Nicky Schreuder

Anchoring a New World on the Wall: Pompeian Second-Style Painting in a Globalizing Context

Home > Projects > Anchoring a New World on the Wall: Pompeian Second-Style Painting in a Globalizing Context

Captivating to this day, the domestic wall paintings of the Second-Style—showing intricate architectural vistas, landscapes, and (foreign) objects—constitute a true innovation of the Roman late Republic. Yet, they were inspired by styles and objects of the wider Hellenistic world. Why did patrons commission such decorations and what did they accordingly establish in the rooms they were part of?

A Hellenistic palace, ‘Greek’ sanctuaries, ‘Greek’ luxury. With what they depict, Second-Style scholars generally see the paintings in a Greek light: They helped to create an ideal Greek world within the sphere of the Roman home; provided a sense of escapism, detached from current societal issues plaguing the late Republic; or they symbolically helped bolster the social status of the dominus of the house as an heir to the Hellenistic world. Rome had indeed become part of a wider network in the first century BCE – in great part due to expansive conquests that brought the Romans into near(er) contact with other regions, peoples, things. This wider network, or Hellenistic oikumene, did not only change politics but also matters of identity, literary and material culture. While previous scholarship has generally attended to such changes as Greek-influenced or ‘Hellenization’, recent approaches stress the flaw in thinking in terms of bounded ethno-cultures and to instead appreciate the local agency involved in adopting and adapting foreign, or ‘global’, objects and styles. Taking this into account, it is interesting to wonder why a style of painting was used that was current in the wider Hellenistic world, and to depict objects that also came from this wider world in the very localized setting of the Pompeian house.

This research project therefore intends to investigate how the innovative Second-Style of Roman wall-painting socially and sensorially anchors the Hellenistic world to function in the environment of the late-republican domestic dwelling in order to resonate locally. It does so by developing an object-focused approach to style and imagery that analyses the novel (sensorial) experience emerging through the Second-Style in the face of processes of globalization.

Central to this query is to ask what these paintings did in the room beyond any symbolic reading. It is therefore just as important to ask why depictions of open (architectural) spaces and foreign objects invade the Roman home and how they affected the viewer. By considering the impact that the paintings could have, instead of regarding them as passive representations of ideas or culture, it is possible to explore their interactive engagement with the viewer. In fact, thanks to recent insights in the cognitive sciences and within archaeology itself, we are starting to understand that objects, art, images do more than just represent ideas, but rather that they can help shape new ontologies and substantialize knowledge as part of one’s mental processes. Taking that into account, the murals of the Second-Style might very well have helped to shape and (re)enforce a new social-cultural reality that was increasingly conceptually global.