I can still remember being dumbfounded to learn that our main source of basic information about ancient Greek artists is Books 35 to 37 of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (written in the first century AD). Pliny saw no disjuncture between art history and natural history. It made perfect sense to him to insert a jumbled history of silver chasing and bronze casting in the section on metals, and a history of sculpture, painting, gem engraving and architecture in the sections on stones and earth. Pliny’s organising principle still survives in museums today, even if it is disguised somewhat by an emphasis on chronology and school. London’s National Gallery is effectively the National Pigment Gallery and every photography museum is a repository for paper and silver halides.
Fabio Barry’s hugely ambitious Painting in Stone is Plinian in so far as it exhaustively traces the use of coloured marbles in European architecture. He takes us on a kaleidoscopic odyssey from Mycenae to Baroque Rome, with an epilogue bringing