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Egyptian Airs: The Life of Luxury in Roman Wall Painting


After Rome conquered Egypt, Egypt invaded Rome. Or so it would seem, judging from the explosion of Egyptian-inspired art in Rome beginning in the mid-first century BC—including a host of Egyptian motifs incorporated into Roman wall painting. These motifs are based on pharaonic art, the art of Egypt under the pharaohs until the Hellenistic period, and they carefully reproduce the iconography and even the artistic style of this tradition. Roman walls in this period thus depict for the first time miniature pharaonic figures, crowns, and animals, lined up in delicate friezes, framed in elaborate panels, and tucked among bushes in lush garden scenes. In these frescoes—an artistic genre that has been called “quintessentially Roman”—the Egyptian elements seem to produce a striking contrast to their surrounding Roman framework. This marked shift in domestic decoration prompts the question: Why would a Roman homeowner choose such foreign elements for his walls?

The present project proposes that the pharaonic subjects in Roman painting relate primarily not to the world of religion, politics, or fashion, as has been argued, but to the practice of collecting art and luxury goods; and that, in this respect, they act analogously to the Greek elements in Roman painting—elements which, until now, have been treated as a discrete and unrelated phenomenon. Investigating how Roman collections of art inform both sets of material, and what this means for our understanding of Egyptian and Greek elements in Roman wall painting, lies at the heart of this project.

Using diverse modes of inquiry and a wide range of evidence—close analysis of the paintings, comparison with archaeological material, and interpretation of literary sources—this study makes two major contributions to Roman painting studies. First, it encourages a revision of the widespread political readings of Roman domestic art, especially painting. Second, it drives home the importance of studying the manifold visual culture of the Roman house as a unit, rather than separating wall painting from the other materials with which it was clearly in dialogue. In so doing, this study casts new light on Roman collecting, artistic practice, and domestic life.

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