Roman Wall Painting and the Art of Vision

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Molacek, Elizabeth, History of Art and Architecture - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Dobbins, John, McIntire Department of Art, University of Virginia

This study uncovers ways in which the Roman fascination with the sense of sight is translated into its visual culture. The dissertation has two main goals: to examine the pictorial language of internal viewer-figures in mythological wall paintings from ca. AD 20-79 and suggest ways in which these representations interacted with their audience, provoking, stimulating, or initiating reactions. Although the presence of and emphasis on internal gazes in Roman paintings has been repeatedly noted in prior scholarship, this motif has occupied a marginal place in the wider study of wall painting, which has focused primarily on the representation of supernumerary, or spectator figures, as compositional signposts. This study departs from earlier work in examining multiple types of viewers and treating these motifs as more than meaningless formal elements. An iconographic approach is used to look at the behavior, context, and gestures of the internal audience to identify and distinguish different types of viewers while concurrent cultural notions of vision help inform the potential reception of these images. Drawing from both art historical evidence and ancient scientific theory on optics and catoptrics, the analysis offers further insight into how Romans visualized different ways of seeing and potentially interacted with these representations.

Representations of sight and viewing experience are found in a variety of mythological scenes and the accompanying catalogue includes over 200 examples. Based on the evidence, there appear to be three overarching motifs: spectators; reflections, mirrors, and the figures who look at them; and lovers. Each of these motifs is distinguished by a formulaic iconography including gesture, relationship with other figures, and physical position within the composition. In addition, the motifs are discussed in relation to the contemporary scientific theories of optics and cultural traditions of spectatorship to suggest ways in which these internal figures may act as more than compositional signposts. In accordance with the first century AD trend towards more active spectators as well as the noted popularity of tactile, physical vision, one can argue that the painted internal viewers, reflections, and lovers offer different modes of meaning for the external viewer not connected to mythological narrative. Based on this conclusion, the wall paintings and the motif of internal viewers signal new methods of visual communication which blur the divide between painting and viewer, virtual and real space.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Rome, Roman, Pompeii, wall painting, fresco, vision, gaze, mirror, reflection, Italy, spectators, viewers, myth, visual culture, optics
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