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Topia: Landscape before Linear Perspective

Veronica della Dora

School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol

Landscape is commonly deemed to be a western European Renaissance invention linked to the theorization
of linear perspective as a distinctively modern way of looking at the world. Prompted by a resurging interest
in premodern geographies, this article takes a step back and interrogates nonlinear perceptions and graphic
representations of the environment in Roman antiquity (the so-called topia) and their development in the
Byzantine world. Since the times of Alexander von Humboldt, these representations have been generally
dismissed as artificial and disregardful of perspective. I propose a rereading of this perceived lack of technique,
or disinterest in nature as a different way of seeing and making sense of the world, emphasizing the visual
energheia and memorability of singular elements (or places) over their modern linear integration. Tracing the
complex etymological and visual history of topia sheds light not only on ways of seeing and geographical
traditions understudied in our discipline but also on a further aspect of landscape: that of a container of symbolic
memory places. Key Words: chorography, landscape, late antiquity, perspective, topia.

Comunmente se presume que el paisaje es una invencion occidental del Renacimiento europeo, ligada a la
teorizacion de la perspectiva lineal como un medio distintivamente moderno de mirar el mundo. Motivado por
un resurgimiento del interes en las geografas premodernas, este artculo da un paso hacia atras para cuestionar
las percepciones no lineales y las representaciones graficas del entorno en la antiguedad romana (la as llamada
topia) y su desarrollo en el mundo bizantino. Desde los tiempos de Alejandro de Humboldt estas representaciones
generalmente se han desechado como artificiales y desentendidas de la perspectiva. Propongo una relectura
de esta percibida falta de tecnica, o desinteres en la naturaleza como una diferente manera de ver y de
darle sentido al mundo, haciendo enfasis sobre la energheia visual y la memorabilidad de elementos singulares (o
lugares) sobre su integracion lineal moderna. Al trazar la compleja historia etimologica y visual de topi se aclaran
no solo las maneras de ver y las tradiciones geograficas poco estudiadas en nuestra disciplina, sino tambien otro
aspecto del paisaje: el de un contenedor de lugares simbolicos de la memoria. Palabras clave: corografa, paisaje,
antiguedad tarda, perspectiva, topia.

andscape is a complex, polysemic term that has mastering of the environment. As such, linear perspec-
been traditionally employed by human geogra- tive has often been considered a characteristic of, if
phers to define the appearance of an area, the not a metaphor for, modernity (Elkins 1994; Cosgrove
assemblage of objects used to produce that appearance, 1985, 2003a; Farinelli 2007, 78; see also Jackson 1964,
and the area itself (Johnston et al. 2000, 429). In En- 49).
glish, the term applies equally to physical locations and Inspired by the work of art historian Erwin Panofski,
to graphic and textual images; in other words, both to Denis Cosgrove ([1984] 1998) and other geographers
the land and to the way we perceive and represent the after him linked the emergence of linear perspective
land; both to a thing and to a way of seeing. The and the landscape idea to the conceptualization
emergence of this way of seeing is commonly deemed a of Euclidean space as an objective phenomenon
Renaissance invention tied to the theorization of lin- preexisting its contents (e.g., Pickles 2004; Farinelli
ear perspective. Perspective comes from the Latin verb 2007). Belief in absolute space, Cosgrove argued, was
perspicere, to see through, or clearly. It thus implies foundational to confidence in the pictorial claims
distancing, and distancing in turn enables conceptual of linear perspective to truthfully represent material

Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 103(3) 2013, pp. 688709 C 2013 by Association of American Geographers
Initial submission, August 2009; revised submissions, January and April 2010; final acceptance, April 2010
Published by Taylor & Francis, LLC.
Topia: Landscape before Linear Perspective 689

spaces and to the acceptance of territoriality as a nor- Sauer rooted the study of landscape as an areal ensem-
malizing way of ordering and classifying phenomena ble of material features. For the American geographer,
(2004, 58). The development of linear perspective the cultural landscape is the geographic area in the fi-
was paralleled by the rediscovery of Ptolemys nal meaning (chore). Its forms are all the works by men
cartographic science in early fifteenth-century Italy. that characterize the landscape (Sauer 1925, 46).
Cosgrove and others stressed how Ptolemaic cartogra- Over the past few years, geographers and other schol-
phy facilitated the emergence of a new mapping culture ars have shown increasing interest in the exploration
that placed added emphasis and value on geometry and of nonlinear alternatives to Renaissance landscape, in-
measurement. These geographers also showed how this cluding the concepts of topos and chora (Mangani 2005;
contributed to the development of linear perspective Simon forthcoming). While contemporary scholarship
and landscape as a scenic pictorial phenomenon in art history has problematized the very notion of
(Cosgrove 2003b; Pickles 2004, 104). Linear perspec- Renaissance linear perspective as a rational and uni-
tive, they argued, could be read as a copy of Ptolemys tarian way of seeing (Elkins 1994), geographers have
mathematical projection of the spherical globe on a sought to reassert the centrality of place and other
bidimensional gridded surface: The latter worked verti- nonmathematical geographical epistemologies rooted
cally, whereas the former worked horizontally (see also in topos and chora over the spatial science initiated by
Farinelli 2007). the previous generation (Curry 2005). More recently,
Cosgroves work has had a wide impact on concep- geographers have also been increasingly attracted to
tions of landscape in geography and across the human- spatial concepts able to transcend the rigid dichotomies
ities (e.g., Tilley 1994; Hirsch and OHanlon 1995; see of modernity and therefore able to narrate more ade-
also Atkinson 2010). Yet, as other geographers have quately current dynamics of social change or to fit new
shown and as Cosgrove (2004, 2006) himself eventu- theoretical trends better. In a recent article, Finnish ge-
ally came to recognize, there are other (non-Euclidean) ographers Kymalainen and Lehtinen (2010), for exam-
ways of conceptualizing and representing the environ- ple, discussed modern reformulations of chora as place
ment that predate the Renaissance and continued to ex- in-between, and therefore as an appropriate concept
ist alongside linear perspective (e.g., Olwig 1996, 2002). to address phenomena that challenge traditional terri-
In establishing a spatial hierarchy whose Renaissance torial and local readings, such as globalization. Olwig
interpretation came to characterize most of the history (2008) has similarly engaged with the concept, stressing
of modern geography, Ptolemy differentiated between its performative character and thus its potential impli-
the quantitative tradition of geography and qualitative cations for current concerns with nonrepresentational
(nonlinear) chorography. Geography dealt with the geographies, landscape, and performance.
production of images of the Earths surface, in which The concept of topia, unlike landscape, topos, and
the Earth was reduced to a set of geometrical points cal- chora, has not yet received attention in Anglophone
culated through celestial coordinates and was therefore geography. Topia (literally, small places) here are
connected to cosmography. Chorography engaged with intended both as graphic representations of the envi-
the form of localized regions and their details. The for- ronment in late antiquity and, more broadly, as the ma-
mer required mathematical skills; the latter was the do- terial and rhetorical units of the chora (Mangani 2005).
main of the artist (see Cosgrove 2001, 10205; see also Drawing mainly on Derrida and Kristevas interpreta-
van Passen 1957; Bagrow 1966, 77110; Dilke 1987b, tions, Kymalainen and Lehtinen (2010) engaged with
177200; Martin 2005). A third category, topography, chora as an abstract Platonic concept, as a spatial con-
was concerned with individual places. As Lukermann tainer, or as a shaping principle, rather than on its
(1961, 196) noted, topography was defined by Ptolemy contents (see also Sallis 1999, 11416). Olwig (2008),
within a chorographic context: chorography, by de- by contrast, juxtaposed the ineffable nature of chora to
scribing a feature in terms of its contacting or environ- choros as a performed space coming about not through
ing features, is describing the feature by giving it place. idealist representation, but through human behavior
To describe the place of a thing is to mark it off by and political discourse. By focusing on topia, this article
identifying the things that bound it. Topographical de- aims to move the discussion from the nature of chora
scription is simply the distribution of anything, or to put and choros to the way in which chorography worked.
it more simply, the location of a thing, i.e. its place. It Italian map historian Giorgio Mangani (2006) and
was in this tradition (and not in linear perspective) that art historian Francesca Fiorani (2005) have eloquently
690 della Dora

