Food murals of the ancient world

24 Oct 2013 09.48 am by Renny Wijeyamohan

Roman food murals – preserved in excellent conditions at sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum – give us a rare insight into the visual appearance of food consumed by Ancient Romans, the varieties of produce on offer and methods of storage and preservation. They attest to the cultural and culinary diversity of the Roman Republic and Empire, its strong trade connections and the lavish diets of the Roman elite.


The Murals

A fresco from the House of Julia in Pompeii depicts a series of white stone benches adorned with a variety of foods. To the left of the image a large glass bowl filled with quinces, pomegranates and apples and garnished with a succulent bunch of grapes sits beside a pair of figs, bare on the counter and still on the branch. To the right, an amphora of wine leans against a clay jar of prunes.


In the House of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale near Pompeii, a wide glass bowl – reminiscent of today’s fruit bowls – rests on top of a red wooden counter. The bowl holds an arrangement of quinces, limes and what appear to be plums. Some of these fruit are still attached to leafy branches. Some historians have suggested that by leaving the stems in place (and not wounding the fruit) fermentation and rotting would be delayed. But it is unclear whether this was an Ancient Roman method of preservation, stylistic feature or artistic flourish. 


The well-preserved frescos from the House of the Deer in Herculaneum depict a series of food scenes. On the left and right peaches rest on tiered wooden counters still attached to the branch. Their flesh cut to expose the dark seed at the fruit’s centre. Stone fruit, like peaches, were uncommon in Roman society so by exposing the seed at the centre of the fruit, the artist transforms the peach into a symbol of wealth and access. As a team led by Laura Sadori of Sapienza University of Rome observes, “the representation of rare fruit was a symbol of power for the rich owner of the house.”


The middle image contains further symbols of wealth and opulence: a gold and silver coin are wedged into dates in a silver bowl, while below, a clear crystal glass holds golden wine – a reference to life’s earthly pleasures. Like the treatment by the Dutch Masters, the Roman still life was just as much a statement of class.


A comparison with the fruit of today

It’s interesting to note the similarities in the appearance of fruit in these murals and frescos (close to 2000 years old) with the fruit of today. The fresh green peaches from the House of the Deer with their sickle shaped leaves are close in appearance to today’s peaches.


Quinces appear in transparent glass fruit bowls in the murals of the House of P. Fannius Synistor and the House of Julia. They are yellow just like their modern cousins and have the same distinctive shape: one end, being large and rounded, the other, small and defined by four bumps or nodes.


Green apples and figs are prominent in the centrepiece of the food mural from the House of Julia. The apples are round and on inspection appear smaller than the varieties found in a contemporary supermarket or grocery store. 


The figs appear brown and lie flat on the stone bench. They are similar in appearance to modern varieties and are once again attached to a section of branch.


It is fascinating to observe how little some fruits have changed in the last 2000 years, since they were depicted in plaster frescos in the houses of Roman elites, to their recent capture with the aid of modern photography.


ancient roman art  

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