Abstract: CITYSCAPES IN ROMAN PAINTING: THE PLACE OF THE AMPHITHEATER RIOT FRESCO FROM POMPEII
The famous Riot Fresco from Pompeii (c. A.D. 62-79) depicts the infamous A.D. 59 rumble between rival Pompeians and Nucerians in and around the formers’ Amphitheater. The quality of this fresco’s figures, its provenance from a simply decorated house, and mixing of perspectives have led to its study as an example of popular art, with varying scholarly attempts to distill from it non-elite tastes and characterize its patron. Through all this, we can easily lose sight of the Riot Fresco as a cityscape, an urban vista in which buildings are tied together as a whole. In this article I use the Riot Fresco as my entry point to study the ways Roman frescoists depicted cities. I consider three questions: (1) what elements do Roman painters include in cityscapes? (2) How do they relate cityscapes to human figures and landscape surroundings? (3) Is the Riot Fresco unique among Roman painted cities of its day? I first analyze the Riot Fresco as a cityscape, paying special attention to its use of southeastern Pompeii’s monuments and parks to structure groups of rioting figures. I then survey cityscapes from contemporary Neronian and Vespasianic frescoes. These contextualize the Riot Fresco’s aerial view of a real city at a particular moment within a family of paintings that depicts cities variously as backdrops, background ornaments, and timeless architectural prospects seen from the side or from above. They hail from well-appointed townhomes and grand urban estates, permitting a study of cityscapes that cuts across social status. The article concludes with a discussion of possible reasons why Roman artists painted cities as they did, and what these different depictions may reveal about the attitudes patrons such as the Riot Fresco’s commissioner held towards their urban surroundings.
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