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CONVERGENCE AND PARALLEL PERSPECTIVE SCENOGRAPHY IN SECOND STYLE POMPEIAN WALL PAINTING:

HISTORY, GREEK INFLUENCE AND DESIRE

Example of Second Style painting, cubiculum (bedroom),
Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, 50–40 B.C.E., fresco
265.4 x 334 x 583.9 cm : https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ancient-art-civilizations/roman/wall-painting/a/roman-wall-painting-styles

Linear perspective refers to a system of illusion where an artist creates depth on a flat surface. This is done by making sure all parallel lines in a drawing or painting converge on a single vanishing point on the composition’s horizon line (1). The ‘discovery’ of linear perspective is traditionally attributed to Filippo Brunelleschi, an Italian Renaissance painter who first composed a perspective composition in 1435 (2). It is debatable whether or not ancient Greek and Roman artists were aware of the same technique discovered by Brunelleschi, but there is evidence from Vitruvius and other ancient sources that Roman artists, in particular, were aware of techniques that allowed for perspective paintings to be composed. In Pompeii, wall paintings in the second style are especially useful for determining the level of interaction Pompeian painters had with linear perspective theory. Evidence seems to suggest that a variety of techniques were used by Roman scenographers to give second style wall paintings their elevated perspective style. Two of the most featured and academically documented techniques are called: convergence perspectives and parallel perspectives (3). Before these techniques can be described in further detail, there are three essential components of modern linear perspective which are important to understand first, they are: (i) orthogonals4 are parallel lines that intersect or lie at right angles of one another; (ii) the horizon line (5) refers to a horizontal line that runs from one side of the composition to the other, this represents the viewer’s eye level; (iii) the vanishing point (6) refers to the point where the receding orthogonals converge towards. To create the effect of objects within the composition appearing farther from the viewer, objects within the composition are painted or drawn increasingly smaller as they get closer to the vanishing point (7).

By Ancient Roman painter(s) from Pompeii — Mazzoleni, Donatella (2004). Domus: Wall Painting in the Roman House. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum. ISBN 0892367660, p. 399. Essay and texts on the sites by Umberto Pappalardo; photographs by Luciano Romano., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=70141082

Although it is still a highly debated issue, most scholars believe that scientifically determined one-point perspective did not exist in antiquity (8). The traditional views of ancient perspective drawings and paintings developed during the 19th and 20th centuries, and two pioneers of this study — Panofsky and Beyen — appeared as the main proponents this rigorous task. Regarding Pompeiian and Roman wall paintings, Panofsky argued that the extant spatial representation in Roman wall paintings was the result of the artists’ inability to portray objects in a state of distortion that is scientifically determined in one-point linear perspective (9). This argument arose because of a scholarly debate that Panofsky started when he questioned the traditional 19th and 20th century translations of two important passages from Vitruvius (De arch. 1.2.2; 7, pref. 11). These passages were originally thought to suggest an advanced knowledge of geometrically unified one-point perspective. However, since then it has been primarily accepted among scholars that Vitruvius was not speaking about one-point perspective, but rather, a type of ‘perfect perspective’ which was in reference to an older form of scenography (10). Building upon Panofsky and others, Beyen focused his research on a rigorous mathematical theory which suggested that the methods of perspective scenography in second style paintings were attempts to imitate techniques that originated in Greece. This has major implications because it could mean that we only understand second style perspective scenography as a sort of ‘imperfect reflection’ of a more scientifically understandable one-point perspective that could have been displayed in Greek art (11).

There is a degree of validity to this claim when one considers not the Greek paintings which have been lost to time, but perhaps a comparison can be made with the Parthenon at Athens. Christopher Ratte notes that the Parthenon uses several architectural techniques that are impressive refinements which depart from horizontal and vertical architectonic normality. These refinements are barely noticeable to the eye but reveal exemplary craftsmanship (12). The base of the temple is slightly domical and rises toward the center along all sides of the structure. This means that the contour of the base begins to form the arch of a circle ten thousand meters wide. Additionally, the columns of the Parthenon swell in the middle and taper at the top, and they also slightly lean in towards the center of the building (13). According to Vitruvius, these refinements were intended to compensate for an optical illusion, for, if the base of the building was laid perfectly level, it would appear as if it sagged in the middle (De Arch. 3.4.5). However, this is simply not true because the upward curvature of the base, and the swell of the columns is noticeable to the eye, although it is subtle (14). It is also worth noting that the architectural refinements displayed in the Parthenon are not unparalleled, but it is the earliest example of architecture that attempts to interact with the viewer in terms of perspective.

