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  • Richard Beacham
  • Hugh Denard


The Skenographia Project: Investigating Pompeian Wall Paintings through Virtual Reality was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and took place from April 2002 to October 2003.

From the project website (accessed 2014-12-02):

Despite the extensive research focussed for over two centuries upon Roman wall paintings, in certain ways they still represent a vast, inadequately exploited source of knowledge. In recent years, research in this area has increasingly turned from formalist analyses of style and influence, to the study of these paintings in their architectural settings and as part of a complex cultural interplay of signs through which aesthetic, social, cultural, and economic values were produced and negotiated (e.g. Gazda (ed.), Roman Art in the Private Sphere, 1991).
However, one important area of investigation has remained relatively neglected, namely: research from a theatre-historical perspective. On the one hand, the paintings offer a great deal of evidence for ancient theatre practice; a certain amount of work has been carried out in this area, but a great deal more needs to be done. On the other hand, little or no scholarly attention had been given to analysing how modes of spectatorship associated with the theatre may have influenced the design, display and reception of these insistently theatrical domestic paintings. In what is otherwise a vibrant and dynamic field of academic enquiry into the period in question and its cultural products, these were critical lacunae in contemporary scholarly discourse, and as such deserved urgent attention.
From a very early date, as Aristotle attests (Poetics 1449a), scenic painting—skenographia—was a constituent element of Greek theatrical performance. In the temporary stages recorded as having been built in Rome from about the 3rd century BC well into the Imperial period, and in Roman permanent stages, skenographia employed highly sophisticated perspectival techniques which were designed subtly to modulate between reality and illusion in a variety of ways. For a largely illiterate Roman populace, theatrical performances provided a shared, mythological language which could be adapted to send and receive ideologically- and politically- coded messages in public under the guise of seemingly innocuous “festive entertainment.” Performers, popular audiences and the political elite became increasingly sophisticated at reading and manipulating this symbolic, lingua franca, and freely deployed its codes in other public fora, such as triumphs, funerals, and in circus games (see Beacham, 1999). Although this language increasingly permeated public discourse in these and other ways, we contend that, as the primary, popular, institutional locus of symbolic representation as such, the theatre remained the most important medium through which this shared, symbolic language was negotiated and refined in Roman culture of this period. Consequently, if we are to understand the complex aesthetic-ideological codes operative during Rome’s decisive transition from Republic to Empire, we must study how this language was aesthetically and performatively constructed in the theatre. The wall paintings can enable us to do so.