DIBUTADES AND THE ORIGIN OF DRAWING, according to Pliny the Elder
Francisco Martínez Mindeguía, Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya


David Allan, The origin of painting, 1773

According to a tradition from a story by Gaius Plinius Secundus (Pliny the Elder), the Roman writer of the first century A.D. (23-79), a potter’s daughter from Corinth, named Dibutades made the very first drawing. This girl had a beloved friend who was about to travel away from his city. Prior to his departure, the girl marked the contour of the boy’s head on a wall, following the shadow produced by a lamp’s light.  She later asked her father to do a ceramic piece with this shape. This poetic image was famous in the 18th and 19th centuries, leading to many representations. One of them is the one on the left, by the painter David Allan, in 1773.



Like all classical stories, improved in time, this one allows to understand well a specific conception of drawing, classical as well. It helps to illustrate the drawing containing life notes, but also the projected drawing (if the project was the design of the ceramic piece). It also works as a representation drawing, because the drawing was left on the wall afterwards.
However, if we accept this poetic image, as it has been the case for a long time, drawing was not born as a communication means, but for remembrance. Dibutades’ daughter did not keep a portrait of his friend, but rather the contour of his head, something sufficient, so that anyone who knew him could remember him.

According to this, a drawing only reproduces a fragment of reality, and recognizing what it represents requires knowing before whatever is represented. In a more elaborate process, it requires having established some shared interpretation codes and having turned drawing into a language, with which to explain what is still unknown.

(The next image is a painting by Jean-Baptiste Regnault, in 1785)


Probably, Dibutades’ daughter drew the shaded contour after lighting laterally the boy’s head, in order to keep his characteristic profile. The choice of this profile is almost as important as the fact of keeping it on the wall. The wall is the support, the proof that it does exist, but the selection is the drawing. A drawing is the selection of whatever is valued as well as the elimination of whatever is not interesting to show.

(The next drawing is by the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, painted in 1830)


Here, Schinkel changes the original idea, maybe because he is an architect:

He modifies the intimate interior for a public exterior, so the drawing is done in front of everybody; therefore, they all know what is being represented. Interpretation is no longer subjective, and now it is objective, agreed, and accepted by everybody.

QThe person who draws the contour is a simple shepherd following the girl’s directions, who is orientating the boy’s head. Schinkel distinguishes in this way between the person who actually draws and the intellectual director of the drawing.

ASunlight is used here; therefore, the conic projection of the lamp’s light mentioned above has been substituted by a cylindrical projection, and subsequently, the perspective drawing is changed for an elevation drawing.

Recommended bibliography:
- Robert Rosenblum, "The Origin of Painting: A Problem in the Iconography of Romantic Classicism", The Art Bulletin, vol. 39, n. 4, 1957, pp. 279-290.
- George Levitine, Addenda to Robert Rosenblum, "The Origin of Painting: A Problem in the Iconography of Romantic Classicism", The Art Bulletin, vol. 40, n. 4, 1958, pp. 329-331.
- Robin Evans, "Translations From Drawings to Buildings", AA Files, 12, 1986, pp. 3-18.
- Frances Muecke, ""Taught by Love": The Origin of Painting Again", The Art Bulletin, vol. 81, n. 2, 1999, pp. 297-302.

© of the texts Francisco Martínez Mindeguía
Francisco Martínez Mindeguía is Profesor Agregado at the Superior Technical Architecture School of Vallès (Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura del Vallès), UPC.
© by Ruth Costa Alonso, Francisco Martínez Mindeguía, and Antonio Millán: English translation

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