Roman Architecture And Painting

We have seen that the Etruscan and early Roman temples were copies of the Greek, and this naturally holds of the temples of the empire. The only temple of Greek style throughout the territory of the Roman world which has been perfectly preserved (but in the exterior only) is the one at Nimes in Southern France, which is there traditionally known as the Maison Carree (the “square house “). The charm of this building (first or second century A. D.) is indescribable to those who have not seen it and eludes a photograph. Its beauty lies in the optical mystifications caused by various slight intentional irregularities of construction similar to those found in the Greek temples. The origin of the town of Nimes in a settlement of Alexandrine Greeks (the Greeks were otherwise largely settled in Southern France) may be one explanation of the artistic beauty of this building.

In Rome itself the best preserved temple of Greek style is the small Ionic temple of Fortuna Virilis. The temple built in honor of the Emperor Antoninus and his wife Faustina, by Marcus Aurelius (second century A.D.) has lost its roof and pediment and is now surmounted by a Christian church. The sites of several other magnificent temples of the city are marked by isolated groups of columns. In Italy at large, the most important surviving temple buildings are those at Assisi and at Pola. The little temple at Tivoli near Rome and the small temple of Vesta in the city are picturesque ruins of circular shrines in fair preservation. A few columns at Athens mark the site of the colossal temple of the Olympian Jupiter built by Hadrian (second century A.D.). The most magnificent temple ruins of the whole Roman world for size and also for the colossal dimensions of the building blocks are those of Baalbek in Syria, a day’s journey north of the road between Beyrout and Damascus (second century A.D.). The East Jordan territory is full of the ruins of Roman temples. Among these the one at Jerash (Gerasa) has the most imposing dimensions.

A comparison of these various buildings with the corresponding ruins of old Greek time shows them to be of less refinement in the masonry fitting and cutting and far less carefully elaborated in the details of construction. A frequent departure from the beautiful Greek plan with the surrounding colonnade is found in the limitation of the Roman temple portico to the front, while the sides and rear are walls with “engaged” columns; semi-attached, that is, to the wall surface, so as to simulate a portico.

Departures from the old Greek refinement are also illustrated in the occasional abandonment of the curving outlines of the column and of its flutings, one or both.

An important distinction lies in the use by the old Doric Greek temples of colored surface ornament. These later buildings on the other hand, depend on a florid and elaborate but boldly picturesque execution of projected carving. The prevailing “Order” is the Corinthian. The Ionic Order, when found, is of relatively inferior quality as regards the grace and refinement of the capitals and other details. There is no temple now known of the Roman period which employed the Doric or Tuscan Order. The dominance of the Corinthian Order in Roman monuments is, of course, explained by the fact that it was the favored and characteristic Order of the Alexandrine Greeks. The capital known as ” Composite ” which was much used by the Romans, has modified Ionic volutes at the top but otherwise shows the usual acanthus leaves.

In buildings which employed the arch and dome, the Romans showed their own characteristic boldness and force. Constructions like the aqueducts, which made no pretensions to artistic character are fine examples of the powerful artistic effect of rough masonry in elementary forms of construction. Aside from many ruins on the Campagna near Rome, and of far superior effect, the great aqueducts of Segovia in Spain and of Nimes in France (the Pont du Gard) deserve preeminent mention. These aqueducts are an instance of the attention paid to the material comfort and hygiene of great cities which put our modern civilization to the blush. The city of Rome is now abundantly supplied with water by three out of its original fourteen aqueducts, and the city of Bologna now obtains its water through a restoration of its ancient aqueduct. It is said that hundreds of provincial Roman cities were more abundantly supplied with water than is the modern city of London.

This abundance of the water supply in Roman cities was connected with a system of public baths of great magnificence and great utility. The baths were also clubhouses for the people, which contained lounging and reading rooms, libraries, and gymnasiums. Large numbers of the statues of the modern Roman collections were found in their ruins, showing that they were also museums and galleries of art. Outside of Rome the recently excavated ruins at Bath in England are the most important remains of this class of building. In Rome the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla are now the most imposing and originally accommodated sixteen thousand bathers. The statues now in Naples which belonged to the Farnese collection, like the Farnese Hercules, Farnese Bull Group, etc., were found in the Baths of Caracalla. The Baths of Diocletian are next in order of present importance and were partly turned into a Christian church by Michael Angelo. The Baths of Titus were in fair preservation in the time of Raphael and his decorative designs in the Vatican Palace were borrowed from them (the Loggie frescoes). Here was found the Laocoon Group of the Vatican. The Bath at Pompeii is a perfectly preserved structure showing all arrangements of the antique system for steam and hot baths, plunges, etc., and the various refinements which were handed down to the Russians and the Turks from the Roman Byzantine system and which are now known and practiced under foreign names. The one ancient Roman building of the whole Roman world now in fair preservation, both in-side and out, is the great dome structure at Rome known as the Pantheon. Although this building was dedicated after completion to the gods of the conquered nations, it is thought to have been first designed as a part of the Baths of Agrippa, and it is an example of the great dome interiors which were distinctive for this class of building (begun 26 B.C.).

The basilicas were great halls assigned to the use of the merchants and of the courts of justice and were found in every city. The Basilica of Constantine at Rome is the most notable ruin of this class as regards present dimension. The broken stumps of the columns of Trajan’s Basilica show that this building covered a larger area.

For Roman palaces the most interesting ruin is that of Diocletian’s palace at Spalatro in Dalmatia (fourth century A.D).

The triumphal arches were memorials of victory and successful wars, under which the processions of triumph took their way. There are various ruins of this class in Italy and elsewhere, the most important being those of Rome—the Arches of Constantine, of Septimius Severus, and of Titus.

