A History of Roman Art

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Moon and Barbara Hughes Fowler write, the Doryphorus ushered in "a new definition of true human greatness The 17 Doric columns on either side and the eight at each end create both a sense of harmonious proportion and a dynamic visual and horizontal movement. The building exemplifies the Doric order and the rectangular plan of Greek temples, which emphasized a flow of movement and light between the temple's interior and the surrounding space, while the movement of the columns, rising out of the earth, to the entablature that rings the building, draws the eye heavenward to the carved reliefs and statues that, originally, brightly painted, crowned the temple.

Ictinus and Callicrates were identified as the architects of the building in ancient sources, while the sculptor Phidias and the statesman Pericles supervised the project.

A History of Roman Art

Dedicated in BCE, the Parthenon replaced the earlier temple on the city's holy site that also included a shrine to Erechtheus, the city's mythical founder, a smaller temple of the goddess Athena, and the olive tree that she gave to Athens, all of which were destroyed by the invading Persian Army in BCE. The Persians also killed the priests, priestesses, and citizens who had taken refuge at the site, and, when the new Parthenon was dedicated, following that experience of trauma and desecration, it was a monument to the restoration and continuation of Athenian values and became, as art critic Daniel Mendelsohn wrote, a "dramatization of the political and moral differences between the victims and the perpetrators.

While Doric temples commonly had thirteen columns on each side and six in the front, the Parthenon pioneered the octastyle, with eight columns, thus extending the space for sculptural reliefs. Originally the Parthenon Marbles decorated the entablature, as 92 metopes , or rectangular stone panels, depicted mythological battle scenes - of gods fighting giants, Greek warriors fighting Trojans or Amazons, and men battling centaurs - while the pediments contained statues depicting the stories of Athena's life, so that as Mendelsohn wrote, "Merely to walk around the temple was to get a lesson in Greek and Athenian civic history.

Forty feet tall, the statue held a six foot tall gold statue of Victory in her hand. A frieze, carved in relief, lined the surrounding walls, innovatively introducing a decorative feature of Ionic architecture into the Doric order. The foot long frieze has been described by art historian Joan Breton Connelly as "showing human and animal figures Aesthetically, though, as Mendelsohn explains, "[T]he slight swelling also conveys the subliminal impression of muscular effort Arching, leaning, straining, swelling, breathing: the over-all effect Realistic in its anatomical modeling, the work conveys a sense of gravity, both in his form as seen in the musculature of his weight-bearing right leg and in the folds of his chlamys , or robe, falling across his left arm.

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Contrapposto is employed innovatively to create a sense of complex movement, presenting the statue both frontally and in profile as the god strides forward majestically. While the statue is identified as the god by the headband he wears, reserved for gods or rulers, and his bow and the quiver across his left shoulder, he is also equally a symbol of youthful masculine beauty. The work has also been called the Pythian Apollo, as it was believed to depict Apollo's slaying of the Python, a mythical serpent at Delphi, marking the moment when the site became sacred to the god and home of the famous Delphic Oracle.

The marble statue is believed to be a Roman copy of an original bronze from the 4 th century by the Greek sculptor Leochares. The work was discovered in and became part of the collection of Cardinal Giulano della Rovere who, subsequently, became Pope Julius II, the leading patron of the Italian High Renaissance. He put the work on public display in , and Michelangelo's student, the sculptor Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli, restored the missing parts of the left hand and right arm. Marcantonio Raimondi made a copy of the Apollo, and his engraving in the s was widely disseminated throughout Europe; however, the work became most influential in the s as Winckelmann, the pioneering German art historian, wrote, "Of all the works of antiquity that have escaped destruction, the statue of Apollo represents the highest ideal of art.

As art critic Jonathan Jones noted, "The work was admired two hundred years ago as an image of the absolute rational clarity of Greek civilisation and the perfect harmony of divine beauty," but in the Romantic era it fell into disfavor as the leading critics, John Ruskin, William Hazlitt, and Walter Pater critiqued it.

Still, it has remained popular and frequently reproduced, lending it a cultural currency, as seen in the official seal of the Apollo XVII moon landing mission. Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle. Updated and modified regularly. By using our site, you agree to our terms , and usage of cookies.

GOT IT! The Art Story. Classical Greek and Roman Art and Architecture. The idealized human form soon became the noblest subject of art in Greece and was the foundation for a standard of beauty that dominated many centuries of Western art. The Greek ideal of beauty was grounded in a canon of proportions, based on the golden ratio and the ratio of lengths of body parts to each other, which governed the depictions of male and female figures.

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While ideal proportions were paramount, Classical Art strove for ever greater realism in anatomical depictions. This realism also came to encompass emotional and psychological realism that created dramatic tensions and drew in the viewer. Greek temple designs started simply and evolved into more complex and ornate structures, but later architects translated the symmetrical design and columned exterior into a host of governmental, educational, and religious buildings over the centuries to convey a sense of order and stability.

Perhaps a coincidence, but just as increased archaeological digs turned up numerous examples of Greek and Roman art, the field of art history was being developed as a scientific course of study by the likes of Johann Winkelmann. Winkelmann, often considered the father of art history, based his theories of the progression of art on the development of Greek art, which he largely knew only from Roman copies.

Since the middle of the 18 th century, art historical and classical tradition have been intimately entwined. The same PR value was accorded to relief sculpture see, for instance, the Column of Marcus Aurelius , and to history painting see, Triumphal Paintings, below. Thus when commemorating a battle, for example, the artwork used would be executed in a realistic - almost "documentary" style.

This realistic down-to-earth Roman style is in vivid contrast to Hellenistic art which illustrated military achievements with mythological imagery. Paradoxically, one reason for the ultimate fall of Rome was because it became too attached to the propagandist value of its art, and squandered huge resources on grandiose building projects purely to impress the people.

