Tag Archives: roman art

Art does not exist in discrete boxes designated by period

Santa Maria Maggiore, competing visually with the Colosseum?

Santa Maria Maggiore, competing visually with the Colosseum?

Growing up in Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, and then Thunder Bay, Ontario, I had this idea that the history of the arts was neatly compartmentalised. After mediaeval stuff, there was Renaissance, then Baroque, then Classical, then Romantic. (Which is where music history should maybe end?) My first clue that this was not so cut-and-dry was when I learned that Beethoven, although ‘Classical’ is, in certain respects, drawing us into the Romantic.

When we think about visual art, it’s pretty much the same. People didn’t stop building Romanesque churches just because Gothic had come around. Gothic-style art was not immediately engulfed by the Renaissance. And sometimes it can be hard to see where the Renaissance ends and the Baroque begins.

Not only do stylistic periods overlap, but in real life they also co-exist. This coexistence is abundantly evident in Rome, where the same church might house ancient columns, Late Antique mosaics, mediaeval mosaics and a mediaeval crucifix, as well as some Renaissance paintings and Baroque architecture and sculpture. Some places that look like the Baroque vomited all over their inside still have their wooden, mediaeval crucifices and maybe an early mediaeval Byzantine Madonna and Child. And sometimes you can find the 19th century peeking around the corner.

It’s a simple point, but an important one. The visual world of a single place and period is not restricted to its historical moment. The Colosseum is not just a Flavian monument; it persists in monumentality in Late Antiquity, in the Middle Ages, in the Renaissance, through every period of art in the Eternal City, right up until today. It does not cease to be part of the visual landscape of Rome just because modern Roman buildings are quite different.

I think this simple observation is important for historians when they start to try to take into account the visual evidence of a given period. It is important to track the changes and developments peculiar to each moment, but we also need to remember what the rest of the visual world of these people was.

For example, fifth-century Rome is not just refurbished Constantinian basilicas. It is not just the Theodosian Mausoleum. It is not just the mosaics in Santa Sabina and Santa Maria Maggiore. It is also the Basilica of Maxentius, the Baths of Trajan, the Ara Pacis, the Column of Trajan, the Pantheon, the Circus Maximus, the imperial residence on the Palatine. Rome in the 400s was still ancient Rome, and these secular and pagan monuments were the main visual displays for the populace of the City, including her bishops (‘popes’).

This means that when we look at the mosaics in the fifth-century basilicas, we need to ask ourselves what message Xystus III or Celestine I was sending into this world full of triumphal arches, secular military campaigns, pagan temples, altars to false gods. What does it mean? In this still-so-pagan visual world, is the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea up on the wall in Santa Maria Maggiore, alongside Joshua making the sun stand still in the sky in battle against the Amorites, or Melchizedek prefiguring Christ not making its own statement about the supremacy of Rome’s new religion and protector?

Finally, I think that this Classical visual culture will still have had its effect upon the Christians as they started to make themselves visible in the public spaces of Rome, or in their sarcophagi. I think it would be unavoidable, living right alongside the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Column of Marcus Aurelius, let alone the Classical sarcophagi along the roads in and out of the City.

These are thoughts that could be considered for any city and any time. What did it look like to them? What else was there besides what was new? How might this have influenced them? Did it affect Tallis to write Renaissance music for singing in Gothic churches? Who knows? We never will if we don’t ask.

Anti-chronological snobbery

As an emerging Latinist who studies Late Antiquity, I am at times confronted by what I consider ‘anti-chronological snobbery.’ This is to be distinguished by the ‘chronological snobbery’ many people fond of ancient and mediaeval things observe in the world today — that newer, like wider, is better. Anti-chronological snobbery, then, is that older is better.

For example, discussing the disheartening maltreatment of mediaeval artefacts on some archaeological digs even today, a colleague once said that although she deplores such behaviour, ‘Mediaeval people are stupid.’

