The Roman art developed from the independence from the Etruscan power, under whose influence it remains until 509 BC.
Little by little, Rome becomes a vast empire that develops an art with elements from the primitive Italic cultures, from Etruscan art and finally from Greek.
During its process of expansion, Rome assimilates the cultural contributions of the peoples it conquers, so it can be said that Roman art is a symbiotic response of these cultures. To this is added a spectacular political and economic power, which generates an elite of imperial families of high purchasing power who will know how to admire works of art and wish to possess them.
This desire for possession will lead the Romans to multiply the workshops dedicated to the reproduction of master copies, to import works, to request artists and to feel inclined towards ornamentation.
The Roman is an art conditioned by politics. As the Roman Empire consolidates, it gains importance as a medium of communication, especially during the dictatorship of Sulla, the struggles for the hegemony between triunviri and in the stage of Julius Caesar. There is a boom in cities as basic pieces of organization of power and in them victories are evoked and glorified through frescoes and images, triumphal arches and commemorative columns.
The solidity, the greatness and the practical purpose characterize the fine arts among the Romans, especially the architecture. Its most characteristic monuments are not temples or palaces, but those destined for civil or military life: walls, roads, aqueducts, circuses, amphitheatres, baths, basilicas and triumphal arches.
The Romans were great builders of monuments, and filled with them not only Rome, but the territory of the provinces, especially the Iberian Peninsula. Some of the Roman monuments in Spain are admirably preserved and are the most grandiose that its art created (aqueduct of Segovia, bridge of Alcantara, etc).
The properly Roman architecture uses as fundamental elements the arch and the vault (the semicircular arch and the barrel vault, in which the dome on round floor has its origin), elements that they take from the Etruscans. But the Romans also adopted the architectural system of the Greeks: the architrave or lintel (straight and horizontal piece that rests on the columns). They also adopted their three orders:
-The Doric: with a rectangular capital and a frieze (the Greek Doric has no base, the Roman one does).
-The Ionic: with a capital with volutes and smooth frieze.
-The Corinthian: with a capital of stylized leaves and ornate frieze.
To these they added two other orders:
-The Tuscan: equal to the Doric, but with the shaft of the column smooth, or without streaks, and the frieze without ornaments.
-The Composite: combination of Ionic and Corinthian (capital with volutes and acanthus leaves). They also used overlapping orders in multi-storey buildings, such as circuses, amphitheatres, etc.
In the evolution of Roman architecture, and of all its art in general, the same three periods can be distinguished as in the political history of Rome: Monarchy, Republic and Empire. During the first it dominates exclusively the Etruscan influence (e.g. door of the walls of Perugia). During the second, the Greek influence predominated, arrived at Rome when it, with its conquests, came into contact with the Hellenes (e.g. Temple of Vesta, in Tivoli). In the third, the art is a synthesis of the two influences, Etruscan and Greek, reaching the greatest constructive perfection (e.g. Pantheon of Agrippa, in Rome).
RELIGIOUS ARCHITECTURE. TEMPLES AND ALTARS
The Roman temple derives directly from the Greek but with the following modifications: they use the vault and the dome to cover the circular temples, and, instead of the stands that surround the Greek temple, the Roman stands on a plinth with stairs only in the anterior part (podium). There are temples with a rectangular plan, such as that of Nimes (known as the Maison Carrée) and that of Fortuna Virilis in Rome, and of circular plan, like that of Vesta, also in Rome.
In Hispania many temples were erected to the pagan gods. The best preserved are in Vic (Ausa), Evora (Portugal), that of the bridge of Alcantara and the two of Merida.
The altars were intended for sacrifices in honour of the gods. In general, they were independent of the temples and were in consecrated lands and fences, but sometimes they were a complement of them and they were placed in their interior if they were dedicated to bloodless offerings, or they were exterior if bloody sacrifices were celebrated in them.
URBAN ARCHITECTURE. THE CITIES
The Romans, practical people par excellence, were concerned with the urbanization and hygiene of their urban groups. The large cities, above all, were perfectly erected: they had potable water services for consumption and public toilets, sewers for the drainage, paved streets and sidewalks, and some of them (like the Main Street) were skirted with porticos, in the oriental style. They also enjoyed a large public square (the forum or market), monumental doors that through the walls gave access to the main streets, triumphal arches, basilicas, buildings for shows (theatres, amphitheatres and circuses), baths and temples.
-In separate chapters we will talk about the buildings for shows (leisure) and the Roman housing–
The ideal type of a Roman city was the following: perimeter, rectangular or square, surrounded by walls with towers and in each of the four sides of the enclosure one of the four main doors, corresponding to two large streets (Decumanus, from East to West, and Cardus, from North to South), which intersected in the center of the city, where the forum or public square was located. But although all the cities tended to this type, these theoretical conditions were only fulfilled exactly in some exceptional cities, such as Leon, which had been a military camp.
FORUMS, BASILICAS AND BATHS
They were the buildings for public meetings:
-The forum or public square became the Greek “agora”: the main market and meeting place to deal with commercial, agricultural, judicial and political issues. It was the true social and political center of the city. It used to be adorned with porticos and monumental doors or triumphal arches, and surrounded by important buildings (temples, basilicas, etc). The most notable is the monumental Roman forum.
