Thursday, July 31, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1316- Buried Treasures

One of my favorite things about travel is the unexpected find. Go out to see the antique Roman ruins at Stabia and stumble across a beautiful (though dilapidated) Stile Liberty house while wandering through the funky town of Castellamare di Stabia.  I don't know any details about this one; it's probably done around 1910, give or take a few years.

You could easily walk right by this one and not even notice it was there. I almost did!

Nice tile detail over the central axis entry

Interesting inversion of a Corinthian capital

Butterfly bracket support

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Pic o' the day #1315- "Sit Down! You're blocking the view!"

In the world of Roman painting, there are four periods, or styles, which are used to guess at the age of the decorations. They were originally delineated and described by the German archaeologist August Mau, 1840 – 1909, who ran the digs at Pompeii and published numerous illustrations of what they found to raise money to continue the projects.
Page from Mau, Pompeii, It's Life and Art.  You can view and download this entire book here

I won't go into detail on the styles right now (save that for another post!) but just skip ahead to the third and fourth styles, which were the last to be used before Vesuvius blew and encapsulated everything for 1700 years. In the third and fourth styles there is often found a division of the visual spaces into tiers both vertical and horizontal that seem to some (including me) to be a reflection of the scenae frons, which was the vertical stage front of Roman theaters.
Model of the scenae frons at the Theater of Marcellus in Rome. Actors could appear on all levels, creating a very dynamic staging. Imagine if they'd had spotlights!

Here's a couple of shots of murals in Stabia and Oplontis. It is easy to see how they relate to the stage front, with their protruding balconies and numerous openings. In addition, the dramatic poses of figures framed by these kinds of murals, as well as depictions of the masks of classical dramas would seem to be clear reference to the stage.

Mural in the Villa of Arianna at Stabia.  Notice the mask from the drama sitting on the white balcony area at right.

Mural in the Villa of Poppaea at Oplontis has architecture that is similar to what one finds on the scenae frons. This mural would actually be considered to be in the second style, with a hearty trompe l'oeil emphasis that was later generally dropped.

Here is how an artist has interpreted the decor of the House of Augustus (Rome) in terms of a small stage front. From Thomas Gordon Smith's Vitruvius on Architecture (Monacelli, 2004)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1314- Back to Grandma's

Here are some shots of another antique house with an all over pattern that very much resembles wallpaper patterns of many centuries later. This was of course not printed but entirely hand painted by skilled craftsmen. (They didn't even have paper  to speak of at that time, let alone printing technology.)
It is one of many very fine rooms at the Villa Adriana (or Arianna) in Stabia, which was once hanging on a seaside cliff, but is now about a quarter mile inland due to the shoreline being extended by volcanic debris.

This villa must have belonged to a very wealthy person, with mosaic floors, the deep red socle with golden decorations in a refined style, and the upper portion covered in carefully painted ornaments. The ceiling also would have been painted and/or covered with plaster ornament.

The panel at the bottom center is a digital replacement for the real one, which was removed and sent to Napoli in the 1750's, when these sites were first being uncovered. Even though the photo is a bit jarring, I still prefer it to a blank panel.

Decorations in the overall pattern include birds, flowers, shields and figures
detail of one of the figures

Friday, July 25, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1313- Details, Details

I've been noticing lately how much mileage the Roman painters of antiquity got out of their details. Quite often, the rich decoration of the walls of the antique houses consists of nothing more than colored panels limited by filigreed edges. Of course, the central panels could be more elaborate landscapes or figure paintings, but even those are mostly small centers in large panels, and it is the refined detail of the borders that give the feeling of luxury and richness to these interiors. Here's a small gallery of images of details I took at Stabia last summer.

Wall around the peristyle of the Villa San Marco at Stabia. Not really that much detail on them, but what is there shows great finesse.

Example of a divider based on a candelabrum style design

Details such as this candelabrum supporting a garland of leaves give a rich feeling to the division of panels, with a minimum of paint and time. 

Clever and unrealistic architectural supports are a hallmark of the third and fourth styles, and were harshly criticized by both Vitruvius and Pliny.

I don't even know what this is supposed to represent (lamp? musical instrument?) but the style is so attractive it doesn't really matter.

