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Life in technicolor: Herculaneum frescoes and mosaics up close

Herculaneum TicketsFrescoes and Mosaics

Herculaneum was a peaceful seaside town in the Bay of Naples, smaller in size to Pompeii, but wealthier and more prosperous. Its inhabitants were engaged in fishing, trade and other maritime activities. It was nestled in the innocent shadow of Mount Vesuvius, until violently and without warning, the volcano erupted in 79 AD. Life abruptly came to a halt, and the successive pyroclastic flows that engulfed the town simultaneously destroyed and preserved its buildings, shops and public spaces.

Among the items that were remarkably preserved were frescoes and mosaics dotting lavish villas and residences. Visit Herculaneum today, and you can still see impressive wall art adorn the houses. Get ready to behold frescoes and mosaics in all their richness and significance!

How were Herculaneum frescoes and mosaics discovered?

After chancing upon Herculaneum in the 18th century, the Bourbon dynasty went on a plundering spree to decorate their palaces with statues, busts and sculptures. When they found frescoes, many of them were hacked away and destroyed. Some others were placed in the royal palace, and later shifted to the Naples Archeological Museum

Now, the frescoes seen at Herculaneum are carefully restored with meticulous preservation techniques with the help of research chemists, artists and other experts.

The making of Herculaneum wall and floor art

Fresco at Herculaneum


The art of fresco involves applying paint and pigment on wet plaster. This plaster can comprise a mixture of slaked lime, wet sand and crushed marble to offer a fine finish. Once this mixture is semi dry, depressions, carvings and molds can be made to create door frames or elaborate ceiling motifs. This technique is called stucco

Before this mixture is fully dry, incisions are made to create the outlines of the artworks. Paint is then filled in to create the final fresco. After the fresco is dry, a second coat of plaster is applied in pastel colors to add definition to the painting.

Where are frescoes found in Herculaneum?

Frescoes are typically found in the walls of residences at Herculaneum, especially the atrium. Notable houses that unearthed a significant number of frescoes include Villa of the Papyri, House of the Relief of Telephus, the Samnite House, etc.

Mosaic in Herculaneum


Mosaics are intricate and striking artworks created by arranging small, colorful pieces of marble, glass and stone, known as tesserae, into intricate patterns and images. These tesserae are then positioned to form scenes and geometric patterns on walls, floors, etc. In Herculaneum, these mosaics are found both in the residences as well as public spaces like the Thermal Baths. Ancient Roman mosaics were uneven and embossed, and occasionally even placed in different angles to catch the sunlight.

Where are mosaics found in Herculaneum?

Mosaics are found both in the walls and flooring of Herculaneum houses, typically again in the atrium since that was the portion of the house that received guests. To create impressive interiors, then, mosaics were strategically placed in the atrium. Famous mosaics in Herculaneum are found in the House of Neptune, the Thermal Baths, etc.

Iconic frescoes and mosaics at Herculaneum

Herculaneum - Mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite
Herculaneum - Marine mosaic in the female baths
Herculaneum - Fresco of Goddess Isis
Herculaneum - Still life with peaches and a water jar
Herculaneum - Frescoes in the House of the Bicentenary
Herculaneum - House of the Mosaic Atrium

Mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite

Perhaps the most iconic and striking of the mosaics found in Herculaneum, the mosaic found inside the House of Neptune and Amphitrite depicting the god and his wife is still vivid and clear in its blues and deep reds. Neptune is holding a trident, standing beside his scantily clothed wife. In fact, visitors can directly see the mosaic before they even enter the house. The mosaic is made with glass paste and lined with sea shells to cohere with the ocean theme.

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Marine mosaic in the female baths

This is a startling black mosaic found in the female changing room within the baths. It features Triton, son of Neptune, his coiling serpent legs, and dolphins and sea creatures surrounding him. It was typical to find black-and-white mosaics in bathing areas of ancient Rome.

Fresco of Goddess Isis

Found from an undetermined location in Herculaneum, this fresco depicts the cult of Isis engaging in a ritual. Isis was revered in ancient Rome, especially by women, as she was the symbol of fertility, motherhood and femininity.