shown how topia survived in Western artistic and geo- and why (except when using such views to define the
graphical traditions throughout the Renaissance. My fo- modern; e.g., Cosgrove 1985). Similarly, in challenging
cus is more modest. I am interested in the genealogy and traditional linear assumptions about landscape
early history of the concept, rather than in its late incar- and Cartesian dichotomies, contemporary postphe-
nations. I therefore focus on the Roman and Byzantine nomenological studies have turned either to modern
periods, the latter of which is not treated in Mangani art and to the recent past, or to their own perceptions
and Fioranis accounts. I explore the origins and devel- (Wylie 2002, 2007; Merriman 2006). Pre-Renaissance
opment of topia through examples drawing from Roman visual traditions have been either ignored, or merely
landscape paintings, early Byzantine mosaics, Medieval dismissed as lacking technique, or as being not quite
Byzantine textual descriptions, and sacred icons. Al- landscape, at least in the modern sense (Casey 2002).
though distant in time and often in space, these rep- Such dismissal has deep roots. In his compelling dis-
resentations sprang from the same Alexandrian choro- cussion on the history of landscape, von Humboldt
graphic pictorial and literary tradition (Maguire 1974). snobbed Roman landscape painting, as it portrayed
They follow similar nonlinear logics based on memory, visions of an ordered, domesticated nature far removed
rather than on mathematical calculation. Tracing the from the Romantic wilderness of the sublime sceneries
visual history of topia through this range of case stud- he was after:
ies shows both continuities and variations within this
If we may judge from the many specimens preserved to us
premodern tradition of perceiving and representing the in the excavations of Herculaneum, Pompeii and Stabia,
world. these pictures of nature were frequently nothing more than
The article also contributes to the study of a gener- birds eye views of the country similar to maps and more
ally neglected period in traditional historiographies of like a delineation of sea port towns villas and artificially
our discipline (see Jones 2004; Ryan 2004; Lilley 2011) arranged gardens than the representation of free nature.
and the Byzantine tradition, which has been conspicu- That which may have been regarded as the habitably com-
ously overlooked by geographers. Indeed, although the fortable element in a landscape seems to have alone at-
past decade has witnessed important work on Western tracted the Greeks and Romans and not that which we
Medieval geographies in our discipline (Boholm 1997; term the wild and romantic. Their imitations might be
Harvey 2000, 2002, 2003; Lilley 2004a, 2004b, 2009, so far accurate as frequent disregard of perspective and
forthcoming; Elden 2009), the Byzantine East has gone a taste for artificial and conventional arrangement. (von
Humboldt [1858] 1997, 85)
largely ignored.
Finally, I seek to problematize landscape histories In Representing Place, Casey (2002) referred to the
that take the Renaissance and linear perspective as same paintings in similar terms, as nothing like the
their points of departure at the expenses of earlier tra- broad vistas, the commodious scenes that we consider
ditions. This article thus responds to Lilleys (2011) to be sine qua non of landscape painting. At the most,
recent call to move away from a historiography of ge- the American philosopher argues, these representations
ography (and geographical concepts) that emphasizes included schematic landscape vistas usually serving as
paradigmatic breaks, revolutions, and rediscover- backgrounds to mythical scenes. In these works of the
ies over geographies of transmission and continuities first century BCE, landscape vignettes (as we might call
within and across different geographical traditions (see such fragmentary views) either accompany the main
also Gautier Dalche 2007). As Mayhew (2011) noted, action . . . or float unattached and suspended in a fea-
There is a recurrent trend in writing about geography tureless back void that is bounded by contrivances such
to have recourse to stories about the origins of geography as depicted columns that serve to frame the void itself
as grounding arguments about its nature. Such a trend (3). Rees (1973) likewise described late antique and me-
often leads to essentialist historiographies opposing dieval painting as landscape-less, which is flat, orna-
classical to modern geography (see Martin 2005) mental, stylizedsymbolic, rather than naturalistic
and often obliterating its complex multiple pedigrees (150). In her historical survey of pictorializing nature,
and developments. landscape architect Gina Crandell (1993) paid further
Relying on such disciplinary historiographies, most attention to premodern traditions (the Greco-Roman
landscape histories do acknowledge that before the and western Medieval). Yet, building a periodization
fifteenth century Europeans looked at and represented that culminates in seventeenth-century European land-
the world differently, but almost never explain how scape painting, she tended to focus on paradigmatic
Topia: Landscape before Linear Perspective 691

shifts (e.g., ancient scenic painting as opposed to Me- Ancient Greeks delighted in the contemplation of
dieval enclosure) rather than on continuities within nature. They built their sanctuaries in the most evoca-
these traditions (although she acknowledged that there tive locations in harmony with the surrounding envi-
were continuities; 4950). ronment and used wide vistas as natural backdrops for
Most of such accounts draw on art historic evo- the dramas performed in their amphitheatres (Scully
lutionary narratives, which take western Renaissance 1979). They chanted nature (Williams 1989). And, of
painting as the climax and norm and rest on stylistic course, they painted nature, too, although landscape
criteria as well as on a strict division between high painting was a primarily Hellenistic and Roman, rather
and low art.1 Drawing on more recent developments than Classical Greek, pursuit (Pearsall and Salter 1973,
in art history, in the following pages I propose a reread- 3; Crandell 1993). Most of the surviving examples of
ing of what has been commonly perceived as lack of (usually bucolic) landscape paintings come from Pom-
technique, or disinterest in nature as a different way peii, Herculaneum, and Rome, whereas the cradle of
of seeing and making sense of the world, one empha- this tradition is to be found in Alexandria, the main
sizing the visual energheia and memorability of singular intellectual center in the Mediterranean from the third
elements (or places) over their theatrical integration. century BCE to the first century CE (Robb 1973, 4748;
In so doing, I hope to contribute to a historical decolo- Jacob 1999).
nization of the concept of landscape (Mitchell 1994). Alexandrian landscape painting was in its origins a
The next section traces the complex etymology of pastoral tradition, the product of an urban culture, with
topia, a word used to designate landscape paintings dec- some influence from the parks and gardens of the ori-
orating Roman villas, as well as the vegetal sculptures ent (Pearsall and Salter 1973, 12). It was marked by
obtained through special ropes (also called topia) em- the characteristic combination of natural and human
bellishing memory gardens. I subsequently analyze the elements: rocky hills in the background, trees and bits
rhetoric underpinning these compositions and, follow- of monumental architecture (an arch or colonnade, or
ing Mangani (2006), link them to a longer Roman stele associated to a tree) in the foreground. Nature was
mnemonic and contemplative tradition that survived domesticated and systematized through perspective,
into the late Middle Ages and Renaissance via Byzan- which was often elaborately developed, although not
tium. In the following two sections I discuss the con- systematically and in the mathematical Brunelleschian
tinuities and discontinuities of the topia tradition in sense. These representations presented their beholders
Byzantine art and its meditative function, which was only with an approximation of illusion toward which
itself an expression of wider theological debates and they had to establish their own point of view. Hellenis-
understandings of nature. I conclude with some gen- tic artistic imagination remained after all attached to
eral considerations and reflections on what topia and individual objects; it was not a unified but a discontin-
non-Euclidean geographies can offer to contemporary uous worldview in which space was perceived as an in-
debates in human geography. terval between plastered bodies and representational
planes, rather than an organizing principle embracing or
working through them (see Crandell 1993, 39; Panofsky
Topion, Topeon, Topon: Landscape 1997, 41; Figure 1).
Painting and Gardeners Ropes Hellenistic landscape painting developed alongside
the art of gardening. It became popular in Rome dur-
All that is said by any of us can only be imitation and ing the second century BCE and reached Pompeii in
representation. For if we consider the likenesses which the mid-first century CE. By that time Romans had
painters make of bodies divine and heavenly, and the grown fond of landscaping and decorative arts (Cot-
different degrees of gratification with which the eye of
tini 2004, 2). A popular fashion was to decorate the
the spectator receives from them, we shall see that we
walls of villas with pillars and columns framing land-
are satisfied with the artist who is able in any degree to
imitate the earth and its mountains, and the rivers, and the scape vistas, as if to reveal the open country be-
woods, and the universe, and the things that are and move yond the wall (Pearsall and Salter 1973, 14; Fig-
therein, and further, without knowing anything precise ure 2). Architectural writer Marcus Vitruvius Pollio
about such matters; we do not examine or analyze the (70 BCE15 CE), the author of the treatise destined
painting; all that is required is a sort of indistinct and to become the most influential architectural text in
deceptive mode of shadowing them forth. (Plato [360BCE] the Renaissance, gave a detailed description of these
1892, 528) frescoes:
692 della Dora

