Thursday, January 20, 2011

Roman Art

Roman art is generally defined as much more than the art of the city of Rome; rather, it is the art of Roman civilization from Romulus to the Emperor Constantine, and covers a period of more than 1,000 years. Many characteristics of Roman art have their origins in the art of the Etruscans, the Romans' predecessors as the dominant culture of Italy. As Roman domination spread through Italy, Europe and the Mediterranean, however, Roman art absorbed this Etruscan style and the Etruscan influence included temple architecture, sculpture, portraiture and wall painting. Rome was also deeply influenced by the art of the Hellenistic world, which had spread to southern Italy and Sicily through the Greek colonies there. Plutarch, writing in the 2nd century AD, wrote that before Rome's conquest of Greek Syracuse in Sicily, 'Rome neither had nor even knew of these refined things, nor was there in the city any love of what was charming and elegant; rather, it was full of barbaric weapons and bloody spoils.' As Greek treasures continued to arrive in Rome, for example after the sack of Corinth in 146 BC, Hellenistic art continued to exert a fascination on the more austere Romans. Yet Greek culture was not fully accepted until the reign of the Emperor Hadrian and his court (AD 117-38). In the later republic and early imperial period Greek artists were brought to Rome where they designed buildings, repaired sculptures and made new ones, and the Hellenization of Roman culture was continually forwarded. Original Greek statues were copied by Roman artists, though usually in marble rather than bronze, and removed from their original contexts. The portrait bust became a popular form, tending to be more realist than Greek portraiture.

Fresco from Pompei

However, Roman art also had its own original contributions. Compared with Greek architecture, Roman was more secular and utilitarian and showed an interest in grandeur and scale, for example in the Colosseum and public baths in Rome. The Romans also developed the use of the arch, the vault and the dome, and discovered concrete, which all allowed for a much grander architecture, its culmination being found in religious buildings such as the Pantheon in Rome and the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Both these buildings (which still stand today) had important influence far beyond the Roman period. The triumphal arch was another Roman invention that was revived in the Renaissance and stands as an important example of Roman civic and monumental architecture. The triumphal arch used relief sculpture and inscription to carry its historic and commemorative messages, and this narrative technique decorated the entire surface of the commemorative Trajan's Column. Relief sculpture was also used for funerary art. The Romans developed the use of mosaic decoration from the Greek example and with wall painting it became an important aspect of patrician domestic decoration, the best surviving examples being from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Wall painting showed an interest in landscape and the illustration of scenes from myth and literature. The decorative arts included fine silver and glassware, such as the Portland Vase, and jewellery of amber, precious gem; and gold.

Fresco from Pompei

Wherever the Roman Empire extended, it took its arts and architecture, and its mosaic, theatres, temples and statuary may be found from Hadrian's Wall in the north of England to Leptis Magna in North Africa, and from Constantinople in the east to Emerita Augusta in Spain in the west. Though the barbarian tribes who finally overran the empire brought their own arts and traditions they held the Roman culture in awe, adopting and adapting their art as well as their laws and religion, by then Christianity, as they saw fit. However it was the 15th century Italian Renaissance that saw the greatest revival of Roman art, and its influence and heritage survives in all branches of the arts today.

- From The Bulfinch Guide to Art History  Further reading on Roman Art:

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