roman empire art
Artworks were looted from conquered cities and brought back for the appreciation of the public, foreign artists were employed in Roman cities, schools of art were created across the empire, technical developments were made, and workshops sprang up everywhere. Such was the demand for artworks, production lines of standardised and mass produced objects filled the empire with art. And here is another factor in Rome’s favour, the sheer quantity of surviving artworks. Such sites as Pompeii, in particular, give a rare insight into how Roman artworks were used and combined to enrich the daily lives of citizens. Art itself became more personalised with a great increase in private patrons of the arts as opposed to state sponsors. This is seen in no clearer form than the creation of lifelike portraits of private individuals in paintings and sculpture. Like no other civilization before it, art became accessible not just to the wealthiest but also to the lower middle classes.
The Romans favoured bronze and marble above all else for their finest work. However, as metal has always been in high demand for reuse, most of the surviving examples of Roman sculpture are in marble. The Roman taste for Greek and Hellenistic sculpture meant that once the supply of original pieces had been exhausted sculptors had to make copies, and these could be of varying quality depending on the sculptor’s skills. Indeed, there was a school specifically for copying celebrated Greek originals in Athens and Rome itself. Roman sculptors also produced miniaturised copies of Greek originals, often in bronze, which were collected by art-lovers and displayed in cabinets in the home.
Above is a marble statue of Augustus the first Emperor of Rome. He is shown here wearing a traditional Roman toga while performing his duties as Pontifex Maximus.
Roman sculpture played an important part of the Roman daily life. Sculptures took the form of full statues, busts (sculptures of just a person’s head), reliefs (sculptures that were part of a wall), and sarcophagi (sculptures on tombs). The Ancient Romans decorated with sculptures in a number of places including public buildings, public parks, and private homes and gardens.
Plan of the Baths of Diocletian, Rome.
The central part of the baths now forms
the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli
Children born of a freedman after his manumission were free of all special restrictions and the son of a freedman gained the right to join the army. Alongside representations of toga-wearing men and women wrapped in mantles were the citizens in arms, in the heroically nuked pose of Greek derivation. The number of individuals represented, including those still living, and the size of the monument, constituted a metaphor of pride and hope for the growing family. The figures vary greatly: each one has a story to tell: it is a record of the past and a model for the future. For example, the gestures of the married couple in the Gratidii group tell a love story. The static, frontal representation of individual faces derives from Italic tradition, but the overall composition has elements both of classical nobilitv and Greek sentiment.
Of course it is wrong to say that Roman art was devoid of innovation: its urban architecture was ground-breaking, as was its landscape painting and portrait busts. Nor is it true that Roman artists produced no great masterpieces – witness the extraordinary relief sculpture on monuments like Ara Pacis Augustae and Trajan’s Column. But on the whole, we can say that Roman art was predominantly derivative and, above all, utilitarian. It served a purpose, a higher good: the dissemination of Roman values along with a respect for Roman power. As it transpired, classical Roman art has been immensely influential on many subsequent cultures, through revivalist movements like Neoclassical architecture, which have shaped much European and American architecture, as exemplified by the US Capitol Building The lesser-known Classical Revival in modern art (1900-30) led to a return to figure painting as well as new abstract movements like Cubism.
Like the Romans themselves, early Roman art (c.510 BCE to 27 BCE) tended to be realistic and direct. Portraits, both two-dimensional and three-dimensional, were typically detailed and unidealized, although later during the age of Hellenistic-Roman art (c.27 BCE – 200 CE), the Romans became aware of the propaganda value of busts and statuary, and sought to convey political messages through poses and accessories. The same PR value was accorded to relief sculpture (see, for instance, the Column of Marcus Aurelius), and to history painting (see, Triumphal Paintings, below). Thus when commemorating a battle, for example, the artwork used would be executed in a realistic – almost “documentary” style. This realistic down-to-earth Roman style is in vivid contrast to Hellenistic art which illustrated military achievements with mythological imagery. Paradoxically, one reason for the ultimate fall of Rome was because it became too attached to the propagandist value of its art, and squandered huge resources on grandiose building projects purely to impress the people. Construction of the Baths of Diocletian (298-306), for instance, monopolised the entire brick industry of Rome, for several years.
From the 3rd century BC, a specific genre known as Triumphal Paintings appeared, as indicated by Pliny (XXXV, 22). These were paintings which showed triumphal entries after military victories, represented episodes from the war, and conquered regions and cities. Summary maps were drawn to highlight key points of the campaign. These paintings have disappeared, but they likely influenced the composition of the historical reliefs carved on military sarcophagi, the Arch of Titus, and Trajan’s Column. This evidence underscores the significance of landscape painting, which sometimes tended towards being perspective plans.
Roman art includes architecture, painting, sculpture and mosaic work. Luxury objects in metal-work, gem engraving, ivory carvings, and glass, are sometimes considered in modern terms to be minor forms of Roman art, although this would not necessarily have been the case for contemporaries.