Thursday, 29 May 2014

Raphael and the leg of Venus: the role of expectations in representation

Raffaello Sanzio, The Triumph of Galatea
from wikipedia
As we said, one of the most common feeling expressed by the first visitors of Pompeii was, generally, disappointment. 
The common idea of a Roman town was probably based on literary rather than archaeological evidence. And because, usually, the texts that are transmitted are the official ones, Roman cities were expected to be large, monumental and majestic. 
Unfortunately, Pompeii is quite far from that model. Buildings are cramped and often brightly coloured. But, probably, the most disappointing bit for the first (and contemporary?) visitors were the frescoes.
One (only apparently unrelated) premise: it is interesting to notice the difference between what those visitors said about Pompeii when they were there and what they said about it years later, when they were relying on their memories more than their experience.
Years after his first unexcited comments, Goethe writes that Pompeian frescoes are so excellent that they could stand next to Raphael’s ones.
First, I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to assess archaeological evidence on its aesthetic or artistic relevance. This approach has caused the destruction of many Pompeian artefacts that were jus considered “not pretty enough”.
Second, if we really want to assess the aesthetic value of Pompeian frescoes (from an art history point of view or as simple observers), it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to compare two artefacts that are so distant from each other like first century AD Roman frescoes and Italian Renaissance oil paintings.

However, if we do compare them, and assume that Raphael’s canons are a sort of archetype all figurative arts should conform to... then... well... Let’s put together the triumph of Galatea by Raphael and the fresco in the House of the Venus in the Shell. 

Fresco in the House of Venus in the Shell
Pompeii (Reg II, Ins 3, 3)
image credit
The subject is vaguely similar, but the images are very different. And I’m not saying that one is better than the other, just that they are very different and that it seems to me that the artists had very different concerns and goals.
The point is that if you’re an enthusiastic Neoclassic (or proto-neoclassic) artist that goes to Pompeii, eager to see and reproduce images that you imagine to be Raphael-like (following the syllogism: Roman art is perfect, Raphael’s art is perfect, Roman art must look like Raphael’s art) and you see our lovely Venus in the Shell... there is going to be quite a clash between your expectation and reality.
This could explain why some of the drawings of the excavation time are, again, slightly dissimilar from the original.  And we can definitely say it, as in some cases the original artefact survived and we can compare it to its documentation. 
So, let’s add some items to the list of things that affect the representation process. We don’t really know for sure what went through the mind of the first artists copying Pompeian frescoes, but we can speculate about it, especially if we focus on what, in my experience, is the element more often “touched up”: the human body (well, divine and semi-divine as well :-))

Drawing by J-C. Bellicard, 1754
We can imagine the artist spending hours and hours learning how to reproduce human bodies in the «right» way (i. e. as more realistic as they can). So, maybe, they just couldn’t help drawing in the way they have learnt and inadvertently “corrected“ the anatomy in the copy. Another hypothesis is that they are drawing not what they are actually seeing but what they were expecting (and wanting) to see.
We could even hypothesise that the artists didn’t want the public to suspect that they were not good enough at drawing. Maybe they didn’t want anyone to think “what a lousy copy! The artist is so useless that cannot even draw the leg of the Venus properly!”.

Here is an example from Herculaneum. The drawing (from the book Antiquity Recovered ) is a copy of one of the Herculaneum frescoes that are now exhibited in the Naples Museum.  All the body proportions (especially in the case of the Minotaur) look much more “harmonic” than the original. 
Fresco from the Basilica in Herculaneum
Image from the Hermitage website
Actually, in the case of Pompeii and Herculaneum there is at least another major, and slightly bizarre, reason that explains why representations are precious sources of information but have also to be treated with a certain care. For the first years it was not allowed to make copies of the exhibits in the Museum of Portici. But the temptation was too strong and some artists (like,  Bellicard, author of this one), took quick sketches that, probably, refined out of the museum, without the original in front of their eyes. According to Lyons and Reed, this would also explain why there are no bootleg copies of the artefacts positioned close to the entrance: there were always too many guards nearby.

