The mistaken belief is still widespread that ancient painting was crudely primitive, and that naturalistic painting appeared for the first time when the Madonnas of Cimabue and Giotto relaxed a little from their medieval stiffness. To anyone who holds this belief, a trip to Naples will be a revelation. For the latest and greatest stage of ancient painting, one must go to Rome itself. But here at Naples (in the National Museum) the collection of Roman pictures is much larger, and shows a greater variety of different styles..
Most of the examples here were made as wallfrescoes in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Fortunately (from our view-point at least) they were buried suddenly but gently under ashes in the eruption of 79 A.D., thus escaping more thorough destruction in the long decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Most Pompeian art was probably made by imported Greek artists, or in direct imitation of Greek art. But the great native works of Greek naturalistic painting (by Zeuxis and Apelles) are lost; so it is hard to say how much, if any, improvement on them was made by Roman artists, or by later Greeks on Roman soil. However, disregarding all questions of chronology and credit due, it is possible to arrange the works preserved here in order of the complexity of pictorial form which they reveal.
(1) Relatively simple are two paintings in cinnabar on marble, representing Theseus Delivering Hippodamia from the Centaur and Women Playing with Astragali. These are little more than monochrome line drawings, very similar to those on late Greek vases. Shadows are barely indicated in the former, but the outlines skillfully suggest muscular solidity and rhythmic gesture. No depth is suggested except in the overlapping of limbs to show that one is in front of another. (the Pasiphae at Rome, is a more broadly executed example of this type.)
(2) The second type includes the large majority of surviving Roman paintings. It is essentially an imitation of sculpture, with a few distinctively pictorial elements added; Except for -differences in medium and subject-matter, this type corresponds on the whole to Florentine painting in- the middle of the fifteenth century: in particular to the work of Verrocchio. The figures are strongly modelled- by naturalistic cast shadows. They are statuesquely draped or nude, with limbs and muscles accurately and emphatically rounded. Postures are animated, but often inclined to be rather pompously affected, or gently graceful, in the manner of Hellenistic sculpture. (Compare the statues in this museum.) The principal figures stand out with unnatural sharpness from their backgrounds. Colors and textures emphasize naturalism rather than decorative pattern, but as a rule are too hard, superficial and monotonous to be either rich or deeply realistic. There are fairly convincing glows of bright sunshine, but no subtle blends to form an atmosphere.
Pictures of this general type show much individual difference. In some, late Greek statues are almost exactly copied, with only flesh-tints added. (E.g., The Three Graces.) There is little or no depth in these : either a plain black or red wall surrounds the figures, or there is a slight hint of rocks or flowers just behind them. Some Pompeian decorations of this type (e.g., Bacchante and Flora are very delicately modelled, with filmy drapery well suggested in light pastel tints of lavender and yellow.
In others of the same general type the composition and coloring are more complex than would be possible in sculpture, and space is a little deeper. There are many figures, at different distances, going back some ten or twenty feet into imaginary space. At that distance are sunlit walls in fairly accurate perspective, trees and horses as well as people. They are painted more broadly than the ones nearby, and often further dimmed with colorful mists of pale: violet or green, to give a sense of intervening atmosphere. The famous mosaic of The Battle of Alexander, probably copied from a Greek painting, comes under this heading. It is a finely organized design of long straight lances and irregular flowing curves, anticipating similar designs by Uccello, Velazquez (The Lances) and Rembrandt (The Night Watch). In addition, it is a remarkable piece of action-drawing, vividly expressing the shock and tumult of battle.
THESEUS AFTER KILLING THE MINOTAUR is more typical: a simpler group, quite static, and composed in a fashion that has since become conventional. It has a large central mass and smaller masses balancing it on either side, with a few small parallel curves to vary it. The hero’s statuesque body stands out too sharply and with eyes too staring to be natural, in dark bronze against a sunlit wall. The minor figures are made lighter and less distinct, against dark walls, thus reversing the other contrast. As a design of masses, it is much weaker than Giotto’s or Duccio’s best. Compared to the Odyssey series at Rome space is still shallow, and the group at right is a little huddledcharacteristics common in Giotto and Duccio. But the softly tinted, atmospheric haze which dims the farther figures, the realistic sunlight which floods the background, the individuality of the rounded faces, and the bodily realism of the hero, lightly poised on his feet (as in Masaccio) are all qualities of Italian Renaissance painting, laboriously redeveloped fourteen centuries after this was painted.
Exquisite details, more strongly unified as design while equally naturalistic, are to be found in other paintings of this type: for example in HERCULES’ SON SUCKLED BY THE HIND (Fig. 39, No. 9008). The bodies of animal and child, slender and plumply rounded, gracefully curved and angular, flow together in a firm elliptical pattern against a flat background. On this essentially sculptural basis the painter’s art appears in the varied tints and textures, all soft and realistic, done in broad simple strokes. The farther limbs are set back in space by a pale opalescent haze. Unfortunately, this detail (like others of its kind) is part of a large, badly composed and vulgarly over-decorated composition, most of it done in a different brush-stroke as if some tasteless Roman painter had copied it from a Greek original, or some good Greek artist had painted in only this detail. It is in such stray vestiges, perhaps, that we can catch a glimpse of the lost Greek art of painting.
(3) The third and last type, in which painting has entirely ceased to imitate sculpture, and works purely in its own terms, is illustrated in the LANDSCAPE WITH FIGURES (Rm. VI). No muscular, statuesque bodies now dominate the scene. Deep space, filled with rich atmosphere compounded of light and color (the Venetian rediscovery many centuries later) now constitutes the basis of form. It is still rendered in a dry thin fresco medium, lacking the power and subtlety of Venetian oils, and it passes over surface details with less realism of texture. But in other essential respects its world of visual imagery is akin to that of Carpaccio, Claude Lorrain and even the modern impressionists. The technique is extremely broad, rough and sketchy; not crudely so, but with deliberate, quick simplification, comparable to that in landscapes by Tintoretto, Manet and the Sung Chinese.
The scene goes back, not a few feet, but across a wide river to a distant shore and hilltop. Unlike pure impressionist landscape, it is definitely organized by rhythms of mass and space. Its main division is into two diagonal halves: the lower left including the foreground; the upper right the middle and background. In proportion to distance, these are progressively lighter and vaguer, more obscured in a sunny mist of pale opalescent tints, blended rather sketchily through laying thin films of color, one above another, in broad strokes. The mist is nowhere dense enough to confuse the piled-up colonnades and roofs whose straight lines constitute the chief repeated theme. In a zig-zag of angles, one moves into space from the woman and girl silhouetted in the fore-ground, up to the left along a diagonal rod which one of them carries, to a group of figures on a platform. The straight rods they are carrying point upward to the right, as do the wavy branches of the tree. From the tripod in lower right another long rod, steps and roof-top repeat this zig-zag, a little deeper into space. The long diagonals of a colonnaded pier lead us out over the water to the distant shore, which mounts in an angular hilltop. Linear perspective is quite adequate for the purpose, though not exact. Cast shadows, too, are used without literal exactness, whenever needed to rein-force the movement of lines and planes. The silhouetting of light and dark planes against each other brings the foreground rhythms into strong, clear emphasis.
All these effects, sought after with great difficulty by modern painting, are achieved with such casual brusqueness that one may guess this to be a quick sketch, by some artist who had acquired assurance through long previous work along similar lines. Of the same general type as the Odyssey series at Rome, it is obviously by another hand.
[In the National Museum there is also a large gallery of modern paintings (the Pinacoteca). With a very few exceptions, such as Titian’s Dana, in Room XXIV, these are mediocre.]