Figure 1. Fresco of an idyllic landscape from the villa of Agrippa at Boscotrecase. It features a votive column on a rocky crag with trees and
mountains and architectural structures in the background (National Archaeological Museum, Naples). (Color figure available online.)
Topia: Landscape before Linear Perspective 693

Figure 2. Landscape with maritime

villa, Castellammare di Stabiae, Varano
Hill, Villa San Marco, first century CE.
from exhibitions/ig/win0607 specexgal/
w0607gal 07.htm). (Color figure avail-
able online.)

Then they started to imitate also the forms of buildings, the lenistic) origins of the pictorial genre. The etymology
three-dimensional columns and frontons, to depict scenic of topia, however, is complex and even more enigmatic
backdrops in open spaces, such as exedrae, thanks to the than that of landscape. The origin of the term is ob-
largeness of their walls . . . and to decorate galleries (ambu- scure and has been the object of much debate among
lationes), because of their extended length, with varieties philologists, Classicists, and garden historians over the
of landscape decorations (topiorum), finding subjects in the
past century (Lafaye 1912; Grimal 2000; Cottini 2004).
characteristics of particular places; for they paint harbours,
Their positions can be summarized in two schools of
headlands, shores, rivers, springs, straits, temples, groves,
hills, cattle, shepherds. Some of them use megalographia
thought. The first links topia to the Greek word o o
instead of statues, portraits of divinities, or serial narra- (topion), a diminutive of the noun o o (topos, place)
tions of mythical accounts, of the Trojan battles, or the documented in the Hellenistic period (since the fourth
peregrinations of Ulysses from landscape to landscape (per century BCE). In this case, the landscape paintings on
topia), and all the other decorative elements that have the walls of Roman villas would be little places, or
been created by nature. (Vitruvius De Architectura VII, places in miniature, analogous to early Renaissance
5, 2) paesetti (Cosgrove and Daniels 1988, 22; see also De
Sols 1992, 70). They would be painted by professional
Pliny the Elder (2379 CE) gave a similar, though topographii (landscape painters). The first documented
more critical, account of the new fashion, which he topographos is a certain Demetrius (of Greek origin),
deemed to be a rich middle-class trend inferior to mon- who arrived in Rome in the second half of the sec-
umental art: ond century BCE (Cottini 2004, 4). The art of to-
pographia can be likewise rooted back to the Greek
Painting walls with pictures of country houses and por-
verb o o e (topographeo, to describe places)
ticoes and landscape gardens, groves, woods, hills, fish-
ponds, canals, rivers, coasts, and whatever anybody could
and to an ancient chorographic tradition best exem-
desire, together with the various sketches of people going plified by the work of Strabo, to which I briefly return
for a stroll or sailing in a boat or on land going to country in the next section (Koelsch 2004; Olwig 2008; Simon
houses on asses or in carriages and also people fishing or forthcoming).
fowling hunting or even gathering the vintage. (cited in The second interpretation of topia takes its point
Pearsall and Salter 1973, 13) of departure from Ciceros use of the words topiarius
(gardener) and topiaria (ornamental gardening) in 54
The word Vitruvius and Pliny used to designate these BCE (Letters to Brother Quintus III, 1) and similarly
landscape scenes is topia (in the plural, the singular is mentioned by later authors, including Pliny the El-
not documented), a curious Latin neologism forged on a der (Naturalis Historia XVI, 140). Here topia are the
Greek root, thus bearing witness to the imported (Hel- vegetal sculptures used to embellish gardens and, thus,
694 della Dora

