Thursday, 1 December 2016

Size is n't everything. Just nine tenths of the law.

The challenge presented to the sculptor of Trajan's Dacian Campaigns Frieze was immense. He had to describe the Emperor's two campaigns, with as much detail as possible on a spiral 'scroll' 190 metres long and between 1 metre high at the base and 1.2 metres high at the top. We will not discuss the immense engineering task involved. We are interested in the problems of depicting landscapes, buildings, transport, men and animals in a series of vignettes which flow into one and other and still make visual sense and satisfy a constrained  but lively visual æsthetic.

The first decision was about the level of detail. The sculptor decided to represent the soldier figures at a size where he could render very small details of equipment such as armour construction and hair styles. It could be that this was a prerequisite of the design because many of the faces would be modelled after actual participants. It was certain that the Emperor would be depicted and he should definitely be modelled from life and recogniseable. He crops up 59 times on the monument and so it was abviously an important ´factor that the passing dignitaries and onlookers' kids, could easily pick out Trajan in his cartoon-strip superhero world.  This condition meant that the smallest characters would be about half the height of the frieze. Sculpting in stone which is to be plastered and painted cannot go below a level of detail where either the stone edges will easily weather and crumble or the paint and plaster will fill it in.  The Emperors face must be large enough to recognise but not so large the other figures appear out of kilter as he performs his feats. A man sixty centimetres high could still be discerned up to the column's 35m top.

Ok why the long paragraph ? Because the men dictate how much space there is left in the frieze for stuff. A weapon a man is holding or horse he is riding stays near to scale, but to save room and to make scenes more meaningful - for example, showing the foot of several fortress walls rather than the whole fortresses - buildings and nature  and transport are shrunken down to various proportions. In this way forts, ships and cities can be meaningfully and impactfully presented along side the men who can readily be seen to toil, fight, march, suffer and die before the onlooker. Remember this is the culture that brought you gladitatorial games. The culture that thought watching helpless people being eaten alive was right-on. The culture that, should anyone have suggested the establishment of safe spaces or issuing of trigger warnings at the Colosseum, would probably have dumped the suggesters straight over the parapet onto the sand.

Trajan's architect, possibly Apollodorus of Damascus, had the genius to proffer a bloody and moving spectacle to the citizens of Rome that continued long after the last Dacian captives had expired in the arena. An everyday set of executions in gory colour. A banal and baleful spiral of violence that one could sit and contemplate while eating lunch five days a week. Any Roman confessing himself tired of Trajan's victorious tragedy would indeed be a Roman who was tired of life, and death.

But triremes. What  about the bloody triremes ! ?        Coming to that.    I promise.

The problem of proportions when one looks at anything on Trajan's Column must be considered. When one looks at fortification or engines, for example. Especially when one looks at the ships.
The size of  things must be worked-out. Relative to each other and relative to the men in and around them.


The caption to Plate B in NV230 informs us that we are looking at the 'river biremes and triremes of the Classis Pannonica on the Danube.' Both ships are 'copied from Trajan's Column.' There are three ships in the picture. The third is a merchant sailing vessel transporting an enormous radio valve as part of the logistical effort on the campaign.Oh no ! Maybe not , we'll deal with that later...

Actually, on the Column the trireme is only ever shown at sea and not a long way up the Danube.

The nearest ship is a Three, in Roman parlance a trireme. Oarboxes seem to have been dispensed with by Trajan's time and the vessel depicted on the column has two tiers of oars worked through ports and one over the gunwhale. This kind of hull would have been more stable than when the oar-tiers were canted out over each other.  All fine and dandy. Apart from the fact the artist has screwed the upper oars in place under the lattice screen - how could they be moved ?
We are lucky- our oars are proportionate

Scale immediately rears its ugly head. The rowers in the ship are like little mice behind bars with their little paws struggling to use the telegraph-pole oars. Nuff said.
Trajan(?) - presumably, and some sailors look up in wonder at a lamp hanging from the aphlaston which is metres above them. The arched shelter is vast. Why should it be so vast ? It will catch wind. It will block sight. Is it so the Emperor can ride into it on horseback ? It takes up too much room. Or maybe the men are dwarves. The aphlaston itself, instead of being a delicate, graceful display of the carpenter's art is a monstrous thing made of giant timber.

