ROME ruled the earth. And thenwhat became of its might and glory? What becomes of all might and glory? What becomes of pomp and boast and tyrant’s fist; of chains and thrones and human greed? Cease your boasting, my friend. Learn the tale of mighty Rome.
The story of Rome dates back to the Stone Age and a very interesting prehistoric culture. The primitive Italian tattooed and burned his skin. At first he buried his dead. Later he practiced cremation. Ashes of the deceased were put in crude jars, then deposited in pits hollowed out of the rock. Sometimes a small vessel in the shape of a hut was used as a depository for these ashesa duplicate, if you please, of the modest home of the deceased. Entire cemeteries have been found of pit-tombs in rock. One of them, located underneath the great Roman Forum, seems to have been the common burial place of some tribe that lived on a neighboring hill.
Rome as a city was founded somewhere about 750 B.C. The Etruscans, kindly neighbors, helped in its planning. Originally Asiastic Greeks, these people had a considerably advanced civilization. They were great builders. In all friendliness they passed their knowledge on to the Romans. It was not long before they were properly rewarded for their painsthey were conquered and absorbed.
From the Etruscans Rome had much to learn. Not only were they builders, they were expert metal workers as well. Among other things, they made metal folding beds. Besides producing their own interesting works, they also kept in touch with and imported the art of the mother country. Witness the great number of “Etruscan vases” undoubtedly emanating from Athens. In teaching the Romans these people were passing on to their energetic neighbors much of the art of Greece.
Before long a new Hellenic influence came to Rome from Alexandria, by way of Campania. Patrician families had country estates on the Gulf of Naples. Here they met Alexandrian artists, dancers and comedians. The influence of Alexandria, highly-cultured, sensual, licentious, was resisted by austere Rome. Yet large collections of Alexandrian pictures and statues found their way into Roman homes. They were widely copied in Pompeii. Conquests in cities like Corinth and Syracuse netted fine works of art as part of an enormous quantity of plunder. This greatly helped in Rome’s artistic education.
In Rome we will again direct our attention first to architecture. Architecture, in fact, is the best guide we have to a people’s culture. Just as you may well be judged by the appearance of your home, so may a nation be judged by, its buildings. New York’s tenement houses, and sky-scrapers, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, all are, index fingers to our civilization.
If you have been laboring under the impression that Roman architecture was nothing more than Greek degenerated, revise that impression now. While Rome did adopt Greek features, it took the arch, vault and dome from the Etruscans then combined the beam and arch with the column, and added some wrinkles all its own.
From the first Rome went after world power. It built accordingly. Instead of the delicacy and simplicity of the Greek we find in Roman architecture a seeking after vastness, magnificence. In the size and form of their public buildings, in their great aqueducts, are expressed the power and energy of that wonderful people.
Roman columns were fully round, for the most part unfluted. This was due not alone to the unsuitability of fluting to granite and veined marble but more to the fact that fullness and roundness were in keeping with the Roman spirit. Fluting, cutting grooves on a shaft, is suggestive of delicacy of feeling, self-suppression. These were not Roman characteristics.
Newly-discovered concrete helped make possible the kind of construction Rome needed to express herself. By means of concrete wide openings could be spanned. Vaults and domes could be built for variety and boldness. Because of its full-blown ornateness the Corinthian order was favored. “The characteristic of Roman art lies in its forcefulness. The Romans were rulers by nature, and Roman art was the outward expression of the national love of power.” (Banister-Fletcher, History of Architecture).
Here temples are no more the principal architectural monuments. Religion is not as strong in Rome as in Greece. Public buildings appear everywhere, proclaiming Roman rule, world power. Roman architecture, in fact, tells of all that is important in its social life. Through-out the empire does this hold true.
We have the great thermae for games and bathing; the circus for races; amphitheatres for gladiatorial contests; theatres for dramas, basilicas for lawsuits. State temples fill religious needs. Home life is in the “domus.” For public affairs, commerce and stock speculation we have the Forum. And everywhere we find evidence of an inherent capacity for obedience which made possible Rome’s greatest contribution to civilization, law.
Project your imagination to an earlier day and stand with me at the Forum Romanum for a view of Rome. You are in the midst of the city’s seven hills. All about are the principal public buildings, pillars, statues, arches, porticos, colonnades, temples, basilicas and shops. Few places anywhere can equal the sight before us in grandeur. The Forum itself is a general meeting-place. Here social appointments are kept and much business transacted. Great political meetings take place where you and I are standing; the citizenry of Rome come here to be regaled with oratory. From this very spot statesmen and soldiers present their case before the people.
Now come along for a glimpse of the Pantheon, the grandest of all circular temples. It is of three story construction and is approached by a portico of Corinthian columns in a triple colonnade one hundred and ten feet long by sixty feet wide. Round, unfluted, these columns rise to a height of forty-six feet and five inches on a base a trifle under five feet. Their shafts taper to four feet three and one-half inches at the top. The pediment over the portico originally had a splendid bronze relief of a battle between gods and Titans. These two niches at the back of the portico held colossal statues of Augustus and Agrippa, and between them were huge carved doors of bronze plated with gold.
