Monday, December 28, 2009

A delightful style of decorating walls

For my last post of the decade I'm going to discuss some words of the writer who provided my nom de blog, 'Plinius'.  In his Natural History, Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder) mentions many artists, but the nearest he gets to discussing landscape art is in Book XXXV:  'Nor must I neglect Studius, a painter of the days of Augustus, who introduced a delightful style of decorating walls with representations of villas, harbours, landscape gardens, sacred groves, woods, hills, fishponds, straits, streams and shores, any scene in short that took the fancy.'  He then describes some of the people included in these scenes - often humorously depicted.  'He also brought in the fashion of painting seaside towns on the walls of open galleries, producing a delightful effect at a very small cost.'  But for Pliny such frescoes were not the business of great painters (the celebrated Apelles had no wall paintings in his house).  No artists 'enjoy a real glory unless they have painted easel pictures' (something for this year's Turner Prize winner, Richard Wright, to think about!)

This short text is all we know about Studius, but Roger Ling published an interesting article back in 1977, in the Journal of Roman Studies, that tried to infer more about the kind of paintings he could have been responsible for ('Studius and the Beginnings of Roman Landscape Painting').  Ling begins by discounting some landscape-related genres that don't seem to correspond to Pliny's description: (1) mythological landscape as in the famous 'Odyssey landscapes' of the Esquiline; (2) the beautiful, naturalistic garden painting in the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta; (3) architectural illustration, as in the bedroom of the villa at Boscoreale; or (4) details of rustic shrines like those in the Palatine's Room of the Masks. He then argues against the view that Studius focused on 'villa landscapes', in contrast to the more pastoral scenes which seem to be described in the brief reference Vitruvius makes to landscape painting: 'in corridors because of the length of the surface they created decorations with varieties of landscape, drawing images from specific characteristics of places; for they paint harbours, promontories, shores, rivers, springs, canals, shrines, groves, mountains, cattle, shepherds.'  By looking at the available physical evidence, Ling concludes that Studius must have painted landscapes that could fit both the descriptions of Vitruvius and Pliny, and that the latter discussed him specifically because he had brought 'to perfection' peopled architectural landscape wall-painting in the Augustan period.

Painted landscape from the Red Room, Villa of Agrippa Postumus, Boscotrecase

Ling discusses three sites which could contain the kind of landscape painting Studius was renowned for, and even suggests that they could be the work of Studius himself or his workshop.  These are
  • The Yellow Frieze in the House of Livia, Rome, which has architecture and figures corresponding to the kind of scene described by Pliny
  • Certain panels and vault decorations in the Farnesina house, in which Ling detects 'Studian echoes', e.g. 'whimsical figures like the woman leaning disconsolately against a wall'
  • Landscape panels in the Boscotrecase villa's Red Room, with another humorous detail: a shepherd talking to hs dog.    
His article concludes by attempting to characterise the landscape style of Studius.  The paintings were above all 'charming', blending everyday life with exotic settings.  They have a relatively realistic treatment of distance, without employing linear perspective, and the figures are quite small, although larger than they would be in real life.  The paintings deploy a range of colour effects but tend to have a restricted palette and the brushwork appears to be relatively quick and sketchy.  Of course a lot of this is deliberately speculative; and looking for the real Studius is perhaps as fruitless as searching for the real Homer or the real Odysseus...  But I'd be interested to know if any more recent scholarship has shed further light on Pliny's brief description of the mysterious Studius.

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