Image Source: Jay Kappraff and Ernest G. McClain. “The System of Proportions of the Parthenon: A Work of Musically Inspired Architecture”. Music in Art, Vol. 30, №½ (Spring-Fall 2005), pp 15. University of New York, Research Center for Music Iconography. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41818772?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Classical Greek architects were acutely aware of how their architecture interacted with its viewers. There is extra emphasis on how the structure as a whole is presented in terms of perspective, and in the Parthenon’s case, that presentation gives the effect of lightening the building so that it appears softer and lighter to the eye. It is no stretch to assume then that the desires for perspective in art and architecture did not originate in Rome — or Pompeii for that matter — but rather that they originated long before Rome was an Empire. The second style wall paintings in Pompeii which show mathematically determined — but not perfect — perspective scenography, then, reflect the citizens desires to bring the element of perspective architecture into a domestic setting. This is especially evident when one considers that the best examples of second style perspective wall painting scenography often feature scenes of temple or temple like structures receding into the vanishing point of the composition.

As previously mentioned, convergence perspective and parallel perspective are the two most popular forms of second style perspective scenography in Pompeii. Convergence perspective is most like modern linear perspective because it uses a ‘focus point’, rather than a vanishing point. Focus points are larger than vanishing points and are about the size of a fist rather than a fixed ‘point’ on the composition. The back wall of Alcove A in Room 16 of the Villa of Mysteries highlights second style wall painting scenography which uses convergence perspective (15). Scholars have carefully shown that not all orthagonals in the upper part of the composition on the back wall of Alcove A converge precisely on a single point. Furthermore, the use of digital methodologies have enabled scholars to view the paths of the orthagonals more directly, and the results have shown that the orthagonals do indeed focus on a general area of interest, rather than a fixed location. The diagram below shows how this happens:

Source: Stinson, pp 410. Fig 3.

To the naked eye, the composition appears to have been made with perfect linear perspective in mind, however, digital rendering has revealed that the composition does not use perfect perspective because the focus points do not represent a true vanishing point. That is to say, when we look at something as it fades into the distance — a road, the ocean, a path, etc. — the vanishing point represents the mathematically precise fixed-point at which our eyes cannot focus any further. Without keeping this in mind, a composition cannot display mathematically precise linear perspective. Alcove A is widely considered to be one of the best examples of linear perspective in Pompeiian wall painting, and although it is not perfect, it does display an elevated — perhaps even mathematical — understanding of the interactions between scenography, perspective, and the effect that has on the viewer when used effectively. Convergence perspective systems are not always as precise as Alcove A from the Villa of Mysteries, and the number of focus points on a composition can vary. The most precise compositions in terms of exact perspective are the compositions which feature only one focus point. Compositions with multiple focus points may, at first glance, appear to be as precise as compositions with single focus points, but careful analysis — with the use of digital methods or not — will reveal this is not the case.

Source: Stinson, pp, 413, Fig. 7.

This composition from Room 14 at the Villa of Oplontis is an example of a convergence system which uses multiple focus points. Each numbered point stands for a separate convergence system from which different orthogonals are focused towards (16). Parallel perspective compositions — in contrast to convergence perspective compositions — use orthogonals that are parallel to one another when no convergence occurs. This system is also displayed in the image above as the three orthogonals to the right of the lowest focus point (the focus point numbered ‘3’). These three orthogonals do not converge on any focus point that is shared by another orthogonal, making them part of a separate ‘parallel system’ used by the painter of the composition.

As modern art analyst's, we tend to look for things in older forms of art which recall modern artistic techniques. Our desire for mathematically precise artistic perspective is fueled by our ability to do it both easily and rapidly. However, this does not mean that the people of Pompeii, or Rome for that matter, desired perspective in their art for the same reasons as we do. The very fact that their scenography never displays mathematically precise perspective is evidence that perhaps it was not necessarily desired.