Border with a peacock feather accent. 
Even when a figure panel was included on the walls (like this beautiful painting of Perseus slaying Medusa), they are often very small by comparison to the size of the panels that divide the walls.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1312- Refreshing change at Stabia

After a frustrating day of multiple closures at Pompeii, we took a train down to the sleepy little town of Castellammare di Stabia to see two villas that are open to visitors there. You can read about the whole day on my earlier post. It was such a pleasure to see this villa, one of the earliest digs (starting in 1750) in the Bay of Naples. Being in the earliest days of exploration, it was pilfered, with the finest paintings and furnishings removed for the pleasure of the Bourbon king who ruled the area at the time, and then reburied, only to be re-excavated more gently in the 1950's. We were the only visitors at that time, and had free rein to wander and click to my heart's content. Here's a couple of shots showing the level of skill and detail that went into this sumptuous seaside palace.

Lower wall area of the atrium of the Villa San Marco at Stabia shows a creature with horses forelegs and a fishy tail, representing some type of water deity.  

Corner of a room in the Villa San Marco at Stabia

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1311- Quails' Eggs and Darts

One of the fun things about studying ornament is finding common threads and unusual variations on a theme. One that I noticed in Pompeii last summer was this Corinthian column in the Basilica, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the columns in the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli, and is the only other place that I have seen this type of capital (other than modern variations). It's the ruffled and curled over vertical edges of the acanthus leaves that makes them distinctive; most other acanthus leaves have more prominent tops, while the sides are relatively flat. Here's a few images to illustrate what I'm talking about.

Corinthian capital in the Basilica at Pompeii. Notice the curly edges of the acanthus leaves.
A reconstructive drawing of the capital from Francois Mazois' Les Ruines de Pompeii, (1820).

Capital at the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli also has the ruffled edges of the acanthus leaves. It also has flutes that end  without being rounded

A more typical Roman style corinthian capital, as seen at the Pantheon. Here the tops of the acanthus leaves are the most pronounced part of the bell. 

The Ionic style capitals also have an interesting variant with "Quail egg" and dart, a style I have not seen elsewhere. This is also in the Basilica. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1310- The Lure of the Lares

In most houses in Pompeii you will find a shrine (sometimes two) that is usually called a "lararium", because it often held figures of the Lares, guardian deities that watched over the house and its inhabitants. There would also be statues of the prime deities (Juno and Jupiter, for example), ancestors, heroes, and small offerings to these various gods. Ceremonies of passage, thanks, and offerings would be held here, sometimes officiated by an outside priest (if you were wealthy enough.) These shrines persisted until the time of the Christians, when they were banned in favor of centralized places of worship (and fee collection!) 

Fairly elaborate lararium in the House of the Gilded Cupids

Shelves would have held figurines of gods, heroes, ancestors, and lares, along with offerings of food, flowers and monies.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1309- Dog Day Afternoon

Spent the afternoon yesterday with some very good old friends looking at the Pompeii exhibit currently at the Los Angeles Science Museum. It was a bit thin in the display, and a bit long in the "interactivities" department, but there were still a few nice bits. This one was a little marble sculpture of puppies that was thought to have been in a garden area. Very cute!

Who can resist sleeping puppies?
There was also a large marble wash basin with elegant sphinx supports and an unusual triangular base.

Detail of the sphinx support. Love those wings!

Another detail of the vegetal ornament on the plinth. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1308- Waddya gonna do?

The houses of Pompeii are in trouble! After exposure to the elements for 250 years, many of them are crumbling to dust, attacked by many factors such as rain water, invasive plants, vibrations from modern machinery, and the thousands of feet and hands that wander through and over them every day. 

One of the most vulnerable areas are the floors, which must bear the brunt of both water exposure that they were not designed for, as well as the weight of many more people than they ever experienced during their working lives. Solutions are not forthcoming quickly either (due to numerous factors) and thus many of these houses have simply shut the doors to prevent further damage until a trajectory, and the funding for that trajectory, can be found. Raised walkways, protective coverings, and regular maintenance are all possible, but they are all expenses too, and the sources for that funding are limited, especially when you consider the scale of the site. Did you know almost one third of Pompeii is still unexcavated, awaiting funds so that it can be preserved after it is exposed?

I spoke a bit about opus signinum a few days ago, and today I will talk about its big sister, mosaic. Besides the fancy pictorial or compartmented style of mosaics seen in the first photo here, the simpler random style of mosaic was very popular and is found in many of the houses in Pompeii. Like the opus signinum, it protected the floor and gave many years of wear (consider that some of these floors have now been walked on for over 300 years!), but it could be created by less skilled artists, and was thus less expensive. It was funny to notice how many of these random looking patterns resemble the inexpensive linoleum that covered the floor of my childhood kitchen floor, providing many of the same functions.