Construction of the Baths of Diocletian , for instance, monopolised the entire brick industry of Rome, for several years.


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Rome's greatest contribution to the history of art is undoubtedly to be found in the field of architectural design. Roman architecture during the age of the Republic knowledge of which derives largely from the 1st-century Roman architect Vitruvius discovered the round temple and the curved arch but, after the turn of the Millennium, Roman architects and engineers developed techniques for urban building on a massive scale.

The erection of monumental structures like the Pantheon and the Colosseum, would have been impossible without Rome's development of the arch and the dome, as well as its mastery of strong and low-cost materials like concrete and bricks. For a comparison with building design in Ancient Egypt, please see: Egyptian Architecture c. The Romans didn't invent the arch - it was known but not much used in Greek architecture - but they were the first to master the use of multiple arches, or vaults.

From this, they invented the Roman groin vault - two barrel vaults set at right-angles - which represented a revolutionary improvement on the old Greek post-and-lintel method, as it enabled architects to support far heavier loads and to span much wider openings. The Romans also made frequent use of the semicircular arch, typically without resorting to mortar: relying instead on the precision of their stonework.

Arches and vaults played a critical role in the erection of buildings like the Baths of Diocletian and the Baths of Caracalla , the Basilica of Maxentius and the Colosseum. The arch was also an essential component in the building of bridges, exemplified by the Pont du Gard and the bridge at Merida, and aqueducts, exemplified by the one at Segovia, and also the Aqua Claudia and Anio Novus in Rome itself. A further architectural development was the dome vaulted ceiling , which made possible the construction and roofing of large open areas inside buildings, like Hadrian's Pantheon , the Basilica of Constantine , as well as numerous other temples and basilicas, since far fewer columns were needed to support the weight of the domed roof.

The use of domes went hand in hand with the extensive use of concrete - a combination sometimes referred to as the "Roman Architectural Revolution". But flagship buildings with domes were far from being the only architectural masterpieces built by Ancient Rome. Just as important was the five-storey apartment building known as an insula , which accomodated thousands of citizens. It was during the age of Emperor Trajan CE and Emperor Hadrian CE that Rome reached the zenith of its architectural glory, attained through numerous building programs of monuments, baths, aqueducts, palaces, temples and mausoleums.

Many of the buildings from this era and later, served as models for architects of the Italian Renaissance , such as Filippo Brunelleschi designer of the iconic dome of the cathedral in Florence, and both Donato Bramante and Michelangelo , designers of St Peter's Basilica.

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The time of Constantine CE witnessed the last great building programs in the city of Rome, including the completion of the Baths of Diocletian and the erection of the Basilica of Maxentius and the Arch of Constantine. Famous Roman Buildings.


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Dating back to Etruscan times, and located in the valley between the Aventine and Palatine hills, this was the main Roman chariot racing venue in Rome, Italy. Measuring roughly 2, feet in length metres and feet in width metres , it was rebuilt in the age of Julius Caesar to seat an estimated , spectators, and again during the reign of Constantine to seat about , It is now a park. Colosseum CE. Built in the centre of Rome by Vespasian to appease the masses, this elliptical amphitheatre was named after a colossal statue of Nero that stood nearby.

Built to seat some 50, spectators, its intricate design, along with its model system of tiered seating and spacious passageways, makes it one of the greatest works of Roman architecture. The Colosseum was one of the key sights on the Grand Tour of the 18th century. The Arch of Titus c. The oldest surviving Roman triumphal arch, it was built after the young Emperor's death to celebrate his suppression of the Jewish uprising in Judea, in 70 CE.

Baths of Trajan CE. A huge bathing and leisure complex on the south side of the Oppian Hill, designed by Apollodorus of Damascus, it continued to be used up until the early fifth century, or possibly later, until the destruction of the Roman aqueducts compelled its abandonment.


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  • Built by Marcus Agrippa as a temple dedicated to the seven gods of Ancient Rome, and rebuilt by Hadrian in CE, the Pantheon is a daring early instance of concrete construction. The interior space is based on a perfect sphere, and its coffered ceiling remains the largest non-reinforced concrete dome in the world.

    A History Of Roman Art

    In the middle of its dome an oculus lets in a beam of light. Baths of Caracalla CE. Capable of holding up to 16, people, the building was roofed by a series of groin vaults and included shops, two gymnasiums palaestras and two public libraries. The baths proper consisted of a central x 80 feet cold room frigidarium a room of medium temperature tepidarium with two pools, and a foot diameter hot room caldarium , as well as two palaestras.

    The entire structure was built on a foot high base containing storage areas and furnaces. The baths were supplied with water from the Marcian Aqueduct. Baths of Diocletian These baths thermae were probably the most grandiose of all Rome's public baths. Standing on high ground on the northeast part of the Viminal, the smallest of the Seven hills of Rome, the baths occupied an area well in excess of 1 million square feet and was supposedly capable of holding up to 3, people at one time.

    The complex used water supplied by the Aqua Marcia and Aqua Antoniniana aqueducts. Basilica of Maxentius CE. The largest building in the Roman Forum, it featured a full complement of arches and barrel vaults and a folded roof. It had a central nave overlooked by three groin vaults suspended feet above the floor on four piers.

    There was a massive open space in the central nave, but unlike other basilicas it didn't need the usual complement of columns to support the ceiling, because the entire building was supported on arches. Moreover, its folded roof reduced the total weight of the structure thus minimizing the horizontal force on the outer arches. Sculpture: Types and Characteristics.

    Roman sculpture may be divided into four main categories: historical reliefs; portrait busts and statues, including equestrian statues ; funerary reliefs, sarcophagi or tomb sculpture; and copies of ancient Greek works.