Unique exhibition of Roman-era painting in Rome

ROME (Reuters Life!) - How did ancient Roman nobles relax when they returned to their homes at night after a hard day’s politicking at the Senate or the Forum?

In part by looking at the frescos on the walls of their sumptuous homes -- the “patrician domus” in the capital of the empire or in cities such as Pompeii and Herculaneum.

“The rich Romans liked to create a world of dreams in their homes,” said Eugenio La Rocca, curator of a new exhibition “Rome - Paintings of an Empire.”

In the past, art lovers would have to travel to numerous museums in Italy and abroad to see the frescoes -- Naples, Pompeii, Rome, Sicily, the Vatican, the Louvre, the British Museum, Berlin’s Staatliche and Moscow’s Puskin.

But this exhibition offers a one-stop drooling spree for lovers of Roman-era painting.

“This is not an exhibition of archaeology. It’s an exhibition of paintings,” said La Rocca, as he guided visitors around the exhibition in a building that once housed the horses and carriages of the popes and kings of Italy.

The exhibition includes 100 stunning pieces, most of them frescoes from patrician Roman villas that were discovered in the Rome and Naples areas from the 17th century onwards.

It gives a glimpse into how the Roman nobles decorated their homes with a mix of portraits, snippets of every-day life and scenes from mythology.

Ulysses and the Sirens, from the mid first century A.D. and cut from the wall of a Roman house in the 19th century, shows Ulysses (Odysseus) and his crew steering their ship along a rocky coastline past the lair of the sirens.


There are pastoral scenes of poor farmers and plebeian tradesmen blended with classical buildings that the rich Romans or Pompeians would have passed every day.

“This marks the first time these pieces have been put side by side,” said La Rocca.

The exhibition cost 2.2 million euros ($3.24 million) and covers the four major styles of Roman painting covering three centuries.

The halls of the exhibition are dim and each of the works has an individually designed back and front lighting system. Some of the piece are so large that the viewer has a feeling that he might just be a guest in the Roman house.

“The rich ancient Romans wanted to live in houses that seemed like the houses of the Gods of Olympus,” La Rocca said “And they wanted to relax in a dream-like atmosphere of satyrs and nymphs.”

One large wall panel contains tiny figures evoking everyday life painted in white on a black background.

The panel, taken from the Villa della Farnesina, a lush house of the late Roman republican period that was discovered in 1879 along the banks of the Tiber and believed to have been the home of Giulia, daughter of the emperor Augustus.

The lighting on the panel aims to reconstruct the effect that flickering candlelight would have had 2,000 years ago, leaving the hosts or guests of the house with the impression that the tiny figures were walking or the tiny ships sailing.

Despite its weight, the panel seems to be floating.

The exhibition also aims to show how Roman painting was the successor of Greek painting and how it went on to influence Byzantine, Mediaeval, and modern European painting.

The exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale ( is open until January 17.