Nikolaus Dietrich argues that when the four styles of Pompeiian art are taken into account from a diachronic approach, the various changes from one style to another may suggest that Pompeiian art was — on a larger level — mostly concerned with an interplay of open and closed spaces (17). Dietrich suggests that the exceptional, rather than regular, use of grand perspective illusion is pervasive throughout Pompeiian second style wall painting scenography. Furthermore, argues that wall painting compositions consider much more than the single wall in which they may occupy. This means that the interplay of each wall composition has more to do, and say, about the composition of the room, rather than what a single wall composition says for itself. The perspective illusion the viewer may perceive on one wall composition might have little to do with the artist’s or client’s desire for that perspective on another composition18. It seems as if like everything else in the Roman world, a strict hierarchy determined whether a space was considered appropriate to have scenography which displayed open or closed compositions. The second style compositions that display scenography which promotes open spaces are the scenes in which the composition uses an elevated system of perspective, however, this is not the case for mythological scenes (19). As one may assume, compositions which display an elevated understanding of more a precise illusionary perspective are reserved for spaces which correspond with the highest rank of the domestic space. The result of this is that larger rooms do not tend to highlight compositions with more precise — or any –perspective in the scenography of the wall paintings (20). In the same room, one wall composition may display near perfect illusionary perspective, but in contrast, the wall opposite may feature a mythological composition in which all the rules of corresponding and parallel convergence perspective systems are broken. This makes it hard to determine the desires Pompeiians had for their wall compositions because they seem contradictory. A good example of this in contemporary society are our own homes. People want different styles of art for different rooms of the house — at least very broadly speaking. Abstract art seems to be more proper in bathrooms, living rooms and in kitchens. In contrast, traditional still life, landscape art, and linear perspective compositions feel more appropriate in domestic spaces like studies, offices and libraries. Although Pompeiians may have also thought that different art styles belonged in specific rooms of the house, they also may have wished for different walls of the same room to follow the same principles of differentiation.

Example of Second Style painting, view of the Dionysiac frieze, Villa of the Mysteries, before 79 C.E., fresco, 15 x 22 feet, just outside the walls of Pompeii on the Road to Herculaneum : https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ancient-art-civilizations/roman/wall-painting/a/roman-wall-painting-styles

Second style Pompeiian wall paintings are unique in that they suggest an elevated understanding and desire for a more exact illusion of perspective than the first style wall paintings offer. First style Pompeiian wall paintings show that artists understood how to create objects that appear with a degree of three dimensionality (the corners of the imitated stones sometimes show depth), but the first style fails to adequately compare with the second in terms of mathematic precision. The desire for perspective in pictorial art probably pre-dates Roman and Pompeiian’s desires, and their liking towards it may have been an influence first suggested by Greek architecture that deviated from architectonic normality. This deviation may reflect a desire for architecture to interact with the spectator in a more intense fashion, and Pompeiian wall paintings reflect the same contemporary desires for the same level of interaction between spectators and compositions.

Although the perspective illusion is not mathematically perfect in second style Pompeiian wall paintings, it does show that some artists did understand how to make compositions which may seem mathematically perfect to the naked eye. This may initially suggest that Pompeiians desired the compositions which were hierarchically determined to showcase perspective systems that were mathematically accurate, however, closer inspection reveals that our understanding of this desire is unclear. This analysis has not taken into consideration the perspective systems of third and fourth style Pompeiian wall painting scenography. Further analysis could reveal that there is a complex and dynamic interaction between the remaining third and fourth styles in relation to the perspective systems they use and how they were influenced by the second style.

Fresco from the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor, second-style wall painting, preserved by ash in 79 AD : https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cubi/hd_cubi.htm

ENDNOTES

1. Blumberg, Naomi. “Linear Perspective”. Published by Encyclopedia Britannica. January 31,

2020. Date accessed: April 10, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/art/linear-perspective

2. Ibid.

3. Stinson, Philip. “Perspective Systems in Roman Second Style Wall Painting.” American

Journal of Archaeology 115, no. 3 (2011): 403. Accessed April 10, 2020. doi:10.3764/aja.115.3.0403.

4. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/orthogonal : UNAUTHORED

5. https://www.artistsnetwork.com/art-terms/horizon-line-in-art/ : UNAUTHORED

6. https://www.lexico.com/definition/vanishing_point : UNAUTHORED

7. Blumberg.

8. Stinson, 404.

9. Ibid, 406.

10. Ibid, 406.

11. Ibid, 407.

12. Ratté, Christopher. “Athens: Recreating the Parthenon.” The Classical World 97, no. 1

(2003): 47. Accessed April 10, 2020. doi:10.2307/4352824.

13. Ibid, 47–48.

14. Ibid, 48.

15. Stinson, 408.

16. Ibid, 413.

17. Dietrich, Nikolaus. “Spatial Dimensions in Roman Wall Painting and the Interplay of

Enclosing and Enclosed Space: A new Perspective on Second Style”. Arts 8, no 68, pp 1 (2019). Accessed on April 11 2020.

18. Ibid, 5.

19. Ibid, 5.

20. Ibid, 5.

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Dimitrios P Messinezis

Dimitrios P Messinezis

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Writer. Classicist. Nerd. I’ll be sharing some of my knowledge about the Greek and Roman worlds, and making it understandable for everyone.