Image: A visitors admires "Hercules and Telephus"
Alberto Pizzoli  /  AFP - Getty Images
A visitors admires "Hercules and Telephus", a fragment of wall painting from Ercolano basilica during an exhibition in Rome's Scuderie del Quirinale on Sept. 22.
updated 9/22/2009 3:38:38 PM ET 2009-09-22T19:38:38

Frescoes that once adorned Roman villas are going on display in a new exhibit that shows the tastes of ancient Rome's wealthy through landscapes and the representation of gods and goddesses.

The exhibit "Roman Imperial Painting," which opens Thursday, follows the development of Roman painting over the centuries and its influence on Medieval and Renaissance art, officials said Tuesday.

The exhibit at the Scuderie del Quirinale, a museum fashioned from the stables of Rome's Quirinal Palace, runs through January 17.

It features some 100 works, some 2,000 years old, mainly fragments of decorations that used to cover entire walls in opulent homes, as well as portraits, some on glass.

The frescoes depict mythological scenes, landscapes and goddesses clad in veils on a darker background, as if they were floating on air. The landscapes feature temples, rivers, animals and shepherds, combining to depict an imaginary world rather than an actual scene, said exhibit curator Eugenio La Rocca.

"Roman homes were highly decorated, the walls were like a theater scene," La Rocca said. "One can see the will to forget the everyday life and create a world of fantasy."

Highlights include two 6.5-foot-long frescoes dating to between 50-25 B.C. The frescoes — one predominantly white, the other black — feature flower garlands and small landscapes that used to adorn a villa that was discovered in Rome in the 19th century.

Roman painting was born out of Greek art. Since very little has survived of ancient Greek painting, these fragments represent a significant display of the techniques, patterns and themes of painting in the ancient world, officials said. Some fragments were restored recently, showing bright pastel colors or the signature vivid red of Pompeii.

Also on display are about a dozen portraits, including some Fayum portraits depicting men and women from Roman Egypt.

The works are on loan from some of the world's major museums and galleries, including the Louvre, the British Museum and the Vatican museums, as well as archaeological sites such as Pompeii near Naples.

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