SURFACE, SUGGESTION, AND SEEING THROUGH: VISUAL PERCEPTION AND THE SIGNIFICANCE OF OBJECTS DEPICTED IN ROMAN WALL PAINTING
O'Connell, Shana Doreen
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In this dissertation, I investigate the depiction of luxury objects in Roman wall paintings as emblematic and visually evocative of public spectacle and displays of art. In spite of their ubiquity in the paintings of a period that saw historic changes in the social and material culture of the Roman world, such objects have largely been studied only as a select corpus of illusionistically framed “still lifes” or subsumed into more general discussions. Through a diachronic analysis of exemplary objects—textiles, opaque and transparent vessels—I investigate how these depictions evoked their real counterparts through visualizations of material properties. In my first three chapters respectively, I closely analyze these paintings of objects and the optical effects that made them appeal—by means of vision—to a viewer’s sense of touch. Through a close reading of Latin and Greek sources on ekphrases in rhetorical training and its deployment in texts, I contextualize the phenomenon in ancient theories of argument, communication, and, above all, visualization. I argue that, in ancient painting, the detailed materiality of objects was the primary vehicle of enargeia, or vividness. Just as ancient authors describe the sparkle of metals or the lifelikeness of figures embroidered into textiles, painters produced these effects and ornaments in the paintings of all Four Styles, and both strove to make something material—an object, event, experience—present to their audience. The results of my study provide new insights into core problems in the study of Roman fresco and ancient art more broadly. Through my investigation I demonstrate how depictions of objects played an integral role in the creation of intersubjective meaning and shaped the visual experience of viewers. I argue that techniques of trompe l’oeil—founded not only on conceits of deception but also displays techne—provided a theoretical and aesthetic basis for the paintings’ address to viewers. This argument furthermore supports the identification of objects and materiality, as opposed to space, as the foundation of ancient systems of perspective. I argue that given these emphases and goals, ancient paintings often incorporated a balance of haptic and optic visual properties. Through my examination of a selection of depicted objects and ancient texts that provide insight into the generative process of representations and their reception, I develop a method of visual analysis that provides a better understanding of how Roman frescoes succeeded as seductive illusions. Both imitative and vivid, the paintings demonstrate their anonymous makers’ attention to perception and imagination in their success as convincing representations that connected elite Romans with the spectacles of public events, spaces, and displays of art.