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.

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