A couple of PhD students have recently started an Ancient Near Eastern reading group, claiming that the material they’ll cover is, ‘More classic than the classics.’ As to what makes a classic, I’ll get to later.

When I was studying Roman art in undergrad, a fellow classmate declared that the Romans never did anything. They just copied the Greeks. Indeed, this anti-Roman bias of Hellenists is an observable phenomenon; I once heard a Latin prose composition lecturer say that the only thing better would have been teaching Greek prose composition. Some Hellenists even scoff at Roman literature and art.

I recently read the short but engaging book The Elgin Marbles by B F Cook, which I picked up at the British Museum. In this book, Cook recounts the story of Richard Payne Knight misdating the marbles and saying to Lord Elgin, ‘You have lost your labour, my Lord Elgin. Your marbles are overrated: they are not Greek; they are Roman of the time of Hadrian.’ (80)

Even if Payne Knight had been right — which he was not — what would it really matter if the Elgin marbles were second-century Roman creations? Is not the beauty enough? Are they not excellent examples of the height of Classical sculpture, regardless of time period?

Furthermore, whenever people level accusations of ‘unoriginality’ against Roman art, they should be challenged with Renaissance art. Where is the originality in Michelangelo’s sculpture? Is he not merely copying the Greeks and the Romans? The answer will be that, yes, he has learned from the ancients, but it is the skill and finesse and realism and vitality of his sculptures that makes them noteworthy. They are great works of art regardless of when they were made.

So also with the Romans! Their art communicates different things from Greek art. They at times change motifs and images. Why disparage a people willing to learn from those who have a longer tradition of scupture?

Similarly for Latin literature. If Greek lyric is interesting, so should be Catullus or the Roman elegists. If Virgil plays with Theocritus and Homer, shouldn’t we see how he handles the material, what vitality is his, rather than look wistfully back to the primus inventor, to the ‘original’ masters?

It is playful invention and variation that characterises Roman appropriation of Greek arts, be it in sculpture, poetry, historiography, oratory, fresco, architecture, philosophy, mosaic. Look at it as it is, for what it is.

Just as I shun chronological snobbery, so also do I shun the anti-chronological snobbery of many Hellenists and Near Eastern specialists.

Ancient Things found in Paris

Me at the Roman Baths

In Paris, I have seen Roman Baths in the Musée du Moyen-Age and some remains of the Roman wall and some of a hypocaust system on Ile-de-la-Cité beneath the Parvis de Notre-Dame.

But the Musée du Louvre is one of the best places for the Classicist in Paris.

This morning I saw a bunch of paintings (there was some wee pic of a lady called the Mona Lisa, but whatev), and then, besides the Victory of Samothrace, I observed with some enjoyment a bunch of Greek vases and some Cypriot artefacts, ending the morning with the quickest run through an Egyptian exhibit in my life.* Then I dined.

The Victory of Samothrace

Following lunch, I went off to visit the rest of the Greco-Roman antiquities at the Musée du Louvre. I saw a very lovley Etruscan funerary statue of a couple, then a variety of other interesting things.

But things got really exciting for me when I wandered into a gallery and saw the head of a woman from a three-quarter view from behind. There she was, with that bun at the lower back of her head as well as the distinctive pouff of hair at the front. The Empress Livia (58 BC – AD 29), wife of Augustus (63 BC – AD 14). I danced over, and proclaimed, ‘Yes!’ quietly as I surveyed the sign.

Empress Livia (d. AD 29), wife of Emperor Augustus

Emperor Augustus (d. AD 14)

Then I danced over to a statue of … yes, Augustus! (Fist-pump!) Plus three Augustus heads! This was an Early Imperial treasure trove! Smiling with glee, I made my way to the start of this particular gallery of Roman art. Ah, yes, a Late Republican head. You can tell, the realism and severity reflect the uncertainty of the times.