Still life with peaches and a water jar

Located in the House of the Deer, this fresco is a realist depiction of peaches, one bitten, the others ripe and fresh. These paintings belong to a category called ‘Xenia’, or for the guest. A guest arriving in an ancient Roman home could expect to find the kinds of food depicted in frescoes and paintings to be served at their host’s house. It was a way of signaling the wealth and generosity of the homeowner.

Frescoes in the House of the Bicentenary

Having been under restoration for over 35 years, the House of the Bicentenary was finally reopened to the public in 2019. Famous frescoes uncovered include that of Venus and Mars, and Daedalus and Pasiphae.

House of the Mosaic Atrium

The mosaic found in the atrium of this house is striking for its black and white pattern. The mosaic follows a unique chessboard pattern, with a dip near the impluvium (the shallow tank that collected rainwater).

Common themes across Herculaneum frescoes and mosaics

Tourist observing Frescoes at Herculaneum

Many frescoes and mosaics found here are derived from Greek and Roman mythology. Popular figures include Hercules, Neptune, Achilles, Triton, Isis and more. These mythological characters also found themselves in sculptures and busts. 

Another theme that was present across wall art were architectural and food themes. Many still lifes depicting fruit, animals, dining scenes, etc. were popular in Herculaneum. Ornate gateways and arches, decorative friezes, etc. demonstrated their preoccupation with architecture and fine living.

Appreciating the art works of Herculaneum

The frescoes often narrate moments from Roman mythology and history, while the mosaics ingeniously utilize tesserae to depict a wide range of subjects, from grand mythological tales to intricate geometric designs. Together, they serve as visual narratives that communicate stories, ideas and historical events. 

Many of the frescoes are now housed in the Naples Archeological Museum, safe from vandals and the vagaries of the weather. Head over to the museum if you have the time to see these salvaged paintings up close.

Preservation of Herculaneum frescoes and mosaics

It’s important to remember that many of the frescoes on display today are works of careful restoration by skilled artists, chemists and researchers. While visiting, please refrain from touching any of these works of wall art as they are incredibly fragile and precious. 

Preservation techniques include routine cleanup of art works, filling up of hollows with cement, using cotton swabs to unpeel layers of dirt and contaminants, and using laser technology to melt away foreign particles without disturbing the underlying paint.

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Frequently asked questions about Herculaneum frescoes and mosaics

How have the frescoes and mosaics at Herculaneum survived for so long?

Due to the successive pyroclastic flows that surged down Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, the combination of volcanic ash and the absence of oxygen helped to slow down the decay process, preserving organic materials and delicate artworks. The pigments and stone work were entombed in the ash, preserving their color and constitution.

Can all the frescoes and mosaics in Herculaneum be seen on site if you visit today?

Not all frescoes and mosaics are visible to the public in the ruins today. Many have been shifted to the Naples Archeological Museum. However, popular ones, like the mosaic found in the House of Neptune and Amphitrite can still be found in situ, or on site today.

What are some frescoes you should definitely not miss if you’re visiting Herculaneum?

Catch the most iconic ones like the mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite in the House of Neptune, the black-and-white mosaic in the women’s baths, the frescoes in the House of the Bicentenary and the numerous other frescoes relocated from Herculaneum to the National Archeological Museum of Naples.

What efforts have been undertaken to preserve the frescoes and mosaics we see today at Herculaneum?

The refrainment from adding unnecessary chemicals and pigments to existing frescoes, weather proofing the buildings and retouching the frescoes in a highly controlled manner are some of the strategies used to preserve the frescoes and mosaics at Herculaneum.

What can these frescoes and mosaics tell us about life in ancient Rome?

These frescoes and mosaics lend excellent insights into the preoccupations and themes popular at the time. For instance, since many of the frescoes were found inside dwellings, we could conclude that home owners took great care in furnishing their houses with rich materials spanning diverse motifs like food, myth, etc. — symbolizing their wealth, education and social status. In this way, we can also understand the progression of Herculaneum history over time.

Why is it important to preserve frescoes and mosaics found in ancient locations like Herculaneum?

Apart from their captivating beauty, these artworks are important sources of understanding where we come from. They provide insights into how life was back then and is a statement to how we have evolved as human beings. It also helps us compare the range of materials used and artistic techniques employed then vs. now.