Fabio Barry delivered a Brown Bag Lunch presentation on Wednesday, September 20, at 12:15 pm. His talk is entitled “Fresco, Architecture, and the Lithic Imagination from Knossos to Rome.”

Although Pliny described marble revetment as “painting in stone,” the origin of lithic painting can be traced back to the invention of buon fresco on Crete, c. 2000 BC. Earth pigments bonded with lime plaster to become an amalgam as inherently colored as any natural stone, and this invention belonged to a wider material culture of Bronze Age syntheses of stones (glass, faience, etc.) that allowed artisans not only to emulate nature but improve upon it. Moreover, when fresco was figured the images remained in (not on) an undulating wall that was as plastic as it was pictorial. Consequently, the frescoed room confronted the viewer not with an illusionist transparency, but with a material reality of its own making. The Cretans disseminated fresco to Egypt, to the Near East, and eventually to the Homeric palaces of Mycenaean Greece, where they created whole lithic environments of “magic realism.” By the fifth century BC marbleized stucco spread over the walls of houses and public buildings of Greece, and eventually Republican Rome and its satellites.The “marbleized” wall represented not marble revetments (which did not yet exist) but make-believe polychrome ashlar (also a complete fiction). They are therefore “simulacra,” copies without an original, images not of what were but what could be. It is within this context that the absent marble appears in all its painterly potential, even to the point of birthing “chance” images. Finally, while the perspectivism of “Second Style” painting (c. 80 BC) apparently spells the demise of such (“First Style”) building in fresco in favor of optics, its illusions are actually the product of objectivizing the marble medium viewed from without.


Fabio Barry studied architecture at the University of Cambridge (MA, Dip Arch), and briefly practiced before receiving his PhD in art history from Columbia University. He formerly taught at the University of St. Andrews, and is now Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and Art History at Stanford University. His research has often concentrated on art in Rome, particularly Baroque architecture, but recent publications have dwelt on medieval and antique art, especially sculpture. An ongoing concern is the imagery of marble in the visual arts and literature from antiquity until the Age of Enlightenment, in which he attempts to identify the evocative qualities of materials before the era of mass production and standardization distanced them from the realm of nature and myth. His article “Walking on Water: Cosmic Floors in Antiquity and the Middle Ages” in The Art Bulletin won the 2008 Arthur Kingsley Porter Prize of the College Art Association. Awards include David E. Finley Fellow at CASVA, and Fellow of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America, Columbia University.