Sculpture vs. Painting

Note: this post has been amended and expanded since first posted.

I spend most of my time on this blog “curating” content from around the web and, at times, from my personal collection of images and observations about the relationship of Projection Systems to everyday experience. From time to time, I would rather use this blog as a space to conjecture and even ponder out loud some questions about my chosen field of inquiry. So here goes:

Agrippa c 25BC

Bust of Agrippa, circa 25BC

I took the above photo in the Louvre, and it is standard fare for those of us who have spent a lifetime going to museums containing antiquities. Countless examples of the artistry of the Roman period, showing emperors and nobles, slaves and generals, typically heraldic poses or as dramatic busts. We’ve seen them carved from stone, cast in metals (usually bronze), and studied in plaster and terracotta. That they are 2000 years old does not generally seem to phase us, as there are thousands of prime examples in collections around the world. Some are more famous, such as the statue of Augustus Caesar as warrior (see below), some are less so, and are just examples of the sculpting skills of the times.

Augustus Caesar, striking his familiar pose.

Augustus Caesar, striking his familiar pose.

Bust of a Patrician (nobleman), circa 50BC.

Bust of a Patrician (nobleman), circa 50BC.

While those of us who study perspective and projection in general focus on the major achievements of the 15th century, notably Brunelleschi, Alberti, and Piero della Francesca, as well as the proto-perspectival spaces from Giotto to the Renaissance, we don’t seem to find incongruity with the parallel skill in sculpture. Most casual students of perspective have been taught that for the 5000 years of recorded history up to Brunelleschi (around 1425) there was no “perspective” per se, no geometric rules governing the apparent effects of vision: horizon, vanishing point, and convergence of parallel lines. We know this not to be exactly true, as Ptolemy showed in his Geographia of about 190AD that using projector lines that converge can help organize geographic information. Ptolemy was acting as a cartographer, but the projection technology is the same.

Implicit in the standard history is that there was something amiss with the pre-Renaissance artists, that they were not savvy enough to invent delineation in the service of verisimilitude. But we know that the projection technology predates the Renaissance (although some may have been lost in the Middle Ages). This leads me to wonder if the paradigm for perspective was not desired until then. It is plausible that the expectations of a viewer prior to the quattrocento are just different than those exposed to Brunelleschi’s perspective*. And the major case for this is the incredible skill in ancient (Roman and Greek) sculpture. The subtlety in muscle tone, facial expressions, and precision in proportion far exceeds the apparent skills of the contemporary painters. For if the three-dimensional arts were highly capable of verisimilitude, then why is painting of the era flat and cartoonish? Clearly there is desire for realism in sculpture, but maybe not in painting. Not only does there seem to be some evidence of linear perspective in Pompeiian frescos (see below), but there must have also been devices to help the sculptor make such high-quality likenesses. The technological capabilities of the Romans are well documented, so is it really likely that they did not figure out perspective? They used incredible projection skills to lay out entire cities, navigate the seas, plan engineering feats such as the aqueducts. The only logical answer is that there must be some cultural biases creeping in here. Just as early archeologists denounced Greek planning because all the 19th century person could imagine as “organized” was a grid, and the Acropolis is not based on that system, we seem to place emphasis on the Renaissance paradigm of linear perspective at the risk of misunderstanding the visual paradigms of previous millennia.

Pompeii frescoes, circa 50BC

Pompeii frescoes, circa 50BC. The figures are competent but lack detail and modeling from light and shadow. This may be a product of the medium, as frescoes are wet plaster that must be pigmented before drying. Artists would have had to work fast.

Boscoreale fresco, 43-30BC. Perspectival projection reminiscent of early perspective trials by Mantegna and Uccello, only 1400 years earlier.

Boscoreale fresco, 43-30BC. Perspectival projection reminiscent of early perspective trials by Masaccio and Piero della Francesca, only 1400 years earlier**.

