Roman art: Architecture, painting and the human figure

“The culminating phenomenon of ancient history was the rise of a single central Italian city-state from total obscurity to imperial rule over most of the then-known world.”

– Frederick Hartt

Roman empire about 395 A.D.

Roman empire about 395 A.D.

Earlier in the expansion of Rome throughout Europe, Northern Africa and Eastern Asia, the growth of the empire had its consequences reflected in the constant growth of the population and its inevitable problems: poverty, unemployment, lack of water, food or housing. Entertainment, which was a big part of Roman culture, was a key factor in their society,  leading to the edification of amphitheaters, small arenas, and most importantly, the majestic Colosseum. Roman society was disturbing. They found amusement —no matter what your social class was— in combat, between humans, animals, and animals and humans. Their conquering and organizing skills guided them to be a fearful enemy and engineering-wise people, attributes reflected in their city planning, innovations in building massive structures and politics.

As they were conquering new territories, the Romans basically took what they wanted from other cultures and adapted it to their needs. When we talk about sculpture and architecture, it’s easy to see the Greek influence all over, and not only on this subjects, but also in their religion and mythology. We must understand that Rome was open to the influence of cultures that were far more ancient than them, and far more developed in terms of intellectualism and aesthetic achievement. Nevertheless, the Romans adapted all this influences and combined them with their incredible knowledge of law and justice, war, transportation and organisation.

templesThe temples look pretty much like Greek temples. There are significant variations though, mainly because Romans do not share the same ideals of architecture and human figure. Here’s a list of common differences between these two:

  • Romans do not follow the Greek ratio in columns.
  • Entrance is only one way, in the front side.
  • The insertion of the engaged column, a fake column piece being part of the wall structure. It does not have a function (does not hold anything or distributes weight), it’s for mere aesthetic criteria and ornamentation.
  • Scale. Roman architecture is all about scale. Their most important innovation and basic unit for public buildings, the arch, will be an igniter for the creation of massive structures. 
  • They added a man-made material which reinforced their sense of scale for monumental architecture: concrete.

The Pantheon. This structure is one of the greatest monuments ever built. It influenced future edifications in The Renaissance, Middle Ages, The Baroque, and so on. The building should be imagined in it’s natural state: elevated on a podium flaking a central plaza. The circular cella was an innovation in its time along with the massive dome, which is 143 feet in diameter. The spherical structure of the dome was achieved constructing rings of different radius and different concrete formulas, one in top of the other. At its upper part, it is constructed out of lightweight materials and relatively slight thickness, which contrast with the bottom part made out of a sturdy and heavy concrete formula. It was the first time that a monument was built out of a negative space object, which is both mind blowing and beautiful.  The building was meant to be dedicated to the worship of all the gods (Pan=all / Theon=temple), arranging sculptures of all of them in the perimeter of the inside walls.  In the top part of the sphere, there’s a circular window that allows a clear view of the sky, letting the sun and natural light into the walls. This may be interpreted as the sun, which in ancient Roman culture the sun was supposed to be the eye of Zeus.

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Ara Pacis Augustae. “The Altar of Peace” dedicated to Augustus (real name Octavius), first emperor of Rome, is a  large marble structure of approximately 11x11m, renowned for the relief sculptures in it’s outer walls depicting the roman society itself, along with the personification (representation of an abstract idea into a human form) of pagan gods and goddesses. A clear example of personification, which will be a recurrent art asset in Roman sculpture, can be analysed in one of the marble reliefs of the Ara Pacis. Mother Earth, accompanied by Air and Sea are portrayed by gracious and Hellenistic-like goddesses. The interpretation has derived from the hierarchy of scale and the complementary elements of the relief (A rock, a swan and a sea monster). The Imperial Procession, another marble relief, portrays the emperor and members of the imperial family.

Colosseum. Dedicated to emperor Titus in A.D. 80, this massive amphitheater was the house of shows that involved human slaughter, combat and battles between gladiators, that would emulate important roman army battles or conquests and wild beasts fights. The Colosseum was open to all audiences no matter their social hierarchy, even to the unemployed and poor so that they could be delighted with the show, handling as many as 50,000 spectators distributed on multiple levels.  This particular tradition of the Romans can give us a glimpse of the society they lived in.
If we analyse the graphic language of the structure, we can see a wide arrangement of columns and arches running in multiple stories: the first level has Tuscan order columns (a roman adaptation of the Greek order), the second has Ionic order columns and on the third level Corinthian order columns. Interesting enough, these columns have no structural function and merely for decoration. This ”useless” columns can be referred and engaged columns. The top level is conformed by pilasters, also an architectural element with the purpose of ornamentation that looks like a supporting column.

The corridors of the Colosseum were made with concrete, using new technology derived from the arch, known as the barrel vault and groin vault. This structures were constantly used in the edification of their big scale buildings.

Triumphal Arches.  There are a few of these in Rome, meant to honor the important deeds of generals and emperors. The Arch of Titus depicts his triumphal entrance, where Roman legionaries are seen carrying trumpets in representation of victory and fanfare. The arch of Trajan on the other hand, makes Titus’s arch look like modest relief sculpting. Trajan’s arch is way more detailed and deep in carving, enriched by a series of panels filling every part of the surface. The arches usually had a personification of Victory, leading their way into Rome (or sometimes even crossing their own arch).

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There are several differences between the classical Greek figure and the way that the Romans depicted it:

  • Fragmentation of the body (Roman busts are an example). Roman art has a different conception about the human figure. They did not see the body and mind as a whole as Greeks did. The absence of this ideal lead them to sculpt in multiple occasions busts and heads only.
  • Nudity is mostly avoid, covering the characters with clothing. Roman society associated the nude figure directly to sensuality, which caused conflict to the message they wanted to communicate.
  • The ideal of the perfect man didn’t have to do with youth or aesthetic, the ideal of men was wisdom. That is a reason why we can see various busts or sculptures representing the emperor in turn as and aged man, which sometimes was an alteration of the actual age of the subject, ”adding years” to their appearance and make them look older and wiser.
  • In other words, Romans idealize the mind and thinking.

You can also find in certain sculptures the use of an aged face but in a young-like body, which makes no sense at all. The mix of ideals made some sculptures look creepy and irrational. The ideals also led to make a misinterpretation of the truth, which gives us a doubtful feeling of the surviving sculptures nowadays.

On the counterpart, sculpture in Rome has an exceptional finish and technique, at least on the artwork we can see throughout this post. The spirit of the Greek culture still lives in their art pieces, showing a great understanding of anatomy, volume, silhouette and weight.

 

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In the late Republican years of the Romans (Republic period from 509-27 B.C.), houses were filled with wall paintings. The direct reference for wall painting research is the city of Pompeii, which is where the earliest apartment houses were discovered. In the first years of The Republic, the roman people lived in an austere environment, but as the culture flourished so did the appreciation of art.

There are four styles that we can identify in the roman households:

  • First Pompeiian style. Consisted in using low cost materials such as stucco to model and paint panels imitating marble. The color palette had rich red, tan and green, enclosed with white frames.
  • Second Pompeiian style. More imaginative and free style, transforming walls into a landscape view sometimes filled with architectural imagery or wide open natural fields, filled with detailed and even principles of one point perspective. Ryan Finnerty has defined this as the Western Picture Plane, an illusionary window onto a rational space, wether it is a landscape or an architectural structure. In some of these paintings we see a lot of information, such as lightning and color principles, shadows, transparency, value and other design principles that end in the composition of complex and interesting pictures.
  • Third Pompeiian style. Shows a very different conception of artwork, more towards the decorative and ornamental part of visual elements. Its a combination of architectural fantasy (crazy perspective relationships), but with incredible detail nonetheless.
  • Fourth Pompeiian style. The most fantastic and playful style of all. In some paintings we see a rational approach to a landscape with imaginative lightning, but in others we see a mix of the 3 previous styles, combining architecture with landscape and ornamentation. The study of light, value and color is beautiful.

With the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius, Pompeii and Herculanum were completely destroyed, but their art prevailed.

To make things clearer, we can now spot differences between Greek art and Roman art. We may think that there’s a thin line between these two, but if we observe carefully, we can identify easily to which culture the work of art belongs to.

Continuing with the cartoon character design sketches, I decided to pick the most exotic sculpture of Roman art, “Commodus as Hercules”. To me this sculpture is bizarre and slightly ridiculous, but it definitely tells a story about the character and his personality.

Commodus as Hercules - cartoon

Commodus as Hercules – cartoon

I hope you enjoyed the post!

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Bibliography

  • Hartt, Frederick. Art: a history of painting, sculpture, architecture. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall. 1989. Print.
  • William Lloyd MacDonald. The Pantheon: Design, meaning and progeny. Harvard University Press, 2002.
  • Lewis Mumford. The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1961.
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