Sunday, 22 March 2015

Where are you from?: fragments of frescoes and their spatial context

Archaeological Museum of Naples,
Fragments from the porticus of the Iseum.
The display has no relationships with the
original position in the building.
My idea to experiment with the Generic Viewer comes from two main things that caught my attention. The first one is that, according to its presentation, the Generic Viewer was meant to support projects like IBR in which inscriptions are considered not just as text, but as artefacts, and, more specifically, artefacts thought to be experienced in a particular space, interacting with other features and with the human behaviour in that space. 
The second one, is the potential use of the Generic Viewer not only as a digital model of the real space, but also as a virtual environment where is possible to test different hypotheses about the original position of some decorative features based on geometry, scholarly expertise, and visibility analysis.

Both things, for different reasons that I’m going to explain, reminded me of some of the issues I had encountered studying the artefacts found at the Iseum, and made me wonder if the Generic Viewer was really generic enough that its functions, although developed for epigraphists, could be extended to the study of ancient Pompeian frescoes. 
Moreover, the semantic annotations allowed by the Generic Viewer give me the opportunity to model the relationship between the artefacts, the architectural environment and their documentation all in RDF linked data (using, among others, a few elements of my ontology).

Of course, it would be too ambitious to show the results for the entire Iseum, so I had to pick a specific area. The most interesting one, in this respect, seems to be the ekklesiasterion (and that is the reason why it's the space we have prepared and textured in the Generic Viewer). Although there are other spaces of the Iseum that are rich in surviving artefacts and related documentation (e.g. the porticus), the ekklesiasterion is especially complex. Actually, sometimes 'complex' gets very close to 'pretty bizarre', even for Pompeian standards, bet let me introduce this story of artists, archaeologists, kings, engineers and scholars.

The Palace of Portici in 1745
From wikipedia
The frescoes on the walls of the ekkleasiasterion, as for many other Pompeian buildings, were almost intact when uncovered. Being the Iseum one of the first buildings dug up (1764), it was still very common, at the time, to remove the most eye catching bits of the frescoes (usually the figurative ones) and move them to the Palace of Portici. Everything else was just left in place, if not explicitly destroyed, to enhance the value of the king’s collection or because believed not worthy. Another issue was that the pieces of frescoes stripped off were transported via narrow tunnels dug into the excavation site, so there was no practical means, at the time, to transport anything too big.

Considering what happened (and what is still happening) to the frescoes that have been left in place, we should be happy that some of them have been removed and can now be seen and studied in in the Museum of Naples (or elsewhere). However, we now have only fragments, singularly framed as independent pieces of art and exhibited outside their spatial context (the building) and regardless the relationship with the other parts of the decorative pattern. 
Something that sounded quite close to what the IBR project complained about when discussing inscriptions.

In a 3D model (or in a point cloud generated by a 3D model and imported into the Generic Viewer, to be precise) it is possible to attempt one or more virtual unifications, placing the fragments (visually or just on an informative level) were they might have used to be.
But, first of all: how can we place the fragments in their original position reliably? They are no more in situ, but they have been documented at the time. 

documentation of the north wall of the ekklesiasterion
by Giovanni Morghen
documentation of the south wall of the ekklesiasterion
by Giuseppe Chiantarelli 
documentation of the west wall of the ekklesiasterion
by Giuseppe Chiantarelli
After being harshly criticised by classicists at the time for destroying one of the most valuable source of knowledge about the past, the king of Naples decided to hire someone from the academia of fine arts to document the state of the frescoes before removing parts of them. The documentation of the ekklesiasterion was carried out by Giovanni Morghen (north wall) and Giuseppe Chiantarelli (west and south walls). 
At the beginning of my work on Pompeii, some years ago, I thought that documentation was a very good starting point for digital visualisation; that having a professional documentation was very close to know how things were at the time. Which is true, to a certain extent. But, besides knowing of course that every human representation is intrinsically subjective, I didn't take into account that Pompeii has always an extra layer of complication (if not sheer surrealism…).

Morghen and Chiantarelli's documentation is extremely precious. It tells us about the decorative pattern around the fragments that survived. Shows us the beautiful fake architectural features that Esher would have loved so much. Reveals fascinating illusory doors leading to even more secret rooms.

[part two]              

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