Roman Paintings and Greek Masters

Still life painting of peaches and water jar, found in Herculaneum, around 50 AD. Photo: Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples

Gaius Plinius Secundus (Plinius the Elder, 23-79 A.D.) described various easel paintings in his encyclopedic Natural History (Naturalis historia). Not a single easel painting has survived however. Surviving examples of Roman painting can be found on frescoes and mosaics and the high level of painting is unequaled until the Renaissance. Julius Caesar is credited with initiating the fashion for public exhibitions and at the beginning of the Empire there were hundreds of easel paintings in Rome. Greek artists played the first violin and their skills were eagerly used by the Roman elite. The Greek painter Apelles (c. 370-300 B.C.) was regarded the greatest of his time, although Nikias of Athens, a contemporary of Apelles, regarded himself as the greatest by an inscription he left on his funeral monument. Plinius the Elder dedicated many pages to these artists, the only accounts delivered to us. Apelles introduced new techniques that should reappear 1500 years later.

The Greek painters never ceased to develop their techniques and by the time of Caesar they were the masters of easel painting. Landscape paintings. Still life, genre and portraiture were a constant presence in painting in the first century A.D. Mosaics and fresco’s, the only paintings left, offer a good insight in the predecessors of the Renaissance painters and from this point of view the Italian peninsula shows a continuity in discontinuity.