Art in the Roman Empire

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Ancient Roman Art: Innovations in Sculpting and Architecture

For information regarding the show and broadcast time check the BBC website. Skip to main content. Carol King Friday, September 7, - Location: Rome. Properties in Italy.

Greek and Roman Art and Architecture | TheArtStory

Villa in Rome. Detached House in Roccasecca. Villa in Vejano. Villa in Canale Monterano. What to do in Lazio.

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Language Schools. The Romans controlled such a vast empire for so long a period that a summary of the art produced in that time can only be a brief and selective one. Perhaps, though, the greatest points of distinction for Roman art are its very diversity, the embracing of art trends past and present from every corner of the empire and the promotion of art to such an extent that it became more widely produced and more easily available than ever before.

In which other ancient civilization would it have been possible for a former slave to have commissioned his portrait bust? Roman artists copied, imitated, and innovated to produce art on a grand scale, sometimes compromising quality but on other occasions far exceeding the craftsmanship of their predecessors. Any material was fair game to be turned into objects of art. Recording historical events without the clutter of symbolism and mythological metaphor became an obsession.

Painting aimed at faithfully capturing landscapes, townscapes, and the more trivial subjects of daily life.

BBC Series Re-Evaluates Art of the Roman Empire

Realism became the ideal and the cultivation of a knowledge and appreciation of art itself became a worthy goal. These are the achievements of Roman art. Roman art has suffered something of a crisis in reputation ever since the rediscovery and appreciation of ancient Greek art from the 17th century CE onwards.

When art critics also realised that many of the finest Roman pieces were in fact copies or at least inspired by earlier and often lost Greek originals, the appreciation of Roman art, which had flourished along with all things Roman in the medieval and Renaissance periods, began to diminish. Another problem with Roman art is the very definition of what it actually is. Unlike Greek art, the vast geography of the Roman empire resulted in very diverse approaches to art depending on location.

Although Rome long remained the focal point, there were several important art-producing centres in their own right who followed their own particular trends and tastes, notably at Alexandria , Antioch, and Athens. As a consequence, some critics even argued there was no such thing as 'Roman' art. In more recent times a more balanced view of Roman art and a wider one provided by the successes of archaeology have ensured that the art of the Romans has been reassessed and its contribution to western art in general has been more greatly recognised.

Even those holding the opinion that Classical Greek art was the zenith of artistic endeavour in the west or that the Romans merely fused the best of Greek and Etruscan art would have to admit that Roman art is nothing if not eclectic. Seal-cutting, jewellery, glassware, mosaics, pottery , frescoes, statues, monumental architecture , and even epigraphy and coins were all used to beautify the Roman world as well as convey meaning from military prowess to fashions in aesthetics.


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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.

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. 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.

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The realism in Roman portrait sculpture and funerary art may well have developed from the tradition of keeping realistic wax funeral masks of deceased family members in the ancestral home. Transferred to stone, we then have many examples of private portrait busts which sometimes present the subject as old, wrinkled, scarred, or flabby; in short, these portraits tell the truth. By later antiquity, there was even a move towards impressionism using tricks of light and abstract forms.


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  • Towards the end of the Empire, sculpture of figures tended to lack proportion, heads especially were enlarged, and figures were most often presented flatter and from the front, displaying the influence of Eastern art. Sculpture on Roman buildings and altars could be merely decorative or have a more political purpose. For example, on triumphal arches the architectural sculpture captured in detail key campaign events, which reinforced the message that the emperor was a victorious and civilizing agent across the known world.

    A typical example is the Arch of Constantine in Rome c. Altars could also be used to present important individuals in a favourable light. The most famous altar of all is the Ara Pacis of Augustus completed 9 BCE in Rome, a huge block of masonry which depicts spectators and participants at a religious procession. Designs could range from intricate realistic detail to highly impressionistic renderings which frequently covered all of the available wall space including the ceiling.

    Art and Literature in the Roman Republic

    Roman wall painters or perhaps their clients preferred natural earth colours such as darker shades of reds, yellows, and browns. The scene runs around one room and completely ignores the corners. Another splendid example is the 1st century CE private villa known as the House of the Vettii in Pompeii.

    As the art form developed, larger-scale single scenes which presented larger-than-life figures became more common. By the 3rd century CE one of the best sources of wall painting comes from Christian catacombs where scenes were painted from both the Old and New Testament. Typically, each individual piece measured between 0.

    Popular subjects included scenes from mythology, gladiator contests, sports, agriculture , hunting, food, flora and fauna, and sometimes they even captured the Romans themselves in detailed and realistic portraits. Not just floors but also vaults, columns, and fountains were decorated with mosaic designs too. Roman mosaics artists developed their own styles, and production schools were formed across the empire which cultivated their own particular preferences - large-scale hunting scenes and attempts at perspective in the African provinces, impressionistic vegetation and a foreground observer in the mosaics of Antioch, or the European preference for figure panels, for example.

    Over time the mosaics became ever more realistic in their portrayal of human figures, and accurate and detailed portraits become more common. Meanwhile, in the Eastern part of the empire and especially at Antioch, the 4th century CE saw the spread of mosaics which used two-dimensional and repeated motifs to create a 'carpet' effect, a style which would heavily influence later Christian churches and Jewish synagogues. The minor arts of ancient Rome were wide and varied, illustrating in many cases the Roman love of finely worked precious materials with detail and often miniaturised designs.

    They included jewellery of all kinds, small gold portrait busts, silverware such as mirrors, cups, plates, figurines etc. Subjects of decoration included the imperial family, private individuals, mythology, nature, and such standard motifs as geometrical shapes, acanthus leaves, vines, meanders, rosettes, and swastikas. Works are often signed by the craftsman, who may be foreign or Roman. Items of silverware and carved gems were especially appreciated and frequently collected by those Romans who could afford them.

    Kept in the home, they would, no doubt, have been shown to admiring visitors and used as conversation pieces. The Roman love for intricately detailed and tiny carvings on gems counters the traditional view that Roman art was preoccupied with all that was massive and inelegantly bulky. Signet rings, a symbol of family pride and an important method of signature along with seal-stones, were, like gemstones, carved using small drills with a diamond point or lap-wheel which were rotated using a horizontal bow on the shaft.

    Cornelian and onyx seem to have been the material of choice for more functional items, but sapphires and aquamarine are amongst the more precious gems the Romans imported from such far-flung places as India. Roman jewellers were especially skilled in their craft.

    Learning from those who had gone before, they employed the full range of metalworking skills such as gilding, granulation, repousse, inlay, open-work etc.