The art of ancient Rome was indebted to several influences.
Probably earliest was the art of the Etruscans, whose civilization arose in central Italy in the eighth century B.C. Before about 400 B.C., Etruscan art itself had owed much to the art of Greece, the Middle East, and native cultures of Italy.
The art of the Hellenistic* age, especially that of the Greek colonies in southern Italy and Sicily, had a direct influence on Roman art. After the Roman conquest of Greece, much Greek art, particularly sculpture, came to Rome as booty*. Also at that time, many Greek artists had traveled to Italy to find work. During the late Roman Republic* and the Roman Empire, wealthy Romans amassed art collections containing not only booty but also works they had commissioned from Greek artists. Distinctive Roman styles gradually developed, and they, in turn, influenced artists throughout the empire.
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
* booty riches or property gained through conquest
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
Panel paintings on wood that had come from Greece as the result of conquest were carried in victorious processions through Rome, later turning up in private collections. Very few panel paintings have survived. They are known to us mainly through descriptions in literature. Wall paintings, or murals, replaced the panel technique, sometimes as decoration, sometimes to depict people or scenes.
First Pompeian Style. Among the most important mural paintings are those found on the surviving walls of houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which were buried and preserved when the volcano on Mt. Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79. The ruins were discovered in the late 1700s and have been thoroughly excavated*. The name “First Style” has been given to colorful decorations on plaster walls, which were made to imitate masonry*, marble, or alabaster (a mineral). This style of painting started in the Hellenistic Greek world and spread to Italy and Sicily by the 200s B.C. Roman villa owners also had other masterpieces of Greek painting copied for them, giving us an insight into the high quality of such Hellenistic art. An example is the famous mosaic* from the House of the Faun in Pompeii. Created in the 100s B.C., it depicts a scene from Alexander the Great’s victory over the Persians. The mosaic was copied in remarkably fine detail (in color and form) from a lost painting of the early 300s B.C.
* excavate to uncover by digging
* masonry brick or stone work
The eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79 buried the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, killing thousands of people, but preserving intact wonderful examples of Roman art and architecture. This wall painting from Pompeii depicts a scene from the myth of Iphigenia.
Second Style of Wall Painting. During the early first century B.C., a second style emerged, one that imitated the architectural forms of columns and arches, beyond which the illusion of distant landscapes and buildings was created. (The modern name for this style, which at first sight appears real, is trompe l'oeil, meaning “trick of the eye” in French.) During the years of the Roman Empire, fancy decoration became stylish, with paintings of fantastic scenes, imaginary picture galleries, and popular Egyptian motifs.
Other Styles. The third style of wall painting favored surface effects and even more fantastic subjects, expressed also in stucco wall and vault* decoration in relief* and often painted in strong colors. A house in Pompeii of the first century A.D. is a good example of this phase, with elaborate representations in bright colors of formal gardens, pavilions, and villas.
* mosaic art form in which small pieces of stone or glass are set in cement; also refers to a picture made in this manner
* vault arched ceiling or roof
* relief method of sculpture in which the design is raised from the surface from which it is shaped
Emerging later in this century, another style returned Roman art to architectural illusionism. Smaller rectangular pictures were painted in the center of a wall, often with visual effects that suggested depth. Decorations in the palace of the emperor Nero in Rome featured elaborate plant forms intertwined with animals.
In the last years of the empire, the great creative period of wall painting was largely exhausted. Painters copied the styles, motifs, and ideas of earlier times. Much of the best work being done at that time was in the provinces* of the empire.
Roman mosaics were closely related to Hellenistic painting because they were often copied from wall or panel paintings, which are now lost. The technique, however, was further developed by Roman artists. The tesserae, or tiny cubes, made of colored marble or other stone, tile, or glass, were refined in size and more varied in colors. A gold tessera was made by coating a glass cube with a thin layer of gold, which in turn was covered with glass to protect it from wear and tarnishing. Mosaic was used principally for floors, not only in private homes but in public buildings as well. Decorations of walls and vaults were also sometimes embellished with mosaics or made entirely of them. The Roman provinces made major contributions to the art of floor mosaics, particularly North Africa and Sicily. One of the most remarkable discoveries in the African style, from a fourth-century Sicilian villa, is known as the Great Hunt and measures 15 by nearly 200 feet. It shows the hunting and capture of wild animals for the Roman circuses, with such realistic details as a leopard sinking its teeth into the neck of a gazelle. Such narrative mosaics influenced the work in other provinces, including Spain, Syria, and Palestine. The tradition of wall and vault mosaics was carried forward in early Christian and Byzantine* church decoration.
