The Still Life with Peaches comes from a room in Herculaneum. It wasn’t a free-standing image. Like other still lives, it was set on a wall among landscapes, narratives, decoration. (Photo: Archaelogical Museum, Naples)

Classical art is often given a classic status. The works of the ancient Greeks and Romans have been taken up by many later artists as supreme examples. At least that’s true of their statues and buildings. But when it comes to paintings, there’s a problem. Very little remains, and what remains is puzzling.

For instance, we have no idea who painted this Still Life with Peaches. We have no idea what other works its maker did, and only a very limited idea about the works of contemporaries. The Roman still lives that have survived mostly come, like this one, from Pompeii and Herculaneum.

They were mural paintings, preserved (ironically) by the lava of Vesuvius, while the paintings in other cities, such as Rome itself, were destroyed or faded away. Was the art of these two provincial towns inferior to the art of the capital? If we saw real Roman painting, would that make the work that’s survived look very average? Or is this as good as it got?

The Still Life with Peaches comes from a room in Herculaneum. It wasn’t a free-standing image. Like other still lives, it was set on a wall among landscapes, narratives, decoration. But it occupied a contained square-ish section. And it uses the standard Roman still-life convention, the double (sometimes triple) level: the objects are arranged on a step or a sill.

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Tom Lubbock
The Independent

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