The great circular rotunda of the Pantheon has an inside diameter of a hundred and forty-two and a half feet and rises to exactly the same height. The inside lining of the building is of marble and porphyry. In this structure you see eight great arched recesses. One of them is the entrance. The other seven, now empty, once held statues of the Roman gods.
The immense dome, as you see, is a hemisphere. Its mass is broken and its weight relieved by five rows of squares. That unglazed opening in the crown of the dome, twenty-seven feet in diameter, lights up all parts of the building and also lends solemnity and impressiveness to the interior. The great “eye” may have been intended to convey the thought that worship in this temple of all the gods is under the direct gaze of heaven.
From the outside the lower story of the Pantheon in its original state was agleam with white Pentelic marble. The two upper stories were always stucco. Gilded bronze plates covered the dome. Without statuary, without marble sheathing, or bronze, or gold, this beautiful buildingrenamed St. Maria Rotunda, a Christian church, by its unity and severe simplicity still compels the admiration of the entire world.
Let me give you another example of Roman architecture, the Baths of Caracalla. They had accommodations for sixteen hundred people and typified Roman love of luxury. A fifth of a mile square, they stood on a platform twenty feet high. Under this platform were store-room, furnaces, piping and hot-air ducts for heating. Facing the street was a colonnaded two-story structure with shops on the first story. The main entrance led into a parked enclosure for wrestling and games. Surrounding it were halls for lectures and dramatics. Beyond the stadium was a vaulted reservoir where water was heated and piped to the baths.
The main bathing building occupied an area seven hundred and fifty by three hundred and eighty feet, which, if you please, makes two hundred and eighty-five thousand square feet of building. In the center was a warm lounge a hundred and eighty-three feet long by seventy-nine feet wide, with an immense semi-circular roof rising to a height of one hundred and eight feet. A great dome also roofed the calidarium. The frigidarium, open to the sky, made a delightful open-air swimming-pool. Its interior was richly decorated with mosaic figures of athletes and geometric patterns. There were balconies, and richly ornamented vaults. Niches of colored marble in the walls contained the finest of Greek sculpture.
Marble and silver lions threw delightful streams of water into marble basins. Rome loved fountains and running water and never lost an opportunity of installing them. Roman baths were a sublimation of the Turkish variety of today. They had a warm lounge, hot room, hottest room, cooling-room, swimming-pool, dressing-rooms, rooms for shampoos, oils and unguents, a place for ball games, a library and small theatre.
At first a small fee was charged for admission to the baths. That was soon removed by emperors in search of popularity. Besides those described above, Rome had the Baths of Agrippa, the Baths of Titus and the Baths of Diocletian. The latter had accommodation for over three thousand bathers. Its tepidarium, two hundred feet long, eighty feet wide and ninety feet high, was converted into the Church of S. M. degli Angeli by Michelangelo in 1563.
On a plot six hundred and twenty feet long by five hundred and thirteen feet wide stands the Colosseum. Overlooking the arena or bowl were the Imperial throne and the seats reserved for the Pontifex Maximus, the vestal virgins, senators, praetors and other state officials. Behind and above the reserved portion, tiers of seats accommodated eighty thousand people. All this was covered over by canvas with ropes attached to poles atop the uppermost tier. So well built was the Colosseum it used to be said, “When falls the Colosseum, Rome shall fall.”
The outside facade of this structure is four stories high, different in orders at the various levels. Doric columns, indicative of strength, are at the lower level; then follow Ionic columns, conveying refinement; over these Corinthian columns lend ornamentation. Unusually impressive are the sweeping unbroken lines of entablature around the building. A great feat of engineering was here made possible by the invention of concrete.
When the Colosseum was built architecture was no longer simple, as in Greece. It was complex. Much of the design was hidden. Thanks to concrete, “there were columns above columns, entablatures above entablatures, and arches above arches; while radiating vaults round the whole building were hidden supports to the auditorium seats . . . Stupendous in proportion, complex in structure, and yet consistent in the constant repetition of the external design, the Colosseum compels alike the awe and admiration of a nation who conceived and carried to completion such an immense undertaking to serve popular amusement. The Colosseum is still magnificent, even in its ruin, and recalls the gladiatorial contests, the naval displays and the martyrdom of Christians which took place within its giant walls before it became a mediaeval fortress or was plundered to provide building materials for Renaissance palaces and churches.” (Banister-Fletcher, History of Architecture) .
But by no means the largest building of its kind was the Colosseum. Of an earlier period was the Circus Maximus, two thousand feet long by six hundred and fifty feet wide, which according to Pliny held a quarter of a million spectators.
The Ara Pacis, or Temple of Peace of Augustus, is a highly decorative altar in the center of a square court. All around the inside of the court is a colonnade. The lower portion of the altar is decorated with sculptured sprays of acanthus leaves. A frieze along the upper part is one of the most important examples of Roman sculpture. On the front walls of both sides of the entrance are two groups. One represents in allegory the earth, air and water. The other, a powerful old man crowned with laurel and a mantle drawn over his head about to perform the ritualistic sacrifice, represents the people, or the Roman Senatus. A frieze on the side and rear walls depicts a procession headed by Augustus and the two consuls. Patricians and high dignitaries are portrayed with unsurpassed realism.
