Robert MacPherson (Scottish, 1811-1872)
Column Base of Antoninus Pious, Vatican, Rome, 1850-70
Gift of Marilyn W. Grounds, 1981.42.18-19
Robert Macpherson’s pair of albumen prints, titled Column Base of Antoninus Pious, Vatican, Rome (c. 1850-70) depicts two sides of a column base found in the Vatican in Rome. Originally erected as an honorific column by Antoninus Pious’s adopted sons, the full column – fourteen and three quarters meters tall and almost two meters in diameter – and base were rediscovered in 1703 and excavated in Rome.[i] In 1764, unsuccessful attempts were made to restore the column shaft, but eventually parts of the column were used in restoration of other findings.[ii] The column base, however, was restored in the early 1700s and moved to the Cortile della Pigna in the Vatican, where Macpherson would have seen it.[iii] Reliefs decorate three sides of the base and the dedication of the column is inscribed on the fourth side.[iv]
Relocating to Rome from Scotland in 1840, Macpherson began his artistic career as a painter, relying on atmospheric perspective to depict vast landscape scenes. As both Ann McCauley and Marjorie Munsterberg speculate, Macpherson began photographing sculptures in Rome perhaps to make a better living than painting afforded him.[v] Thanks to his personal and social connections to the Vatican, Macpherson gained access to the Vatican’s collections by 1855, of which the Column Base of Antoninus Pious is a part, several years before other photographers and firms – such as James Anderson and Alinari – were granted access to the collections.[vi] In choosing to photograph canonical Greco-Roman sculptures popularized by eighteenth century art historians such as Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Macpherson hoped to appeal to an audience of classically educated students, connoisseurs and antiquarians – an elite public probably wealthy enough to afford Macpherson’s lavish published photographic album, Macpherson’s Vatican Sculptures.
The two photographs of the Column Base of Antoninus Pious were included in this album, which was one of the first systematic photographic records of a museum collection. It included albumen prints of one hundred and twenty eight sculptures and six interiors in the Vatican. Macpherson also published a relatively inexpensive guide to the galleries at the same time that he published the expensive album. The guide was illustrated with drawings by Macpherson’s wife and contained explanations written by Macpherson. It was intended to appeal to an audience of middle-class tourists, while the album, in conjunction with the written guide, was to be purchased by a wealthier public.[vii]
In both photographs, Macpherson positioned the column base in the center of the image and used a frontal, eye-level view. Each side takes up the full photographic frame with very little space visible on each side of the base. Because the façade of the side occupies the full space in each of the compositions, these photographs do not relay any information about the column base as a three-dimensional structure, or how it operates in space. The viewer is unable to place the structure spatially; there is no indication of scale or spatial setting. The reliefs pictured in the photographs could exist anywhere – on a building façade, column base, or as ornamentation inside a building, for example. The title of the photographs is the only clue that alerts the viewer to the type of architectural object at which he or she is looking.
The first photograph presents a relief sculpture depicting the apotheosis of Antoninus Pious and his wife, Faustina. An angel, whose wings extend nearly the full length of the plane, carries Antoninus and Faustina on its back. Two figures sit beneath the angel and its cargo, looking up at the angel as he exalts the couple, making them divine. In the second photograph, a relief sculpture depicts a funerary rite on the flat plane of the column base. Men riding horses encircle a group of men dressed as soldiers, each carrying a shield and some sort of weapon. Here, three-dimensional space is represented only in the intrinsic three-dimensionality of a relief. The circle of men creates a two-dimensional circle around the central figures, all existing in the same spatial plane, rather than extending illusionistically behind the central figures.
In his two views of the column base, Macpherson utilizes several techniques commonly seen in photographs of sculpture of the time. A black background behind the column base isolates the relief from its surroundings and highlights the subject of the photograph. Such use of a neutral or black background in photographs of sculptures emphasizes the form and silhouette of the sculpture being photographed, and this model of depiction was common in photographs of the time period. A peek into the Alinari archives, for example, affirms this style immediately; most (if not all) of the photographed sculptures in that collection stand before a dark, neutral backdrop.
