When Aeneas arrives at Carthage in Book  I of the Aeneid, the first thing to give our dutiful hero hope is a painting—a series of paintings, in fact, decorating the walls of a new temple to Juno and depicting the events of the Trojan War. Gratified to see Priam, Achilles, and other familiars on these murals, Aeneas reasons that the Carthaginians must be a sympathetic audience, for “Even here is praise for valor/ And tears of pity for a mortal world” (the famous lacrimae rerum). But hope and relief are not all he experiences: “With steady sobbing and great streams of tears,” Virgil tells us, Aeneas then “fed his heart on shallow images.” It is unclear which details of Diomedes’ sack of the camp of Rhesus are literally depicted, and in what detail; ditto for the procession of Trojan women mourning the death of Troilus, as well as Achilles’ treatment of the corpse of Hector. What is unambiguous, however, is that the sequence of paintings has a definite teleology. The scene closes with the Amazonian chieftess Penthesilea, “a warlike girl who dared to clash with men.” Aeneas then lays eyes on Dido for the first time. The story of Troy, he seems to realize, can be put to other ends than his own.

Roman readers would have recognized the series of images, not just as a species of ekphrasis (literally “descriptive speech”) in epic poetry, but even more readily from the intricate wall paintings that decorated their own courtyards, dining rooms, tombs, and more. The architect Vitruvius (first century B.C.) writes that his fellow Romans covered the walls of promenades in particular with varietates topiorum, a “variety of features”: not only “harbors, headlands, shores, rivers, springs, straits, temples, groves, hills, cattle, [and] shepherds,” but also depictions of gods and legends, especially “the battles of Troy and the wanderings of Ulysses.” One such sequence of frescoes, known today as the Odyssey Landscapes (mid-first century B.C.), was excavated from a house on the Esquiline Hill between 1848 and 1849. For their perspective, shading, precision, narrative power, and sheer vitality, these frescoes and their likes stand as a floodmark unequaled in the history of Western art for a millennium and a half.

Wall painting with a seaside shrine, from the Villa San Marco, Stabiae, mid-first century A.D., pigment on plaster. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples.

Skeptics of this claim are advised to consult “Roman Landscapes: Visions of Nature and Myth from Rome and Pompeii,” an exhilirating new exhibition at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Organized by Jessica Powers, the Gilbert M. Denman Jr. Curator of Art of the Ancient Mediterranean World, the show presents late Republican and early Imperial Roman wall painting as well as mosaic, relief, statuary, silverware, glassware, and more, including a sizeable and beautifully preserved fragment of those Odyssey Landscapes, discovered sometime in 1939–49. (The panels excavated earlier, housed in the Musei Vaticani, are not in great viewing shape.) With a majority of objects on loan from the Parco Archeologico di Pompei, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, and the Museo Nazionale Romano, Rome, this sizeable undertaking is the first exhibition devoted to Roman landscapes on our shores. Among other achievements, it puts paid to the notion that Roman artists were mere imitators of Greek glories and not innovators in their own right. Greek art frequently depicts elements from nature, but as Powers notes, “compositions in which natural features visually dominate human figures and their activities and that create a real sense of spatial depth . . . find virtually no precedent in earlier Greek or Roman art.” And yet the pictures here demonstrate such wide-ranging and sophisticated technique that it’s staggering to think the Romans had no predecessors in the genre. For the viewer accustomed to seeing such pictorial effects in a modern context, the confrontation with “Roman Landscapes” is all the more dizzying. Here are illusionistic seascapes rivaling quadratura panels from the early Renaissance; a garden scene with a catalogue of birds, all identifiable by plumage, to make J. J. Audubon blush; monochrome sketches of shrines, painted with stunning economy and populated wtih slender travelers from some forlorn Surrealist dreamscape; and one scene on the Nile, stuffed with fantastical pygmies doing battle with crocodiles and hippopotami, that gives us Boschian bizarreries avant la lettre. It’s enough to leave us feeling a bit like Aeneas in the temple. Can all this ground have been covered already?

The overall effect would have been something like a hall of mirrors.

“Roman Landscapes” begins by introducing us to the range of motifs and technical effects deployed in the genre. Painters covered walls in teams, outlining imaginary topia in quick, impressionistic strokes while the plaster was fresh, then adding detail or ornament on a second pass. They often used trompe l’oeil techniques—false columns and even entire rooms were often painted on the walls, too—but illusionism was not an end in itself. The landscape scenes appeared in varying size and scale, from immediate, floor-to-ceiling garden views with birds resting on the sill to small roundels of distant harbors, and at all heights: above doorways, at eye level, and along the ground, which rather spoils the perspective. The first main room, “Garden Landscapes,” is arranged to resemble a Roman courtyard, allowing us to track the interplay of elements between the seascapes and garden scenes along peristyle walls and the statuary, water features, and small swath of nature they would have enclosed. One horizontal panel shows a garden at some distance enclosed by cane fencing, in the spare style of an architectural plan (helpful illustrations inform us it was set at the base of the wall); cane reappears in a series of those garden views, not as an element of the scene but as a trompe l’oeil frame; elsewhere, a similar garden view sits not in a cane frame but directly above a horizontal seascape panel, executed at a vastly smaller scale. The overall effect would have been something like a hall of mirrors.

