Love, death, and blissful ignorance: Pliny and the origins of photography

Pliny the Elder, ancient Rome’s great encyclopedist, did not, of course, describe the origins of modern photography – a technique and art that was greatly advanced in Reading, Berkshire, by William Henry Fox Talbot (as described in this wonderful book).

Yet, in his description of the origins of clay modelling that follows the history of painting in the 35th book of Pliny’s Naturalis historia, he also captures the quintessential idea of ‘photography’ (as in ‘drawing with light‘) when he writes that (Plin. nat. 35.151, transl. J. Bostock – H. T. Riley):

De pictura satis superque. contexuisse his et plasticen conveniat eiusdem operae terrae. Fingere ex argilla similitudines Butades Sicyonius figulus primus invenit Corinthi filiae opera, quae capta amore iuvenis, abeunte illo peregre, umbram ex facie eius ad lucernam in pariete lineis circumscripsit, quibus pater eius inpressa argilla typum fecit et cum ceteris fictilibus induratum igni proposuit, eumque servatum in Nymphaeo, donec Mummius Corinthum everterit, tradunt.

On painting we have now said enough, and more than enough; but it will be only proper to append some accounts of the plastic art. Butades, a potter of Sicyon, was the first who invented, at Corinth, the art of modelling portraits in the earth which he used in his trade. It was through his daughter that he made the discovery; who, being deeply in love with a young man about to depart on a long journey, traced the profile of his face, as thrown upon the wall by the light of the lamp. Upon seeing this, her father filled in the outline, by compressing clay upon the surface, and so made a face in relief, which he then hardened by fire along with other articles of pottery. This model, it is said, was preserved in the Nymphaeum at Corinth, until the destruction of that city by Mummius.

The Origin of Painting by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, 1785

Butades’ nameless daughter, in love with an (equally nameless) youth who was set to go abroad, traced the young man’s shade (a word that the Romans also used for rough-and-ready effigies, as I recently mentioned).

The silhouette, one may infer, was to remind her of her love (soon to be far away) for the duration of his absence in the same way that photography nowadays is employed to make us indulge in our thoughts of those (people, moments, occasions) that are now far away (and potentially never come back).

In Pliny’s story, the light of the lantern (lucerna – for some thoughts about ancient lamps see here, by the way) provides Butades’ daughter with a shade (umbra) of her love interest which she then perpetuates on the surface of a wall (paries) by drawing lines around it (lineis circumscripsit).

Pompeian impression of Butades’ daughter’s love interest (no, not really: as Plato said in his Symposium, don’t believe everything you read on the internet!).

The Latin term for shade, umbra, is a loaded one, however, as umbra is also the term that refers to the spirits of the underworld (as discussed before).


Mortified through photography: a flock of geese over Hallig Hooge, Germany. – (c) PK, April 2017.

There is nothing in Pliny’s discourse that would suggest an allusion to this double meaning.

But conceptually, I find, this is an interesting coincidence – as capturing a fleeting moment in life through photography (whether in the accepted meaning of that term or in the production of a silhouette) ultimately brings to a standstill and thus mortifies a moment in the ever-changing, ever-evolving continuum of our lives – a moment that will never recur and that cannot ever be brought back in the exact same way that it was on that one occasion.

Tracing of silhouettes, according to Pliny, was one of the possible ways in which painting (pictura) came to be (Plin. nat. 35.15–16):

De picturae initiis incerta nec instituti operis quaestio est. Aegyptii sex milibus annorum aput ipsos inventam, priusquam in Graeciam transiret, adfirmant, vana praedicatione, ut palam est; Graeci autem alii Sicyone, alii aput Corinthios repertam, omnes umbra hominis lineis circumducta, itaque primam talem, secundam singulis coloribus et monochromaton dictam, postquam operosior inventa erat, duratque talis etiam nunc. inventam liniarem a Philocle Aegyptio vel Cleanthe Corinthio primi exercuere Ardices Corinthius et Telephanes Sicyonius, sine ullo etiamnum hi colore, iam tamen spargentes linias intus. ideo et quos pinere adscribere institutum.

We have no certain knowledge as to the commencement of the art of painting, nor does this enquiry fall under our consideration. The Egyptians assert that it was invented among themselves, six thousand years before it passed into Greece; a vain boast, it is very evident. As to the Greeks, some say that it was invented at Sicyon, others at Corinth; but they all agree that it originated in tracing lines round the human shadow. The first stage of the art, they say, was this, the second stage being the employment of single colours; a process known as “monochromaton,” after it had become more complicated, and which is still in use at the present day. The invention of line-drawing has been assigned to Philocles, the Egyptian, or to Cleanthes of Corinth. The first who practised this line-drawing were Aridices, the Corinthian, and Telephanes, the Sicyonian, artists who, without making use of any colours, shaded the interior of the outline by drawing lines; hence, it was the custom with them to add to the picture the name of the person represented.

There is another aspect to the story of Butades’ daughter, however – again something that Pliny does not mention or allude to, but that is interesting conceptually to those who (like myself) enjoy overthinking the photographic art.


A moment frozen in time: water fountain in front of Berlin’s Lutheran cathedral. – (c) PK, April 2017.

Butades’ daughter, in creating a memory of her lover by tracing his shade, arguably eternalises the exact opposite of his true nature.

Remember Plato’s allegory of the cave? The cave in which shadow puppetry represents the lowest level of insight and understanding and in which the shades are furthest from what represents the ideal?

Butades’ daughter embraces just that (and her father goes further still, by creating a reproduction of it in yet another medium): she is not seeking for truth; she is perpetuating reflections, documenting distortions, reducing four dimensions into two – imitating an imitation of an idea, as Plato might have put it.

It is this particular power of photography, the ability to freeze a small frame of a much more complex reality and to eternalise a particular take on it (with all its surprising elements, often hidden in plain view), that fascinates me most about it.

It is what makes it an art, in a Platonic sense – an art whose creator has no real insights into the ideal, and yet manages to capture something that seems to relate to it.


About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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