The rowers are sitting surrounded by an expanse of deck. The only problem is that the deck should be over their heads. The deck should be sitting on the top of the megalithic lattice-work that screws the top oar tier to the topwhale. On the column, our sculptor chappie has omitted the deck so he can show a few oarsmen in the vessel. The trireme is Trajan's flagship and so he should have some company, working hard to propel him along. But he cant have all the rowers hidden in the ship. So he gets a few that are liberated from inside the ship and proportionately larger than the ship but matching Trajan.

The rigging is up again. And all the oars are out. Read the 'Olympias' books to learn this is a rare occurrence, especially when the sail is so full that the ship will move faster than the oars and give the rowers an interesting experience. The rig is not badly done but a galley of this size would not have a rope ladder for the tiny crew to climb and the reefing lines should be secured at the gunwhales so they do not form a barrier across the deck.

Now we get to the front of ship and something odd awaits. Dodging the health and safety problems of a barbeque on deck we see an enormous castle is erected in the bow. Plainly, the castelated prow of the ship on the column coul dbe scaled up a bit, but this much ?.

The forecastle is too high. Even assuming the men are 1,65m tall it is three men high. 5,7m is a lot to stack on a ship's bows. No wonder it's going fast with full sail and the wind catching in this structure!
But there is no wake so I need not be worried, Looking at the column the ship's forecastle could easily be interpreted as being as high as a man's waist only.

Something funny happens at the bows where the ship is flaring out but this is hard to discern.

The liburnian sailing along on the port side suffers the same problems but has few visible crew. Its upper oar tier is worked through the screen rather than under it but this is merely an adjustment of the basic error. The screen was a deck support - the oars worked over the gunwhale. The steering oars are truly massive.

Both ships have very high freeboard and massive sterns.

The freighter in the background is a classic corbita. It turns out the giant radio valve is a lantern hanging from the trireme's aphlaston so that problem is solved..whew. No more detail can be seen than in any sculpture.

That's it. The ships are disproportionate and have misinterpreted structures.


In plate C the Pannonian Fleet is attacked while iced-in by Iazyges.

Two ships lie in the foregound so that their curved bows and prow ornaments form a picturesque circle around struggling Romans and barbarians who have now become Jazigi(sic)  and Quadi.

Oar is 4.95 plus length under water and inboard.
The left is supposed to be a celox or keles from the Alba Fucens relief. There is no evidence for celoxes after the first century BC according to Casson. A celox was a light, fast merchant galley with few oars. This one is big. The gunwale is about 3.5 metres in the air. This means the ship is as high as a Seven, surely not. The oars necessary to row this 'ship' along would have to be about 6 metres long to be useably. Longer than those of a Three.

A handy feature of this book is that it contains the evidence that proves itself wrong. A celox was a ship with a straight bow. The Alba Fucens relief on page 40 shows this.The caption of C says this. The ship in the painting does not have this - it has an outward-curving fore-foot with a bit of tin plate nailed to it. This 'ram' appears to be the forefoot reinforcement of the boat 'Alkedo'/Seagull found at Pisa illustrated on page 39. The boat on page 39 is not given a scale, why ?  Because it is too titchy ? In fact, this boat is only 1.23 metres from keel to gunwale. It was 14 metres long and 3 metres wide. It was not really a ship. It was a fast riverboat. At 14 metres it could have been rowed by about ten men. It is not a warship. It would not be fitted with a ram. Wishful thinking.

The right ship is not discussed but seems to be a liburnian from the column. It is, as usual. too big.

Meanwhile, the Romans and Jazzy guys hack and slash in the background. The dead warrior in the foreground is derived from Osprey Men at Arm 129 Germanics and Dacians. He is a mix of figures C1 and C2. Is this good enough ? An Osprey book which uses Osprey books as its reference sources ? The shield design is exactly the same for fucks's sake.

I am no armour buff but didn't leather strap armour go out with early Hollywood ?

What the book has let slip is a chance to really examine and reconstruct the ships of Trajan's Column because this is the single biggest assemblage of detailed evidence. There are warships of different sizes  and other military support ships. They could have been well reconstructed and illustrated. They are shown in photographs but not reconstructed here.

The other chance lost was to use the excellent photos the author has of the Pompeii and other frescoes. They are nice to see in clear colourful photographs but quite  a chance is lost to recreate them in colour.

Coming soon - more crap.

No comments:

Post a Comment