Roman Art Projects

September 28, 2015
Roman Relief depicting
  • Apollo Veii, Etruscan, 510–500 BCE
  • Model of an Etruscan temple as described by Vitruvius, Istituto di Etruscologia e di Antichità Italiche, Università di Roma, Rome
  • Sarcophagus with Reclining Couple, Cerveteri, Etruscan, 520 BCE
  • Cerveteri Necropolis, Etruscan, ninth–third centuries BCE
  • Aulus Metellus, Roman, c. 100 BCE
  • Pompey the Great, Roman, copy of an original made 50 BCE
  • Augustus of Primaporta, Roman, 63 BCE–14 CE
  • View of Garden, Villa of Livia, Primaporta, Roman, c. 20 BCE
  • Fresco, Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor, Boscoreale, Roman, 50–40 BCE
  • Pantheon, Rome, Roman, 120–124 CE
  • Arch of Titus, Rome, Roman, 81 CE
  • Fragments of the Colossus of Constantine, Roman, c. 312 CE

Previous lectures in the survey may have highlighted the relationship of art and religion in ancient societies, but this lecture—in addressing Republican realism, Imperial art, and civic building—looks at what happens when art is brought to the service of politics. As a secondary goal, teachers can trace a crucial evolution in architecture toward construction techniques that were cheaper and easier, and that shaped space in new ways.

The timeline covered in this lecture begins with the period of Etruscan and Roman kings in the ninth–eighth centuries BCE, and moves through the Roman Republic (509 BCE) and the Roman Empire (27 BCE) to the reign of Constantine, and his transfer of the capital to Byzantium in 330 CE. Because the Byzantines spoke Greek, were officially Christians, and blended many cultures from around the Mediterranean, we might consider their culture distinct from the Roman. In the West, around Rome, successive waves of so-called “barbarian” invaders arrived as the Roman Empire fell into decline in the fourth and fifth centuries.

You might begin with some images of Ancient Etruscan art, noting that theirs was a related yet distinctive culture in Italy from 800-400 BCE, and not simply a prelude to the Roman. Vitruvius’ description of Etruscan temples in his Ten Books on Architecture (20-30 CE) is a great prompt for discussing how we know what we know about art from antiquity—from a time before cameras, digital recording, and even printing presses. He projects Roman ideals of beauty, based on function, strength, and human proportions, back onto Etruscan architecture. At that writing, Vitruvius was already looking five hundred years into the past. Although their square temples were built, much like Greek ones your students may have already seen, on platforms using post-and-lintel construction, the Etruscans also used the arch (like the Romans would) to build a barrel vault in at least one instance.

When discussing the life-size terracotta sculptures that surmounted those temples, like the Apollo of Veii, encourage students to think like artists: what might be the technical struggles of working with the material? Imagine trying to maintain the shape of a giant lump of wet clay! Have students compare this work to the contemporary Kritios Boy (Greek, 480 BCE) to find reasons why our Apollo here is certainly NOT from Classical Greece (posture, clothing, proportion, etc.). He does borrow aspects from archaic Greek kouroi as well as Near Eastern art. The Etruscans probably knew of these cultures through their continuous trading of natural resources and goods in the Mediterranean. Apollo’s active, almost off-kilter pose represents well the characteristic, fresh liveliness emblematic of Etruscan sculpture, found even in funerary works like the Sarcophagus from Cerveteri.

Like the Etruscans, the Romans assimilated many Greek artistic and building practices, along with the Greek state religion. The Roman religion came to include a more personal worship of ancestors and deified Roman rulers. Rome and Greece, nearby geographically, were mutually aware of one another for centuries before Rome conquered Corinth (in Greece) in 146 BCE. Victors of battles brought Greek objects, architecture, and beliefs back to Rome even earlier in the third century BCE, where Greek culture would become popular among the locals. Romans were also, however, tremendous innovators: they created their own language, Latin, and developed more practical architecture than their predecessors. Artistically, they nurtured Greek humanist naturalism into astounding feats of realism.

Consider building up diagnostic terms like “realism” slowly. You may have introduced “stylization” with the Near East, “idealism” with the Egyptians, and “naturalism” with the Greeks. With those touchstones in hand, students will be prepared to differentiate the term “realism” in the Roman lecture without becoming overwhelmed. Pairing that with the term “verism” can be helpful if you explain that the prefix “ver-” stands for truth (veracity, verify, very). So a realistic sculpture tells some truth about a person, potentially beyond their natural appearance, that can lead to defining a “portrait.” The Romans’ history of ancestor veneration and their making of death masks contributed to their love of portraiture. You might show the class some death masks of celebrities like Beethoven or Alfred Hitchcock, or find others here. Does a portrait have to be veristic? We shall see.

The bronze sculpture of Aulus Metellus is a great introduction to Roman Republican values of wisdom and authority. Consider why an orator or senator is not depicted in the Greek manner, nude and athletic. Or consider how portraiture can be related to propaganda. There is so much specific information about his age, class, and even vocation encoded in Aulus’ face and hairstyle—not to mention his name at the hem of the garment. Students may be able to guess at his role in society simply based on his gesture. Point out the way that gestures communicate with a contemporary portrait of President Obama. (He often smiles and crosses his arms at the same time: “I’m stern, but approachable.”) Photos of Obama standing in front of the Capitol building give you an opportunity to segue into why the early Americans chose the Roman mode for their government buildings.

Rehearse the markers of verism on the bust of Pompey the Great. The frank likeness, with its close-set eyes and paunchy chin, seems difficult to reconcile with the historical memory of such a powerful man. For all its honesty, Pompey’s portrait also manages to affect Alexander the Great (and all the associations of epic leadership) with its tousled locks. Pompey’s greatness comes up in the first few pages of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. That story shifts the lecture to the genesis of the Roman Empire.

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