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The First Style (Incrustation or Structural, 150-80 BC) was so named because the stuccos and panels imitate colored marble facing. It had also been called the Masonry Style because the aim of the decorator was to imitate, using painted stucco relief, the appearance of costly marble panel. The First Style is not uniquely Pompeian or Roman. Walls decorated in this fashion are documented in the Greek East from the last fourth century BC on. The adoption of the First Style in Pompeian houses of the late second and early first centuries BC is an example of the Hellenization of Roman Republican architecture and the craze for things Greek. Roman wall paintings were true frescoes, with the colors applied while the plaster was still damp, but the brilliance of the surfaces was achieved by painstaking preparation of the wall. The plaster, specially compounded with marble dust if the patron could afford it, was layed on in several layers with a smooth towel. The surface was then polished to a marble-like finish.

The Second Style (Architectural, 80 BC-14 AD) had large paintings with figured compositions alternating with mock architectural details. The aim of the Second Style painters was to dissolve the confining walls of a room and replace them with the illusion of a three-dimensional world constructed in the artist's imagination. They sought to create the illusion of space by using perspective, although wall's surfaces were generally flat. In general the Second Style divides a wall into three horizontal areas; a base at the foot of the wall, a middle area of broad and narrow fields, and a narrow top area. Painted columns divide the wall vertically. Vanishing point perspective was frequently used by painters that sought to transform the usually windowless walls of Roman houses into "picture window" vistas that expanded the apparent space of the rooms. Artists also created space visually with painted scenes of figures on a shallow stage, with a landscape or cityscape seen close up, or by using intuitive perspective. In mature Second Style designs, the painter created a three-dimensional setting that extended beyond the wall.

The Third Style (Eygptianizing or Ornamental, beginning ca 14 AD) is marked by the painters taking great care over detail and doing work with a refined technique and color. The highly refined style created delicate linear patterns on plain backgrounds, and the wall surface was closed. Balanced and geometric patterns were a major characteristic of the Third Style, and efforts to achieve depth were abandoned in favor of pure ornament and finally soft amorphous and airy architectural form. Red, which encloses and gives weight to the wall, is a favorite color of the Third Style. Another dominant color is black. The cool green-blue is another frequently used color, and the thin columns are also a common feature. Landscapes and mythological scenes were presented in frames, like modern paintings on canvas hung on walls, and typically the landscape panel was incorporated into the wall as a separate compostion. In the late Third Style wall, the once restrained decorative elements become excessive, and architectural depth is re-introduced.

The Fourth Style (Illusionist, beginning ca 62 AD), in which the subjects, perspectives and architecture became more and more fantastic and full of decorative elements. A taste for architectural illusionism returned once again, although the architectural vistas were irrational fantasies. The Fourth Style was most intricate, with murals of grand, impossible to build structures. There is dimensional space, and generally indefinable distance. Observers of these paintings do not look upon cityscapes or round temples set in peristyles. Instead they look at fragments of buildings, columns supporting half pediments, double stories of columns supporting nothing at all, painted on the same white ground as the rest of the wall. The late Fourth Style conforms to the same principles of design, but painters often eschewed the elegance of the earlier Fourth Style in favor of crowded and confused compositions and sometimes garish combinations of colors. The panels also sometimes used Greek myths as subjects, and many other mythological paintings were characteristic of this style.

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