Possibly the earliest Roman sculpture that has come to light reflects the influence of Etruscan work. It is a bronze figure of the she-wolf who, according to legend, nursed Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome. It is thought to date from the sixth century B.C. Nevertheless, Greece became the strongest influence on Roman sculpture by way of the Greek colonies in southern Italy and in Asia Minor. Roman sculptors borrowed from the Greeks in technique and style and sometimes made outright copies. Statues excavated in Italy and presumed to be Roman may actually be the spoils of war, copies of Greek statues, or works by Greek sculptors made for Roman patrons. Marble, the material of choice for fine Greek sculpture, was first imported into Italy from quarries in the eastern Mediterranean. However, the best marble, discovered in the Augustan period, came from quarries in Liguria, in northwest Italy. Other materials used for sculpture were limestone, bronze, tufa (a volcanic rock), and terra-cotta (hard-baked clay like that used to make pottery). The taste of wealthy collectors of sculpture, however, favored whatever appeared to be the most “Greek,” whether or not it was actually from Greece. Therefore, marble was most favored.
* province overseas area controlled by Rome
* Byzantine referring to the Eastern Christian Empire that was based in Constantinople
* frieze in sculpture, a decorated band around a structure
GREEK OR ROMAN?
Whether a work of art should be considered Greek or Roman is still debated by scholars. Among the works so questioned are three in the Vatican museums in Rome. The Apollo Belvedere, a marble statue of the Greek god, is a Roman copy of a Greek original in bronze. Also in the Vatican is a headless and limbless work ailed the Belvedere Torso, made in the first century B.C. by a Greek sculptor for a Roman patron. Laocoon and His Sons (a marble sculpture of a Trojan priest and his two sons being crushed by serpents] is the work of three Greek sculptors for an imperial Roman patron in the first century A.D.
During the years of the Roman Republic, families often commissioned sculpture to be placed on tombs, with portraits of family dignitaries on friezes* or in the round. Such use of images had not been customary in classical Greece. Thus Roman sculptors made an important original contribution—they portrayed the individual faithfully, whereas the Greek sculptor aimed at creating an idealization of the human figure. Later, during the Roman Empire, there were highly original Roman sculptures that honored rulers and represented both history and propaganda. An example is the Column of Trajan in Rome. The monument celebrates that emperor’s conquest of Dacia (modern Romania) in the early 100s A.D. Spiraling around the marble column, nearly 100 feet in height, is a continuous frieze depicting, in realistic detail, episodes of the Dacian campaign against the barbarians. Trajan is always the focal point and shown as the prime strategist and master of the conquest.
Religion, represented by the gods and goddesses, was also a common theme. A bronze statuette (about 20 inches high), found in Herculaneum and dated to the first century B.C., depicts the dual deity Isis-Fortuna. Details are drawn from the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Roman goddess Fortuna. This superb work from two very different sources of inspiration was probably used for worship in an Isis cult. A six-foot marble statue of the emperor Augustus, wearing armor over his toga, was found in the villa of the emperor’s wife, Livia, near Rome. Dated to the reign of Tiberiusin the first century A.D., it is believed to be a copy, made as a memento for Livia, of a bronze statue that was cast during the reign of Augustus. A small cupid and dolphin beside the right leg is a reference to the goddess Venus, and on the breastplate are relief figures of Apollo and Diana, who, according to Roman belief, gave favor to Augustus’s naval victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 31 B.C.
In the second and third centuries A.D., wealthy Roman citizens began buying carved marble sarcophagi* to contain the bodies of their deceased family members inside the tomb. Workshops specializing in such sculpture emerged in the larger cities of the empire, especially near the marble quarries. The carvers used a great variety of motifs, decorated with subjects from Greek mythology, and sometimes identifying the deceased with a particular Greek hero. Other themes were drawn from daily life, battle scenes, or cults such as those of Dionysus and of Mithras. Another favorite was the mythical hero Heracles, who visited Hades and returned to the mortal world. Among the finest surviving funereal sculptures is the Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus, which dates to the A.D. 200s. Rising above a tangle of fighting troops and barbarians is the triumphant figure of the victorious young leader on horseback.
Gems. In antiquity, precious stones were thought to have magical and medicinal powers, and they were used as ornaments and as seals. The Etruscans used the scarab (beetle) as a model for seals and gems, and the Romans followed that tradition. There was a wide choice of subjects for gems in the years of the republic and later in the imperial* court. The cameo, with decoration or figures in relief, was highly prized. The emperor Claudius commissioned a large cameo of sardonyx, an orange-red mineral, showing a scene of his triumphal invasion of Britain in A.D.43, during which he declared Britain a province of the Roman Empire. (See also Architecture, Greek; Architecture, Roman; Art, Greek; Crafts and Craftsmanship; Cults; Gems and Jewelry; Sculpture, Greek; Sculpture, Roman.)
* sarcophagi ornamental coffins, usually made of stone
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire