The Arts: Overview

views updated

264-476: The Arts: Overview

Art and Life. Literature is about life, about what it means to be human in any given place at some time, about human pursuits and aspirations, which may or may not coincide with those of its author. Even a literature that is self-conscious, that is aware of its being literature, tells the reader something about the life and times that have generated it. In the process of reading, readers are engaged in a dialogue with the world of the author, who invites us constantly to compare their own experiences with the ones being presented, whether they be real, fictional, modeled on previous literature or some of all these. Like all the arts, literature at first engages emotion rather than intellect. As the poet Horace said, “The aim of a poet is either to benefit or to please.” People “like” or “dislike” a piece of music or a painting; they are “moved,” that is, transported from a neutral emotional state to a heightened one, by a statue or a play. The artistic productions humans all over the world have found most satisfying and valuable, however, are also the ones that go beyond the emotional appeal. In order to engage readers’ thinking, literature more often than not uses fictional stories and patterned, unrealistic speech that allows detachment from personal worlds with limited viewpoints and catch a glimpse of the larger picture that is human life. Reflection seems to require distance; when looking at the world described by a Roman author, readers are therefore really looking at themselves, their own lives, values, ideals, and sensitivities.

The Challenge of the Greeks. The Roman literary pursuits start at about the time at which Greece was going into a serious decline. Alexander the Great had conquered the known world and exposed it to Greek culture, thus “hellenizing” the entire Mediterranean and Near East. When Roman writers look for models, they naturally look toward Greece and at first absorb Hellenistic literature, for example, works written after Alexander’s empire broke apart. Roman writers experienced their encounter with the Greek works of all ages as a major challenge, which led to widespread feelings of inferiority. Reactions to this challenge differ and a growing sense of self-assurance that belies the image of inferiority emerges over time. Early writers such as Livius Andronicus, Plautus, and Terence follow their models much more closely than their successors. While they clearly do not translate, they produce Roman versions of their models. The degree of freedom with which Plautus makes changes to his Greek models—as well as the self-conscious artistry that Terence expresses explicitly in his prologues—indicate, however, that even these writers were not at all overawed by the Greeks. With growing self-assurance Latin literati actually invite comparison with their Greek models; examples of this are Vergil in all his works and Horace in his Odes and Epodes. The Aeneid has an obvious Homeric flair, while at the same time telling a Roman foundation myth that is driven by a Roman, teleological view of the world and Roman values such as pietas (sense of duty). Horace invites comparison with Greek lyric poetry by his meters and some of his mottoes, but his pragmatic attitude to life and his repeated reflections on recent Roman history, as well as to Roman virtues in the “Roman Odes,” show how different he really is. Even in genres that are uniquely Roman, such as satire, the precedence of the Greeks is so powerful that Horace looks back to Greek comedy as well as the poetics of the Hellenistic poet Callimachus when outlining his approach to writing satire (Sat. 1.4,1.10,2.1). Similarly, the love elegy, for which there is no exact Greek counterpart, uses themes from Hellenistic epigram, comedy, and pastoral poetry as well as Greek myth to form a new and distinctly Roman genre.

Learning. One of the side effects of this continuing obsession with the Greeks stems from the repeated influence of Hellenistic rather than classical Greek literature. The first wave hit Rome when Plautus and Terence used Hellenistic comedy as their models. In the late Republic and early empire, however, poets were looking back to the Alexandrian poet Callimachus to define their own choice of smaller genres and increased formal polish. This second wave brought with it an emphasis on learning as a literary virtue. Callimachus had been the head of the best library of the world at the time—the fabled library of Alexandria, in Egypt—and this showed in his literary works and his idea of what poetry should look like: he preferred short over long works and emphasized learning in poetry. In his wake, Roman writers start to strive for highly artificial word order, they make their meters smoother and more regular, and they pay attention to structural patterns such as framing or ring-composition. Above all else, as voracious readers they unconsciously echo and deliberately refer to the works they have read. Hence, Latin literary criticism is quite obsessed with verbal parallels or “allusions” to this day. The difficulty these days lies not in finding a verbal parallel for what a Roman writer is saying, but in evaluating it. While the trend in recent years has been to claim that any parallel is a meaningful parallel, the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way again since not every parallel needs to be meaningful; it might just be a coincidental echo of a phrase that lingered in the poet’s memory. The challenge to readers is in applying their judgment rather than indulging in their own poetic memory.

