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Romans paint better perspective than Renaissance artists

Fresco from the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor, second-style wall painting, preserved by ash in 79 AD

Fresco from the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor, second-style wall painting, preserved by ash in 79 AD

Visitors who see this fresco at the Met museum are often amazed at what seems to be a pre-Renaissance understanding of perspective. One visitor wrote that this “looks like an entire city–perspectivally rendered! The Middle Ages lost those lessons on perspective for sure.”

The statement picks up on a very common triumphalist attitude towards perspective. Perspective is a lesson to be learned by all good art students, it is the golden standard of realism, and the Renaissance Masters either discovered it or rescued it, after the utter ignorance of the Middle Ages.

But what do we mean by “perspective”? Did the Romans use linear perspective? And is the linear model really the best anyone could come up with?

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Ancient scrolls: where are the wooden handles?

We all know what an ancient scroll should look like. Most of us haven’t actually seen a scroll from the first century AD, but we know what they look like in movies and stage productions. They should look something like a rolled up cylinder of paper with attractive wooden knobs poking out at either end.

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There, like that. These were the prop scrolls used in the movies “Alexander” and “Agora”. Nothing screams ancient and legitimate like wooden handle thingies. Nothing could be more genuinely scroll-like. It’s beautiful, it’s antiquated. You can just imagine Julius Caesar casually picking one of these up and reading it with a British accent.

But I’ve recently been surprised by the lack of wooden knobs in artistic evidence from the Roman Empire.

Where are all the handle thingies?

Could we have been overestimating the prevalence of cool-looking-rolling-pin-shaped-sticks this whole time?

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