Framing in the Roman Era

by Steve Shriver

Our most vivid imagery of Roman painting comes directly from its walls: the fresco decorations found at Pompeii, Herculaneum, Ostia Antica, the Domus Aurea, and several more sites where extensive and elaborate wall paintings have been found.

Framed wooden panel with painted portrait, 50-70 AD, tempera, 45.72 cm. h with frame, Roman; made in Egypt; British Museum 

Framed painting of the god Heron, c.300 AD, tempera, 52.4 x 42.6 cm. without frame, Roman-Egyptian, Rhode Island School of Design 

There is very little in the way of Greek or Roman free-hanging art which has survived, though there is one example of a rather crude frame around a Romano-Egyptian ‘mummy’ portrait, dating from the 1st century, at the British Museum, and one (a little later) on a depiction of the god Heron in Rhode Island. Both frames have what may seem rather a primitive construction to modern eyes, with crossed corners; however, the rails are let into each other very neatly where they cross, and the portrait frame has inset grooves, possibly to hold a sliding shutter. This type of frame was resurrected, almost certainly fortuitously, in the ‘Oxford’ frame of the 1860s. It is unclear how such settings would have been finished, but it can be conjectured that they would have been painted and possibly gilded, producing a much more sophisticated and decorative appearance than remains now.

Romano-Egyptian portrait panel of Herakleides held in his mummy wrappings, AD 50-100, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 

Fayum mummy portraits (named for the town where most of these were found) were painted wooden panels, which were set in the mummy wrappings as a memorial to the person buried. Most of them come from the later imperial era of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, and their style is Graeco-Roman, despite being set into Egyptian mummies. The cloth mummy wrappings themselves form a kind of framing element to the portraits, and some surviving examples have Egyptian-style decorations around them.

Most of our knowledge of Roman painting comes from the frescoes on the walls of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which astonished the European art world when these sites in the Bay of Naples were discovered during the 18th century.  However, the first monumental discovery of Roman painting in the modern era had actually been made in 1480, when a young Roman farmer tending his herd near the Roman Forum fell through the overgrown roof of Nero’s Domus Aurea (the Golden House).

Graffito in Nero’s house: signature of Giovanni da Udine (‘ZVAN DA VDENE FIRLANO’), the Cryptoporticus, Domus Aurea, Rome. Photo: Alberti’s Window   

The Domus Aurea quickly became a star destination for many Renaissance artists, some of who left their autographs high on the walls. 

Sala della Sfinge, newly-discovered (2019) room in the Domus Aurea, 65-68 AD, filled with dirt and looking ‘cave-like’ 

Brenna, Smuglewicz, & Carloni, Vestigia delle terme di Tito, published by Mirri, 1776-78, Plate 56 

At first the palace was believed to be a grotto, as it had filled up with detritus after Nero died, and thus the early viewers were quite close to the ceilings and upper walls, which were covered with the best (‘for the emperor!’) Roman decorations to be found. What struck them was both the framing of the elements and the ornamental decorations, which became known as grottesca, from their discovery in a ‘grotta’ or cave. The frescoes today have substantially degraded from the condition they must have been in when first rediscovered; however, in 1774, three artists (an architectural draughtsman, an artist/draughtsman and an etcher and printer) were commissioned by Lodovico Mirri, who was, as well as being an artist himself, a collector, publisher and dealer, to reproduce them in the form of an album of about sixty prints, which could be sold either as black-&-white or hand-coloured folios. These must inevitably have tidied up and idealized the original Roman wall-paintings, but are the nearest reference we have now to the complete interior schemes of ornament.

Raphael (1483-1520), Loggetta del Cardinale Bibbiena, 1513, and details; Palazzo Pontifici, Vatican 

In the 16th century Raphael and his assistant in the project, Giovanni da Udine (the same man who had left his signature in the Domus Aurea), rapidly incorporated what they had seen in Nero’s house into the painted loggie at the Vatican, which became hugely influential throughout Italy and beyond. Numerous depictions of mouldings can be found in the antique subterranean ceilings, and may have had their own effect on wooden picture frames.