On the lower zone of the outer wall we have a fine example of the decorative art of the time of Augustus. A large cluster of acanthus leaves spreads into a system of delicate spirals ending in palmettes, leaves and flowers. The swan, favorite bird of Apollo, splendidly drawn, is represented in various parts of the walls. Leaves and flowers in orderly arrangement complete this exceedingly rich and beautiful decoration.
Another frieze inside the shrine is of garlands and laurel leaves, with fruits and flowers supported on bullocks’ heads. In the use of this motive as in everything about it the Ara Pacis is an excellent summary of Roman art to that time. It combines Hellenistic allegory and Etruscan richness with the garlands of the republic and the triumphal spirit of the empire. It is the grandest creation that the hand of man had achieved to that date and all in a monument really small. Its handsome facade is but forty feet long and twenty feet high.
Military triumphs called for many arches. Their building began with the reign of Augustus. Rome wallowed in military glory. Great campaigns, conquests, hostages and booty kept the populace in a constant turmoil of excitement. Every achievement had to be suit-ably commemorated.
The early Roman home had for its principal feature the atrium, a central covered room with an opening in the roof for light. This opening naturally admitted rain as well, hence a cistern underneath. It is thought that originally the house consisted of this one room for the whole family, a development of the primitive Latin hut. Gradually it was enlarged by the addition of other rooms. In time we have rooms on all four sides of the atrium. In the more luxurious homes of the later republican period we often find the addition of another atrium with rooms around it and a garden as well as a colonnade. During the days of the early empire, when the home like everything else was influenced by Greek ideas, a court surrounded by columns was added. One of the finest Pompeiian mansions shows a combination of Roman and Greek features; its entrance leads to an atrium, while at the rear of the corridor is a court surrounded by a colonnade.
Marble was sometimes used for wall decoration in the atrium, but more often richly painted stucco. Frequently doors and pilasters were painted in. This is known as the first Pompeiian Incrustation style. The second is the Architectural style. It has columns and other architectural features painted to appear as though they stand away from the wall. Between columns you might also find landscapes, or figures before window outlines. Or the entire wall may be divided into panels between columns, each bearing some composition. The third or Ornate style, in use during Nero’s reign, is developed on a wall of uniform tone of white, black or Pompeiian red with a great variety of miniature decorations. Friezes of garlands, masks, little baskets, hanging draperies were among the themes employed, all harmonious in arrangement and soft in tone. Vertical bands ornamented with frolicking cupids, popular with this style, may have been copied from Alexandrian paintings on glass.
Nero’s Golden House, later the basement of the Baths of Titus, was a fine example of the Ornate style. Here during the sixteenth century were found paintings which exerted a considerable influence on the art of the Renaissance. They may even have inspired Raphael and Michelangelo. As the decorated rooms were below the level of the ground in a series of grottoes, their ornamentation was called grotesco, or grotesque.
During the last days of Pompeii a fourth style of mural decoration appears, known as illusionism. Little columns, friezes or windows are still painted in, but all is intricate and fantastic and as far as possible from reality. Here imagination holds sway. Small animals support columns of fantastic little temples. Cupids climb about graceful spirals of leaves and twigs. Vivid coloring and a multitude of forms characterize the decoration. Pictures within the super-ornamented panels are almost always copies of Greek originals. Sometimes a copy from a copy, but Greek none the less. Thus, amid a super-abundance of elaborate design Hellenistic simplicity is enshrined as the ideal.
Sculpture of this period is noted for its balance and detailed realism. Aside from occasional symbolic work, portraiture is of the utmost importance. A severity of style is combined with Etruscan realism. Likeness is maintained with a fine expression of personal traits. There are a great many portrait busts and statues of Augustus from the time of his early youth to the height of his glory. We also have a number of representations of Tiberius. Claudius is shown as a great deified monarch. Nero is most interestingly depicted, twisting his head on his enormous neck. There is an endless quantity of family portraits. A bust of Antonia represented as a nymph rising from the calyx of a flower is considered the most beautiful of all Roman portraits. It expresses every womanly grace. While one of her breasts is partly uncovered, it in no way lessens the patrician lady’s modesty and nobility. Her hair is arranged in the prevailing fashion. This work is a wonderful combination of realistic detail and idealism.
In the minor arts Rome at this time follows in the footsteps of Alexandria. Indeed, craftsmen from that and other cities plied their trade in this new capital of the world. Table silver left by Roman officers at Hildesheim, on the German frontier, shows that even in a military camp and at that distance from Rome a high standard of taste prevailed. A brazier supported by three fauns, found at Pompeii, is exceptional in line and workmanship. Each faun has one hand extended as if testing the air. The galley of Tiberius, sunk in the lake of Nemi, was ornamented with many handsome bronzes and marbles. These have been recovered and are the best examples of the kind we have. Marble vases and jars show exceedingly fine workmanship. Their ornamentation is built up along lines originally Greek.