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Pompeian Plasters (2002-)

Pompeian Plasters (2002)

The main objective of this project, funded by The Swedish Research Council (Vetenskapsrådet), is to study lime plasters used for wall decoration and, if possible, to find a clear relation between typology and stratigraphy. Plaster layers on walls in houses in Pompeii have been investigated. The first part of the project has been carried out in collaboration with the British School at Rome and the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompeii. During 2004 the project has been extended to the Forum of Pompeii in collaboration with the University of Virginia, USA. Samples of the plaster types identified are examined at the Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR) in Florence.
Studies of Roman wall decoration at the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta and of fragments of wall paintings excavated at the Roman buildings underneath the church San Lorenzo in Lucina in Rome, made me believe there might be a relation between quality of workmanship, quality of material, a commissioners’ status and the type of room that was decorated. It also seemed possible that these factors could be related to the period when a decoration actually was made. An extensive investigation of samples from the Villa of Livia was made at the Scientific laboratory at Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, indicating that differences existed. Later I had the opportunity to participate in the Swedish research project in Pompeii, and learned how to use the method of analysing plaster samples in stereomicroscope, used by conservator Reinhard Meyer-Graft. These methods are combined in the present project.

Analyses of standing structures linked with analysis of style/styles are the usual methods of dating walls and decorated wall surfaces. Many decorations have disappeared. They either are gradually fading away or falling, since they are mostly unprotected to rain, wind and sunshine. Decorated plaster layers detach from the walls and fall to the ground, cracking and breaking into small pieces which in the end means that the paintings as artistic and material documents disappear. Often there are just small remains of plastered areas in a room. As long as a painted decoration is visible, stylistic criteria can be applied for understanding the decoration and for dating it, but it may also provide information about the house and the taste, cultural and economic status of the owner.
Watercolour paintings and drawings of decorations were made at early excavations, in some Pompeian houses. These important documents now reveal the rapidity of decay. In many cases the decorations are totally lost, in other cases small areas still show the remains of a beautiful painting. In cases when decorations have been lost and no reliable documentation was made at the time of excavation, the possibility of dating on stylistic criteria is not practicable. If analyses of plasters makes it possible to link material and technology to specific periods, i.e. that there is a clear relation typology/stratigraphy, this might become a good tool when studying a building and its history. Additional information for understanding a building would be at hand if materials and technology can be linked to the buildings’ dignity. Presumably, differences in craftsmanship and technology may be observed within a building. In that case, more advanced techniques and materials supposedly were used in the official rooms while simpler technology was used at the back quarters, such as small rooms and the kitchen region.
An additional objective is to use the results of this investigation in conservation of wall paintings. By understanding the properties of various plasters, it is possible to search for compatible materials for the conservation of murals.
Insula I.9
The first part of this project deals with houses in insula I.9, the British archaeological project at Pompeii. The insula is situated at the Via dell’Abbondanza, one of the main streets in Pompeii. Five large houses, Casa del Bell’Impluvio, Casa del Puer Successus, Casa del Frutteto, Casa del Amarantus and Casa di Cerere have remains of decoration in the so called Four Pompeian styles, made approximately between 80 BC to AD 79. So far, plasters in some rooms in these houses have been studied. There are also some minor houses and shops in the insula. Only in one of these, I.9 8, samples for plaster investigation have been taken.

Sampling and documentation
Sampling in a house is done according to a well defined strategy, starting by sampling the earliest decoration phase identified, so far. Observations concerning sampling place, the plaster (lime/filler/) and the layer (thickness and colour of plaster and/or stucco) are noted in individual sample forms, and sampling areas indicated on plans of the houses and on photos. A stereomicroscope is used for studies in situ. The types of plasters identified, later become carefully investigated at the scientific laboratories at CNR, Istituto per la Conservazione e la Valorizzazione dei Beni Culturali (ICVBC) in Florence.

The Pompeii Forum Project
During 2004 investigation of plasters has been carried out at some buildings at the Forum of Pompeii, linked to the Pompeii Forum Project (PFP) of the University of Virginia. In focus of interest were the Temple of Apollo and the Temple of Jupiter, and consequently richly sampled, while just only few samples were taken at each of the buildings the Basilica, the Edifice of Eumachia, the Temple of Vespasian and the Macellum.
Plaster types found at the Forum have been compared with those found at the Insula I 9. The results obtained, so far, in this investigation, were presented in a report in July 2004.
The investigation is planned to continue in situ in springtime 2005. By then the conclusive results of the investigations made at the CNR will be available.
Three project reports have been presented so far. These are available at the Swedish Institute in Rome, at the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompeii, the CNR (ICVBC) at Florence and at Vetenskapsrådet, Stockholm. Reports concerning the Insula I 9 and the Pompeii Forum are available at the British School at Rome and the University of Virginia respectively.

Project reports
2003. Pompejanska putser. Planeringsrapport.
2004. Report on Pompeian Plasters. Insula I 9.
2004. Report on Pompeian Plasters. Forum.

Freccero, Agneta, Roman Painting. Wall paintings, Fayum Portraits and Polychrome Statuary. Conservation, materials and contexts. Doctoral dissertation, Göteborg University, 2001.
Freccero, Agneta, Encausto and Ganosis. Beeswax as paint and coating during the Roman era and its applicability in modern art, craft and conservation. Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, 9, 2002.
Meyer-Graft, Reinhard and Ehrhardt, Wolfgang, ”Untersuchung der Putzträger und der Malereien in der Casa delle Nozze d`argento in Pompeji und präsentation der Ergebnisse aus der sicht des Restaurators und des Archäologen”. In: Roman wall painting, pp. 317-327, 1997.

Agneta Freccero
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