A mix of “cosmetic documentation”, the gap between expectation and reality, and memory-based drawing could also explain why there is so much discrepancy between the documentation of the frescoes of the Ekklesiasterium in the Iseum and the actual fragments exhibited in the Museum of Naples. In spite of the very realistic style (always beware of the realistic style!), and the fact that they were commissioned to top class professionals of the time, the drawings not always match the evidence, sometimes quite dramatically. But that story probably deserves a post on its own.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Orpheus' lost twins

The fresco in the House of Orpheus' garden
Photo from pompeiiinpictures
The House of Orpheus in Pompeii owns its (second) name to a big fresco depicting Orpheus surrounded by animals. The image is now mostly faded, especially the left and bottom areas. 

But with Pompeian artefacts there is always a chance that the object we are interested in has been somehow recorded or documented at the time of the excavations, when many features that are now lost were still visible. They might have been described in verbal accounts, photographed, or copied by an artist.

So, if we look into into libraries and archives, we do find that Orpheus’ fresco has been reproduced by Niccolini in 1854. 
It seems that, luckily, we have found the missing information we were looking for: the left side of the fresco shows a charming illusional garden, probably meant to interact, visually, with the actual one. 
If we were about to produce a digital restoration of our fresco, that would look like a precious source of information. And, it definitely is.

However, if we have a better look at our sources, we find another reproduction of the same painting, this time by Emil Presuhn, in 1878.
The two drawings are supposed to be copies of the same original. But, when you put them next to each other, something doesn’t add up...

Left: Niccolini's reproduction of the Orpheus fresco. Right: Presuhn's one

Although the general structure and theme of the composition is definitely very similar, there are countless differences in small and not-so-small details.
Some animals look completely different: the lion in Niccolini’s drawing become an elephant in Presuhn’s one, the big feline in Niccolini’s is an hippo for Presuhn and so on... The colours are also very different: Niccolini shows a green landscape, while in Presuhn we see a quite dry one, with no water streams. We might hypothesise that Presuhn was reproducing an original that was already further degraded, although there are only about 20 years between the two publications. 

But that wouldn’t explain why, on the contrary, the left part of the fresco, looks much more detailed in Presuhn’s version than in Niccolini’s one. The bottom bit, again, is only apparently similar but very different at a second look.

Which one is the right one? Well, sadly we don’t have the original anymore to say which copy is the most accurate. Possibly, they are both equidistant from the model. Or, may be, each of them has more accurate bits than the other. For sure, they are both subjective representations of the same artefact and both influenced by a long list of variables.

I’m using these two drawings to start my little list of some of the most common factors that impact on representations of cultural heritage. 
First bullet point: skills and tools.
Not everyone is equally good at the technique they are using to represent an artefact. Not all the artist are equally skilled (if we consider «skill» as the ability to reproduce the original as close as possible) as well as not all the 3D modellers have the same familiarity with the software.
Then there is training. Although the two drawings are almost contemporary, a different style is clearly detectable, possibly due to the artists different nationality (i.e. different art schools) or just to idiosyncratic differences. I am particularly fond of the lion face in both the drawings. They look very dissimilar from each other and neither of them very much Roman.
Last, the constrains that derive from the tool. For example, in this case, the very bright colours in Niccolini’s drawing and a certain flatness in both of them are probably due (I reckon) to the printing techniques at the time that didn’t allow much sophistication in colour. Likewise, our representation are influenced by the software and hardware that are available. Or, to be more precise, by the ones we can afford.

PS: I was familiar with Presuhn drawing, and I had seen Niccolini’s one before. But I have realised how different they are only when Drew, one of my supervisors, showed me the page of Gardens of Pompeii, vol 2 where they are published together. Funnily, Jashemski uses both the drawings as a source of information about birds and plants in Pompeii, without a word on their striking dissimilarities.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Robespierre's tears and other stories about the truth of images

W.J. Stillman, Picture of the Parthenon
 Athens, 1870. From Antiquity and Photography
Getty Digital Collection
I have spent the last weeks reading about representation of cultural heritage. I went a little bit into reception studies, touched art and photography history and took some dust off my semiotic background. As you can expect, the issues are many, complex and diverse. Especially when we talk about ancient cultural heritage. But there are a couple of points I want to highlight. 

