Pretty as a Pictor: Painters in the Roman Mediterranean

Σαβεῖνος
ζωγράφος
ἐτῶν
κϛʹ.
εὐψύχως

Sabinus, a painter, 26 years old, good luck!

Fayoum 1:40=PHI 215881, Aueris (Hawāra) — Rom. Imp. period — SB 1.682.

On a red marble epitaph from Hawara now in the Cairo Museum is the commemoration of a young painter living in Roman Egypt named Sabinus. We have a number of epitaphs and mentions of painters that survive in the epigraphic record (Cannata 2012), as well as names of painters transmitted through literary mentions in works such as Pliny the Elder (predominantly in NH 35). However, we have very few depictions of ancient painters themselves that survive from the ancient Mediterranean.

Figure 1: Anonymous Easel Painter, limestone, interior painting on pale pink plaster. Late 1stC-2nd C CE from Kerch (Panticapaeum), now in Saint Petersburg, Hermitage Museum, Russia П.1899-81 (Image and Caption via © Genevra Kornbluth).

An exception to this rule is a stunning painted sarcophagus now at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg (Figure 1). Found in 1900, the polychrome late 1st-2nd century CE sarcophagus is originally from a necropolis within the ancient Bosporan town of Pantiakapaion (modern Kerch in Crimea) (Goldman 1999). It depicts a painter at his easel, likely painting a portrait of the deceased persons within the sarcophagus. He is heating a metal instrument over a brazier, which likely indicates he is an encaustic painter. This instrument may be a cauterium, which was a spatula-like instrument used for burning in the wax. The Severan jurist Aelius Marcianus gives us some insight into how artist studios were handled in wills (Dig. 33.7.17), as well as the instruments within them.

Item pictoris instrumento legato cerae colores similiaque horum legato cedunt, item peniculi et cauteria et conchae.

When the studio of a painter is bequeathed with its equipment, the wax, the colors, and everything of this kind is included in the legacy, as well as the brushes, the implementor finishing encaustic tiles, and the flasks for oil (trans. Scott 1932).

Figure 2: Carnelian ring depicting a painter painting a bust, 1st –3rdC CE, Roman, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, NY (CC0).

The nature of portraits and commissioned art in general is that the artist is so often invisible, save for an infrequent signature. But as this post explores, we do have some visual evidence for painters from the Roman Mediterranean which can help us understand their life and skill as a profession. In fact, a carnelian ring likely of a painter even helps us understand polychromy in antiquity (Figure 2). It depicts a bearded man with a brush painting a bust of a woman, likely with a palette of paints balanced on his other hand. These palettes, as I have tweeted about before, survive predominantly within Egyptian funerary contexts from earlier periods (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Paint Box of Vizier Amenemope, ca. 1427-1401 BCE), boxwood with inscription inlaid in Egyptian blue, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH (Image via the Cleveland Museum of Art).

In terms of Greco-Roman terminology, in Latin, male and female painters were most often called a pictor. There were pictores imaginarii (figure painters) and pictores parietarii (fresco painters), and even traveling painters called pictores pelegrini. In Greek, there were numerous types of painters as well. Most often called a γραφεύς, there was also a sign painter called a προθικάριος, and a scene painter for theater called a σκηνόγραφος.

Whether ad hoc or permanent, these individuals often had workshops or studios, often called either an officina or a ζωγραφεῖον. As Pliny remarks on, there were also well known female painters—a fact well attested to within a fresco from the House of the Empress of Russia at Pompeii now at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli (MANN) (Figure 4: Embedded Tweet). These studios often employed family and apprentices, and had a number of portraits at various stages. The Kerch painter, for instance, has three portraits in his studio hanging above him.

As the Kerch sarcophagus and the fresco from Pompeii suggest, easel painting while sitting on a stool was a common mode for painting. An easel could also be used for later display within a house, picture gallery, or garden. It is believed the earliest evidence for easel painting is from Egypt within the Old Kingdom (ca. 2700-2150 BCE).

In terms of preparation, we also know that painters often sketched out portraits prior to their creation either on wood, a spare ostracon, or perhaps on a wax tablet. This goes for the famed mummy portraits that survive from the Egyptian city of Fayyum as well. One of the most intriguing examples of this is a 2nd century CE sketch on the reverse of a mummy portrait now at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology (Figure 5). For frescos, there were often underpainting with grids and sketches made prior, as we know from places like Oplontis (MANN 155730).
Figure 5: Mummy portrait with sketch on reverse. Obverse side: nearly effaced, finished encaustic female portrait; Reverse side: sketch of female subject in carbon ink with Greek instructions for artist, 96-192 CE (Caption and Image via the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum).

This article is but an unfinished sketch of the ancient painter and their depiction in antiquity, but it does provide some insight into the process behind the art itself. We cannot ever separate the art from the artist completely, and thinking about the hands, the time, and the skill that went into Roman painting and portraiture remains important to explore. As the recent ISAW Exhibition “Pompeii in Color” looked at, the process is a part of the product. In paralleling painting to a kind of visual poem, Horace once famously said, Ut pictura poesis (“As is painting, so is poetry,” Ars Poetica, 1.361). We can never forget the visual poet in the midst of appreciating their work—even if the name of the artist has not survived.

A personification of Inventiveness or Intelligence holds up a mandrake for a painter to copy onto parchment while Dioscurides writes in his codex, Vienna Dioscurides (facsimile), 5v, 512 CE, (Codex Vindobonensis Med. gr. 1, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna) (Image and Modified Caption is via Smart History).

Abbreviated Bibliography

Bernard, E. Collection of the Greek inscriptions from Fayoum (Recueil des inscriptions grecques du Fayoum) (Vol. I: LaMeris d’Herakleides). Leiden, Netherlands, 1975.

Bologna, Francesca. “Painters and workshops in Pompeii: identifying craftspeople to understand their working practices,” SHARE: Studies In History, Archaeology, Religion And Conservation, 3(1) (2016): 42–53. DOI: http://doi.org/10.18573/j.2016.10076

Cannata, Maria. “Funerary Artists: The Textual Evidence.” Chapter. In The Oxford Handbook of Roman Egypt, edited by Christina Riggs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Online, 597-612.

Painter,” Lexicon of Greek Personal Names online (2015).

Goldman, Bernard. “The Kerch Easel Painter.” Zeitschrift Für Kunstgeschichte 62, no. 1 (1999): 28–44. https://doi.org/10.2307/1482915.

Longfellow, Brenda, and Ellen Perry. Roman Artists, Patrons, and Public Consumption: Familiar Works Reconsidered. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2019.

Squire, Michael. “Framing the Roman ‘Still Life’: Campanian Wall-Painting and the Frames of Mural Make-Believe.” Chapter. In The Frame in Classical Art: A Cultural History, edited by Verity Platt and Michael Squire, 188–254. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. doi:10.1017/9781316677155.006.

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