Floors of the House of Cuspius Pansa are spectacular, but you can't go in now for fear that they will crumble, as so many already have. 
Section of the floor of the Villa of the Mysteries, where you can see how many floors look there now. Fortunately, this one was being restored in 2013.

Patterning of this random style floor is found in many houses of the period. It looks so much like linoleum patterns I grew up with in houses of the 1950's.

Another all over pattern of the same type

Reverse pattern with color on a white background. Great way to use up your leftover marble chips!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1307- Just like Grandma's

In a few of the antique houses in the Bay of Naples area (the shadow of Mt Vesuvius) you will find rooms like this one, with all over patterns that resemble wallpaper you might have seen earlier in the twentieth century. Only difference is they're not printed, or even stenciled, but instead are laboriously hand painted over the entire surface. Thus, unlike today, where repeat patterns are seen as common and cheap, this was a luxurious treatment worthy of a fine room in a fine home, which the House of the Gilded Cupids was. As you can see, it also had a mosaic floor, a faux marble socle (the lower part of the wall), and a vaulted ceiling with more plaster and painted decoration. 

Field pattern in the House of the Gilded Cupids looks like wallpaper, but it's not.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1307- Snakes Alive!

In Roman times the snake was not seen as a symbol of evil but quite the opposite- of good fortune and longevity. Everywhere you look in Pompeii you will find decorations featuring snakes receiving offerings- in this case a pine cone and what looks like a fig, sitting on top of an altar. They are part of the decoration of a lararium, the small household (or even business- they are found in many of the town's restaurants) shrine where ancestry and family rites were celebrated. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1306- the Roots of Linoleum

Pompeii also has great floors, and that's one of the prime concerns in terms of conservation. Besides the laborious full mosaic patterns, there was also a technique called opus signinum that incorporated smaller bits of stone in a cementitious flooring material that was durable and shiny, but less costly than a mosaic. Many different patterns can be found around town, both indoors and out. Actually, it's more like terrazzo than linoleum, but the patterning is not unlike what you'd find today on peel and stick tiles at Home Depot.

In the House of the Gilded Cupids (Amorini Dorati)

Same house, different room.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Pic o' the day #1305- Wine and painting, a long tradition!

This post is simply about something that I thought was pretty cool when we were last in Pompeii. I've already ranted about how much of the painted walls were inaccessible, but this was a new development I enjoyed seeing. 

They've long been mapping out the placement and even the type of plants that were in Vesuvius' shadow, using the same technique they originated to record the positions of the bodies found in the ashes. They pour plaster into the voids left by organic matter to see the approximate shape of it, using it to produce castings of bodies,  wooden objects, and even the roots of plants like these grape vines (the upper parts would have been mostly burned away by the hot gases and ash.) Recently one of the projects has been to replant a number of the vineyards in the exact configuration of the originals, even using antique vine stocks and trellising techniques to get as close as possible to the way the Pompeiians grew. I'm certain that wines based on these original varieties can't be far behind. Wonder what they'll name it?

The style of trellising the grapes is partly based on fresco depictions of vineyards that appear in a number of Pompeiian houses.  
Even the varieties are researched through seeds and the shapes of the roots found.

This beautiful little peristyle garden is in the House of the Gilded Cupids (Amorini Dorati) and is also based on the root castings made from the plants that were there in 79AD

Friday, July 11, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1304- What the?

This might not seem like the most exciting photo I've ever posted, but it interests me for two reasons. I took it at Pompeii last summer, when much of the site was closed, which might explain why I was looking this closely at what was open. First off, the shift in color from red on top to yellow at the bottom- it's caused by the heat cooking the yellow pigment into a red (same as how yellow Raw Sienna is turned to red Burnt Sienna). What's curious is that the yellow is on the bottom part- this is because the room was partly filled with ash, which insulated the paint, before an influx of extremely hot gases burned the upper part.

The second aspect that interests me here is the perfectly straight lines. Anyone who has done line work will tell you it's not easy to make lines like these- even, spaced perfectly, and dead straight (they didn't have masking tape back then!) Especially when the medium is (thought to have been) a waxy encaustic paint on a vertical plaster surface. I would sure like to know more about how this was done! Seen it on ceilings too, which to me seems close to impossible.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1303- Pompeii revisited

Those of you who were reading the blog last year ( as I was taking these shots know that I was pretty bitter the day we visited Pompeii, because of all the closures. I guess the lack of funding has finally reached a crisis point where they have just decided to lock up huge areas, including whole streets, from viewing.

Nevertheless there were some choice bits that were still on view, like this detail of a gryphon from the Stabian Baths. I'd be curious to hear from anyone who's going (or has already been) there this summer as to how it's looking and how much of it is closed.