A view of the “Garden Landscapes” gallery at “Roman Landscapes: Visions of Nature and Myth from Rome and Pompeii.”

“Sacred Landscapes” presents scenes on land in the sacral-idyllic tradition, the nearest parallel to the landscapes of early modern Europe. The major difference is that, in the Roman context, the landscape is always mediated by the divine: a shrine, altar, or monument becomes the nexus around which travelers, shepherds, devotional objects, animals, and other natural elements are arranged. The views are wholly invented, and once more illusionism is a consideration but not the only one. Here are those monochrome scenes, set against backdrops of all colors, which some scholars think would have resembled relief sculpture in a dimly lit room. If this was the original intention, the practice evidently outgrew the principle: in one such scene, a deer’s reflection is visible in what must be shallow water, and in others, the figures cast such long, deep shadows that they could hardly be meant to represent low relief. Then again, we should be careful not to judge by our modern standards of perspective—the Romans were the first to paint figures with shadows at all.

Wall painting with Paris on Mount Ida, from the House of the Mosaic Atrium, Herculaneum, early 1st century AD, pigment on plaster. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples.

In “The Dangerous Landscapes of Myth,” these motifs and techniques are deployed in the scenes from legend that so impressed Virgil. The Odyssey Landscapes fragment is here, as well as a marvelous picture of Paris tending his flocks on Mount Ida, but the real stunner is the painting of Diana and Actaeon recovered from a Pompeiian house in 1859. (It was likely part of a series, now lost.) Beneath a broad blue sky, the goddess bathes in a massive grotto, while to the side Actaeon, though not yet transformed into a stag for his trespass, is attacked by his own dog. The two statues and the tree on the far side of the water, the votive column on the near side, and the shadowed portions of the grotto all coincide to isolate Actaeon from Diana and the rest of the painting. Reinforcing the spatial disjunction are temporal ones. If Actaeon is being attacked, why hasn’t he been transformed yet? And is the tiny Diana, arm raised and her back to us, recoiling from Actaeon or simply bathing? We wish she’d turn around, before realizing that the same wish got Actaeon in such trouble. The sunny landscape that drew us into the story takes on a menacing aspect.

Wall painting with the punishment of Actaeon, from House VII.7.19, Pompeii, early/mid-first century A.D., pigment on plaster. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples.

At which point we may also ask: is this a landscape painting with narrative elements, or a narrative painting with landscape elements? The question seems not to have terribly interested the Romans, who did not take for granted, as we have for centuries, the merit of presenting an isolated, expansive vista to the viewer. They were getting at something else with their varietates topiorum, a point the exhibition might have brought home with examples of that later style of wall painting, so deplored by Vitruvius, in which “on the stucco are monsters rather than definite representation . . . . Instead of columns there rise up stalks; instead of gables, striped panels with curled leaves and volutes.” Landscapes these are not, but they appealed to Roman tastes for the same reason the paintings we see here did: not as portals to a definite, external location, but to transform the space whose walls they decorate. Likewise, the exhibition includes only one painting that might be located at Troy, a view of soldiers mingling outside a city gate. But we know from Vitruvius as well as the material record that the genre included Trojan War scenes; their underrepresentation here may make it seem more idealized, its treatment of nature more romanticized, than was really the case.

Romanticized—funny word, that. When Poussin painted Et in Arcadia ego (1637–38), he reckoned he was giving the poetry of Virgil the classical treatment. The final section here, “Landscapes in the Tomb,” suggests otherwise: Roman painters just as often depicted scenes of the afterlife in a spare, lyrical, and, to our eyes, strikingly modern style. The exhibition closes with a painting of the Elysian Fields from a lunette in the Tomb of the Octavii (third century A.D.). A dozen or so children wander through a forest of roses, among them a bite-sized Minerva, while to one side a startled Mercury watches an infant Cupid whisk Psyche away on a chariot drawn by pigeons. The scene is whimsical—not quite cartoonish, yet not how we’d picture stern-faced Romans commemorating the death of a six-year-old girl (it’s likely that the mini-Minerva, a maiden goddess, represents her). But look again at those luscious roses—deft splashes of color and shade so fresh they could have been painted yesterday—and it’s not too hard to imagine a mother and father doing the same so many centuries ago.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 8, on page 55
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