Consider the below comparison: Roman fresco and Roman sculpture, made within decades of each other, and work made 1500 years later by Michelangelo. Clearly sculpture has not drastically changed, but painting made incredible strides to look like something else (more “realistic”, for lack of a better term).


Pompeii, House of Gavius Rufus, mid-first century AD.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Study for The Creation of Adam, before 1508.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Study for The Creation of Adam, before 1508.


Laocoon and His Sons, circa 45-20 BC

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Moses, for the Tomb of Pope Julius II, 1513-1515.

Michelangelo Buonarroti, Moses, for the Tomb of Pope Julius II, 1513-1515.

The other curious fact is that while sculpture retained its focus on verisimilitude from the Romans to the 19th century, and painting would take 1500 more years to achieve parallel results, sculpture before the Roman period was equally uninterested in lifelike representation. Consider the Etruscan sculptures below that predate the Roman sculptures described at the top of this post by around 300 years:

etruscan girl 400-300BC

The leap may not be in skill, as is sometimes presumed, but in a desired visual paradigm. “Eyeballing” both painting and sculpture in pre-Roman days was a satisfactory method, where a degree of interpretation or abstraction was accepted into the visual vocabulary. At some point, Roman artists became both capable of and interested in rendering life-like sculpture. And to show that this was commonplace, consider these busts of Caracalla, presumably by different hands, but all contemporary (made during his tenure as emperor):

caracalla 2Caracalla215caracalla_montemartini.JPGcaracalla_sqlarge

Each of these captures the subtlety of expression, the grimacing brow, the pursing of lips. There is little abstraction here, and the fidelity is so high that upon seeing one of these in a museum you would instantly recognize him from having seen him before in another collection, much as you would recognize a person you know. The liberties taken with painting make identification of persons at times difficult, as we recognize people from those subtle features and expressions, which are very difficult to replicate in 2D.

Painting seems to have not shared that interest or, possibly, that capability. In the 1500s, painting benefitted, almost simultaneously, from the proliferation of linear perspective, devices that aid in the drawing of that perspective, as well as lenses, mirrors, and other optical instruments that could project an image onto a surface to trace***. These techniques all share a common recipe: creating a picture plane, an imaginary sheet onto which elements of a 3D scene is projected onto this screen. Imagine a tree outside your window as the sun is cast through the branches and foliage onto your window shade. The 3D data is caught by your shade as a 2D drawing. This is the essential paradigm shift that occurred when projective methods were introduced to art and architecture, making them more “real”.

So did painting not realize this method until the Renaissance? We know, from Pliny the Elder Ancient Roman historian, and other sources, that projection was well known at the time. In fact, his “Origin of Painting” is the tale of a woman tracing her lover’s shadow onto the wall to remember him as he goes off to war (umbram ex facie eius ad lucernam in pariete lineis circumscripsit)****. Why did painting not evolve using this method? And conversely, did sculpture learn some techniques to copy from life with such fidelity? And did that technique become the manner of the day while painting was satisfied in its pictorial style? Whatever the reason, there is a 1500-year span where painting accepts as its mandate a form of depiction and, consequently, detachment from verisimilitude while sculpture strived for high fidelity we are familiar with today.



*Click here for examples of early Renaissance linear perspective from Masaccio and Piero della Francesca.

**I am struck by a present-day parallel, as cinema explores ever-increasing complexity and fidelity using digital effects. The apparent fidelity of digital effects, and, for that matter, all cinema special effects, is short lived. Effects from 10 or 15 years ago were impressive at the time, only to be surpassed by evolving technology. What also evolves is the audience. I distinctly remember the impression a film like Terminator 2 made, with its morphing “liquid metal” terminator. Looking back, it is not as impressive 17 years later. The change in ability also changes the viewer’s expectations of what is acceptable.

***For a more detailed argument about optical devices in the history of painting, see David Hockney, Secret Knowledge

****For more on the origin of painting, see Smith, Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities.


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