Grace across centuries

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If an illustration was needed to show how different from solidly carved or ponderously modeled scuplture painting can be, it would be hard to better this lovely Roman wall painting of the 1st century AD.

It comes from a house excavated in Stabiae, one of the three cities on the Bay of Naples overwhelmed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD. 79. The two other cities were Herculaneum and Pompeii. In their ruins were later discovered a large number of the ancient Roman mural paintings known to us today, though some have also been found in Rome.

That this fugitive and entirely charming image of a girl picking flowers should have emerged virtually intact from the volcanic ashes certainly adds to its appeal -- a mere butterfly surviving a holocaust. But for all its delicacy the image does have an extraordinary knack of stamping itself on the mind. Although its subject is the very essence of the momentary and elusive, the artist has, with apparent spontaneity and lack of effort, captured and held it with brush and paint.

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It has been variously called "Maiden Gathering Flowers," "Primavera," "Flora, " and has been thought by one art historian to symbolize one of the "Hours." In statues representing Flora, and Italian mythical goddess of spring and blossoming plants, she carries a bunch or basket of flowers as her attribute, like the girl in this picture. Three other paintings from Stabiae of similar size and technique are also in the National Museum in Naples, and their subject have been identified as "Leda," "Medea" and "Diana the Huntress," so this one may indeed be of "Flora." She certainly appears to be allegorical: she is any girl picking flowers, not one in particular. Like the plant beside her, she is a type rather than an individual.

Her painter might be astounded, if alive today, by the fame and esteem given to what may have been merely a stock decoration, executed rapidly, and perhaps even repeated numerous times for various clients. Nevertheless, to us it does seem to be invested with a rather remarkable inspiration and an unusually fresh vitality, unspoiled by banality or heaviness. it doesn't have the automatic touch of some mindlessly repeated item of standard decor.

The artist evidently relished the special freedom given to him, as a painter, to suggest and hint: to leave much to the imagination in the image of a girl passing quickly with weightless tread, draperies fluttering, head and neck just turning at the last second, thumb and index finger nipping the brittle flower stem with sensitive but scissorlike precision. Shared by both the plant and the girl is the slender fragility of a beauty and delicacy only just come into view. Nothing is said or shown that need not be. Only one plant (obligingly bearing its small white flowers at a height convenient to her) is necessary against the plain green background, for it stands in proxy to a whole field of flowers. And only this flat surface of unvarying green is presented to yield to her, giving her room, as she dancingly walks forward into it, thus opening up her own space by her wonderfully realized motion. The artist felt no need to depict a more elaborate setting, to specify details of her surroundings.

Her form is unsculptural. Since she can't be seen from all sides, the artist has chosen to show her -- with amazing subtlety -- from the back. A sculptor could only have looked at her this way as a relief-sculpture -- a technique of representation which falls halfway between sculpture and painting. Otherwise, fully in the round, he would have been forced to disclose aspects of her (enchanting in the imagination) which in the painted figure are assumed but unshown. The slight profile, for example, hints at the entire face. The disposition of the left arm is sufficient to convince us that the rest of the arm is there and ends in a hand holding the flower basket and that it is as delicate and elegant as her right arm. In painting her hair and chiton, the artist found, in the insubstantial transparencies of paint, a medium far more apt than even the most skillful sculptor could possibly have found in clay or marble. And yet this airy vision, as ungraspable as smoke, is by no means formless: the ability of the picture to remain in the visual memory lies in the figure's energetic and fascinating contour. It is the strong linear interest of this contour that provides the picture's insistent afterimage: and it is this that stops it form being faint or tenuous.

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