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The Skenographia Project: Investigating Roman Wall Paintings through Digital Visualisation

Despite the extensive research focused for over two centuries upon Roman wall paintings, in certain ways they still represent a vast, inadequately exploited source of knowledge. In recent years, research in this area has increasingly turned from formalist analyses of style and influence, to the study of these paintings in their architectural settings and as part of a complex cultural interplay of signs through which aesthetic, social, cultural, and economic values were produced and negotiated (e.g. Gazda (ed.), Roman Art in the Private Sphere, 1991).

However, one important area of investigation has remained relatively neglected, namely: research from a theatre-historical perspective. On the one hand, the paintings offer a great deal of evidence for ancient theatre practice; a certain amount of work has been carried out in this area, but a great deal more needs to be done. On the other hand, little or no scholarly attention had been given to analysing how modes of spectatorship associated with the theatre may have influenced the design, display and reception of these insistently theatrical domestic paintings. In what is otherwise a vibrant and dynamic field of academic enquiry into the period in question and its cultural products, these were critical lacunae in contemporary scholarly discourse, and as such deserved urgent attention.

From a very early date, as Aristotle attests (Poetics 1449a), scenic painting—skenographia—was a constituent element of Greek theatrical performance. In the temporary stages recorded as having been built in Rome from about the 3rd century BC well into the Imperial period, and in Roman permanent stages, skenographia employed highly sophisticated perspectival techniques which were designed subtly to modulate between reality and illusion in a variety of ways. For a largely illiterate Roman populace, theatrical performances provided a shared, mythological language which could be adapted to send and receive ideologically- and politically- coded messages in public under the guise of seemingly innocuous “festive entertainment.” Performers, popular audiences and the political elite became increasingly sophisticated at reading and manipulating this symbolic, lingua franca, and freely deployed its codes in other public fora, such as triumphs, funerals, and in circus games (see Beacham, 1999). Although this language increasingly permeated public discourse in these and other ways, we contend that, as the primary, popular, institutional locus of symbolic representation as such, the theatre remained the most important medium through which this shared, symbolic language was negotiated and refined in Roman culture of this period. Consequently, if we are to understand the complex aesthetic-ideological codes operative during Rome’s decisive transition from Republic to Empire, we must study how this language was aesthetically and performatively constructed in the theatre. The wall paintings can enable us to do so.

Through illusionistic confabulations of real and imagined spaces, skenographia played with the borders between reality and illusion, thus establishing the aesthetic—and thereby ideological—“frame” for this public language. Indeed, skenographia was directly and explicitly implicated in these aesthetico-political discourses by contemporaneous Roman commentators such as Vitruvius and Pliny the Elder. Theatrical skenographia is therefore a prime site for scholarly attention. But of the many temporary stages that, according to Vitruvius (5.5.7), were constructed each year at Rome, none survives; and the permanent stage facades (scaenarum frontes) that do remain contain no trace of their temporary skenographic elements.

Fortunately, in De Architectura 7.5.2, Vitruvius reports that Roman artists depicted these scaenarum frontes on the walls of Roman villas and townhouses. The eruption of 79AD preserved numerous such examples in the Vesuvian region, particularly in Pompeii and Herculaneum; a small handful of instances from elsewhere offer invaluable comparanda, e.g. the House of Augustus in Rome. These domestic adaptations of a public, theatrical art-form, then, represent an extraordinarily rich resource for the type of theatre-historical research conducted here.

However, prior studies of these paintings were hampered by the difficulty of determining and graphically representing different layers of depiction within the paintings. This was partly due to the illusionistic complexity of skenographic technique, but partly too, to the equally complex illusionism of the actual stage buildings they may be depicting: both temporary and permanent stage buildings included elaborate mixtures of real and painted architecture, and additional painted sets and embellishment (panels, trompe l’oeil effects etc.; cf. Vitruvius 7.5.5). It is thus readily apparent how difficult it is for the contemporary viewer to distinguish which elements of a given wall painting represent (i) painted illusionistic elements that may have been formed part of the decoration of ancient temporary stage sets, (ii) the actual physical architectonic structure of the stages themselves, or (iii) other illusionistic elements within the composition of the wall painting itself. In all this, of course, the interpreter’s difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that, unlike a Roman viewer, we have never seen the “real” scaenarum frontes from which, as Vitruvius notes, these paintings are often derived.

