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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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What would happen if Vesuvius erupted again?

Here’s the deal. Vesuvius has erupted dozens of times since its last massive eruption in AD 79. But news reporters and documentaries, the most easily consumable sources of expert advice (that phrase badly needs inverted commas), tell me the volcano is overdue for another catastrophic eruption.[1] I haven’t got a background in the earth sciences, so I won’t comment on the likelihood of impending classical déjà vu in the near future. But I am curious – what would happen if Vesuvius had another eruption in our lifetime, the kind that Pliny the Elder witnessed and ultimately died from?

Pierre-Jacques Volaire, View of the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, ca. 1770.

Pierre-Jacques Volaire, View of the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius, ca. 1770.

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