Map of the antique Casa della Farnesina overlaid on current Roman geography: the villa was on the left side with a rounded palaestra overlooking the river Tiber

Other Roman discoveries include the Casa della Farnesina, a house built in the 1st century BC across the Tiber from the Campus Martius. It was excavated from the back garden of the Renaissance-era Villa Farnesina in 1879, when the river was being widened and stabilized at that point.

End wall of cubiculum B, Casa della Farnesina, Rome, c. 20 BC, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme 

Several of its fresco-covered rooms were removed, and eventually found their way to the National Museum at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, where they are beautifully displayed today.  The house is thought perhaps to have been built for Marcus Agrippa, Roman general and friend of Augustus, and a major patron of the arts. The walls are decorated in what is known as the Third Style of Roman painting, when the trompe l’oeil scenic windows and architecture of the Second Style became flatter and more like a depiction of a real wall. Thus these images could be seen as a picture of a Roman interior from that time, with decorations such as might be found in a wealthy house.

As seen here, the symmetrical decorations include a protruding central aedicule framing an image of the baby Dionysos held by the nymph Nisa, between two framed images in black line on white background, supported by winged caryatids, and a chair rail with a decorated socle below. Above is an entablature with decorative frieze supporting more caryatids and a variety of architectural elements, such as two window-like spaces with winged victories in front of what appears to be a perspective view of a building, flanked by aedicules containing figures. Any one of these elements could be read as describing a wall-hung picture, especially the two line drawings on white ground of figural designs inside polychrome frames.

Caryatid supporting an image of two female musicians, Casa della Farnesina, Rome

The hands of the caryatid are clearly supporting the three-dimensional frame of a painting: a trompe l’oeil cassetta with a blue-green moulding around a yellow frieze decorated with arabesques and a Vitruvian scroll, and an ornamental border at the sight edge. The blue-green outer moulding has a well-defined sculptural profile and is lit by raking light from the right-hand side, since the profile can be read in detail on the lower left side, while it is in shadow on the upper right. There is also a highlight along the outer edge at the right, and the trompe l’oeil effect is further enhanced by the delicate white tracery on the red wall, which passes directly behind the winged caryatid.

The upper images (above the polychrome moulding and painted frieze) can be read as either pictorial or sculptural niches; but on one of the side walls of the same chamber is an image I have seen in several other Roman houses – a framed picture resting on a ledge.

‘Framed’ painting standing on a shelf (above central figure), wall of cubiculum B, and detail, Casa della Farnesina, Rome, c. 20 BC, Museo Nazionale Romano, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme 

This is quite evidently a depiction of a painting in a frame with shutters, possibly designed for travel, as the bifold doors could be closed to protect the painting – although they might also be attached to the frame in order to help to balance it on a shelf.

‘Framed’ painting of Narcissus, House of the Ara Maxima, Pompeii

From another site in Pompeii comes a clearer image, in which you can see a representation of a similar frame with its protective doors folded back. In this case it is seemingly propped up on two dark supports, and has an additional ornament running above the frame – this may be a pierced moulding or a painted band, and is decorated with small suns or flowers with faces. Such pictures were known, from the Greek, as ‘pinakes’, from which comes the term ‘pinacoteca’ or art gallery. In the example above, the inner frame is evidently intended to be understood as having a three-dimensional profile, as indicated by its shadow lines. It has border painted red at the sight edge, with a shadow line along the top, from the projecting moulding above it. The folding doors may also possess mouldings, indicated by the darker vertical stripes.