Use of Greek Myths. Learning also manifests itself in the frequent use of Greek myth in illustrative examples. Callimachus had advocated telling uncommon versions of myths or parts of well-worn stories hitherto unknown. So his friend Theocritus writes about the unrequited love of the man-eating Cyclops Polyphemus from Homer’s Odyssey. Vergil’s Aeneid does the same thing by telling the story of Aeneas, who had been just a minor character in Homer’s Iliad. More than that, he combines the story of Aeneas’s travels with that of Dido, Queen of Carthage, thereby giving a mythical explanation or aition for the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage.

Mos maiorum: The Ways of Our Ancestors. Such aitia pervade Roman literature. What had been a vehicle for displaying mythical learning in Callimachus becomes much more important for the Romans. In general they had an extremely high regard for historical precedent, which they called mos maiorum. Anything that would link the past with the present was therefore deeply meaningful to them. It gave them a sense of their own roots and could also be used for purposes of political propaganda, especially if a mythical ancestor was lulus, as in the case of the family of the lulii. Stories about the mythical past were therefore highly significant for any writer’s present. Even historical narratives acquire the weight of being a guide to life rather than simply an accurate account of what happened. Livy, for instance, tells his history to provide shining examples of senatorial virtue; Sallust gives historical instances of the ruling classes’ corruption, which is ruining Rome. Readers are to learn something from history and other genres as well since writers in general are thought to have a didactic effect on their audience.

Patronage. One of the least mentioned but most salient characteristics of almost all the writers to be discussed in this chapter is that hardly any of them are native Romans. Most came from the outlying towns of Italy and were sent to Rome by their aristocratic families to be educated, but then stayed. If they generally came from local nobility in their hometown, they held Roman citizenship and received equestrian status in the capital. It is therefore somewhat surprising that many of them depended in some way or another on a patron, one who is a sponsor of higher social status and greater wealth. Equestrians by definition had to have an estate of at least 400,000 sesterces. If invested in land, this would give an average return of 6 percent or 24,000 sesterces per year. If Martial (Epigr. 3.10) makes fun of a young wastrel who has a monthly allowance of 2,000 sesterces per month, then 24,000 must have been enough money to live on. If a person had a family, little was left for any frills, but even so, the family would survive on this sum. In spite of their own protestations, poets were therefore not “poor”; they just had to live simple lives. They had the free time (otium) to do their writing without holding down a job. They did not, however, need a patron to help with their rent or their grocery bills. While it is true that a patron could provide the occasional free meal and arrange an advantageous marriage, their main job was to help disseminate literary works. This duty was extremely important since there was no huge publishing industry like the one that currently exists. In return the patrons received the writers’ thanks and often had works dedicated to them. There is, therefore, little evidence of literary works being directly commissioned other than Horace’s Secular Hymn. Writers dedicated their works to their patrons as tokens of gratitude for past benefits or in expectation of future acts of kindness.

Key Questions in Literature. Latin literature from Ennius to Boethius covers about seven and a half centuries during which the Roman world underwent stunning changes. Providing a survey of Latin material is fraught with difficulties. Rather than mapping all the changes and listing as many writers as possible, this chapter will concentrate on the major figures and among them give most space to those widely read in schools. Recurring questions will be: 1. How do they present the world? 2. What are their main concerns? 3. How do they deal with their Greek or Roman predecessors?

The Spell of Greek Art. As in their literature, so in visual art, the Romans—at least as far back as the third century b.c.e. —fell under the spell of Greek art, and were profoundly influenced by it. A chief indication of this interest is the large numbers of Greek artists that migrated or were brought to Rome from the second century b.c.e. onward. But Roman art involves much more than the mere replication of an older art form, and “influence” need not imply an inability to adapt and select from earlier forms to produce styles and techniques that are distinctive in their own right. To see the Romans’ greatest artistic accomplishment as the preserver of a type of art that may be more intuitively appealing to modern romantic sensibilities would be to miss out on their own significant and durable contributions to the art and architecture of the Western tradition.

Cultural Changes. While over several centuries new styles and techniques were developed in media, the fact remains that many practitioners of Roman art were not themselves natives of Rome. This is only to be expected, when we consider the vast expanse of Rome’s empire, and especially the political, social, and religious changes within the Roman world. Among these are the shift from a republic to imperial regime, the rise and fall of imperial dynasties (many originating from the provinces), the transition from paganism to the adoption of Christianity as the official religion, and the geographical shift from Rome to Constantinople as permanent imperial residence. Another significant feature at work in Roman art and architecture, of course, is the inevitable stimulus afforded by the expansion of the empire, and contact with art from all over the Mediterranean. Some have, with reason, spoken of the “problem” of identifying what is “Roman” about Roman art, as a result of these factors. But one can identify among the most salient features of Roman art over a period of great changes their technical architectural advances, which develop classical forms on a grand civic scale. We may also consider the important role of private patronage, and the largely commemorative function of artworks in the service of the state or individual. These concepts enable us to grasp with some plausibility many of the main characteristics of the visual monuments and artworks produced under the auspices of Rome from about 180 b.c.e. to the early fourth century C.E.—a period of five hundred years or so.

Christian Art. The accession of Constantine, emperor from 306-337 C.E., and his conversion to Christianity, as well as the shift to Constantinople, all raise the issue of how Christian art is to be dealt with. Detailed treatment of early Christian art is beyond our scope here, not least because such art and its ideological motivations do not come to an end in 476 C.E., when the Roman empire in the West finally fell. More importantly, much in the significance and functions of Christian art can be seen to be separate from the main concerns and motivations behind Roman art of the pre-Christian era. It is true that in stylistic terms, certain features of later pagan Roman artworks anticipate much in early Christian iconography. At the same time, some early Christian artworks maintain Classical pagan forms and techniques of representation. It is also true that the changes under Constantine did not lead to a severance from all things Roman in the East. Indeed, although speakers and writers of Greek, the Byzantines specifically referred to themselves as Rhômaioi —Romans. However, in general terms, what does change under Christianity is the increasingly symbolic and didactic nature of art, which, unlike pagan art, depended on a canonical text for its meaning, and which consistently guided the viewer to the next world rather than glorying in this one. Herein lies a significant contrast with major facets of Roman art of all types in preceding centuries, with the result that in Christian imagery important breaks from older narrative techniques emerge. The pagan past was not vanquished under the Constantinian regime, as is attested by the attempts of Julian (emperor from 360-363 C.E.) to revive the religion and customs of pagan antiquity. In fact, the Christian church played a key role in preserving substantial amounts of the literature and philosophy of the Greco-Roman world that would otherwise have been lost forever—a remarkable achievement for a sect once persecuted under pagan Rome. Yet, the long-term changes in the forms and functions of art traceable to Constantine’s succession make it plausible to see in his regime a period of major transition.

Etruscan Influences. Important early influences on the art of the Roman world are traceable to other parts of Italy, notably Etruria, the region of the Etruscans. These people were, in fact, the rulers of Rome for a while, and when the Romans established their republic in 509 b.c.e. the king they expelled was an Etruscan. Roman familiarity with Etruscan art thus goes back a long way. When the Romans conquered Veii in southern Etruria in 396 b.c.e., they again would have been confronted with examples of Etruscan art, which had reached sophisticated levels especially in the form of temple architecture, funerary sculpture, and fresco painting in tombs. Etruscan art appears to have grown out of an earlier Italian culture of a people called the Villanovans, some of whose metalwork and pottery were discovered near Bologna in 1853, and which date back to the Iron Age period (circa 1000-700 b.c.e.). A more important strand in the development of Etruscan art, which was to have profound effects more directly on the Romans, was the impact of Greek art, especially from the sixth century b.c.e. onward. Vast quantities of pots were imported into Etruria, and Greek fresco painting as well as sculpture clearly stimulated much in the stylistic development of Etruscan art. It is significant, then, to realize that the Romans, on seeing Etruscan art from an early stage, were also looking at forms frequently adapted from Greek art.

Greek vs. Roman. No treatment of Roman art can afford to ignore what the Greeks had achieved before them. Understanding this not only makes clearer what they borrowed from the Greeks—a debt freely acknowledged by many Romans themselves—but displays more fully what differentiates significant aspects of Roman art from Greek prototypes. Detailed exploration of this important area is beyond the scope of this work, but some very general points should be noted, beginning with the realization that Roman attitudes to visual artworks were often shaped by different motivations to those of the Greeks. Among these are the use (or abuse) of artworks as booty, the explicit commemoration of historical events, and the wish to venerate one’s ancestors in the form of portrait sculpture.

Greek Imports. Greek colonies in southern Italy and Sicily from as early as the eighth century b.c.e. would have brought Greek artifacts within early Rome’s sphere of influence, independently of the Etruscans. It is chiefly from the third century b.c.e., however, that events in the Roman reception of Greek art take a decisive turn. Conflict with Greek colonies at Tarentum in the 270s b.c.e. and Hellenistic kingdoms, such as that of Pyrrhus of Epirus bring the Romans more fully into direct contact with Greek art and customs in their own environment. Indeed, a watershed in the history of Rome’s response to Greek art and culture can be understood in Marcellus’s sack of Syracuse in 211 b.c.e., which also exposed the conquerors to the learning and rhetoric of this once-flourishing Greek colony, founded in 733 b.c.e. Masses of artworks were brought to Rome in the form of booty, creating in many Romans a fascination with the Greek world that was to be a marked feature of Roman culture overall. In fact, so strong was this inclination toward Greek art that it sparked outcries from such powerful figures of the day as Cato (234-149 b.c.e.). Nonetheless, Rome’s further acquisitions of both mainland Greece by 146 b.c.e. and sophisticated Hellenistic kingdoms such as Pergamon in 133 b.c.e. increased exposure to Greek art. By the late second century b.c.e. a huge market for Greek art had grown, attracting artists from the Greek world to Rome, which by now had become the great power in the Mediterranean. It is also from this time that the earliest significant examples of extant Roman art and architecture appear on a continued basis. As well, this is when the era of copies, private art collections, connoisseurship and even forgeries—an era of which we are the inheritors today—begins.

Danger of Eastern Influences. In a speech that he ascribes to Cato, Livy (34.4.1-4) conveys the conservative reaction of some Romans to the influx of art that came into Rome in the wake of Marcellus’s sacking of Syracuse in 211 B.C.E, considered to have degenerate effects:

You have often heard me complaining about the extravagances of women and often about those of men…and how the state suffers from two diverse vices, avarice and luxury, those pests which have overturned all great empires. I come to fear these even more as the fortune of the Republic becomes greater and more pleasant every day and the empire grows—now we have even moved over into Greece and Asia, places which are full of every sort of libidinous temptation, and we are even putting our hands on royal treasuries. For I fear that these will make prisoners of us rather than we of them. They are dangers, believe me, those statues which have been brought into the city from Syracuse. For now I fear too many people praising and marveling at the ornaments of Corinth and Athens and laughing at our terracotta antefixes of the Roman gods. I prefer these gods, who are propitious and will remain so, I hope, if we permit them to remain in their proper places.

Figuring Actuality. Amid all this fascination with Greek art, from an early stage Roman art shows a greater inclination than Greek art toward depiction of actual events and persons. This feature is directly linked to a type of triumphal art designed both to celebrate Rome’s ongoing military conquests, and to function as a statement of the personal and political power of the individual who commissioned it. Of course, the Greeks could depict recent historical events in grand public display—Micon’s painting in the stoa of Athens of the famous Greek victory over the Persians at Marathon in 490 b.c.e. is an example. But more often famous battles were commemorated by the Greeks in the depiction of mythic battles between, for instance, heroes and centaurs, or Olympian gods and giants. It is no coincidence that such imagery becomes widespread in the wake of the Greeks’ defeat of the invading Persian forces in 480-79 b.c.e. For the Greeks, then, military victories seem more often to be celebrated in mythical allegories, whereas the Romans tended to be more explicit and direct in the visual celebration of military triumphs. For instance, we hear that Marcellus commissioned a number of paintings celebrating his conquest in Syracuse; similarly, Aemilius Paullus had a sculptural monument at Delphi made depicting details of his victory at Pydna in 168-7 b.c.e.

Commemorative Monuments. The typically Roman impulse to depict events and figures recent in their history finds famous expression in the Arch of Titus (81 C.E.), commemorating that emperor’s destruction of Jerusalem, and presenting him in the company of the allegorical figure of Victory. The Ara pacis, or Altar of Peace, set up by Augustus (13-9 b.c.e.) combines further allegorical imagery with depiction of real people, including the emperor and his family. These monuments, among others, incorporate another great Roman contribution to visual art:namely, the mastery of sculptural friezes on a vast scale. Again, great sculptural friezes were produced by the Greeks, such as the Parthenon frieze on the famous temple of Athena on the Athenian Acropolis. But the Romans added elements of their own to this medium, such as the treatment of hugely crowded, multilayered scenes, and the further exploration of spatial depth, as well as the historical subject matter. Over time many public sculptural friezes become somewhat flatter, the figures more frontal and the overall design more openly schematic and symmetrical, anticipating further developments in Christian and Byzantine art. The Arch of Constantine (circa 312-315 C.E.), patched together from earlier imperial arches, has long been regarded as a hybrid of styles. Sculptured friezes can also be found on smaller media such as stone or marble sarcophagi (funeral caskets), which betray the influence of Etruscan art, as well as domestic chests. Yet, perhaps the most striking example of Roman innovation in sculptural relief is the great spiral frieze along Trajan’s Column (113 C.E.), which celebrates recent victories over the Dacians, and is a tour de force unparalleled in the Greek world.

Pietas. The veneration felt by pious, mostly aristocratic Romans for their ancestors is a significant feature of the Roman cultural value system, conveyed best in the word pietas, origin of our “piety” The word pius is consistently applied by Vergil to the central figure of his epic poem, the Aeneid. This value also underlies the custom of carrying portraits of the deceased during the funeral procession which, during the Republic, were worn as masks by males within the family who most resembled the dead man being commemorated. These masks were probably wax, so they have not survived, but statues of wealthy Romans carrying ancestral busts, datable to the early first century b.c.e., reveal a desire to commemorate ancestors in more durable materials, as well as in closely realistic detail. In the Classical Greek era (circa 480-323 b.c.e.) portrait sculpture was rarer and tended to be somewhat idealized and for exalted figures of state. Alexander the Great (356-323 b.c.e.) commissioned his favorite sculptor, Lysippos, to produce his portraits in a famously stylized manner, which propagated his image and the idea of ruler-cult throughout his empire. Under some Hellenistic rulers more realistic tendencies emerged, as in the image of the puffy-faced Euthydemos of Bactria (circa 200 b.c.e.). As well, during the Hellenistic period many famous philosophers, such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were commemorated in portraits, which present them as recognizable individuals even if the accuracy of their facial details remains questionable. While the evident wish for genuine realism in Roman sculpture seems to stem from a uniquely Roman ritual, it may have received further impetus from contact with certain Hellenistic regal portraits. In any event, we sometimes find a literally “warts-and-al” realism in many Roman portraits in both the republican and imperial ages, which gives them a striking immediacy. As well, many of these technically accomplished images seem to offer a glimpse of the sitter’s personality.

Architectural Advances. In architecture, within Rome and in many parts of the empire, great advances were made both in scale, design, and use of materials. Temple architecture reflected both Etruscan and Greek influences, and, in addition to Greek styles of columns, the Romans used the Tuscan and Composite orders. Moreover, the Romans invented new building types and made innovations to older designs, such as adding multistoried façades behind the acting area of Greek theaters. The amphitheater—literally a “theater on both sides”—was a Roman invention designed to accommodate the masses attending gladiatorial and other kinds of spectacles. Such a building with its tiers surrounding a central arena serves as the prototype of the modern sports stadium, and was most potently embodied by the Colosseum (circa 80 C.E.). The Romans’ use of concrete marks another significant shift from earlier building techniques, and enabled the construction of complex vaulting systems in public buildings such as the Sanctuary to Fortuna Primigenia (circa 80 b.c.e.), Imperial Markets of Trajan (circa 100-112 C.E.), and vast public baths like those dedicated by Caracalla (circa 211-17 C.E.). The great dome of the Pantheon (rebuilt 125-8 C.E.) depends largely on the use of concrete, which is exploited to awe-inspiring visual effect in this temple grandly dedicated to all the gods.

Paintings. A further significant element within Roman art is the partial survival of large-scale painting on wood panel and in fresco form. Notable examples come from Rome itself and other areas such as Pompeii and Herculaneum—two cities buried under the volcanic ash of Vesuvius during its eruption in 79 C.E. The disaster for the locals of Pompeii and Herculaneum proved to be an archaeological boon for later ages, since the ash preserved the fragile material from the elements. The almost complete loss of earlier Greek monumental painting makes the Roman survivals all the more precious, and it seems likely that many Roman paintings copy or modify Greek originals. Like sculptors, many successful Greek painters worked for Roman patrons from the late second century b.c.e. onwards. Surviving subject matter includes Greek myths; urban, architectural, and natural landscapes; as well as anonymous scenes of ritual or everyday activity. Here, too, the rich heritage of Etruscan funerary painting seems to have had some influence in style and technique. Four Roman styles have been identified over the 180 years or so covered by this kind of painting, which reveal varying treatment of spatial depth, use of color, and so on. Mosaics remained a popular art form in domestic and more grandiose settings. Many from Pompeii and elsewhere have been unearthed, and show considerable details of workmanship and a diversity of subject matter similar to that found in painting, as well as stylistic variations over time. Portable paintings beyond 79 C.E. are known elsewhere from the Roman world, most notably the Fayum in Egypt, where many vivid funerary portraits on wood depicting apparently well-to-do men, women, and children have been found, datable from the late first century C.E. and lasting well over a century. Portraits on coins dating from the time of Julius Caesar, and later imperial images in gems and other stones testify to the Romans’ use of various media for depicting real people, often with great skill.

Various Sources. Apart from the material remains, information about Roman art and artists can be found in various ancient written sources dating back to the second century b.c.e. These include inscriptions, which tend to be very brief, giving little more than the name of the patron, building, and the consulship or principate at the time of the monument. Literary evidence can sometimes be more informative, especially when so many artifacts are unsigned. As many Greek artists had done, a number of practitioners active in the Roman period wrote about their work, but none of these writings has survived in any form, except for Vitruvius’s treatise, On Architecture. Written at the time of Augustus, this explains some of the theoretical and practical issues confronting a practicing architect and engineer of the period. The encyclopedic Natural History of Pliny the Elder, who died during the eruption of Vesuvius of 79 C.E., is the main source for artists and their work in the Roman period, as indeed it provides detailed descriptions of Greek artists. But Pliny was hardly an “art historian” in the modern sense; rather he was a compiler of various traditions, and likely a preserver of older theories. Other Greek and Latin texts—historiographical, legal, and biographical—provides certain insights into the roles, functions, and receptions of art in the Roman world. Sources as varied as Cicero, Livy, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio provide some idea of what meanings art and architecture could have in the Roman world. These media often employed to express political power and honor individual memory or to glut the megalomania of certain emperors. Artworks reduced to booty by corrupt officials; indeed, Cicero provides evidence not only of this occurrence, but also points to a more reverent attitude to artworks among the Greek residents of Sicily that makes the plundering of their art so hard to bear. In other ancient views, such as Cato’s, the lure of visual art is even denigrated as a moral threat to traditional Roman values. By way of contrast or parallel, these and other responses serve as valuable reference points for modern approaches to Roman art. For they can raise awareness of the assumptions underlying contemporary concepts of what art is and what it could or should be.

Loss of Artworks. During a prosecution speech (Verr. 2.4.132) Cicero gives an impression of the demoralizing effects of the greed of Verres, who plundered Sicily during his magistracy there, and brought misery to the locals who esteemed their lost artworks:

Do you think they have been afflicted with only moderate grief? It is not so, judges. First because they are all moved by religious feeling and because they feel that they must maintain and worship diligently those national gods which they have received from their ancestors; and second, because Greeks delight in this kind of ornamentation, in works of art and artistry, in statues and paintings more than in anything else. And consequently, from their mournful complaints we are able to understand how these things seem so terribly bitter to them which to us might seem less serious and hardly so worrisome.

Legacy. The varied forms and styles of Roman art-the painting, sculpture, and especially architecture produced in Rome or for Roman patrons—constitute one of the great legacies of the ancient Mediterranean world to the modern. And even a brief word on this huge topic is apt here. It is through the Romans that much of Greek architecture and art, especially sculpture, was able to survive at least indirectly, since the Romans adapted Greek architectural forms and copied many (now lost) Greek artworks in vast numbers. A crucial factor affecting Rome’s pre-Christian legacy to the world was the renewed interest in antiquity characteristic of the Italian Renaissance of the 1400s and 1500s, which continued unabated for centuries. The rediscovery of statues dating from the Roman period in the 1500s stimulated the development of new sculptural and painted forms for the human figure in the work of major artists of the day. Michelangelo is said to have been present at the unearthing of the famous Laökoon group (probably first century C.E.) in 1506, and was profoundly affected as a result; so too was much of later European art.

Immediate Influence. For hundreds of years, subsequent ages had direct access to Rome and its monuments elsewhere in Italy and scattered throughout its former empire. Thus, the influence of Roman forms became more immediate than was possible for most Greek monuments. These were mostly “off-limits” to western Europeans, due to the Ottoman regime in Greece. In contrast, the tradition of the “Grand Tour” to Italy evolved by the late eighteenth century, further stimulated by the discovery of the “lost” cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as making Rome a focus for such famous travellers as Goethe, Byron, and Keats and countless artists and architects. This situation remains unchanged today for the Eternal City. During the eighteenth century further renewed interest in the Greco-Roman past became manifest as a result of the political turmoil that culminated in the French Revolution of 1789. The revolutionaries invoked the heroes of the early Roman republic as their role models and had their images disseminated in the suitably austere style of neo-classicism. Nowhere is this more effectively portrayed than Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of the Horatii (1784), which he completed in Rome. Across the Atlantic contemporary American revolutionaries would similarly revive Roman styles in architecture, as another way of invoking the “glory” of republican Rome.

Cultural Links. On a different level, the work of J. J. Winckelmann was important. His History of the Art of the Ancients (1764) was the first serious attempt to study the arts of Greece and Rome, and is a further manifestation of the interest generated by Greco-Roman art and antiquity. He tended to see the arts of these two cultures as linked to the political ideologies of their day, although his dating of Greek art was often hugely incorrect. While many would disagree with his view that Roman art is a decline from the great periods of Greek art, he did much to pioneer the study of ancient art and influenced many subsequent art-historical studies.

Profound Legacy. Rome’s most profound material legacy to posterity is its architecture, which has greatly influenced subsequent Western building programs from the Renaissance onward. Filippo Brunelleschi’s great dome for the Cathedral in Florence (“II Duomo,” completed 1436), and Michelangelo’s dome for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (completed 1564) would have been impossible without a familiarity with such works as the Pantheon. Indeed, with admirable restraint Michelangelo acknowledged the Romans’ achievement by consciously making the diameter of St. Peter’s dome 1.5 meters shorter than that of the Pantheon. Less respectful was Urban VIII, a pope from the Barberini family (1623-1644), who ripped out the bronze-work on the ceiling of the Pantheon to make cannons and the baldacchino (or canopy) over the altar at St. Peter’s. This prompted the famous dissenting remark: “What the barbarians did not do, the Barberini did!” What we know as “neo-classical architecture” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with its temple façades, columns, and pediments echoes both Greek and, more often than not, specifically Roman prototypes. The idea of Rome as the self-professed civilizer of the ancient world endured beyond antiquity, thus making its architectural style suited to a range of civic buildings. Banks, churches, art galleries, museums, libraries, and, notably, law-courts across Europe, the United States, and Australia pay homage to Greco-Roman forms—from the National Gallery in London to the State Library in Melbourne. Many other private and public buildings over the past two hundred years invoke Roman architectural forms and also the sense of authority and tradition of the Roman republic and empire implicit in those forms. For instance, Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello (1769-1809), testifies to the influence of the Pantheon, as does the domed and colonnaded Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. In the popular imagination today other large scale works like the Appian Way, the Colosseum, or Hadrian’s Wall rank highly as some of the best-known monuments of antiquity, even if many would now remain ambivalent about, or reject, the imperial ideology responsible for their construction. An age that can recall the perhaps all too easy appropriation of the Classical Roman past in the form of Mussolini’s fascism (a name invoking the fasces of the Roman republic) will inevitably have mixed feelings about Roman antiquity. Yet, the profound influence of the Romans’ achievements in monumental works, no less than in Western legal and political systems, remains.

About this article

The Arts: Overview

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article