Friday, September 28, 2018


Monika Hinterhöller-Klein, Varietates topiorum: Perspektive und Raumerfassung in Landschafts- und Panoramabildern der römischen Wandmalerei vom 1. Jh. v. Chr. bis zum Ende der pompejanischen Stile. Wien: Phoibos Verlag, 2015. Pp. 583; 88 p. of plates. ISBN 9783851611168. €129.00.

Reviewed by Mantha Zarmakoupi, University of Pennsylvania (

Version at BMCR home site

[As the publication of the book was funded by the Austrian Science Fund, it is also available for download at: AOpen.]

Monika Hinterhöller-Klein's book is an important contribution to the field of landscape studies in antiquity. Based on the author's 2011-12 PhD thesis at the University of Salzburg, the book provides a very much needed overview, analysis and reconsideration of the perspectival representation of space in Roman wall-paintings featuring landscape and panoramas. By carefully assessing the ancient and modern terminology on the representation of space as well as the extant representations in the first century BCE and first century CE, the author provides a succinct overview of the conceptualization of space and its representation in the Roman period and the problems arising from the application of post-Renaissance theories of space in modern analyses.

The book is organized in three parts and is prefaced by a section that introduces the questions, purpose and methodology of the analysis. In the introduction, Hinterhöller-Klein tackles the terminological, theoretical and methodological premises of the study of space in the Roman period and explicates the ways in which modern theories of space and perspectival representation have affected our approach to the subject. Hinterhöller-Klein analyses Panofsky's interpretation of perspective as a symbolic form, on the basis of which much of the critique of Roman representation of space has been construed, to clarify that perspective is not a symbolic form and it does not meet the requirements of Cassirer's symbolic form.1 Perspective—understood as central perspective—is rather the product of a geometrical construction of space.

The first part lays the theoretical foundations of the study of landscape representation in the Roman period vis-à-vis the use of perspectival representation of space. Hinterhöller-Klein analyses the concepts of landscape (Landschaft) and landscape painting (Landschaftsbild) as expressed in Latin literature—and in particular in Vitruvius (7.5.10-22) and Pliny the Elder (NH 35.116-118)—to challenge the modern idea that a concept of landscape was lacking in antiquity. As Agnès Rouveret has shown, the use of the term topia by Vitruvius in combination with the term varietates points to the abstract nature of these landscape representations; and the two descriptions of Vitruvius and Pliny the Elder denote the miniaturized landscape paintings appearing in the late first century BCE and first century CE.2 Hinterhöller-Klein points out that the Latin terminology of landscape develops together with the representation of landscape in this period—as was the case in early modern Europe—and proceeds to analyse the terms of topographia and chorographia in relation to what may be termed as the cartographic representation of space as seen in the Nile mosaic of Palestrina as well as in the representations of space evidenced in triumphal processions. Hinterhöller-Klein systematically analyses the use of the term perspective in modern literature as well as the forms of perspectival representation, including the use of light and shadow, to define perspective as the forms of representation that generate for the viewer the impression of a three-dimensional object on a flat surface, whereby the spatiality and spatial relationship of the represented subjects is achieved in the representation of three-dimensional objects.

In the second part, which constitutes the largest part of the book, Hinterhöller-Klein provides a historical overview of the representation of landscape in the Roman period in which specific emphasis is given to the perspectival representation of space. This part is divided in two sections: the first one deals with the sacral-idyllic and Nilotic landscapes (II.1) and the second with the villa landscapes (II.2). Hinterhöller-Klein follows Rostovtzeff's categorization of the sacral-idyllic and villa landscapes as two distinct categories, on the basis of the types of setting featuring in them: one of inland scenes and the other of littoral scenes.3 Although Rostovtzeff fittingly classified the two main themes in the landscapes, his terms "sacral-idyllic" and "villa" are misleading because they suggest that the two kinds of representations portray sacred and profane natural settings, respectively.4 Rostovtzeff's categorization, however, has permeated scholarship on studies of landscape paintings.

The sacral-idyllic and Nilotic landscapes (part II.1) constitute the largest corpus of the surviving evidence for the representation of landscape in the Roman period, and Hinterhöller-Klein tackles the ways in which the representation of landscape developed from the middle of the 1st century BCE to the 2nd CE in this corpus. The Hellenistic/Alexandrian precedents are often discussed in modern assessments of this corpus,5 but there is no evidence to support this connection. Hinterhöller-Klein's analysis shows that the sacral-idyllic and Nilotic landscapes from the Second to the Fourth Style cannot be copies of Hellenistic/Alexandrian prototypes because there is no repetition of a specific composition, which would have supported the transfer of such prototypes through "Bilderbücher". The interest of Hellenistic culture in landscape themes and representations of nature, in both textual and visual media, during the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE makes it plausible, however, that they provided a source of inspiration for the Roman wall-paintings that started appearing in the 1st century BCE, as part of an assimilation process of Hellenistic artistic expression. The sacral-idyllic and Nilotic landscapes are among the most popular subjects in Roman wall-paintings and the study of their function and context in the wall painting schemes of the Second through the Fourth Style makes clear that they mark a shift of taste in interior decoration. Hinterhöller-Klein discusses this shift of taste in relation to the concurrent emergence of landscape themes in Augustan poetry, with its stylized, bucolic themes. Life in the countryside is idealized and permeated with references to a Golden Age as well as to religion and rural cults. As in poetry, in sacral-idyllic landscape paintings as well, landscape becomes a metaphor. In these paintings, nature is idealized and does not appear as it is, but as it should be. The analysis of the perspectival representation of space in the sacral-idyllic landscapes shows that there is a variety of perspectival systems in use, including the suggestion of the reduction of space through an approximate central perspective construction. The development of the representation of space from the Second to the Fourth Style demonstrates a gradual but consistent acquisition of a painterly unity.

