Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Pic 'o the Day #1330- All in the details!

One of the rarely acknowledged benefits of the erosion of the monuments of ancient sites is the revelation of the sculptural substructures that support the ornamented surfaces. As the incredibly articulated and often quite delicate leaves, flowers, wings, etc. are worn away by the abrasions of time, we get to see what was hidden in the finished work: the work that went into sculpting the undercut parts.

A plaster cast of a large section of the entablature of the Temple of Vespasian, seen in the Tabularium, (part of the Capitoline Museums, beneath the Palazzo Senatorio), was the first piece that really drew my attention to this. The multiple moldings of this florid Corinthian ornament seem almost to be assembled from separate bits of stone rather than sculpted from a single massive block. The eggs of the egg and dart molding can be seen to be smoothly rounded as deeply as one can see, with no visible marks from the stone drills and chisels. This despite the fact that, apart from about thirty percent of the front face of the egg, the largest portion would have been hidden behind the surrounding molding. This not only makes that area invisible, it also makes it extremely difficult to carve and smooth. Yet there it is, clearly seen in the photo below. While this is a plaster cast piece in the museum, it is accurate to what is there, and the same type of carving can be seen elsewhere on similar original pieces.

Section of the entablature of the Temple of Vespasian in the Roman Forum, built in the first century AD. This temple was relatively small (for the forum), so there would only have been around 250 feet of this! It was also carved on its inner aspect.
The lower egg and leaf molding is equally stunning, with almost free standing leaves surrounding each egg, and tiny flowers and vines carved on the face of each one (Click on the photo for a closer view.) Incredible when you consider the overall number of these on the exterior of the temple, and that  (to my knowledge) they had no glue for fixing a broken bit, again quite incredible considering the delicacy of many of the parts. These obviously were carved in place, as it would have been quite impossible to get them into place without some damage to the ornament. 

With the overall amount of ornament on the building, there must have been hundreds of craftsmen who were capable of this technical work banging away up on the scaffold every day; the sound must have been deafening! While it is almost certain that a good portion of these sculptors would have been slaves, skilled work was often paid for, and in some cases, might have bought the slave's freedom. The flip side being that mistakes were most likely paid for in some not so pleasant ways. 

Detail of a Corinthian capital on the Temple of Mars Ultor, built by Caesar Augustus around 20 BC. You can see here the level of detail on the wings, which would have been virtually invisible at their height.

The top of the bell of a Corinthian capital and the point where the volutes attached, showing how the underside of the corona is carved flat and the bell curve continues around smoothly, despite the fact that these parts were largely hidden by the volutes themselves. From the museum at the Market of Trajan.

Rosette from the soffit of Temple of Mars Ultor. Each layer of the flowers is almost entirely distinct from the other. The egg and dart molding is similarly separated

Closeup of a molding with acanthus leaves showing how deeply carved the spaces behind  the leaves went, to the point that they were almost entirely freestanding. You can also see traces of where the rock drills were used to make the registration points of the leaves

An added benefit of a well crafted classical ornamental scheme is that even in its eroded state, it still presents a fascinating pattern of light and shadow, unlike modern ornament, which generally just looks dirty and dull after a few years of weathering.
The question must arise then of why would they expend so much effort on something that was largely invisible. Partly it IS visual, as can be seen by contrasting it to the modern reproduction moldings in the image below. While reproduction moldings might be well modeled and cast, the drama of the deep shadows in the Roman originals is lacking, making the copies look flatter (and this is actually some of the better pre-cast work available.)

Capital and entablature from a modern pre-cast company shows that the depth of shadows in the Roman originals is much more dramatic.

The Roman examples I have shown are from the early Imperial age (27 BC to 50 AD) corresponding to the 2nd and 3rd styles of painted decoration, which were the most painstaking and detailed, so partly it may have just been a cultural zeitgeist that briefly valued highly the attention to detail shown here, and had the resources in both the funds and the highly skilled artists available to make it happen. Other pieces from around the empire are certainly impressive, but rarely quite as detailed as what was found in the capitol city at this time.

There may also be some credence to the idea that because these ornaments were going on major new temples, that they had better be pleasing to both the clients and the gods they honored, with no shortcuts. It would be equivalent to the work done for St Peter's Basilica, or the Pyramids and monuments of Egypt, where they looked at the work as something sacred.

