Romans activity 3: Keep out - fresco painters at work!
The class start with the mystery artefact in Learn with Objects Romans 4 : something painted.
They use the topic and other sources to discover how wealthy Romans decorated the walls of important room with colourful paintings. They investigate the story of the House of the Painters at Work at Pompeii, and examples of incredible survivals closer to home, including at the Roman Painted House in nearby Dover.
They then have a go at creating their own design, inspired by fragments from Folkestone and surviving examples from the wider Roman world.
Image copyright: Canterbury Archaeological Trust
Increased knowledge and understanding of archaeology and Folkestone Roman Villa.
Art skills. Creating Roman wall paintings.
KS1-2 History (Romans, Local History Study).
KS1-4 Art and design (Roman painting, frescoes)
Start with the mystery artefact in Learn with Objects Romans 4 : something painted. With the image on your whiteboard ask the children some of the questions below.
- What colours and shapes can you see?
- What materials do you think it is made of?
- Is it complete or broken?
- What do you think it was once part of?
- How do we decorate our walls today?
- What do you think the Romans used?
- Did they have wallpaper?
- Did all houses in Roman times have painted walls?
- Did all rooms in wealthy Roman houses have painted walls?
- Which rooms do you think did/didn’t and why?
- Where can we find evidence of Roman wall paintings?
- In Britain? In the wider Roman world?
- What pictures or designs did they have on their walls?
- What can these tell us about life in Roman times?
- How did they make their paint?
- How did they make their plaster?
- Why hasn’t the paint peeled off after nearly 2000 years?
- What is the fresco technique?
- Who made the wall paintings?
- How did they plan and execute their designs?
- What and where is The House of the Painters at Work?
- What dramatic event interrupted their day?
Children are given some of the above questions to research and report back on, perhaps as short illustrated presentations to the whole class.
Through this, the whole class builds up their knowledge and understanding of Roman wall painting and what it can tell us about Roman life.
These websites are particularly useful:
A simple introduction to Roman frescoes on BBC Bitesize. Let the lady of the villa take you on a tour…
House of the Painters at Work at Pompeii.
This one is more detailed but has lots of useful information for teachers and older children.
The Garden Room fresco from The House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii is explained by a British Museum expert. Garden designs were popular subjects for Roman wall paintings.
And here’s some information and images about the Roman Painted House at Dover. The designs here were inspired by Bacchus the Roman god of wine!
Here’s some fun facts about Roman wall paintings
- The fresco technique involved painting on damp plaster, the tempera technique involved painting on dry plaster.
- Only the rich had painted plaster walls. Poor people had ones made from wattle (inter-woven branches) and daub (a mix of mud, straw and animal dung).
- Green pigments were made from malachite, red and yellow from ochre, and black from red wine.
- The best glue or size was made from bulls’ testicles!
- Greek craftsmen were brought to Rome to create the first Roman wall paintings. Not surprisingly, many of the designs are of Greek heroes, legends and gods.
- Fragments of Roman wall plaster have been found in Kent, including at Folkestone, Dover and Canterbury.
- From these we know the colours and designs wealthy people had on their walls nearly 2,000 years ago.
- They include geometric designs, leaves and flowers, and at Canterbury even the feet and legs of a Roman dancing girl.
- The best-preserved Roman wall paintings are to be found in Italy, in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. They were preserved under several metres of ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79.
- A watercolour of an early Victorian tourist looking at wall paintings in Pompeii is in the Master Collection at Folkestone Museum. See Learn with Objects, Romans 4: something painted.
- Some of the finest Roman wall paintings in Britain can be seen at the Painted House in Dover where over 400 square feet of wall paintings survive, including ones relating to Bacchus, the god of wine.
Make a Roman wall painting
The children design and make their own Roman wall plaster design, inspired by the fragments from Folkestone Roman Villa and surviving examples from the wider Roman world.
They can either work in small teams on a large panel (like the decorators at The House of the Painters at Work in Pompeii) or create their own mini panel as below.
Here’s some top tips for making them in class:
- To make a mini Roman wall painting mix a small quantity of plaster of Paris to a batter-like consistency and pour into a shallow container (approx 15cm x 10cm x 1cm deep) lined with cling film. Leave for about 6 hours to set hard, then carefully remove it, before following the steps below.
- Next sketch a simple design on paper. Get ideas for authentic Roman colours and designs from the wall plaster fragments at Folkestone Museum, and other museum collections on-line. Search 'Roman wall plaster' to bring up lots of good examples.
- Draw your design in pencil on the piece of plaster.
- Carefully scratch a groove along the pencil lines using the sharp end of a nail. This helps stop the paint running between different parts of your design.
- Mix a small amount of paint with just a little bit of water… and start painting!
- Why not sign your work with your ‘Romanised’ name? Simply scratch the letters onto the plaster with the nail. For a boy’s name, add VS to the end of your first name. For a girl’s name, add an A.
- You can also write the year in Roman numerals. 2020 is MMXX.
- Why not stick magnetic squares on the back of your Roman fresco to make it into an impressive fridge magnet?
There’s also some good ideas and information here: