Imperfect pictures

Every picture is imperfect, every angle is limited, every focal point only approximate. What is perfect however is our dogmatic belief that our picture is complete, unlimited, focused.

This applies to how we see the world but also to how we understand the past. The record is never complete, the past is never fully recorded. The work of the historian always comes closer to recovering the full picture, but the honest historian knows that the whole picture is impossible to recover. I’ll give two examples from the distant past: one is Pliny the Younger’s (c. 61 – c. 113 AD) description of his Laurentine villa (Letter 23), the other is the so-called ‘Plan of St Gall’ made in the 830s AD.

Pliny the Younger’s letters are a treasure trove of information about Rome during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. It is from one of his letters that we know about the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder, the Roman encyclopaedist, in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Pliny is also an early source for the growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire. But he has also left us the most detailed description of a Roman country house, his own villa in Laurentum. You may read the letter here.

An imagined plan of the Laurentine villa by Louis Pierre Haudebourt based on Pliny’s letter (1838).

Pliny’s descriptive account of his Laurentine country house is so detailed that since the 17th century scholars and architects have tried to reconstruct its plan, even though no-one even knows where the villa was exactly. There are a few certain elements, such as the fact that the house was built on the coast, that it featured a number of porticos, halls, rooms and facilities, but to produce an accurate plan based on a narrative source is elusive. Every scholar or architect who’s ever tried to turn the text of Pliny’s letter into a architectural plan has produced a different layout. No other similar descriptions survive from the ancient world (with the exception of Pliny’s description of his other villa in Tuscany, less detailed than this one), and many have taken Pliny’s unparalleled level of detail for accuracy and definitiveness. It is neither, and his description, tantalising as it might be, remains limited and imperfect.

If we fast forward 8 centuries later, we get to what could very well be the most suitable bookend to Pliny’s ‘architectural’ letter. This time, we have a visual representation of the Abbey of St Gall (in present-day Switzerland) made in the 830s, the best architectural plan surviving from the medieval period.

The ‘Plan of St Gall’, which was never built, St Gall, Codex Sangallensis 1092.  You may view a full-size copy of it here.

Nothing comes close to the plan’s level of detail in the 9th century or even until the Renaissance. For centuries, scholars have seen in this drawing a representation of the historic abbey of St Gall. But archeology and source criticism have shown that the plan, however detailed as it might be, doesn’t describe the monastic complex in St Gall as it was in the 9th century when the plan was made. Since then, theories have multiplied as to what the plan might have been for. The best guess is that it may have been intended for a construction project which never took off. In the absence of contextualised narrative sources, we’ll never know.

Pliny’s description of the Laurentine villa and the ‘Plan of St Gall’ tell the same story: a source is always partial, incomplete. It is a view from somewhere, which leaves out all the other views from somewhere else. A jigsaw puzzle delivered with missing pieces. We must seeks the other pieces, but only after we’ve understood that we will never have the full picture. This is not to discourage us, but to teach us humility as we renew our efforts to recover what’s missing, and not to be afraid to constantly review the picture as the evidence requires.


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