dark ground, but without shade or any attempt at relief; the second (Plate XXIV.) are more Roman in character, based upon the acanthus scroll, and interwoven with ornament in direct imitation of Nature.

Collection of Borders from different Edifices in Pompeii
Collection of Borders from different Edifices in Pompeii, Plate XXIII.

Pilasters and Friezes
Pilasters and Friezes, Plate XXIV.

We refer the reader to Zahn's work for a full appreciation of the system of ornamentation in use at Pompeii. An examination of this work will show that this system was carried to the very limit of caprice, and that almost any theory of coloring and decoration could be supported by authority from Pompeii.

Diagram of the side of a Pompeian House
Diagram of the side of a Pompeian House.

The general arrangement of the decoration on the walls of the interior of a Pompeian house consists of a dado, about one-sixth of the height of the wall, upon which stand broad pilasters half the width of the dado, dividing the wall into three or more panels. The pilasters are united by a frieze of varying width, about one-fourth of the height of the wall from the top. The upper space is frequently white, and it is always subjected to a much less severe treatment than the parts below, generally representing the open air, and upon the ground are painted those fantastic architectural buildings which excited the ire of Vitruvius. In the best examples there is a gradation of color from the ceiling downwards, ending with black in the dado, but this is very far from being a fixed law. We select from the colored illustrations in Zahn's work several varieties, which will show how little this was the result of system:

Yellow, Red, Black, Black, Blue, Blue, Black, Black, Black

Green, Red, Yellow, Yellow, Yellow, Yellow, Green, Grey, Black

Red, Black, Black, Green, Green, Blue, Yellow and Red, Yellow and Red, Green and Red

Black, Purple, Red, Green, Green, Blue, White, Black, White

The most effective arrangement appears to be black dado, red pilasters and frieze, with yellow, blue, or white panels, the upper part above the frieze being in white, with colored decorations upon it. The best arrangement of colors for the ornaments on the ground appears to be, on the black grounds, green and blue in masses, red sparingly, and yellow still more so. On the blue grounds, white in thin lines, and yellow in masses. On the red grounds, green, white, and blue in thin lines: the yellow on red is not effective unless heightened with shade.

Almost every variety of shade and tone of color may be found at Pompeii. Blue, red, and yellow are used, not only in small quantities in the ornaments, but also in large masses as grounds for the panels and pilasters. The yellow of Pompeii, however, nearly approaches orange, and the red is strongly tinged with blue. This neutral character of the colors enables them to be so violently juxtaposed without discord, a result still further assisted by the secondary and tertiary colors by which they are surrounded.

The whole style, however, of the decoration is so capricious that it is beyond the range of true art, and strict criticism cannot be applied to it. It generally pleases, but, if not absolutely vulgar, it oftentimes approaches vulgarity. It owes its greatest charm to the light, sketchy, free-hand manner of its execution, which it is quite impossible to render in any drawing; and which has never been accomplished in any restoration of the style. The reason is obvious; the artists of Pompeii invented as they drew; every touch of their brush had an intention which no copyist can seize.

Mr. Digby Wyatt's restoration of a Pompeian house in the Crystal Palace, Sydenham, admirable and faithful as it is in all other respects, necessarily failed in this; no one could possibly have brought greater knowledge, experience, and zeal to bear upon the realisation of that accuracy in the decorations which was so much desired than did Signor Abbate. The want of his perfect success consisted in the fact, that his paintings were at the same time too well executed and not sufficiently individual.

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