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Work Fragment of Wall-Painting

Department of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities: Roman Art

Fragment de peinture murale : dieu fleuve et deux nymphes

© R.M.N./G. Blot - C. Jean

Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities
Roman Art

Astier Marie-Bénédicte

This mural fragment was part of a painted panel decorating a wall in the House of the Vestals at Pompeii. Produced around AD 70-79, just before the eruption of Vesuvius that engulfed the area around Naples, it shares characteristics with other frescoes in the fourth Pompeian style. Flanked by two nymphs, a river-god reclines in the attitude characteristic of personifications of the Nile and the Tiber: might this be the Sarnus, the river on which Pompeii stood?

Decoration from a Villa in Pompeii

This fragment of wall painting was found during excavations at the House of the Vestals in Pompeii in 1785. In 1825, Francis I, king of Naples, presented it to Louis XVIII of France, and it became part of the Roman collection at the Louvre. It was painted circa AD 70-79, only a few years before the violent eruption of Vesuvius that destroyed the Naples region, burying the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Fixing forever the daily life of the inhabitants, this tragic event preserved the furniture and decoration of the Roman houses, in particular their murals. This panel would probably have been placed like a picture at mid-height on the wall.

The Sarnus, perhaps, with Two Nymphs

Three figures are depicted against a monochrome background: two nymphs stand bare to the waist, each holding in both hands a large basin from which pour fine rivulets of water. Between them is a bearded figure portrayed according to the traditional iconography of river-gods. He lies on the ground, his back against a rock, holding in his left hand an overturned urn with water flowing out, and in the right hand a reed. His attitude and attributes draw their general inspiration from versions of the archetypal Alexandrian representation of the Nile, from which was also derived the personification of the Tiber, the river on which Rome stands. The Nile is generally accompanied by winged genii (putti), a crocodile or a sphinx; the Tiber holds reeds and a rudder, or an oar and a cornucopia as in the statue in the Louvre (Ma 593). Although usually shown clean-shaven, the river god here could perhaps be identified with the Sarnus (modern-day Sarno), the river on whose plain Pompeii stood, which is frequently depicted elsewhere in the town. If this is indeed the case, the nymphs on either side might be personifications of the sources of the Sarnus at Santa Maria della Foce. However, in the absence of any precise topographical clues, and without any real artistic equivalent, this figure could equally well be the personification of another unknown river.

The Fourth Pompeian Style

The juxtaposition of three isolated figures on an almost neutral background is more or less typical of the fourth Pompeian style, as defined by August Mau in his classification of Pompeian murals published in 1879-82. The sculptural appearance of the figures reflects the classicizing taste of the period, and the lack of compositional cohesion testifies to the triumph of a certain academicism. This kind of mural is found particularly in Campanian villas between AD 60 and the catastrophe of AD 79. Unrealistic architectures, mythological scenes, and fantastical, willfully baroque decoration are characteristic of the fourth style. The artists also produced smaller panels, with isolated figures appearing in the middle of large paintings edged by frames with floral or geometrical motifs, as must have been the case for this fragment.


T. Tam Tinh, Catalogue des peintures romaines (Latium et Campanie) du Musée du Louvre, Paris, 1974, n 10, pp. 35-36
Catalogue d'exposition : "Pompéi", Petit Palais, Paris, 1973, n 207

Technical description

  • Fragment de peinture murale : dieu fleuve et deux nymphes

    Fin du Ier siècle après J.-C.

    Pompéi, maison des Vestales

  • Peinture murale

    H. : 0,92 m. ; L. : 1,78 m.

  • Don 1825 , 1825

    River-God and Two Nymphs

    N° d'entrée CC 70 (n° usuel P 2)

  • Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Antiquities

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