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Category Archives: Painting

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The Dirty World of Ancient Graffiti

by January 15, 2014

In a break from the norm I shall start this contribution not with a glib remark or unnecessary bit of pretentiousness, but with a warning. This week’s article will be a bit on the spicy side both in terms of language and sexual content. If either offend you then I strongly suggest that you stop reading….


Okay, now that the kids have been put to bed, we can leave behind our everyday banalities and plunge head-first into a world of sex,

Ancient Graffiti

Ancient Graffiti

swearing, toilet-humor, bravado, machismo and politics. No, not HBO – today we concern ourselves with the most accessible and least analyzed form of ancient Latin literature; graffiti.

In all fairness, it is no fault on the part of archaeologists or literary scholars that graffiti of the ancient world sits on the back-burner. Most has been destroyed and much that remains is very difficult to decipher.

The wonderful exceptions to this are the examples surviving at Pompeii and Herculaneum. If these tragically, but beautifully, preserved cities are anything to go by, then we can assume that ancient Italy would have been daubed in even more graffiti than… well, modern Italy.



So what sort of thing lined the walls of the shops, houses, brothels and public buildings of these ancient towns before they were paradoxically destroyed – and preserved – from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD?

Well, much as we might expect, there was plenty of love in the air. “Marcus loves Spendusa” and “Rufus loves Cornelia Hele” are two examples which make us realize just how unoriginal some modern graffiti actually is.

However, at least this is pleasant and innocent enough. After all, declarations of love can be tainted with a fair amount of bitterness, especially in the middle of a love triangle: “Successus, a weaver, loves the innkeeper’s slave girl named Iris. She, however, does not love him. Still, he begs her to have pity on him. His rival, Severus wrote this. Goodbye.”

To which is replied: “Envious one, why do you get in the way? Submit to a handsomer man and one who is being treated very wrongly.”

The final word being: “I have spoken. I have written all there is to say. You love Iris, but she does not love you.”

The beauty of these inane scribbles is they tell us exactly how everyday folk thought and spoke. This was not high art, this was not epic poetry, this was the voice of the man in the street; an ancient twitter account, but perhaps read by someone who the writer actually knew!

And as with social networking, public walls were deemed the ideal receptacles for the angst of the lovelorn: “Let everyone in love come and see. I want to break Venus’ ribs with clubs and cripple the goddess’ loins. If she can strike through my soft chest, then why can’t I smash her head with a club?”

And of course, as one would expect of graffiti, romantic love very often played second fiddle to sexual desire:graf3

“I screwed a lot of girls here.”
“On June 15th, Hermeros screwed here with Phileterus and Caphisus.”
“Sollemnes, you screw well!”

Are just a few of many such examples.

However, these are on the tame side. A more explicit examples is:
“Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates.”

A relatively polite request. Though some scribbles are more bragging in their tone:
“Floronius, privileged soldier of the 7th legion, was here. The women did not know of his presence. Only six women came to know, too few for such a stallion.”

Whilst others may be a chide to a straying lover:
“Amplicatus, I know that Icarus is buggering you. Salvius wrote this.”

And others simply wish to offer advice – sometimes cryptic:
“The one who buggers a fire burns his penis.”

Sometimes domestic:
“Take hold of your servant girl whenever you want to; it’s your right.”

Often tourist:
“If anyone sits here, let him read this first of all: if anyone wants a screw, he should look for Attice; she costs 4 sestertii.”

Occasionally written by women:
“Crescens the retarius, lord and healer of the girls at night.”

That’s not to say all the advice on display is sexually oriented:
“A small problem gets larger if you ignore it,” is a slightly more profound graffito.

graf4Indeed, sexual content was not universally approved of, as this example from the ‘House of the Moralist’ shows:
“Remove lustful expressions and flirtatious tender eyes from another man’s wife; may there be modesty in your expression.”

Perhaps the same author was responsible for this domestic tip:
“Let water wash your feet clean and a slave wipe them dry; let a cloth cover the couch; take care of our linens.”

At times the role of ancient graffiti was more practical; shopping lists and details of rooms for rent have been identified in addition to plenty of election campaigning.

However, the Romans were not above a little outright abuse:
“Phileros is a eunuch!”
“Chie, I hope your hemorrhoids rub together so much that they hurt worse than when they ever have before!”

That said, there was also a fair share of humor being waggishly daubed about:
“May he who vandalizes this picture incur the wrath of Pompeian Venus” was written over the picture in question.
“We have wet the bed, host. I confess we have done wrong. If you want to know why, there was no chamber pot” was found in a tavern.

However the winner is the following graffiti, simply because of how the joke must have come across when archaeologists first uncovered and then slowly translated it:
“O walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.”

Then there are the fine examples of superior graffiti that help elevate what might be expected from such a genre – and these are certainly worth bearing in mind the next time you’re in a rest stop bathroom, pen in hand, thinking desperately for an original rhyme for ‘Nantucket’:

“Lovers are like bees in that they live a honeyed life.”

“Let whoever loves prosper; but let the person who doesn’t know how to love die. And let the one who outlaws love die twice.”

“Nothing can last for ever; once the sun has shone, it returns beneath the sea. The moon, once full, eventually wanes, the violence of the winds often turns into a light breeze.”

“If you are able, but not willing, why do you put off our joy and kindle hope and tell me always to come back tomorrow. So, force me to die since you force me to live without you. Your gift will be to stop torturing me. Certainly, hope returns to the lover what it has once snatched away.”

