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A painting workshop in the Catacomb of San Gennaro, Naples

Jenny R. Kreiger

University of Oregon

Recent scholarship on Roman painting tends to agree that painting workshops were flexible in their membership—that is, workshops were formed for a particular project, after which the workers were free to form new groupings for different projects. Although individual workers might participate in many such workshops over the course of their careers, they still managed to produce paintings that were internally consistent in terms of style and composition. The frequent formation, dissolution, and reformation of working groups forced painters to rely on shared training, common visual vocabularies, and clear communication to produce paintings that would meet patrons' expectations for style and decorum. Yet painters remained individuals, with personal quirks, habits, and preferences that could be reflected in their work. Through close examination of paintings attributed to a single workshop, this paper argues, it is possible to gain insight on the embodied practices of individual workers, divisions of labor, and negotiations with patrons.

This paper takes as its case study a suite of fresco paintings in the Catacomb of San Gennaro in Naples. The painted tombs in the so-called "Zona Greca" in this catacomb have long been attributed to a single workshop of the late third century CE on stylistic grounds. Adjacent to the Zona Greca lies another suite of painted tombs, attributed to a different workshop half a century earlier, and the two areas share a close architectural relationship. These two suites of paintings provide an unusual opportunity to study the works of a single workshop at the level of the individual brushstroke, and at the same time to consider how that workshop received and reacted to the work of an earlier one.

Close examination of the Zona Greca paintings reveals that it is possible to discern some of the intimate details of an individual painter’s practice, like hand dominance and bodily position while painting. It is also possible to isolate elements of paintings that could have resulted from negotiation with patrons or innovation on the part of an individual painter, rather than mere reliance on training and style. Finally, this study emphasizes the important roles played by architecture in the production of fresco painting, both as a constraint on painters' embodied experiences, and as a support for a discourse among generations of painters and patrons carried out over time. The approach presented here foregrounds the agency and experiences of individual, anonymous painters, who are otherwise difficult to access.

Session/Panel Title

Systems of Knowledge and Strategic Planning in Ancient Industries

Session/Paper Number

36.6

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