Additionally, Macpherson used dramatic lighting to enhance the shadows cast by the relief figures, which emphasizes their three-dimensionality. For antiquarians studying photographs and engravings of such sculpture at the time, this issue was an important one. As McCauley has explained, although photographs more readily and clearly exposed the surface details of a sculptural object, engravings more effectively illustrated the three-dimensional qualities of such objects.[viii] In using dramatic, artificial lighting created by draperies and reflectors, Macpherson sought to heighten the shadowy effects of the reliefs and thus expose their three-dimensionality. Macpherson’s creation of this artificial light was unusual; often, photographers would have to shoot their sculptural subjects using the natural light in the galleries.[ix] Comparing Macpherson’s photograph of the funerary relief to a photograph of the same side taken by James Anderson around 1890 illustrates this difference. The shadows cast by the relief figures in Anderson’s photograph are less severe and dramatic than those in Macpherson’s, most likely largely due to Macpherson’s lighting techniques.
Writing about nineteenth century photographic reproductions, Joel Snyder has described their “rhetoric of substitution,” an idea that comes heavily into play in Macpherson’s individual photographs and album as a whole.[x] Designed to “reconstruct” or “simulate” a visit to the Vatican by a mobile viewer, Macpherson’s photographs take the place of the actual objects being photographed and claim to embody the experience of seeing a particular sculpture in real life in a portable photograph.[xi] Macpherson’s photographs accomplish this replacement because of their formal qualities as well as their situation next to one another in Macpherson’s album. Macpherson’s strong lighting dramatizes the shadows cast by the relief sculptures, indicating their three-dimensionality using a two-dimensional medium. Similarly, the slightly lower point of view of Macpherson’s photographs monumentalizes the column base and reveals the molding on the top and bottom of the pedestal, seen continuing around the sides of the block on the right and left of the base. Finally, Macpherson’s presentation of the two photographs together in his photographic album gives the viewer an even stronger sense of the base’s three-dimensionality, simulating the experience of walking around the column base.
In his introduction to the album, Macpherson stressed that his photographs were taken of the original sculptures and not casts.[xii] In highlighting this, Macpherson hoped not only to provide an organized, true-to-life guide to the galleries for a wealthy tourist (or, in lesser detail, for a tourist of the middle class), but also to give the sedentary viewer a look into the galleries from the comfort and privacy of a home. This portability was important for the connoisseurship and study of artworks; rather than having to view these many sculptures in a public, crowded, rather visually busy space, the owner of Macpherson’s album could see the same sculptures through the “transparent” lens of the photograph in private, and from a great geographical distance. Macpherson’s photographed column base and its reliefs, then, are not just photographs, but rather act in place of the sculpture itself, allowing the viewer (in some way) to access the sculpture without ever seeing it in the flesh.
Cate Hughes (OC ’13)
[i] Samuel Ball Platner, “Columna Antonini Pii,” in A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (London: Oxford University Press, 1929), accessed October 10, 2012, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Places/Europe/Italy/Lazio/Roma/Rome/_Texts/PLATOP*/Columna_Antonini_Pii.html.
[ii] James Grout, “The Column of Antoninus Pius,” in Encyclopaedia Romana, accessed October 10, 2012, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/romanforum/antoninuspius.html.
[iii] Platner, “Columna Antonini Pii.”
[iv] Grout, “The Column of Antoninus Pius.”
[v] Anne McCauley, “Fawning Over Marbles: Robert and Gerardine Macpherson’s Vatican Sculptures and the Role of Photographs in the Reception of the Antique,” in Art and the Early Photographic Album, ed. Stephen Bann (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2011), 92.
[vi] McCauley, “Fawning Over Marbles,” 113.
[vii] Ibid., 99.
[viii] Ibid., 93.
[ix] Ibid., 101.
[x] Joel Snyder, “Nineteenth-Century Photography of Sculpture and the Rhetoric of Substitution,” in Sculpture and Photography Envisioning the Third Dimension, ed. G. Johnson, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 33.
[xi] Stephen Bann, “The Photographic Album as a Cultural Accumulator,” in Art and the Early Photographic Album, ed. Stephen Bann, (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 2011).
[xii] McCauley, “Fawning Over Marbles,” 99.