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Nobilibus Pinacothecae Sunt Faciundae: The Inception of the Roman Fictive Picture Gallery

Nathaniel B. Jones
[Yale University]
David E. Finley Fellow, 2010–2013

In the middle of the first century BCE, Roman muralists began to place representations of independent works of art within their compositions. By the Augustan period and the decoration of the suburban estate known as the Villa della Farnesina, the depiction of fictive works of art set among illusionistically painted architectural forms was a dominant pictorial strategy in Roman frescoes. In two walls from cubiculum E of the Farnesina alone, fourteen fictive artworks are visible, not including representations of architectural sculpture. We may observe four statues resting on bases, six small rectangular white-ground panel paintings, two rectangular shuttered paintings, and two large, vertically oriented white-ground panel paintings, one in the center of each wall. In each composition, the fictive, independent works are supported and enframed by the representation of a modified and abstracted stage front, or scaenae frons, of a theater building.

The painted wall, in this room and others in the city of Rome and throughout Campania, became a staging point for the fictive picture art collection, dominated by the representation of panel painting. In such compositions, one level of mimetic rhetoric—the immersive illusion that the viewer stands inside a well-appointed, highly articulated large architectural space, rather than a small, painted room—is interrupted by a second level of mimetic rhetoric—the fictive panel painting. Every fictive panel bears its own representational content. Some show moments from the mythological tradition, others still lifes, genre scenes, erotic scenes, scenes of sacrifice, and even landscapes. But all are distinctly second-order fictions, paintings of paintings.

Traditional accounts of Roman wall painting have largely focused on questions of chronology, style, or iconography, although recent decades have seen increased interest in its social significance and its semiotic and literary qualities. My dissertation, conversely, centers on questions of format and modes of display. It seeks to understand how, in the course of the second half of the first century BCE, Roman wall painting was transformed from an art primarily engaged in the exploration of pictorial space into one primarily interested in the depiction of other kinds of art. On the one hand, the project investigates the compositional principles of paintings in the fictive picture gallery style and seeks to understand the pictorial logic that sustains them. On the other, it attempts to situate the murals within the larger context of artistic production, consumption, and display in Rome during the late republic and early empire. I examine paintings in the early fictive picture gallery style from the points of view of contemporary Roman attitudes to art, including religious, political, ethical, aesthetic, and historical discourses.

I also employ the paintings, in turn, as a lens through which other Roman cultural practices may be reevaluated. By incorporating the imitation of panel painting into the mural tradition of the first century BCE, the artists and patrons of these paintings folded a style of painting traditionally coded as Greek into one traditionally coded as Roman. This act of embedding, the dissertation seeks to demonstrate, gave the fictive picture gallery a role in the much more widespread reevaluation of the function of Greek culture in Roman life that was taking place in the late republic and early empire. Understood as part of a larger response to a social issue, the style achieves a socially significant dimension.

Equally important to the study are the complex connections between the  fictive picture gallery and the earlier history of Mediterranean art. The murals explored in my dissertation established a new tradition in Roman wall painting that would endure for more than a century, but they did so by self-consciously conceiving that tradition as a point of interaction with earlier painting practices. In the relations they stage between panel and mural, past and present, and authority and novelty, these murals reveal key facets of Roman artistic thought. Indeed, in the interpenetration of multiple modes of artistic presentation within a single medium, they figure fundamental aspects of the Romans’ conception of art’s very ontology. They both elucidate and interrogate the conditions of production and consumption regulating the ancient Roman art world. And in so doing, the project argues, the murals of the fictive picture gallery style reach beyond the normal confines of the visual arts to achieve the status of a theoretical discourse. Antiquity has left behind no treatise or disquisition dedicated solely to the visual arts. In the case of the fictive picture gallery, however, where writers were silent, painting finds its voice.

Center 33 (includes image not shown here)