-The basilicas were buildings where justice was administered and, in addition, meeting places of merchants, where they went to walk, talk and play. Popular assemblies were also held there. They had a rectangular floor plan and consisted of three naves, separated by columns, and covered with flat wooden roofs. The entrance was preceded by a portico with columns, and, at the back of the central nave, there was a semicircular ledge, in the center of which stood the statue of justice, and at the sides, benches for the magistrates. From the Roman basilica derives the Christian basilica and all the medieval Christian architecture.
-The baths were buildings destined to public baths and swimming exercises, but with time they became a place of meeting, leisure and intellectual life, like big casinos. The main dependencies were the frigidarium, for cold baths, the caldarium, for the hot ones, and the tepidarium, for the warm ones. In addition, they also contained swimming pools, gymnasium, massage rooms and perfumes, conversation and game rooms, libraries, etc. The most important are those of Caracalla, in Rome.
Just as the Greek sculpture tries to reproduce the ideal beauty and avoids the portrait considering the reality imperfect, the Roman sculpture has as main manifestations the historical relief and the portrait. But, in addition, they copied the Greek statues, mainly the divinities, many of which we have only come to know them through the Roman copies.
– The historical relief reaches wonderful perfection in the Ara Pacis Augustae or Ara of the Peace of Augustus, being also very remarkable those of the triumphal arches, like the one of Titus and those of the honorific and commemorative columns, especially that of Trajan.
-The art of portraiture (in which they achieved great realism and originality) began with the heads and statues of the ancestors (imagines maiorum), and continued with the busts and large statues of illustrious figures, especially emperors and empresses, who today we can admire in the museums. On the other hand, in the statues of divinities, as in the mythological reliefs, the Greek influence is evident. Only the Roman seal is imposed when it comes to historical matters.
The most commonly used materials were bronze and marble. The statues were not coloured, although at first the eyes were coloured, a practice that was subsequently abandoned to be carved.
They approach both the concepts that represent idealism and those related to realism. The central theme is the portrait.
Thanks to these stone images it has been possible today to know the outfits, customs and ways of thinking of these characters of antiquity.
At the beginning, the Roman portrait sculpture only represented the entire bust, including the shoulders and chest.
Full body figures were also carved, where the character could stand or sit. The portrait of seated characters is seen more in women than in men. The Roman sculpture of the portrait was born for the emperor and then adapted to another type of wealthy personages who could afford the work of the artists.
Three types can be distinguished:
–Togatus Portraits (with toga): Religious representation with robe and mantle on the head.
–Thoracatus Portraits (with cuirass): Military representation, with armour.
–Apotheosis Portraits: Divinized representation of the naked body, laurel wreath and attributes of a god.
The Roman portrait evolved during the different stages and is perceived in details such as the eyes and the way of representing the beard and hair in men, and female hairstyles (showing us the evolution of fashion):
–The portrait in the Republic: it is short bust, showing only head and neck. The men have short hair. The sculpture has great realism, with very pronounced facial features.
–The portrait in the time of Augustus: the sculpture is idealized and the hard features are hidden. The hair is still short, although it lengthens in relation to how in the Republic was represented, the strands are soft and wavy and adjust to the shape of the head. In the female portraits, a hairstyle is shown with the hair tied back and a kind of toupee on the forehead.
PAINTINGS AND MOSAICS
The main manifestations of Roman painting are the frescoes or wall paintings and mosaics:
THE WALL PAINTINGS
In fresco, applying the colours dissolved in water on stucco or lime plastering still wet, they decorated the interior walls of public buildings and private homes. The best preserved mural paintings, which, together with those discovered in Rome and other locations, allow us to know Roman painting better than the Greek one, are those of Pompeii and Herculaneum – cities tragically buried by the lava of Mount Vesuvius (79 AD) and exposed by modern excavations, which show a great Hellenistic influence, so it is believed to be due to Greek artists or hellenized countries such as Egypt. In general, they are of mythological subject, and in them the same grace and naturalism that inspired the Greek art is observed. Among the wall paintings from Pompeii and Herculaneum are famous: The Aldobrandini Weeding (Vatican Museum), Perseus and Andromeda (Museum of Naples) and The Sacrifice of Iphigenia (Museum of Naples), in addition to those in the houses of Apollino and the Vettii in Pompeii.
They are very interesting, for their realistic character, the Egyptian portraits preserved with the mummies of the Roman period, especially those discovered in El-Fayum.
Etymologically, the word mosaic derives from the Greek word mousaes which means “muse”, perhaps because in the past it was considered that such a sublime art could only be made by artists inspired by them.
Although the Greeks were great masters in the technique (before them, it had already been used by the Sumerians and the Cretans), as the Hellenistic mosaics attest, the Romans were who would become true experts in this art, propagating it throughout the Mediterranean Basin. So appreciated would be that decrees were enacted to fix the price of the works.
The perfected technique was frequently used in pavements. Ornamental or decorative drawings predominate in them, but sometimes they develop great compositions, as in the well-known Alexander mosaic, found in the House of the Faun, in Pompeii.
Author: Valentín Ortiz Juez