CHAPTER V: THE DECADENCE OF FRESCO PAINTING
1. FOR the other apartments, that is, those intended to be used in Spring, Autumn, and Summer, as well as for atriums and peristyles, the ancients required realistic pictures of real things. A picture is, in fact, a representation of a thing which really exists or which can exist: for example, a man, a house, a ship, or anything else from whose definite and actual structure copies resembling it can be taken. Consequently the ancients who introduced polished finishings began by representing different kinds of marble slabs in different positions, and then cornices and blocks of yellow ochre arranged in various ways.
2. Afterwards they made such progress as to represent the forms of buildings, and of columns, and projecting and overhanging pediments; in their open rooms, such as exedrae, on account of the size, they depicted the facades of scenes in the tragic, comic, or satyric style; and their walks, on account of the great length, they decorated with a variety of landscapes, copying the characteristics of definite spots. In these paintings there are harbours, promontories, seashores, rivers, fountains, straits, fanes, groves, mountains, flocks, shepherds; in some places there are also pictures designed in the grand style, with figures of the gods or detailed mythological episodes, or the battles at Troy, or the wanderings of Ulysses, with landscape backgrounds, and other subjects reproduced on similar principles from real life.
3. But those subjects which were copied from actual realities are scorned in these days of bad taste. We now have fresco paintings of monstrosities, rather than truthful representations of definite things. For instance, reeds are put in the place of columns, fluted appendages with curly leaves and volutes, instead of pediments, candelabra supporting representations of shrines, and on top of their pediments numerous tender stalks and volutes growing up from the roots and having human figures senselessly seated upon them; sometimes stalks having only half-length figures, some with human heads, others with the heads of animals.
4. Such things do not exist and cannot exist and never have existed. Hence, it is the new taste that has caused bad judges of poor art to prevail over true artistic excellence. For how is it possible that a reed should really support a roof, or a candelabrum a pediment with its ornaments, or that such a slender, flexible thing as a stalk should support a figure perched upon it, or that roots and stalks should produce now flowers and now half-length figures? Yet when people see these frauds, they find no fault with them but on the contrary are delighted, and do not care whether any of them can exist or not. Their understanding is darkened by decadent critical principles, so that it is not capable of giving its approval authoritatively and on the principle of propriety to that which really can exist. The fact is that pictures which are unlike reality ought not to be approved, and even if they are technically fine, this is no reason why they should offhand be judged to be correct, if their subject is lacking in the principles of reality carried out with no violations.
5. For instance, at Tralles, Apaturius of Alabanda designed with skilful hand the scaena of the little theatre which is there called the ἐκκλησιαστήριον representing columns in it and statues, Centaurs supporting the architraves, rotundas with round roofs on them, pediments with overhanging returns, and cornices ornamented with lions' heads, which are meant for nothing but the rainwater from the roofs,—and then on top of it all he made an episcaenium in which were painted rotundas, porticoes, half-pediments, and all the different kinds of decoration employed in a roof. The effect of high relief in this scaena was very attractive to all who beheld it, and they were ready to give their approval to the work, when Licymnius the mathematician came forward and said that
(6.) the Alabandines were considered bright enough in all matters of politics, but that on account of one slight defect, the lack of the sense of propriety, they were believed to be unintelligent. “In their gymnasium the statues are all pleading causes, in their forum, throwing the discus, running, or playing ball. This disregard of propriety in the interchange of statues appropriate to different places has brought the state as a whole into disrepute. Let us then beware lest this scaena of Apaturius make Alabandines or Abderites of us. Which of you can have houses or columns or extensive pediments on top of his tiled roof? Such things are built above the floors, not above the tiled roofs. Therefore, if we give our approval to pictures of things which can have no reason for existence in actual fact, we shall be voluntarily associating ourselves with those communities which are believed to be unintelligent on account of just such defects.”
7. Apaturius did not venture to make any answer, but removed the scaena, altered it so that it conformed to reality, and gave satisfaction with it in its improved state. Would to God that Licymnius could come to life again and reform the present condition of folly and mistaken practices in fresco painting! However, it may not be out of place to explain why this false method prevails over the truth. The fact is that the artistic excellence which the ancients endeavoured to attain by working hard and taking pains, is now attempted by the use of colours and the brave show which they make, and expenditure by the employer prevents people from missing the artistic refinements that once lent authority to works.
8. For example, which of the ancients can be found to have used vermilion otherwise than sparingly, like a drug? But today whole walls are commonly covered with it everywhere. Then, too, there is malachite green, purple, and Armenian blue. When these colours are laid on, they present a brilliant appearance to the eye even although they are inartistically applied, and as they are costly, they are made exceptions in contracts, to be furnished by the employer, not by the contractor. I have now sufficiently explained all that I could suggest for the avoidance of mistakes in stucco work. Next, I shall speak of the components as they occur to me, and first I shall treat of marble, since I spoke of lime at the beginning.