And if they don’t stir something within your soul… well, read the dirty ones again

Burn Ivory, Melt Wax… Just like the Ancient Artists

by December 2, 2013

by Victoria Papale

Ancient form of painting

The 5th century BC Greece was a time of change. The region was becoming more unified with the development of city states and the new democratic government in Athens was taking hold. Art, as well, evolved, mirroring these progressions. The techniques and imagery of Greek painting began to advance, as the profiled, non-emotional, flat representation of the human was replaced with the expressive frontal and ¾ portraiture. Moreover, depth and perspective came into play.
Realism was now the passion of the Greek artist.
But how were these artists accomplishing this great artistic revolution, and with what materials? Not easily and not with much. See, today’s artists have it made. They only need to purchase their materials at the local arts and craft store and viola! They can begin.
In antiquity, however, painters had to do a lot more.
Painting by the AuthorFirst, they needed to seek out the correct minerals, and grind and heat them to a fine powder. Bee’s wax was then used to mix and adhere the pigments to wood or linen. They practiced a technique called ‘encaustic’, employing wax in a heated state and then working fast before it dried. Encaustic was painted on thin wood and likely treated with distemper or animal glue. Linen was also used for paintings when the wax was in a cool state. This was called the ‘punic’ technique.
Due to limited local minerals, artists worked with an extremely small palette. In fact, Pliny claimed that, ”four colors only were used by the illustrious painters to execute their immortal works”. These pigments are known as the ‘four earth tones’ or tetrachromy in Greek. Namely: white, black, burnt sienna, and yellow ochre.
As mentioned, these lucky four had to be sourced from minerals. In order to produce a brownish red or a red earth hue, for example, they had to burn Ivory or find Hematite. Meanwhile, setting dry dregs of wine on fire created a deep bluish color. Atramentum, a generic term for black, could also be made from burning ivory and dry dregs. This color was also often used as a varnish. Finally, Hydrated Iron Oxide produced yellow ochre and Calcium Sulfate, or chalk, was used for whites.
The beauty of the earth tones was that these colors work in relationship with each other, creating a harmonious and subtle vibrancy to figures and nature.
But let us look at the painters themselves. Indeed there were many from the Classic and Hellenistic periods, but let us begin with Polygnotos of Thasos.
Drawing of Sack of IluiumPolygnotus of Thasos (500 BC – 440 BC) was not only the first painter to portray emotion in his portraiture, but also one of the first to make the leap from sculpture to painting. He was noted for his arrangement and distribution of figures, placing them at various points in space which were correct in depth and perspective, as opposed to the horizontal plane artists used before him. And as for his painting, Pausanias, a 2nd century Greek traveller and geographer, states that his large paneled depiction of the sacking of Troy was displayed in the Agora, or Athenian market.
Polygnotus was very admired. In fact, the native of Thasos was adopted by the Athenians and admitted to their citizenship, clearly indicating his fame and approval in the ancient metropolis.
Then there was Apollodorus, known as the “Shadow Painter” or Skiagraphia, active around 480 BC. Some of Apollodorus’ works include “Ajax Struck by Lightning” and “Priest in the art of Devotion”. More importantly is that Apollodorus was an innovator who developed the application of light and shadow. This technique, known as Chiaroscuro – chiaro meaning light and scuro dark, was further developed by future artists, especially Italian Renaissance painters. So the next time you are admiring a Caravaggio or Da Vinci, you can thank Apollordorus!
These artists, with their revolutionary visual introductions, did not come from nowhere. In fact, it is paramount for artists to have great teachers, and so, I am compelled to at least briefly discuss an artist and renowned teacher whose name was Pamphilos.
Alexander the Great with ApellesPamphilos of Macedonia, prominent in 3rd century BC, was an artist, but made his mark in history as the teacher who originated the scientific method, or the use of math to ensure proper proportions. He attended, and later became head of, the Sicyonian Art School, located in the northern Peloponnesus which was founded by Eupompus. Pamphilos’ most famous pupil was none other than Apelles, portrait artist to Alexander the Great.
It is this artist, Apelles, with whom we shall complete our brief overview.
Apelles (352 BC – 308 BC) was an Ionian Greek from the island of Cos. You could say he was the rock star of art in the Hellenistic period. In Pliny’s opinion, Apelles perfected the techniques of realism, symmetry and depth. He was a master of the ‘four color palette’ and, once again according to Pliny, created the recipe for a black varnish, which served to preserve and soften the colors. A number of sayings are connected to Apelles, including “Nulla dies sine linea” … Not a day without a line drawn!
Apelles studied first at Ephesus and later at Sicyion, under the previously mentioned Pamphilos. Apelles went on to become the portrait artist not only to Alexander the Great, but also to his father Philip. Paintings attributed to Apelles included, ‘Aphrodite Rising from the Sea’ and ‘Alexander the Great holding a Thunderbolt’.
Painting from FayumSadly none of the paintings described here have survived. It is the historians, such as Pliny the Elder and Herodotus, who have given us the detailed information on the artists and their materials, and whom we should thank.
But there is one good piece of news. In the late 19th century two archeologists, Theodor Graf and Flanders Petrie, discovered over 1000 portraits in the Fayum section of the desert, west of Cairo. These paintings were of the four color palette described, used the encaustic method, and were painted from 1st to 3rd century AD.
Amazingly, they were preserved by the arid climate, allowing us to travel back into time and enjoy the art and artists from antiquity… and see for ourselves the artistic revolutions of Ancient Greece and Rome.

Victoria Papale is an artist and studied art in Greece in 2007 at the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts in Paros. There she was introduced to the Earth Tones which are now her four colors of expression.