With the assistance of substantial grants from the Nuffield Foundation and the Getty Museum, Richard Beacham attempted physically to reconstruct two full-scale replicas of Roman temporary stages directly based on the evidence of specific wall paintings: “the Room of the Masks” from the House of Augustus in Rome, and Room 23 from the Villa of Oplontis, near Pompeii. These sets incorporated a system of movable painted scenery, also derived from the evidence of the wall paintings and ancient literary sources. In both cases, highly successful productions of ancient plays were staged upon the sets, empirically demonstrating for the first time that the wall paintings could indeed be used as evidence for workable ancient temporary stages.

This research produced many valuable insights and contributed to an evolving scholarly consensus that these paintings do indeed depict stage sets; a view previously hotly disputed (see e.g. Engemann, 1967, or Cerutti, and Richardson, 1989). However, this inordinately costly and labour-intensive process is not readily available to the numerous scholars in art history, cultural studies, classics, architecture and archaeology attempting to address the intriguing challenges presented by these provocative and unique paintings, and their environments. Meanwhile, the nature of the evidence for ancient skenographia and stage architecture provided by most of the paintings—which, in many cases are more complex illusionistic compositions—remained relatively un-explored.

These and other limitations can now be overcome by computer-aided, 3D visualisation. Both the ancient technique—skenographia—and the modern one of digital 3D modelling undertake the perspectival depiction of architectural structures: it was consequently a natural progression to conjoin them to extend our understanding of ancient stages. In doing so, not only did we learn much about the structures depicted in the paintings, but the detailed and analytic process required also revealed much that was not well-understood about the nature of the perspectival techniques employed by the ancient artists, and how these techniques influenced choices about the display (and viewing) of the works within their ancient architectural settings. Questions such as the relationship between painted artificial architecture and the actual architectonic qualities of the ambient domestic space; the manner in which sumptuous theatricalised décor may have been fashioned to evoke forms of public architecture to aid the Roman patron in the projection of his dignitas; or the probable structural and scenic qualities of the real stage buildings whose influence the paintings are believed to reflect and record, could not begin to be addressed until the qualities of the three-dimensional formats the paintings had perspectivally represented (and how they did so) was better understood.

In the first instance, therefore, the Project investigated the skenographic wall paintings by using digital 3D visualisation to create three-dimensional models of the stage structures they seem to depict.

There was a second, major component to the proposed Project. Studies had shown how, due to the hierarchical and deeply allusive manner in which domestic spaces and décor were configured in Roman culture, it is essential to view paintings in their original architectural locations in order to understand the range of meanings they may have produced. In many cases, however, this was impossible, since the paintings have been dispersed to museums around the world or, destroyed, are now known only through graphic records. Digital modelling can reunite painting and place. By digitally reconstructing the rooms where the paintings were originally displayed, and restoring to them their decorative schemes, we were able to analyse the relationships between these rooms and paintings within the architectural ensemble of particular houses, and discuss how they may have been perceived and experienced by ancient spectators. For example, research by Beacham and Denard (informed by such work as Bek, 1982, and Ling, 1999) suggested that a computer-aided approach would be extremely revealing if applied to the analysis of dining-rooms (triclinia) and adjacent spaces and their décor in a number of houses, in particular: the House of Siricus (VII.1.25 & 47); the House of the Centenario (IX.8.3); the House of the Triclinium (V.2.4); and the House of Marcus Lucretius (IX.3.5).

Copy of a fresco from the House of M. Lucretius. Published in W. Zahn (1828-59)



Fresco from the House of Pinarius Cerialis, Pompeii. Photograph copyright Foglia 2007.



Roman temporary stage, reconstructed at the J.Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, based on fresco from Room 23 in the Villa at Oplontis.



3d digital visualisation by Martin Blazeby of "theatrical" architecture evoked in the fresco on the west wall of Room 23 of the Villa at Oplontis. Copyright King's College London 2007.



Digital restoration, by Drew Baker, of the frescoes in the atrium of the House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto at Pompeii. Copyright King's College London 2007.