by extension, also signify artificial gardens (Cas- derpinned both practices (Cottini 2004, 13). According
tiglioni and Mariotti 1990). In this case, topia is derived to Grimal (2000), the innovation of Roman gardeners
from the ancient Greek word o io (topeon), indi- simply consisted in somehow detaching the painted
cating since the fifth century BCE a cord (like those landscape and bringing it to the open space . . . [for]
used on ships) and, more specifically, from its diminu- the Roman landscape garden is essentially a three-
tive oo (topon), a small rope used with oil mills dimensional painting built with the materials of nature
(Liddell and Scott 1977). In the Hellenistic period (18; see also Tongiorgi Tomasi 2004, 104).
o (topa) designated more generically ropes used By the third century, the word topia was commonly
in agriculture, including the ropes employed by artistic understood by Romans as meaning both landscape
gardeners for guiding and shaping plants into various paintings and artificial gardens (Castiglioni and Mar-
forms (of humans, objects, and animals). After the Ro- iotti 1990). Today the term survives (through deriva-
man conquest of Greece, many of these same gardeners tives) in different languages in both its meanings. In
would have migrated to Rome in search of new patrons, modern Greek, oo (topo) is the word for landscape;
importing their art and horticultural techniques to the it primarily indicates: 1. an open space (ypathrios),
Italian peninsulahence the origin of ars topiaria and usually natural, whose special qualities make it object of
topia (Bowe 2004, 4). aesthetic enjoyment for humans; 2. a pictorial represen-
The Hellenistic art of gardening spread in Rome, tation of such space (o , choros), often framed by
alongside landscape painting, after the collapse of the people (Mpampiniotes 2006). In Italian and other ro-
Republic and the advent of the Roman Empire in 27 mance languages, arte topiaria (topiary art) is gardeners
BCE. It then endured throughout late antiquity and art of giving trees and shrubs foliage well-determined
the Middle Ages in the Byzantine Empire (Littlewood shapes, especially geometrical, for ornamental purposes
1992; Dolezal and Mavroudi 2002). The birth and de- (Devoto and Oli 1971).
velopment of the two genresgardening and paint-
ing topiawere strictly interconnected, although, due
to the strong agrarian roots of its citizens, they always Topia as Loci Memoriae
played a much more prominent role in the Roman Em-
pire than they had in Greece (Littlewood 1992; Cran- For Mangani (2006, 80) there is absolutely no contra-
dell 1993, 49). Throughout their career, the generals of diction between the two definitions of topia and their
the expanding Empire remained attached to the gentle respective etymologies: Ropes allow branches to take
rural landscapes of the Lazio region, even when political specific forms, and these, in turn, operate as simulacra
life forced them in the capital. Many of them therefore evoking other images. Both artificial gardens and cov-
acquired suburban villas in the countryside near Rome, ered walks (painted with various scenes), the Italian
in which they found peaceful retreats from urban life. scholar convincingly argued, are rooted in a longer clas-
These villas incorporated long covered walks with walls sical Greek tradition of meditative gardens as spaces for
suitable for decoration, encouraging the serial paintings learning. Stoic philosophers and Plato himself used to
described by Vitruvius and Pliny (Figure 3). teach while walking through gardens and loggiati (colon-
They also included ornamental gardens inspired from nades) decorated with images that served as loci memo-
those of Asia and often featuring nonnative plants in- riae, or visual devices for the memorization of concepts
troduced in the course of military campaigns (Bowe (Diogenes Laertius 1901, 123, 181).
2004, 37). As Grimal (2000) noted, however, the great The ancients deemed memory as the foundation of
novelty of these gardens was that plants and the land knowledge and believed it to be intrinsically connected
were asked to adapt themselves to plastic research to the sense of sight (Fentress and Wickham 1992, 10).
(17). Topiarii were no longer content to dispose trees For Plato and Aristotle, recollection rested on seeing
according to symmetrical patterns but had grown keen internal pictures imprinted on memory and was stimu-
to shape them in the most extravagant forms. Ars lated best by visual means (Carruthers 1990, 17). Ro-
topiaria thus referred both to the art of molding plants man rhetoricians devised complex spatial models for
and to the art of landscaping, which had been in helping memorization. In the 80s BCE, for example, stu-
turn influenced by the aesthetics of Hellenistic land- dents were encouraged to train their memories through
scape painting and architecture. Recent philological re- a mental model in which objects, or differently dec-
search relates the root o (top-)to the concept of orated rooms contained in a spacious building famil-
beauty, further reinforcing the aesthetic aspect that un- iar to them, were to be memorized and associated to
Topia: Landscape before Linear Perspective 695

Figure 3. Colonnade at the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, a modern re-creation of a Roman villa (photograph by the author). (Color
figure available online.)

different parts of a speech (Mann 1993, 156). Spaces process of visualization (Webb 2009, 95). As with the
for training memory, however, were also physical and viewer wandering through the visual space of the topia
they developed alongside artificial gardens. Cicero him- painted in the colonnade, the listener had to place him-
self was said to own a special circular room decorated self in the situation described and become spectator.
with niches containing statues of deities to which the These word-pictures or mental images were likely to
orator similarly associated parts of speeches he needed remain imprinted in memory thanks to their vividness
to memorize. Recollection was activated through a spa- and were thus analogous to the painted topia:
tial exercise in which the embodied gaze of the viewer
What Greeks call phantasies (we shall call them visiones,
traveled through a sequence of loci memoriae as he stood
if you will) are the means by which images of absent things
at the center of the room (Yates 1966). Quintilian are represented to the mind in such a way that we seem
(35100 CE), credited as one of the main developers of to see them with our eyes and to be in their presence.
ars memoriae, called vibrant description energheia or evi- Whoever has mastery of them will have a powerful effect
dentia, the vivid word picture that brings a scene imme- on the emotions. Some people say that this type of man
diately to the eyes (Pearsall and Salter 1973, 48). For who can imagine in himself things, words and deeds well
the Roman orator, words were important as the mental and in accordance with truth is good at imagining. (eu-
image was conveyed from speaker to listener. Effective phantasiotos) (Institutio oratoria, 6.2.2930, cited in Webb
energheia was the result of a controlled and conscious 2009, 95)
696 della Dora

Figure 4. Fresco from villa at Pompeii illustrating the use of architectural tressliwork in the Roman garden (National Archaeological Museum,
Naples). (Color figure available online.)

According to Mangani (2006), in Hellenistic and Topia were graphic and material representations of
Roman culture there is no distinction between the different topics, this being another meaning of the
rhetorical structure of a space and its visual percep- ancient Greek word o o (topos), besides that of
tion: topiarii are both the gardeners who build a place. The serial perception of the painted scenes
garden . . . made of real physical elements (such as trees, (or vegetal sculptures) found a parallel in the read-
plants, statues and flowers) and those who paint the ing of epic poems (e.g., Homers Odyssey) and espe-
topia, which is the constitutive elements, the curiosi- cially geographical books taking the reader per topia
ties, the singularities of a landscape (59). Whether (Vitruvius De Architectura VII, 5.2)from one place-
frescoed scenes or vegetal sculptures obtained through event to the next. Most notably, for Strabo the goal
special ropes, topia served basically the same function of geography was not measuring the Earth but ex-
as the statues in Ciceros room and the word-pictures plaining the inhabited world through the systematic
in Quintilian speeches, with the only difference that comparison of its regions. Drawing on the ancient tra-
the viewer here was called to memorization through dition of periploi, or costal descriptions, as a model, the
physical, rather than merely visual (or mental) ambula- geographer systematically organized topographic and
tion (see Mangani 2009). Roman gardens were indeed ethnographic observations as a sequence of choro-
articulated in terraces or through pavilions connected graphic segments (analogous to the Roman painted
by walks, or ambulationes (Grimal 2000, 2223; Bowe topia), fitting a universal geographyplace is space
2004, 13; Figure 4. This compartmentalized structure structured by time (Koelsch 2004, 508509). Trained
exalted singularities over totality; individual elements as a historian rather than as an astronomer, Strabo was
over their harmonious integration; regionalization over not interested in creating a mathematical copy of the
holism. It called for a mobile, peripatetic rather than inhabited world, but rather a chorographikos pinax in-
static appreciation of the natural environment and its cluding only those things that are worthwhile from
locithe same dictated by the sequential arrangement a social, political, or philosophical point of view; in
of painted topia decorating colonnades (hence their other words, with a map full of peculiarities that are
vignette-like appearance spotted by Casey [2002]). mnemes axia, or worth being remembered (van Passen
Memory was thus an embodied practice depending on 1957, 14, 17). The task of the geographer, according
mental and corporeal attitudes but also one heavily to Strabo, was indeed idiographic, which is to select
grounded in and interacting with landscapes matter, the idiomata tes choras (the characteristic peculiari-
colors, forms, and with their specificitiesin other ties, remarkable features of a region) and formulate an
words, with what Nora (1996) called topographical exposition of local differences, ektithemi diaforas topon
memory places (8; della Dora 2008). Topias lack of scheseis pros allela (cited in van Passen 1957, 17).2
compositional unity traditionally lamented by art his- Topiography (the art of gardening) and topography
torians (Pearsall and Salter 1973, 15) can thus be (decorative wall painting) then were not different from
explained from a phenomenological perspective: Priv- chorography, defined by Ptolemy (1948) as the de-
ileging singular elements over their holistic integra- scription of the individual parts [of the Earth], as if one
tion facilitated memorization. Likewise, continuous were to draw merely an ear or an eye [as opposed to
prospect pictures signposted by loci (birds, statues, bas- geography, whose purpose is to gain a view of the whole
reliefs, etc.) set the viewer at ground level and encour- and could thus be compared to whole head] (164).
aged memorization through the sequential movement Indeed, as Ptolemy noted in his Geographike Yphegesis,
of a stroll (Figure 5). chorography has the need of topography, and no one
Topia: Landscape before Linear Perspective 697