The first one is that every representation (in any medium) is an interpretation. There is always something of the person that is producing it, the culture they belong to, and the tools that are using. This probably sounds redundant and definitely not new. Unless you are attending a 3D imaging conference. Then, you will probably hear concepts like «perfect copy» and «objective recording» more times that you are comfortable with. 
I thought academics had already agreed many years ago on the fact that photographies do lie, or, better, represent the author’s personal view of reality. Inexplicably, the concept doesn’t seem to apply to new imaging techniques such as photogrammetry or laser scanning. 

The second point is that cultural objects (well, probably all objects but let’s talk about cultural heritage) are not fixed in time. They change and evolve, like living things. It becomes even more apparent when we talk about buildings. They are planned, built, damaged, restored, altered, repurposed, abandoned.
So, actually, when we produce a visualisation of something we should always clarify which moment of the «life» of the object we are actually representing.

To deal with the chronological dimension, some 3D visualisation projects have introduced a timeline. For example, UCLA's Digital Roman Forum and Digital Karnak show how buildings have changed, as singles and in relationship with each other. In Digital Karnak, more specifically, it’s possible to pick a period and see which buildings have been built, modified or destroyed at the time.
I found this approach very informative. However, it kind of assumes that the only segment of the life of an object (or place) we’re interested in is from when it is produced to when it is abandoned or destroyed.
Fragonard, J., 1775 Travellers viewing a skeleton at
Pompeii. (Such "discoveries" were often staged
to please prestigious guests)
I think that what happens to cultural heritage when it is discovered, recorded, exhibited and disseminated is still an interesting matter. Objects keep changing, even after their uncovering. Even when they are closed in a glass cabinet. And I am not only talking about material changes, but also about how changes the way we look at them.

Let’s consider Pompeii. The circumstances of its destruction often make people think that it came out from the earth exactly as we see it now. That it emerged perfectly intact, as, to use Lazer's words, a sort of Sleeping Beauty castle. Which is rather far from the truth. A quick look at pictures of the excavations shows how much the place has been changing in the last 250 years: how much of it has been restored, adjusted, twitched, when not completely staged for the tourist’s gaze.

So, my point is, mainly, that all representations are partial and biased. And using cutting edge techniques doesn’t change it. They can be more or less accurate, but are always subjective. Which is not a bad thing per se, as long as there is a general awareness of the limits of the representation process, and, even more important, when we can compare different interpretations that enrich and complement each other. 
And I’m afraid we, somehow, ended up with multivocality and multi-authorship. Again.
To make up for this, I’m going to tell some (possibly funny) stories connected to representations and interpretations. Many, but not all of them, involving Pompeii. Starting with one of my favorite anecdote about the “truth of images” by father of cinema Sergej Eisenstein:

I cannot resist the pleasure of citing here one montage tour de force of this sort, executed by Boitler. One film bought from Germany was Danton, with Emil Jannings. As released on our screens, this scene was shown: Camille Desmoulins is condemned to the guillotine. Greatly agitated, Danton rushes to Robespierre, who turns aside and slowly wipes away a tear. The sub-title said, approximately, 'In the name of freedom, I had to sacrifice a friend...' Fine. 
But who could have guessed that in the German original, Danton, represented as an idler, a petticoat chaser, a splendid chap and the only positive figure in the midst of evil characters, that this Danton ran to the evil Robespierre and... spat in his face? And that it was his spit that Robespierre wiped from his face with a handkerchief? And that the title indicated Robespierre's hatred of Danton, a hate that in the end of the film motivates the condemnation of Jannings-Danton to the guillotine! 
Two tiny cuts had reversed the entire significance of the scene!
(Eisenstein, S. 1949. Film form: Essays in Film Theory)