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Greek Colony of Paestum Boasts Only Preserved Ancient Greek Fresco

ancient Greek fresco
The Tomb of the Diver is home to the only preserved ancient Greek fresco in the entire world. Credit: Michael Johanning/Public Domain

The city of Paestum, the Greek colony near the present-day city of Naples, Italy, is famous for its Ancient Greek fresco as well as three ancient Greek temples of the Doric order, dating from about 600 to 450 BC, all of which are in a remarkable state of preservation.

The city walls and amphitheater are largely intact, and the bottom of the walls of many other structures remain, as well as the cobblestone roads that still cross the city.

Paestum, which was settled by Acheans in the 600s BC, was first named Poseidonia, after the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon.

Ancient Greek fresco survives from one of Greece’s colonies in Magna Graecia

Like so many other Greek colonies across the Mediterranean world, it thrived for many centuries. Even after it was subsumed into the Roman Empire, its inhabitants retained their Greek language and culture.

However, the once-gleaming city, with its towering temples and elegant frescoes, declined as Saracen pirates raided the coast, causing its residents to retreat to the more easily-defended Agropoli (Greek άκρον πόλις, or “upper city”).

Two temples dedicated to Hera, the wife of Zeus, and one to Athena, still stand in splendor today.

However, the necropolis nearby holds one of the most spectacular treasures of all that are to be found in Paestum. The “Tomb of the Diver” has the only preserved fresco, or wall painting, from the Greek classical period anywhere in the entire world.

Ancient fresco full of symbolic elements

The fresco, showing the deceased man inside the tomb as a diver, his body gracefully arcing down to the water, is one of the great masterpieces of ancient art. Created around the year 470 BC, experts believe it is the only example of Greek painting with figured scenes dating from the early Archaic or Classical period to survive in its entirety.

Of all the tombs known to have been made during this period, this is the only one with art depicting human subjects. The most famous panel of them all is the one showing the man diving from a great height, with a graceful tree in the background. Located on the ceiling of the tomb, it is flanked by the other panels, which show scenes of men interacting at symposia.

The ceiling panel doesn’t just display the man at his leisure, depicting him in his favorite pastimes, however. There is great symbolism to the painting, including the 24 different sections of pillars that some historians believe represent the 24 hours of each day.

This could even mean that the man was “jumping off time,” or releasing the bonds of time, says art historian Ulrich Schwanen. Also, the presence of water may suggest that the artist is saying that the circle of life for the man is now complete, since he is surrounded by water in the womb and he is shown returning to water at his death.

In addition, the trees are shown as bare, perhaps symbolizing the cycle of life; and they both have seven branches, perhaps symbolic of the seven days of the week.

The tomb, built with five large stone slabs, each with a fresco attributed to one of two artists, was found by the Italian archaeologist Mario Napoli on June 3, 1968 during his excavation of a small necropolis about 1.5 km south of the ancient Greek city of Posidonia.

The city, which was located in Magna Graecia, in what is now southern Italy, was just one of many Mediterranean colonies founded over the centuries by Greeks.

All the reclining figures shown in the symposia scenes are adorned with crowns, and there are additional crowns available on the three legged tables nearby. The northern wall shows one guest engaging in kottabos, an ancient game of tossing wine from a cup at a target, on the leftmost couch.

The west wall shows three figures either arriving late to or leaving the symposium; an older man with a walking stick on the left, an undressed man with only a stole around his shoulders, and a woman playing a flute on the right. All three are adorned with wreaths on their heads.

Tomb decoration may have drawn inspiration from Etruscans

Archaeologists noted that only a few objects were found in the inside of the tomb: near the corpse — which was widely supposed to be a young man, despite the heavily deteriorated state of the skeleton — were a turtle shell, two arýballoi and an Attic lekythos.

This last object, in black-figure technique from about 480 BC, helped the discoverer and other scholars to date the tomb back to approximately 470 BC.

The tomb may show inspiration from the many Etruscan painted tombs; Paestum was at the time just a few miles from the border of the Greek and Etruscan zones of influence, along the River Sele.

Frescoes in other types of buildings were common in the Greek world, but surviving examples are extremely rare. The depction of a symposium makes the frescoes unmistakably Greek in subject matter, since this is not a social activity the Etruscans were known to engage in.

The local Campanians had taken control of Paestum by approximately the year 400 BC; they also left painted tombs from their era, some of which are in the museum in Paestum.

Some historians, including R. Ross Holloway, believe that the central nude figure on the west wall is in fact a representation of the deceased, and his lack of dress in the scene may be interpreted as an example of formal undress which is seen with Greek gods and heroic deaths.

In addition, Holloway states in his article “The Tomb of the Diver,” published  in the American Journal of Archaeology in 2006, that what he terms “formal undress” is an artistic method used in pottery and sculpture at that time to communicate an elevated state.

Of course, gods and athletes are almost always depicted in the nude in ancient Greek art. In addition, the concept of diving itself is not new to depictions of death in Ancient Greece; it is often utilized in archaic poetry in scenes of passionate loss, including the death of a loved one.

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