It will be interesting to see if new methods of creating moldings, such as the 3D printers that are increasingly being used industrially, will be used to create deeper versions of these patterns. It would seem to make sense, as this complex undercutting does not add time to the printing, and in fact it lessens the materials used, a benefit to both the cost of production and the weight of building. Artist Michael Hansmeyer has already created full size highly perforated columns using computer aided cutting, though his design module is uses mathematically generated modules rather than traditional structures. It will be up to a new generation that is familiar with computational modeling AND values the traditional design process to take the next step.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1329- Intermission

Still coping with a major computer meltdown that took out both my desktop Mac AND the peripheral drive that I had my pictures backed up on at the same time! Fortunately I have my pics spread around, so I'm not completely image free.

Here's one that caught my eye today, a detail of a Roman era fresco at the Museo Barracco, over near the Campo dei Fiori. It's a good lesson on how to paint greenery fast, a prerequisite for painting in fresco, where the plaster is constantly drying as one paints.

First off, notice how the overall shape is roughed in with a neutral brown color that relates closely to the background color, and also sets off the greens (which in Roman times were not very vibrant.) Secondly, see how the the bush is rendered as a sphere, with the light coming from the right side, so that the deepest shadow colors fall on the left side and the brightest colors are on the upper right side. Lastly, notice how the colors are separate and distinct from each other, and that even though they don't really fall the way they would on a realistic portrayal, they give a good impression of the tree that reads dimensionally and coloristically. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1328- TGIF!

Ever have one of those weeks? Imagine these poor stiffs- can't even go home and take a shower to wash whatever that accumulated stuff is. From Naples.

Atlantes supporting a Doric entablature on a commercial building in Naples

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1327- Thanks for Dancing!

Big thanks to those who joined us last night at the Grand Annex in San Pedro to celebrate the power of music!! Even if you only danced in your seats!

Opus sectile panel with Dionysiac dancers from the House of the Colored Capitals in Pompeii

Friday, August 15, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1326- Pin the tail on the What?

All we know about Roman era painting (Greek too, for that matter,) comes to us in the form of wall paintings. None of the panel paintings have survived the perils of time, with the exception of the funerary portraits that were locked away in the tombs of Egypt. But in a second hand way, we know that they existed, partly by verbal descriptions from Vitruvius and Pliny, and also by their depictions in several murals, such as this image from the House of the Ara Maxima in Pompeii.

If you look closely at the painting of Narcissus looking at his reflection in the water, you can see that both sides are flanked by folded shutters, which is how these paintings were protected (it also made them easy to display on a flat surface!) They are known as pinakes, and it's where we get the word Pinacoteca, meaning art gallery, which you will see in many places in Italy. Too bad none of the real things has survived!

Genre painting of Narcissus is given a trompe l'oeil shuttered frame. From the House of the Ara Maxima, Pompeii.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Pic o' the day #1325- It's the little things that count

In some of the later wall paintings of Pompeii and Herculaneum you'll find a whole wall painted just one color, with some kind of small image in the center of it. Could be an Eros, or a dancer, or just some birds, eating fruit. From the House of the Grand Portal in Herculaneum.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1324- What a Pain in the Neck!

One of the first things that started me down this rabbit hole of ornamental research was wanting to know about Pompeian style ceilings for a project I was working on. At first I had difficulty finding images of ceilings, but I now have about 350 of them, including these. I'm a little surprised at the energy that was often spent on ceiling decorations, which are very hard on the body, making it difficult and time consuming to do. For more photos of what I did at the house go to this earlier post.

This is a ceiling in the Casa del Salone Nero (Black Salon) in Herculaneum, with a ceiling that preserves both the painting and the vaulted form.

This is a reconstruction drawing of one of the ceilings in the Domus Aurea, Nero's palace in Rome.

Here's what I came up with for the ceiling at my project, with a bit of frieze inspired by the Villa della Farnesina in Rome. I'm still waiting for the go ahead to do the walls of the room!
By the way, Michelangelo never painted lying down; here's his little drawing of himself, in a letter where he is complaining about the pain in his neck!