Hinterhöller-Klein examines the representative examples of sacral-idyllic landscape paintings from the Second Style (from the Villa of the Mysteries, Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, Villa Oplontis A, the villa near Portici, Villa of the Papyri, House of Livia, Villa under the Farnesina, columbaria in the grounds of the Villa Doria Pamphili), Third Style (from Villa of the Quintilii, Villa at Boscotrecase) and Fourth Style (MN 9493, MN 9472, MN 9486, MN 9418, MN 9488, from Villa San Marco in Sabiae, Temple of Isis, House of the Pygmies, House of the Ephebe or of P. Cornelius Tages, House of the Ceii, House of Apollo and House of the Small Fountain in Pompeii) to clarify the ways by which this painterly unity is achieved. There is a reduction of panoramic representations in the sacral-idyllic and Nilotic landscapes of the Third Style, which can be explained by the linear and ornamental emphasis of the delicate wall painting schemes of this period. It should be also noted that the number of available representative examples is much smaller. In the Fourth Style, the number of sacral-idyllic representations increases significantly, the new subjects of villas and harbors are introduced, and there appears a broader spectrum of stylistic choices and color palette. Hinterhöller-Klein methodically and concisely analyses the images to demonstrate the ways in which, through a combination of perspectival constructions, the impression of spatial unity is suggested in them.

The villa landscapes (part II.2) appear in the late Third Style—the best examples are found on the north and south walls of tablinum h in the House of M. Lucretius Fronto in Pompeii—and are fully developed in the Fourth Style. Hinterhöller-Klein addresses the context in which these representations emerge—the life of otium in luxury villas in the countryside—and emphasizes that their appearance should be seen together with the development of the villa architecture and landscape. Hinterhöller-Klein explains the insertion of villa architecture in the representations of landscape in this period as a process of de-sacralization of the earlier sacral-idyllic landscape representations, and proceeds to analyze the architectural forms of the porticus that feature prominently in them (e.g. Π-form, Λ-form, Γ-form and circular). She considers both the architecture of the surviving villas and the contemporary descriptions of Pliny the Younger in his villa letters to underscore the relation between villa architecture and villa representation, as well as the importance of the life of otium in the conceptualization of the villa landscapes. Hinterhöller-Klein rightly stresses that the schematic depiction of villas in these representations suggests that they present idealized generic versions of villa architecture that one would have seen in Latium and Campania and are not realistic depictions of specific villas. The representations of prominent villa façades set in the landscape signify a new paradigm of refined, luxurious living in the countryside.6 Again, Hinterhöller-Klein systematically and succinctly examines the representative examples from the Third Style (MN 9482, MN 9406, from House of Marcus Lucretius Fronto) and Fourth Style (MN 9479, MN 111478, MN 9513, MN 9426 and MN 9411 [probably from the House of the Sailor in Pompeii], from the House of Venus in the shell, Temple of Isis, House of Menander, House of the Cithara Player, House of the Small Fountain in Pompeii and Villa San Marco in Stabiae) to explicate the use of perspective in them.

In the final part of the book (part III), Hinterhöller-Klein summarizes the results of her analysis of the modes of spatial representation in Roman landscapes. What becomes clear from her analysis of the representation of space from the Second through the Fourth Style is that, on the one hand, there is a greater painterly unity of space achieved in the Fourth Style and, on the other, there is no strict central perspective used but a variety of mixed perspective constructions. This variety of perspectival constructions succeeds in effectively representing the diversity of landscape painting—the varietates topiarum.

To conclude, this book is an invaluable contribution to the study of Roman landscape painting. Hinterhöller-Klein's thorough and insightful analysis does not only provide a careful methodology for the study of perspective in Roman landscape paintings but also tackles the theoretical and methodological underpinnings of modern misinterpretations of the representation of space in Greek and Roman antiquity.7


1.   See also: E. Alloa, "Could perspective ever be a symbolic form? Revisiting Panofsky with Cassirer". Journal of Aesthetics and Phenomenology 2:1, pp. 51-71, DOI: 10.1080/20539320.2015.11428459.
2.   A. Rouveret, "Pictos ediscere mundos. Perception et imaginaire du paysage dans la peinture hellénistique et romaine". Ktema: civilisations de l'Orient, de la Grèce et de Rome antiques 29 (2004) pp. 325-344.
3.   M. Rostowzew [Rostovtzeff], "Pompeianische Landschaften und römische Villen". Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 19, 1904, pp. 103–126; "Die hellenistisch-römische Architekturlandschaft". Römische Mitteilungen 26, 1911, pp. 1–186.
4.   P.W. Lehmann, Roman wall paintings from Boscoreale in the Metropolitan Museum of New York, Monographs on archaeology and the fine arts 5. Cambridge MA: Archaeological Institute of America, 1953, pp. 163-164, n. 109. B. Bergmann, Varia topia architectural landscapes in Roman painting of the late Republic and early empire. PhD diss., Columbia University, pp. 57-69, 164-179.
5.   For example: J.-M. Croisille, Paysages dans la peinture romaine: aux origines d'un genre pictural. (Paris: Picard, 2010), pp. 26-28.
6.   See also: M. Zarmakoupi, Designing for luxury on the bay of Naples: Villas and landscapes (c. 100 BCE - 79 CE). Oxford Studies in ancient culture and representation. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014) pp. 79-80.
7.   The numbering of the figures after fig. 309 is mistakenly referred to as "number -1", i.e. 308 for 309.

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