A Palette from Pompeii

I’ve had fresco fever ever since I returned from Rome last month, and I have one more set of color thoughts to proffer before I move on to something else. Here ’tis, a Pompeiian palette.

The last time I was in Naples I saw the excavations, not the frescoes; this time it was the other way around, and they were breathtaking. It’s true, human beings have been adorning their walls with scenes of daily life, spiritual life, idealized life and pattern since the caves at Lascaux, and here they reach another apex.

One sees the frescoes of Pompeii at the National Museum in Naples— very few are still in situ&madash; and they are many things under one banner. There are four styles of classical Pompeiian painting, though they all start to wash together for me. What we’re basically looking at is a picture plane broken up into squares by architectural elements, that then highlight various narratives of a sacred or profane nature, depending on one’s point of view— Niobe, Dido, Iphigenia and Ariadne might intermingle with satyrs or adverts for a brothel, and it’s all mostly decorative, not ritualistic. It’s believed that the Latins had a set of cartoons (blue print drawings), Greek in origin, that they passed around as templates. Color wise, the evolutions were from red, white and black to blue, purple and green.

One can’t ignore that Pompeiian Red, which dominates. It’s a classic cinnabar or vermillion, a warm red. To this palette I add Naples yellow, gold, caput mortem (bruise purple); viridian, cerulean and black. As another kind of painter, I constantly marvel at how much range and play you get out of a few elemental colors.

What does this mean to contemporary interiors? I don’t know, but I love it. It was good enough for the Romans 2000 years ago and it still holds up in my book. Why not think along these lines— vermilion dining room, cerulean spa, caput mortem in the study, black and gold behind the bed…

I’ll close with my own color studies. I have a friend with a dress shop and an exhibition space who will let me do whatever I want there. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s getting Pompeii for Christmas.

Mark Chamberlain, interior and decorative painter