One of the pictures on tripods painted on either side of the central niche, the House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto, Pompeii 

Another way in which pictures are sometimes depicted in Roman wall paintings shows them as if displayed on a standing tripod, placed in front of a wall. This might be only a convention of wall decoration, but given the period in which these objects are often found, which stressed the accurate depiction of an ornamental motif, I would think that they might well represent a realistic method of displaying art inside the home. A good example is found in the House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto, where two landscape paintings are displayed on vertical tripods, like large candelabra. Against this theory of imitative realism is the fact that there are no visible signs of support between tripod and picture indicated, but this could be explained in various ways.

Detail of left-hand landscape painting, the House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto, Pompeii

In these landscapes, which are good architectural renderings of large villas, the image ends before the edge of a backing board or, more likely, a simple frame, which could be attached to its support at the back. The border or frame is extremely simple, but the tripod is elaborate and beautifully rendered.

In addition to the depiction of paintings found in wall decoration, there are numerous mosaic floors found throughout the Roman territories, which have framing elements around a central image. These are analogous to painted figures and scenes, and are equally part of the way in which  ornamental borders could be employed and perceived.

Dionysos and tiger, mosaic, House of the Faun, Pompeii; now Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli 

A great many examples of mosaics discovered in the early excavations at Herculaneum, Pompeii, and elsewhere, are on display in the Archaeological Museum of Naples, and many of them have integral frames. For instance, an image of the baby Dionysos astride a (drunken-looking) tiger from the House of the Faun in Pompeii is surrounded by a Vitruvian scroll in dark red and grey, between inner and outer geometrical borders. Inside these is a complex band with a branch of foliage and fruit bound in a spiral ribbon, and set with masks taken from theatrical characters. This can easily be imagined as a wooden frame, with a bolection-style raised torus at the ‘sight edge’ and a canted or flat frieze on which the Vitruvian scroll could be carved or painted. Several other mosaics at the museum follow the same framing pattern, with an interior border and dramatic masks held in foliage. Like the blue and yellow cassetta from the Casa della Farnesina, these framing bands of naturalistic foliage and fruit look forward to Renaissance frames, and particularly to the polychrome ceramic tondo frames of the Della Robbia.

Plato’s Academy, 1st century BC, mosaic, 33.8 x 33.4 ins (86 x 85 cm.), House of T. Simnius Stephanus, Pompeii; now Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli 

Accepting that a mosaic floor is the analogue of a carpet, or a wall-hung tapestry like a painting, we can see the same structure – a central image surrounded by decorative pattern – as might be found in a woven image. Perhaps it is a mistake to separate different art forms, which was not done so much in the past. After all, Michelangelo thought of himself as a sculptor, though he created the Sistine chapel murals, designed the dome of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and was a dab hand at creating wall-hung paintings in oil paint. The image and the story it applies to is the ultimate aim of any artist, and the framing clearly influences that.

Ceiling stuccowork, Tepidarium, Forum Baths, Pompeii, and detail. Photo: Carole Raddato (Following Hadrian) 

Like wall-paintings and mosaics, stuccowork is another architectural element in an interior which shares their use of framing devices. The stucco ceilings in the Forum Baths at Pompeii are a good example, with borders in which the lines and bands of colours in the frames depicted in wall-paintings are brought to three-dimensional life, with profile mouldings and runs of architectural ornament. These, with their garlands of foliage, Vitruvian scrolls and egg-&-dart motifs, clearly also anticipate the carved and polychrome cassetta of the 15th-17th centuries.

Fragmentary carved clipeus with Jupiter-Ammon, 1st century AD, Luni-Carrara marble, 120 cm. diam., National Archaeological Museum of Tarragona (MNAT) 

Two imagines clipeatae, 2nd century AD, Baths of Mithras, Ostia. Photo: Guy de la Bédoyère

An independent, non-architectural framed image which we have inherited from Roman art is the imago clipeata: the representation of a round shield decorated with the face of a god, an ancestor, or a celebrated man. The imago clipeata of Jupiter-Ammon depicts an amalgamation of the Roman and Egyptian gods from a temple in the city of Tarraco, modern Tarragona, placed on a sculptural shield-shaped mount, bordered with architectural motifs. The examples from the Baths of Mithras, on the other hand, ‘probably depict members of the family who had financed the baths’, and look forward to much later round and oval portraits in giltwood frames