Figure 5. Detail from fresco of a garden from the House of Golden Bracelet, Pompeii. Vegetation is interspersed with sculptural elements
acting as loci: Gilded busts on pedestals support low-relief panels of reclining figures, a carved fountain, and masks suspended from the crossbar
of a pergola. Source: Bowe (2004, 10). (Color figure available online.)

can be a chorographer unless he is also skilled in draw- been grasped in their entirety: As with their landscape
ing (cited in Lukermann 1961, 194). In this sense, counterparts, they would have required an ambulatory
the subjects of topiography, topography, and chorogra- engagement taking the observer on a visual and
phy were well defined and easy to imprint in memory, imaginative journey per topia: mountain ranges, islands,
be they vegetal sculptures, painted scenes framed by peninsulas, allegories of cities, mutationes (changing
columns, or discrete regions delimited by geographi- posts), and so on (della Dora 2010; Figure 6).
cal boundaries (which Strabo associated to geometrical Both Roman decorative painting and chorography
figures and other memorable forms; see van Passen indeed rested on the identification of topiaof sin-
1957, 13). Just as on Strabos chorographikos pinax, the gularities, things, or characteristics that made places
sea, the mountain ranges and rivers enable us to distin- memorable (these could be, e.g., their shape but also
guish lands and peoples, favorable positions for cities a battle or a legend that had made them famous),
and the many other forms and details with which our rather than places themselvesin other words, ele-
map is filled (Strabo, cited in van Passen 1957, 6), so ments charged with visual energheia (Mangani 2006,
did people, animals, and geographical objects consti- 59). As such, chorography and topography were both
tute memorable loci within the painted topia described intrinsically qualitative, pictorial arts (as opposed to ge-
by Vitruvius. ography, described by Ptolemy, as I mentioned earlier,
The privileged spaces for chorographic and topo- as a quantitative science of locations; see Olwig 2008,
graphic displays were also similar. Celebratory itinerary 1847; Simon forthcoming).3 They were both expres-
maps of the Roman Empire structured as journeys sions of a peculiar way of seeing and making sense
through topia were prominently displayed in public por- of the world. Thus, when Tiberius (32 BCE46 CE)
ticos, in the same way landscape and mythical scenes contemplated Capri from the height of his imperial
decorated villas colonnades (Dilke 1987c). In these palaces gardens he did not perceive landscape as a
spaces, it is unlikely that monumental maps could have harmonious single entity, bounded by the maximum
698 della Dora

Figure 6. Detail from reproduction of the Peutinger Table with allegory of Rome. Source: Wikimedia. (Color figure available online.)

horizon possible, as a von Humboldt would have, but cally, of o (mnemeon), or tomb (a word that
rather as a prospectus of topia, a system of singularities is in turn related to [mneme], or memory;
which would have had the same effect . . . even in paint Demetrakou 1958). The landscapes of ancient Greece
(Farinelli 2003, 41; Mangani 2006, 59). Describing his and Rome were punctuated by chapels, tombs, and
villa at Laurentianum to a friend, Pliny the Younger sanctuariesmaterial witnesses of divine presences and
(61112 CE) talked about landscape as a sequence of human absences (Mavian 1992). In the Stoic tradition,
distinct real-life topia framed by windows and folding topia (intended as landscapes peculiar elements) rep-
doors: from snapshots of marine and mountain views resented the only way to reach the perception of the
to views of fig and mulberry trees planted in the garden truth of nature (Cottini 2004, 4). The image of a tomb,
(Epistula XXIII). Likewise, Virgil presented the readers often a column topped by a funerary urn or a bas-relief,
of his Georgics (29 BCE) with textual topia made of does not evoke melancholy or sadness: the dead are
mythological excursuses and bucolic vignettes captured, there, along with other genii of the land. They continue
like the Pompeii landscape frescoes, from both ground to live the secret life of Nature, waiting for the spring
level and from elevated vantage points (rich outlooks; and for the offerings of the passers-bys (Grimal 2000,
II.156), but independently, without sense of coherence. 19; Figure 1).
As with Tiberius and Plinys, Virgils eye is unsteady; But painted topia could be even more real than the
it wavers from the object; other things, one of them landscape in which they were embedded. They could
rhetorical ostentation, are more important than the re- evoke ancient memories and utter secret stories. Thus,
ality of the landscape (Pearsall and Salter 1973, 23).4 second-century Greek novelist Longus is said to have
Roman gardens were not only spaces for memoriza- come across an image representing a story of love while
tion; they were also spaces for memorialization. A fur- hunting in a grove on the island of Lesvos and to have
ther meaning of the Hellenistic diminutive o o found it far more amiable than the grove itself (Daphne
(topion) is that of sacred place and, more specifi- and Chloe I, 1). Likewise, during a tour around the city
Topia: Landscape before Linear Perspective 699

of Sidon to see its memorial offerings, Achilles Tatius were no longer commonly associated with paganism
encountered a votive painting whose scene, the rape of (as they had been at times of friction in the previous
Europa, was set on land and sea alike (Tatius 1917, two centuries), and were therefore deemed appropriate
3). The vivid descriptions of these images serve as incip- for incorporation in Christian basilicas (Maguire 1983,
its for the fictional narratives of both authors. As with 145). The new trend could also be linked to the reval-
Longus and Tatiuss votive paintings, in the Roman gar- uation of nature (and its imagery) as a manifestation
den marble columns and bas-reliefs, terracotta masks, of divine power and mercy and thus a way for humans
statues, and portraits of divinities and deceased inter- to reach God Himself (Wallace-Hadrill 1968, 12021).
mingle with the vegetation and animals as uncanny loci Such anagogical (or symbolic) understanding was ap-
memoriae. They are in turn represented on the walls of plied to the church building, which was literally in-
ambulationes, so as to stress the liminality of these spaces terpreted as a summary of the cosmos ( -o o
situated between the closed space of the villa and the [kath-olikon]):
open space of the garden, as well as between life and
death (Figure 5). The symbolism was made even more explicit when early in
the seventh century Maximus the Confessor, further de-
veloping the same line of thought, equated the nave of the
Topia as Symbols church with the physical world and the sanctuary with the
spiritual. The concept justified and, indeed, encouraged
After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, in a purely factual and scientific representation of nature
the late fifth and sixth century the Latin word topia is subjects within the building; and the floorunsuitable
no longer testified. In the Byzantine Empire its Greek for sacred images in any casebecame an obvious carrier
cognate oo (topon) is used as a substitute for the for such representations. (Kitzinger 1973, 371; see also
generic o o (topos, place). In the following centuries Maguire 1983, 14953)
it acquired the more specific meaning of farm estate,
or field. Although still designating a well-defined en- The mosaic in the north transept of the basilica of
tity (in this case a portion of land delimited by bound- Dometius in Nikopolis, Epirus region, Greece (550 CE;
aries), topon here bears a connotation closer to the Figure 8), for example, presents the viewer with an
Germanic word land than to the aesthetically pleas- Edenic representation of trees, with two large birds at
ing and visually striking Roman topia (Du Cange 1688; their base and other small birds on top. The scene is en-
Sophocles 1900; Olwig 1996, 2002; Triantaphyllides closed by a series of concentric square frames featuring
1998). This does not mean, however, the end of such marine motives (waves, sea creatures, fishermen, etc.).
pictorial tradition, but rather its continuation through An inscription indicates that what the beholder is look-
other media. At this time a flourishing Byzantine tra- ing at is the famous and boundless ocean containing
dition of topic floor mosaics spread across the eastern in its midst the earth bearing round about in the skilful
Mediterranean (the region of origin of topiarii, now part images of art everything that breathes and creepsin a
of the Byzantine Empire). Found primarily in churches few words, nothing less than a view of the entire Earth
and sometimes even reproduced on textiles (Maguire (deemed to be an island since the times of Homer).
1987, 22128), these representations portray natural Kitzinger (1951, 98) noted the resemblance of the cen-
elements or bucolic scenes in a fragmentary, encyclope- tral composition of this cosmographic pavement to the
dic fashion, as discrete topics vividly depicted within wall decoration of the period of Augustus at Prima Porta
geometrical frames, or circular medallions formed by with its vistas of orchards enlivened by birds in the fore-
vine sprouts (a reference to Johns verse I am the vine ground and in the air above. Topia of this type were used
and you are the branches, 15.5)in other words, sep- as wall decorations as late as the Constantinian period.
arated (chorismenoi) from one another (Figure 7). Their Although the Nikopolis representation appears more
thematic variety and compositional organization reflect abstract and unrealistic, Kitzinger (1951) noted, this
Strabos chorographic model of the world as a global is not an emasculated descendant of an illusionist type
inventory (van Passen 1957; Koelsch 2004). of landscape which had lost its three-dimensionality in
This genre supplanted the sheer geometrical forms of the course of endless repetition during the centuries of
earlier floor mosaics and reached a peak of frequency, late antiquity, but an attempt to create something like a
complexity, and detail only during and after the reign Hellenistic landscape by means of a clever combination
of Justinian (527565 CE). According to Maguire, the of conventional, and in themselves abstract, ornamen-
reason was that by this time representations of nature tal motifs (98)in other words, a topion. From the
700 della Dora

