Monday, May 27, 2024

Perspective of the Trevi Fountain

 Office of Sir John Soane, Interior of Hagia Sophia (detail), c. 1806-19


Sir John Soane’s Museum currently has a small exhibition called 'Fanciful Figures', focusing on the evolution of staffage in architectural drawings. I have included here a couple of photos I took when we visited yesterday. The painting above is by an unknown artist and was used for Soane's Royal Academy lectures. He was not really interested in the design of the building ('very defective'); the point was to illustrate the vast scale of the Hagia Sophia, at that time the world's largest interior space. I think the image resembles contemporary landscape watercolours, with small figures gazing up at awe-inspiring mountainous walls. The beautiful drawing of the Trevi fountain below includes figures so small as to be somewhat surreal - they are not only tiny compared to the architecture,  they are also out of scale with each other. 'Even more strange,' the curators note, 'is that the figures stand with their feet below a thick ruled line - possibly a border line - indicating their placement outside the principal composition'. It is as if figures in a landscape have been minimised to such an extent they have been pushed outside the frame.

Laurent PĂ©cheux, Perspective of the Trevi Fountain, c. 1755

William Aslet has written a piece for Apollo about this exhibition which mentions this question of scale. 

If we look closely at Leonard Knyff’s c. 1695 drawing of one of Sir Christopher Wren’s schemes for Greenwich Hospital, for example, we see that many of the figures are comically out of scale and that the galleons in the drawing’s foreground are the same size as the rowing boats alongside them. If they do not convey the building’s size, what purpose do these details serve? Here things become more nuanced. Knyff’s drawing of Greenwich is for a project that was never fully realised. The staffage here works alongside the exaggerated – and unrealistic – sense of perspective to beguile the viewer with vignettes that do not just give a sense of scale, but also make the building seem alive. It is no coincidence, then, that several of the most impressive drawings included in the Soane’s exhibition are for buildings that probably never could have been executed.

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