Imago clipeata depicted in a fresco from Famars, near Valenciennes. With thanks to Joseph Bevilacqua

The imago clipeata also surfaces in frescoes: for example in this fragmentary piece from the Roman settlement in Famars in France, where it appears in part of an architectural interior, like those shown earlier in this article. In this case, the shield-like setting is decorated with cross-cut acanthus leaves and is gilded (perhaps it is even meant to represent a wooden carving), bringing the whole idea startlingly close to a modern, 17th century Baroque portrait frame.

Hellenistic hair ornament with bust of Athena, 2nd century BC, gold, garnets, blue enamel, 11.1 cm. diam., The Benaki Museum, Athens 

It was also transferred in miniature form to jewellery; for example in this hair ornament in the form of a helmeted Athena on a shield, echoing the sculpted head of Jupiter-Ammon in Tarragona. This has a setting which, although so small, looks forward to Renaissance tondo frames, with its beaded edge, garland of bay leaves, naturalistic branch of flowers and foliage set with fruit-like garnets, and ovolo chain with florets.

Caravaggio (1571-1610), Head of Medusa, 1598-99, o/canvas on wood, 58 cm., diam., Galleria degli Uffizi

The imago clipeata directly influenced Baroque art through Caravaggio’s Head of Medusa, a depiction of the shield of Athena, to whom Perseus presented the Gorgon’s head and who set it in the centre of her shield to terrify her enemies. Caravaggio’s ‘frame’ here is painted directly on the canvas, in a band of black on top of a gilded border. The decorative foliate scrolling is then created in sgraffito, by scratching it through the paint to reveal the gold.  It mimics decoration in niello (also used by the Romans), damascening and engraving on weapons and armour.

Although there are so few extant examples of free-standing paintings from the Roman or Greek periods, their existence is also attested by, for example, historians such as Pliny the Elder, who tells the famous story of Zeuxis and Parrhasius in his Naturalis Historia:

‘Zeuxis and his contemporary Parrhasius staged a contest to determine the greater artist. When Zeuxis unveiled his painting of grapes, they appeared so real that birds flew down to peck at them. But when Parrhasius, whose painting was concealed behind a curtain, asked Zeuxis to pull aside that curtain, the curtain itself turned out to be a painted illusion. Parrhasius won, and Zeuxis said, “I have deceived the birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis”.’

A female artist (Iaia of Cyzicus?) painting a picture of a man, 1st century BC, House of the Empress of Russia, Pompeii, now Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli 

Woman before a statue of Priapus, 1st century BC, House of the Surgeon, Pompeii, now Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli 

They are known, too, from representations of independent framed pictures within wall paintings, such as the depiction of a female artist (‘the Paintress’ – possibly Iaia of Cyzicus, 1st century BC) painting the picture of a man, top; and the enigmatic woman before a statue of Priapus, below it. It is unclear whether this second image is also of a female artist. Both the pictures shown in these paintings have frames which are very like that of the two Romano-Egyptian panel paintings illustrated at the beginning of this article. 

Framed wooden panel with painted portrait in tempera, 50-70 AD, 45.72 cm. h, Roman; made in Egypt; British Museum 

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Steve Shriver is a visual artist and art historian who has spoken and exhibited worldwide. He has taught at the Palos Verdes Art Center, The Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, American Society of Interior Designers, The Representational Arts Conference, and the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston, South Carolina. He has public murals in Hermosa Beach and San Pedro, California, and numerous private murals around the world. You can see more of his work on Flickr

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Alma-Tadema, The picture gallery, 1874, o/c; courtesy of Towneley Hall Art Gallery & Museums, Burnley. THA37360