Figure 7. Floor mosaic from the church of St. Christopher in Qasr Hiram, Syria, sixth century CE. Source: Wikimedia. (Color figure available

walls of patrician villas, topia had simply moved to the valleys, villages and towns in Palestine and the Nile
floors of churches. The logics underpinning their com- Delta, accompanied by pictorial vignettes and histori-
positional rhetoric nevertheless remained the same. cal explanations (Figure 9). The physical setting of the
As with their painted predecessors, these horizon- map, a Byzantine basilica, was seen as a cosmological
tal topia were expressions of perceptions of nature and symbol that simultaneously incarnated and sanctified
of the environment as nonlinear systems of singular- the world (Delano-Smith and Scafi 2005, 12140).
ities to be imprinted in memory thanks to their vi- The interior of the basilica was divided into four parts
sual energheia. In the Nikopolis mosaic energheia worked symbolizing the four cardinal directions; it summarized
through synecdoche, or symbols (a memorable hand- the order of creation, of which the holy lands portrayed
ful of trees, birds, and fish, standing for the cosmos, the in the mosaic were part. Centered on Jerusalem and ori-
beautiful totality of Creation). In the famous Madaba ented to the East, the direction of terrestrial paradise
mosaic in Jordan, an index map of the same century and the altar, the map presented the faithful with a
preserved on the floor of the Basilica of Saint George, unique view.
energheia worked at a chorographic scale. Faithful en- As they approached the altar from the nave, church-
tering the church walked over lively colored hills and goers would see the various locations on the map in
Topia: Landscape before Linear Perspective 701

Figure 8. Floor mosaic from the basilica

of Dometius in Nikopolis, Epirus, 550
CE. Source: Wikimedia. (Color figure
available online.)

generally the same position in relation to themselves as late-antique perceptions of the physical landscape as a
they actually were (Gold 1958, 5253; see also Dilke prospectus of topia. As she traveled through the Holy
1987a, 26162). As they stood at the opening of the Land, fourth-century Spanish pilgrim Egeria, for exam-
transept screen in the church, faithful had laid out be- ple, was constantly after elevated vantage points from
fore them a panorama mosaic of the land of the Bible which she could gain such prospectus (like Tiberius and
they would behold from a birds-eye view perspective. Virgil but also like the viewers of the Madaba floor):
The colored loci memoriae portrayed at their feet were
[On the top of Mount Nebo] the presbyters and holy
not simply places but place-events the faithful would
monks who were familiar with the place asked us, Would
reconnect to the Bible: a view of Jerusalem with its you like to see the places which are described in the Books
Constantinian holy landmarks, the Dead Sea traversed of Moses? If you go out of the church door to the actual
by two large boats, Selo, where the Ark once was, summit, the place which has the view, and spend a little
the Desert of Zin where the serpent of brass saved time looking at it, we will tell you which places you can
the children of Israel, Ephron where the Lord went, see. . . . From the church door itself we saw where the Jor-
and so on. Pious beholders contemplating these vi- dan runs into the Dead Sea, and the place was down below
gnettes from above would be able to better visualize where we were standing. Then, facing us, we saw Livias
and therefore memorize the Scriptures. Their dimen- on our side of the Jordan, and Jericho on the far side,
sions did not reflect actual size, but their Biblical im- since the height in front of the church door, where we
portance and thus their importance to be imprinted in were standing, jutted out over the valley. (Egeria, 12.45,
Wilkinson 2006)
The compositional rhetoric of the Madaba map As with the faithful gazing down at the Madaba floor,
somehow reflects the above-mentioned Roman and the pious young woman uses the landscape under her
702 della Dora

Figure 9. Floor mosaic from the church of St. George in Madaba, Jordan, sixth century CE. Source: Wikimedia. (Color figure available

feet as a map and a powerful didactic device. Her mobile world from above, it is a world adornment for the eyes.
eye navigates the landscape moving per topia, jumping From the earth are seen flowers, trees, meadows, foliage,
from locus to locus. With each of these Egeria associates springs, coppices, pastures, and streams; the vine heavy
a Biblical event, which in turn helps her better inscribe with innumerable fruits, many producing wine, and many
the Scriptures in her memory and helps her sisters who a fruit bearing tree. And there is in some places even a
beautiful mixture, for the vine is raised up on towering
remained home better picture [in their mind] what
trees, branches together with beautiful tendrils, fruit to-
happened in these places when [they] read the Books of
gether with grapes, and more, and beds of leaves, and stoas
holy Moses (Egeria, 5.8, Wilkinson 2006). and roofs. (cited in Maguire 1993, 22)

Seeing the World with the Eyes of God Geometres offered an elaborate poetic encomium
of the tower, which he defined as a oo (kosmos,
Landscape continued to be perceived as a prospectus adornment) from which the eye can contemplate the
of topia by Byzantines. Geometress poetic description beauty of the cosmos. Yet, when it comes to illustrating
of the view from a fortified tower in Constantinople in the view of the surrounding landscape to the reader,
the tenth century offers an interesting eastern Medieval his lyrical description changes tone and assumes a list-
counterpart to Egerias descriptions: ing quality, as the poet enthusiastically enumerates the
But this tower has been raised to the greatest height; it memorable objects that are to be seen. The internal
stands alone, and guards the city. But more, it delights eye of the listener-beholder is not pushed to the hori-
every sight and the city. It is a place of wonders, in the zon but drawn to details, to the striking topographic
midst of the air, a kind of hollow of the breezes, a house of peculiarities underneath, as in the Nikopolis mosaic.
Aeolos. And contemplating the beauty, all beauty of the Flowers and pastures, fruit-bearing trees and meadows,
Topia: Landscape before Linear Perspective 703