Fresco of a gryphon in the Stabian Bath at Pompeii

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Pic o' the Day #1302- How I do what I do part two

Last summer I took 10,500 photos of Italy, 99% of which were pictures of painting and architecture (I'm not very good about snapping people!) It's very time consuming and pretty distracting - especially if you're trying to absorb the atmosphere of the place at the same time. Nevertheless, I find it exhilarating, and it compels me to keep moving even when it's boiling hot and humid, and I haven't had food or drink in hours.

I thought I'd take a minute here to talk about my methods, since it is a fairly challenging photographic assignment, and one at which most artists are not very good.

First off, equipment. I don't usually bring my big noisy SLR camera with me- it's just too bulky and attention grabbing when photos are prohibited. I have found that my long zoom Nikon S9100 gets the job done pretty well in most situations. There's a newer version now- the S9700- that has even longer zoom (30x) and higher resolution, and you can pick one up for less than $300. With the camera lens retracted (turned off) it slips in my pocket easily, it has most of the controls I would wish for (other than manual focus, which would be nice,) and it can be set to total silence (nice when shooting in stealth mode). If I had loads of cash (I don't!) I'd probably get one of those shutterless mini-cams too. They are silent and smaller than an SLR, but have better optics and controls than the compact cam.

The biggest challenge I usually face is the lighting; most of the old buildings with painted walls are not very well lit, and often the details I'm interested in are high up or far away, meaning using zoom, which cuts down even more on the available light. So there's a few strategies to cope with this. Flash is not allowed in almost all of these places, and it is a very obvious giveaway if you use it. I do sometimes use it in remote places where there is no lighting at all, like some of the houses at Pompeii. Flash creates problems of its own with reflections on shiny surfaces, and it only works up to about 12 feet away anyways, so it's of limited use. Most of the time I manually set the camera to "no flash", using one of the outside controls.

Longer exposures allow more light into the camera, but they also mean the camera must be held still, and since tripods are not allowed in most sites, I often put the camera on some fixed object- a wall, column, or rail; preferably something that is not painted, so as to avoid adding to the damage that time has wrought on these fragile places. I am also accustomed to standing very still, holding my arms at my sides, and holding my breath when I take a hand held image. You can hold a small camera steady down to about 1/10th of a second- below that you are risking motion blurriness.

So how else can you keep from blurring? What happens if you leave a camera on fully auto is that it will want to expose to an average light amount, meaning that it will leave the lens open until it gets enough light to satisfy the sensors. If the room is dark, that means it will leave the lens open a long time, meaning there is more danger of blurring. The first thing I try is to manually decrease the exposure index, a feature which many cameras - even cheaper compacts- include in their controls. This means the camera will shoot faster, meaning less light, so the image will be darker, but I then adjust that using Photoshop after I have downloaded to the computer. I don't usually shoot in RAW mode (I probably should) because it takes a lot of memory to do so, but it does allow for even more exposure adjustment after the picture is taken. You'd be amazed at how much hidden information can be in a digital file just waiting to be coaxed out with a photo editing program.

The other option for increasing the amount of light available to the camera is to raise the ISO number, which you can do through the menu of most inexpensive cameras. This essentially makes the sensor more sensitive, meaning faster exposures, but it also increases somewhat the amount of digital "noise" the camera will pick up, so you have to be a bit judicious with it. If I was going into a very low lit place and didn't think i'd have much chance to balance my camera against some fixed object, this is what I would use. Otherwise I usually set the ISO on auto and use the exposure index to give me a quicker shutter speed.

One tricky factor with balancing your camera against some fixed element is that you often get strange angles and intruding bits in your shot. This is where familiarity with Photoshop (or another photo editing program) comes in handy. Photoshop has a very nice feature in its cropping mode that allows you to compensate for perspective distortion, essentially allowing you to pull the corners of the cropping box into whatever shape you choose to make the subject squared up. It can only go so far before you get distortion of the image, but it's very handy for squaring up an image of something that is high on the wall, or taken at an angle to avoid reflections.

Here's an example of a shot before and after I made adjustments in Photoshop:

Here's the original shot, taken from an angle to avoid reflections of the natural light, and dark because I had suppressed the exposure index (and because it was a rainy dark day too.)
Here's the after: I straightened out the angles using the "Crop" tool in Photoshop, including checking the "perspective" box so that I could adjust for the off angle of the shot. Then I used the "Levels" control to adjust the light and color of the image. I also used the "Unsharp Mask" filter, which actually sharpens the image without distorting it too much.