Severe Late Republican Head (c. 50 BC)

Like a child, I surveyed the art in this room. And … what’s this? The Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus? You don’t say! How exciting!

‘Altar’ of ‘Domitius Ahenobarbus’ (late 2nd c. BC)

Mars (detail from Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus)

Detail of the cow for sacrifice (Altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus)

I was also quite smitten by the examples of Roman wall painting. Very nice. Especially the fairy-eared, winged fellow. Looks like what C S Lewis dubbed the longaevi in his book The Discarded Image.

A longaevus? (from a villa near Pompeii)

Roman portraiture is so vivid, so real. I felt like I was looking at Agrippa himself (right-hand man of Augustus, 63 – 12 BC). I mean, pallid and bodiless. But, still. Agrippa. The man himself.

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (63 -12 BC)

And then that heroic nude of Marcellus.

Marcus Claudius Marcellus, nephew and son-in-law of Augustus (42 -23 BC)

Also … indeed! Indeed! The Ara Pacis! How wonderful! I mean, a fragment. But, still! Look at the relief carving! Look at the folds of that drapery! The skill, the essence of the moment!

Ara Pacis Augustae (13-9 BC)

Indeed, the skill of the ancients at drapery is one of the things that most caught my eye today, as in this statue of Empress Messalina:

Empress Valeria Messalina (AD 17-48), third wife of Emperor Claudius (10 BC – AD 54), and their son Britannicus (AD 41-55)

Or cute, little Nero:

Nero (AD 37-68), c. AD 50

Not that statuary is all that those Romans were good at. No, indeed. There was also a mosaic:

The Judgement of Paris, from Antioch c. AD 115-150

Continuing along, after a lovely double-faced stele with relief carvings from the cult of Mithras, I happily identified Marcus Aurelius (fist-pump, ‘Yes!’), and was enraptured by the luscious locks of Lucius Verus.

I even saw the head of a flamen. That’s right.

A flamen, an ancient Roman priest, c. AD 250-265

And then I giggled with glee upon seeing my fifth-century imperial friends, Theodosius II and Leo I. Good seeing you, guys. Great, in fact.

(Eastern) Roman Emperor Theodosius II (r. AD 408-450)

(Eastern) Roman Emperor Leo I (r. AD 457-474)

I continued on to have many grand adventures amongst the Greek statuary, including the mob that continually throngs the Venus de Milo — with the excitement of a lady who actually stepped over the barrier and laid a hand upon the statue for a photo! AS IF! She got yelled at and merrily stepped out.

The Venus de Milo (c. 130 – 100 BC); Look at that drapery!

I am also fond of the less famous Venus of Arles, by the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles (370-330 BC)

‘Vieux Pecheur’ (aka Seneca Dying), 2nd century AD

There were other Roman statues I enjoyed, such as Sénèque Mourant and one of Trajan that stands within the tradition of the Prima Porta Augustus. And a lovely porphyra Minerva. Although things get blurred — is that Greek or Roman?

As I surveyed the various Graeco-Roman antiquities on display in the Louvre, I was a bit miffed at how many people breezed by. As though, if it’s not the Victory of Samothrace or Venus de Milo, who cares about ancient art? I mean — part of the Ara Pacis! Trajan in your face! Livia, identifiable across the room!

But as I ran out of steam and entered rooms I knew less about, containing paintings/artefacts I enjoyed less than the Roman world, I started breezing through. No doubt a Rubens enthusiast would have shaken her head or an expert on Van Dyck would have told me that King Charles I wasn’t the only thing worth noting in that room.

But there is too much, I only have my own specialised knowledge. Yet this serves as a reminder that my knowledge increases my love of the art — and the art makes the world I have studied that much more real.

*I have seen Egyptian exhibits at the Glenbow, the ROM, in Egypt, in Milan, in Scotland, and at the Ashmolean Museum. Not counting the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, until my most recent visit to the Ashmolean, there was rarely anything new to say.