Quoted: Pliny the Elder on the Death of Painting

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Painting is dead, and its first murderer in Western history was the Roman thinker Pliny the Elder, for whom it had been “entirely ousted by marbles” by around the year 79 AD. Pliny searches for “what remains to be said about painting” in Book XXXV of his Natural History:

And first we shall say what remains to be said about painting, an art that was formerly illustrious, at the time when it was in high demand with kings and nations and when it ennobled others whom it deigned to transmit to posterity. But at the present time it has been entirely ousted by marbles, and indeed finally also by gold, and not only to the point that whole walls are covered – we have also marble pieces carved in wriggling lines to represent objects and animals.

The passage came to our attention via the writer John-Paul Stonard, but it has also been noted by others, including the philosopher and art historian Georges Didi-Huberman in Confronting ImagesThe latter explains:

We need only read the very first Western text to posit, explicitly and at length, the project of a history of art—only one part of a much larger encyclopedic project [Pliny’s Natural History]—to encounter immediately, from the first lines, this notion of the end of art.

Have a great weekend!

Mostafa Heddaya (@mheddaya)

(Photo: Pliny the Elder brand beer, via Boston.com. Fittingly enough, no contemporary depictions of Pliny the Elder are known to exist.)