Antonova (2010) recently explained such spatial ar-

rangement as the expression of Gods view: divine
vision is simultaneous and thus view-pointless, i.e.,
things are not seen from a certain point of view but, po-
tentially, from all possible viewpoints at once (103),
as opposed to the linear Apollonian gaze having a sin-
gle point of view (Cosgrove 2001). And, after Eco,
Antonova (2010) reminded us, Medievals saw the
world with the eyes of God (103). Whether in paint, in
words, or in its physical sense, landscape was perceived
by Byzantines as an ensemble of symbols that spoke of a
transcendent reality and, at the same time, were part of
it (as works of the Creator). After the sixth century, nat-
ural backgrounds to biblical events on icons and frescoes
grew more and more stylized: thereafter mountains are
either terraced massifs or series of coulisses, and rivers
are controlled by personifications or angels . . . but not
by gravity. Conventional rocks and trees serve as fram-
ing devices, while serried ranks of improbable plants
decorate rather than characterize a panorama (Kazh-
dan 1991, 1174). Such stylized landscape elements had
a double function, at once practical and symbolic.
In cycles of the life of Christ, the rocky element, for ex-
ample, served as a powerful iconographic link between
one scene and the other. Symbolically, it also revealed
or prefigured higher truths. In the icon of the Nativity
Figure 10. Icon of the Nativity, Greece, fifteenth century. Here the infant Christ is born in a cave, indicating the Earth
different topoi events are portrayed simultaneously: the angels ren- itself taking the glory of divinity through Incarnation.
dering glory on the top of the composition, under the star; the three In the Theophany scene, the banks of the river Jor-
magi venerating on the right; the oxen and donkey heating Christ dan feature in a cave-like shape. The baptismal water
infant in the cave, and the Mother of God giving birth at the center;
the newborn Christ on the bottom left; and pensive Joseph on the
of the river topped by the Holy Spirit echoes the first
bottom right. The sizes and colors of the different figures and scenes Creations imaging of the Spirit moving upon the face
exalt their narrative importance and help the observer better mem- of the waters (Gen. 1.2) and thus signifies the restora-
orize the events. (The Sergiyev Museum, Moscow.) (Color figure tion of Paradise. In the icon of the Crucifixion, a small
available online.) cave under the cross on Golgotha shelters the skull of
Adam whose bones are still part of the dust of the earth
streams, and roofs are all set on the same visual plane. from which they were formed, yet whose Fall is now be-
They are not ranked according to distance or sizein ing redeemed. Finally, on the icon of the Resurrection
other words, they are not ordered by perspective (e.g., Christ is shown in a vast cave deep within the Earth,
as in Petrarchs famous account of his ascent of Mount triumphantly rescuing Adam and Eve from the dark pit
Ventoux, or in von Humboldts descriptions of his views of Hell (Foltz 2001, 138).
from Chimborazo)but rather, according to their strik- From a phenomenological point of view, rocks, how-
ing qualities. They provide the listener-beholder with ever, play an active role in the nonlinear way in which
a paratactic, simultaneous view akin to that of Byzan- the icon invites the beholder into the reality of his
tine holy icons, in which the size of the figures is de- transfigured humanityin other words, into a reality
termined by importance and not, as in compositions seen with the eyes of God:
ruled by linear perspective, by receding view. Figures
in the background are often larger than those in the Slabs of stone stacked in ascending pinnacles and sepa-
foreground and different sides of the same object are rated from each other by deep crevasses . . . bend slowly
represented on the same plane (Lossky and Ouspenski away from the spectator in the foreground until at the top
1982; Cavarnos 2001; Figure 10).5 of the painting they curve back once again toward the
704 della Dora

viewer as the rock reaches ever higher. The effect of this cred space of the icon was a hybrid, liminal space, but
illusion is to concentrate the light at the icons centre also one for inner transformation.
out toward the viewer standing before it. The surround- Far from being the result of artists little effort to
ing mountains function as the concave surface of a large preserve accuracy of scale, shape, or perspective due to
reflecting mirror. This is what desert travellers do, by anal- their ignorance of nature, as Rees (1973, 151) claimed
ogy, in using a curved lens to focus sunlight on dry grass to
for Medieval representations, the spatial composition
ignite fire. In such a way, the spectator himself is virtually
of Byzantine images rather rested on the consciousness
set aflame by consuming the divine light brought into
the focus of the icon. (Lane 1998, 126) that memory does not work through a Euclidean space,
nor does it work according to the rules of linear per-
spective. Linear perspective is based on the notion
The effect is further magnified in the space of the that we live in a Euclidean three-dimensional space,
church. The curved surfaces of cupolas and chapels of which vision gives us instances and to which in-
work together with images to literally wrap the stances pictorial perspective gives a permanent visual
faithful and redirect his attention to the central figures. form. Yet, as nineteenth-century religious philosopher
Unlike in modern western art, here the eye refuses and art historian Pavel Florensky claimed, it also ex-
the large panorama and concentrates on detail, on cludes all psycho-physiological processes such as mem-
memorable topics (Rees 1973, 30). Yet, detail is only ory (Antonova 2010, 32). In representations ruled by
a vehicle to turn the attention of the beholder from the linear perspective, objects are drawn smaller as their dis-
scene being depicted to its inner meaning of spiritual tance from the observer increases, and visual axes con-
reality. Such treatment of landscape is connected to verge in a vanishing point in (or beyond) the canvas,
ekphrasis, or the art of vivid rhetorical description de- creating the illusion of depth and deceiving haptic ex-
scribed by Quintillian and cultivated by the Byzantines perience. The viewer is set in a fixed position and sight
(Gregory 2006, 486; Webb 2009). Like sacred icons is dissociated from the other senses. With Byzantine
and topia, ekphraseis were not necessarily realistic. Even iconography, by contrast, no matter where he stands or
though they referred to actual places, such as Geome- whether he moves or not, the beholder becomes the
tress fortified tower or (more often) pleasure gardens vanishing point of the compositionhence art histo-
and hunting parks (Maguire 2000, 2002), they did rians characterization of this technique as inverse per-
not make present the actual picture, but the spiritual spective (see Ouspensky 1982). The eye is not drawn
reality behind it. Descriptions of real and imagined through the pictures frame into the natural world de-
loci amoeni served as tools for inner elevation, as useful picted therein; it rather concentrates on the image itself,
fictions for self-edification (James and Webb 1991). hence increasing its ability to be imprinted in memory.
Whether painted in color or in words, images drew For Byzantines, vision was haptic as well optic. For
their persuasive power, their energheia, from their mem- John of Damascus (676749 CE), for example, the eye
orability. For Gregory the Great (590604 CE), im- did not only see holy images, but touched and
ages induced remembrance. As with Roman topia, kissed them. Drawing on the ancient extramission
the function of the Gospel and its images was in this theory of vision proposed by Plato, Galen, Ptolemy, and
sense to serve as memoria: They were meant to bring others, Patriarch Photius (810893 CE) maintained
back the memory of a past moment of sacred history, that the eye emitted optical rays, which touched the
and also catch a glimpse of what promised to come gazed object and bounced back to the eye, transport-
(Antonova 2010, 86). Then, as the Second Council of ing the essence of the thing seen to the mind, and
Nicaea (787 CE) established, the more frequently [im- then to memory (Nelson 2006, 150). In this way, ob-
ages] are seen in representational art, the more are those jects and images were effectively imprinted on what
who see them drawn to remember and long for those to Photius called tablets of the soul, tois tes psyches pinaxin
serve as models (cited in Antonova 2010, 86). Through (Homily XVII, 5). It is worth noting that the word pinax
sacred o (eikones, images) memoria thus worked (tablet) is the same as that used for Ptolemaic maps.
on two levelsone directed to the past and the other to Memorizing things is akin to mappingboth imply the
the futurea conception growing out of the notion of projection of a three-dimensional body on a flat surface,
a timeless eternity, in turn derived from the paradox of its dissection in parts, and selection of most significant
the Words Incarnation, a historic event of the past or memorable traits.
and an event which never passes (Antonova 2010, Experienced through the Byzantine eye, landscape is
134). Like the Roman ambulatio with its topia, the sa- therefore no longer simply a way of seeing but also a
Topia: Landscape before Linear Perspective 705