The most imposing of all Roman constructions were the enormous amphitheaters built for the spectacles of the gladiatorial combats, and the fights of wild animals.

Next to the Colosseum at Rome, begun by Vespasian and completed by Titus (80 A.D), the most splendid ruins of this class are at Nimes and Arles in France and at Verona in North Italy. The Colosseum covers more than seven acres of ground and accommodated eighty thousand spectators.

In all these buildings (except the aqueducts) a method and style of ornament were originally employed which were revived by the Italians of modern history in the Renaissance period a thousand years after they had apparently passed into oblivion. This ornamental style, now known as the Renaissance, has had so wide a vogue in modern architecture that a distinct idea as to its Roman origin and use is a really essential thing for every educated person.

We have seen what debt the Romans owed the Greeks and yet how foreign to Greek art was their system of arch and dome construction. To this arch construction the Roman applied the Greek construction as an ornamental mask and facing. It is common to charge any use of ” engaged” columns to the score of the Romans as a departure from Greek ideas and usage, and yet we see from engravings of the Erechtheum at Athens, which were made in the eighteenth century, that one portion of it was decorated with ” engaged ” columns. The same use appears in the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates at Athens. These instances in Greek survivals make it practically certain that the system passed into Italy through the Alexandrine Greeks. It is not a use of the columnar form to be commended in theory, as it violates constructional truth and its occasional appearance in Greek monuments of the later period only shows, what we otherwise know, that a relative decline of taste rapidly followed the completion of the Parthenon.

In Roman art it must be confessed that the results of using the “engaged” columns were picturesque and the contrasts of line harmonious. It is a difficult matter to pass judgment upon critically, without on the one hand, yielding a point which is very much to be emphasized, viz the desirability of constructional truth in building ; or, on the other hand, committing the absurdity of condemning wholesale some of the finest architectural monuments of the world. The easiest way out of the difficulty is to treat the matter historically. Criticism is for the present; history is for the past.

In the Roman ornamental system we observe first the use of the ” engaged” column as found in temples, that is, as a simulated portico. It appears again in arch constructions as an ornamental framework supporting simulated entablatures. These entablatures are frequently seen jutting forward so as to correspond with the projecting surface of the columns. In late imperial art as in the Renaissance decadence these breaks were inordinately multiplied and exaggerated. Finally the system of gables, pointed or rounded or broken at the center to surmount niches, doors, and windows is an obvious adaptation of the shape of the Greek temple pediment to decorative uses. This also was probably first devised by the Alexandrine Greeks, as there are signs of its former use on the Tower of the Winds at Athens. The most extravagant and corrupt instances of the gable ornament are found in the late Roman buildings of Syria ; at Palmyra, in the East Jordan country and in the rock tombs of Petra (north of the Sinai Peninsula).

The domestic architecture of the Roman period is best known to us through the buried town of Pompeii, near Naples. The ashes of Vesuvius, whose volcanic eruption in the year 79 A.D. buried this town, have preserved its dwelling houses until the excavations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in marvelous condition. The town was a small provincial one, and though it was apparently much affected by the Romans as a pleasure resort and watering place, the buildings certainly cannot have compared in dimension or height with those of Rome, where we know that houses of six stories were found. None in Pompeii are more than two stories high, and it is only in one or two cases that the second story has, been preserved owing to the rotting of the timber beams and the pressure of the superincumbent volcanic ashes. The general arrangements of the ancient dwelling houses are, however, well represented. Like the domestic Oriental buildings of our own time they were absolutely unpretentious in exterior appearance and with few windows opening on the streets. Each house was built about a court or a series of courts on which the small apartments opened. In many cases the street front was devoted to shops, disconnected with the house and separately rented.

The great interest of the Pompeiian houses lies in their painted decorations, not only on account of their beauty but also because they were the work of ordinary artisans and illustrate the artistic capacities of common workmen of that day. Most of the important frescoes have been moved to the Naples Museum. They lose a certain portion of their brilliancy soon after excavation, but the colors are still warm in effect and many are even bright. The pictures themselves are in many cases copies of more important ones by superior artists, which have been destroyed, and represent nearly all that we know, by survivals, of the earlier Greek painting. A number of very beautiful frescoes have, however, also been found in Rome.

The execution of these pictures was offhand and rapid, as natural to plaster decoration, and in details we frequently find the slips and carelessness of rapid artisan work—on the other hand they bespeak an amazing fertility of invention and capacity for rapid execution of the most beautiful motives and poses. The subjects of these paintings correspond to the taste of the later periods of Greek art for playful and amatory themes drawn from Greek mythology, although there are other and many scenes from daily antique life and its surroundings. Many of them are in large or life-size dimensions. On the plastered surfaces color was universally employed where no pictures are found. The warm dull red known as “Pompeiian red” and orange yellow were much used. The columns of the porticoes, which universally enclose the interior courts, were stuccoed and painted in the same bright colors, red and yellow.

In the more important houses, bright mosaic pictures made of small cubes of colored glass or variously colored small cubes of stone are frequently found. Some were used for floor decorations, others for niches or small wall pictures. The most important of these, and the most important survival of ancient pictorial art, is the large floor mosaic now in the Naples Museum, which represents the Battle of Issus, the victory of Alexander the Great over the Persian king, Darius. Among the frescoes found in or near Rome, the small painting now in the Vatican, known as the “Aldobrandini Wedding” from the modern villa on whose grounds it was discovered, is the most famous. Some other remarkable cases of landscape painting have been found in Rome in recent years. The mosaic in the Capitol Museum of the Drinking Doves also deserves especial mention. Beautiful mosaic floorings have been found in many of the territories which the empire embraced—many in England, many in North Africa, etc. A number of these are in the British Museum.