Archaeologists have excavated an ancient Roman villa in Arles, France, with fresco murals depicting a musician playing a harp, Dionysus and the entourage of Bacchus. Researchers say it is rare to find such fresco paintings from the ancient Roman era outside of Italy, and in France these frescoes are unique. Though these frescoes are broken and fragmentary, researchers will be able to piece them together.
The most recent dig in the villa, in the state room, followed one in which a bedroom or cubiculum was excavated. Archaeologists also uncovered murals in the bedroom, but the ones in the state room were particularly fine. They were painted between 70 and 20 BC in expensive vermilion and purple pigments from Egypt, a fact that points to the wealth of the owners of the villa. The Arles Museum of Antiques says an extremely skilled Italian workshop probably produced the paintings. The depiction of the people and their clothing and the quality of the presentation are very well done, says a press release from the museum.
It is rare to find even fragments of ancient Roman frescoes outside Italy, but to find these relatively well-preserved murals in France is unique and offers a great scientific and museological opportunity, the museum said. It calls them an archaeological treasure and compares them to the spectacular frescoes of Pompeii. Some years from now, the museum says it will display these murals, made for the most elite of ancient Romans in Arles. It could take up to 10 years to restore the murals because they are in so many fragments.
The frescoes recall those of the ancient city of Pompeii, researchers said. Much of Pompeii, including buildings, people in their final moments, and the Villa of Mysteries frescoes, was frozen in time by a volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius that buried the city in ash and pumice in 79 AD.
In Arles, the ruins of the Roman villa have been under excavation since 2014, but this find in the state room was unexpected.
The Independent reported:
“The use of such luxurious colours underlines the wealth of the area during Roman times, experts said. The villa no doubt belonged either to rich tradesmen or the political elite of the city… the quality of the works suggested the fresco artists had been dispatched from Italy to paint them. The mural also comprises false columns imitating marble and several figures painted against a vermillion background at half or three quarters life size. After this excavation, the scientists will have over 12,000 boxes of the fresco fragments stored in black sand. These still need to be painstakingly pieced together like a giant puzzle.”
Fresco painting is a style of applying pigments in solution to a newly plastered wall or other surface. Pigments are ground in water and then applied while the plaster is wet. The pigments become a part of the wall. The painter must be extremely skilled because once the pigments and plaster dry, the painting cannot be changed. Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel in frescoes, which is considered one of the greatest feats in the history of art.
Featured image: The mural shows a woman plucking a harp. (Photo by the Arles Museum of Antiques)