way of being. The beholder becomes essential to the has shown, these systems survived through the western
icon, and is in turn transformed by it. The essence of Middle Ages well into the Renaissance. In the West,
the exercise is to establish a communion between the miniature landscape views started to appear within ini-
event or persons represented in the icon and those who tial letters in fifteenth-century Books of Hours as de-
stand before it (Baggley 1988, 13637). The surface vices for facilitating the memorization of Psalms and
of the icon acts as a threshold, a point of convergence prayers (Mangani 2006, 138). Sixteenth-century map
between the immanent and the transcendent in which cycles, such as Ignazio Dantis Galleria in the Vatican
symbolic landscape features both speak of a transfigured and his Guardaroba in Palazzo Vecchio, similarly pre-
reality and function as a means for transfigurationbut, sented their viewers with birds-eye views of memorable
as Timothy Gregory (2006) claimed, this is something place-events and other mirabilia (from famous battles of
that is not attractive to western sensitivities (at least antiquity to exotic animals and other curios), likewise
since the Renaissance) (486). easing the learning of history and geography through
their visual memorization (Fiorani 2005). These loci
Conclusions made absences present in the same way masks and sim-
ulacra did in Roman gardens, sacred icons in Byzantine
As with any history, histories of geography and land- basilicas, and vivid words in ekphraseis. Rather than
scape are by necessity selective. Focusing primarily on an analytical practice, Mangani (2006) argued, geogra-
modernity, they have generally taken their point of de- phy was originally an encyclopedic system for informa-
parture from the Renaissance and its rediscovery of the tion storage and memorization and endured as such at
Classical past. In particular, the translation of Ptolemys least until the late seventeenth centurywell beyond
Geography into Latin in 1409 has been regarded as the Ptolemaic mappings and the theorization of linear per-
point of passage from a place-based to a recognizably spective. The power of geography lay in its imaginative
modern, geometrical model of the Earth. Likewise, lin- force, in its ability to bring pictures and places before
ear perspective (which was theorized only few years ones eye and imprint them in ones mind.
later) has been regarded as the main turning point in the Tracing the complex etymological and visual history
representation of place (Nuti 1999, 90108). The latter of topia might not only shed light on nonlinear per-
has been conceptualized as the copy of the former. Both ceptions of the environment in understudied historical
rested on Euclidean geometries: Renaissance artists, periods but also help us revaluate a further aspect of
many of whom were themselves also cartographers and landscape (in the broader sense): that of a persuasive
scientists, essentially changed Ptolemys top-down pro- rhetorical system and a container of symbolic mem-
jection from the vertical to the horizontal in order to ory places. Lowenthal (2007) nicely framed the tension
create a three-dimensional perspectival illusion (Ol- inherent in landscape as something we live in and
wig 2008, 1848; Farinelli 2007, 78). In highlighting look at. As opposed to Renaissance landscape, topia
epistemological ruptures, geographers have inevitably do not rest on Euclidean geometries and therefore im-
downplayed continuities in their histories of geograph- ply a different way of looking at the world. Although
ical thought. Perceptions and visual representations of intrinsically visual and representational, landscape as
the environment from the period between the writing an ensemble of topia calls for a precognitive and perfor-
of Ptolemys Geography and its discovery in the West mative approach, whereby the viewer is released from
have been largely ignored in geographical debates. its static position and ordering viewing structures. As
As Olwig recently noted, however, the discipline has Crandell (1993) wrote, this way of seeing [poses] an
subaltern, non-modern chorographic strands that run alternative to the familiar perspectival view that for us
counter to the Renaissance representation of geogra- has been dominant since the Renaissance. Indeed, [it
phy as cosmography (2008, 1843). As I have shown, challenges] the very notion that viewing the landscape
this chorographic tradition is rooted in pre-Ptolemaic across space, as when looking at the prospect offered by
perceptions of the world and landscape as depositories a scenic outlook, can be at all gratifying (49).
of memory places. Topia endured as units of mnemonic Insofar as they acted as mnemonic devices, topia were
systems from antiquity throughout the Byzantine mid- not pictorial representations in the modern perspecti-
dle ages through poems, maps, mosaics, sacred paint- val sense of paesaggio but synecdoches and symbols that
ings, and geographical descriptions alike (which were were not totally distinguished from their referents and
in turn reflections of the way landscape was per- were activated through performance. In this sense, topia
ceived and built; Mangani 2009). As Mangani (2006) challenge false dichotomies such as representing the
706 della Dora

world versus being in the world, which have been Parthenon and the age of Chartres Cathedral, landscape
at the center of much debate in contemporary cultural did not and could not exist; to Giotto and Michelangelo
it was an impertinence. It is only in the seventeenth cen-
geography (Ingold 2000, 189218; Olwig 2005; Thrift
tury that great artists take up landscape painting for its
2007, 12450). In so doing, they can bring a contribu- own sake, and try to systematize its rules. Only in the
tion to a more nuanced understanding of representation nineteenth century does it become the dominant art, and
and nonrepresentation. Long before entering human create a new aesthetics of its own (quoted in Casey 2002,
geographers vocabulary, the term nonrepresentational 5). This evolutionary narrative finds parallels in tradi-
tional histories of cartography, which have, nevertheless,
was used by theater historians to define the Shakespear- been challenged (e.g., Edney 1993; Jacob 1996).
ian stage of the Globe (a theater equipped with devices 2. A contemporary example of chorography can be found
used to stimulate actors memory), and which they in Salliss travelogue (2006), which is inspired by and
opposed to modern staging with its linear-perspective- organized precisely according to this principle.
3. No one but a man skilled in drawing would do chorogra-
based representations (Mazer 1981).6 Rather than as a phy, Ptolemy argued (cited in Simon forthcoming, 7).
detached theatrical scenery, we can similarly imagine 4. Roman villas were often built in elevated spots or on raised
landscape as a vast memory theateras a prospectus terraces, providing views over the surrounding countryside
of topia or as a liminal space that works in between (Bowe 2004, 27).
5. The typical example is the Last Supper in which Christ,
past and present; between presences and absences; the figure most distant from the viewer, but also the most
through precognitive mechanisms of memorization important in the group, is portrayed bigger than all the
rather than rational speculation; through embodied other the figures; likewise, Peter and John, who are sitting
visual participation rather than Cartesian distancing; next to him and occupy a central role in the narrative, are
larger than the apostles in the foreground.
and perhaps more significantly, through the poetic 6. I would like to thank an anonymous referee for suggesting
appreciation of the Earths beauty in its topical variety. this insight.
Looking back at topia and landscape before linear
perspective can thus make us reflect on the role of the
cultural geographernot least as a storyteller: References
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