Roman Sculpture

ROME. It may seem at first singular that sculpture should have developed so late in Rome. The Etruscans to the north, and the Greek and Graeco-Italic cities to the south, practised it in profusion during the fourth and fifth centuries of Roman history, while Rome appeared to remain perfectly aloof, or satisfied itself with occasional terracotta sculptures from the hand of Etruscan sculptors—as in the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus—or dedicated an occasional statue in imitation of the Greek custom. Even in the fourth and third centuries B.C., the numerous portrait-statues and busts set up in Rome, the works of mediocre Etrusco-Greek sculptors, appear to have been valueless for the history of art, and interesting mainly as showing how the Roman mind sought to make sculpture of practical service, for the satisfaction of personal vanity or ambition.

But there were several reasons for the entire lack of a native-born, national Roman art of sculpture. As a people the Romans were as devoid of true plastic sense as the Etruscans, and as a people they also held the practice of art in the greatest contempt, and as work fit only for slaves.

PORTRAITURE. The very fact that there never was any development of plastic art in Rome in the service of religion—but only in the service of ancestral worship and self-glorification—carried with it as a consequence the absence of all idealism and all inspiration. The thousands of portrait statues that encumbered the Forum in the third and second century B.C. were probably the work of Etruscans. The restriction of sculpture to so naturalistic a branch, and the development of an extremely realistic kind of portrait sculpture, were encouraged by the Roman practice of having in their houses the effigies of all their ancestors, rendered as faithfully as possible. As drapery was quite conventional, the resemblance was confined to the heads, and this led to the sale of ready-made statues, the heads of which were separate and executed to order. The funeral procession which formed so large a part of Roman public display was the occasion for bringing forth all these ancestral effigies. Living persons resembling the deceased were made to take part, and in all cases the utmost fidelity of detail was aimed at, as in the case of a figure representing Caesar, showing his gaping wounds.

Surpassing in numbers the class of works just mentioned were the honorary statues. These were of many varieties : military statues (loricatce), and civil and religious (togatae); equestrian, standing and seated; statues to women, statues erected by decree, by subscription, or by private individuals to themselves or members of their family. The ultimate development of this fashion led to the erection in all important cities of statues of the deified emperors and their families, often in special temples. Beginning with the reign of Augustus, mythology was more fully represented in sculpture by combining Greek and Roman myths, by copying Greek types of all periods, and by affording hospitality to many varieties of Oriental myths—such as the Persian and Egyptian. The minor native deities, the genii, the lares and penates, Silvanus and the rural gods, found expression as soon as the Roman mind became more plastic and receptive.

MATERIALS AND METHODS. Terracotta soon went out of fashion, and bronze remained the favorite material until Greek influence became supreme. Sculpture in the round was almost exclusively used up to the time of Augustus, when marble began to replace bronze. Sculpture in relief received a consequent development and became, if we except portrait busts, the most characteristic form of Roman sculpture. In pursuance of the true Roman policy of the supremacy of utilitarian motives, the Romans developed all forms of architecture connected with secular and popular display, ceremony, use, or pleasure ; and sculpture was used almost entirely, not, as in Greece, in connection with the temples and sacred enclosures, but as a decoration for forums, peristyles, theatres, amphitheatres, basilicas, baths, circuses, gateways, bridges, arches, and columns. There were as many as three thousand bronze statues in the theatre erected by Scaurus in 58 13.C. Then came the development of those unique and magnificent forms of architecture combined with sculpture which are exemplified by the triumphal arches, the commemorative columns, and the Altar of Peace (Augustus). The desire for such a display spread to private individuals, whose houses and villas were filled with statuary of every quality.

GREEK INFLUENCE. The artistic education of the Romans really began during the course of their conquests of the Greek cities of Sicily, Magna Grecia, Asia Minor, and Greece itself. The impressions produced by the thousands of examples of the greatest productions of Greek sculpture, then brought to Rome, was fundamental in forming Roman taste. It is also well known how many Greek sculptors established themselves at Rome during the two centuries before and after Augustus, coming from every part of the Hellenic world to the one city whose wealth afforded an opportunity for the exercise of their talent. And yet, how different was their public position from the honored one enjoyed by their predecessors of the free Hellenic world. In Roman estimation art was a thing to be turned out hy the yard, and slaves were the sort of men to do it. It cannot be said that the Romans lacked the opportunity to realize the beauties of sculpture. There was a continuous influx of masterpieces of all periods, from the time of the capture of Syracuse by Marcellus in 212 B.C. until the reigns of Nero and even Hadrian, when there was collected in Rome a majority of all the great works produced by five centuries of Greek art throughout the Hellenic world in Europe and Asia. All the art treasures amassed by such rulers as Philip, Pyrrhos, and Perseus, all the monuments of Capua, Tarentum, Corinth, and the principal Greek sanctuaries and cities of the main-land and Asia Minor, were collected in the capital of the Empire. And yet they excited at most an intellectual curiosity and enjoyment, but did not stimulate emulation. After the supply of originals was exhausted, recourse was had to numerous copies of famous works. The desire to collect and hoard was apparently insatiable among the wealthy Romans, and if this led to carelessness of execution and true artistic value, it has been of use to science, because the types of valuable originals irreparably lost have thus been preserved in copies.

HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT. Although Hellenic influence can be traced quite early in Rome, the Etruscan style seems to have preponderated until the close of the third century B.C. After that, though the city was rapidly filled with Greek works, it is difficult to find traces of a school of Roman sculpture until just before the time of Augustus. During the emperor’s reign a spirit pervaded sculpture different from anything before or after, and approaching more closely to the Greek standpoint. This idealism of the Augustan sculptures is well exemplified by the beautiful reliefs of the Ara Pacis Augustae, the famous Altar of Peace erected in 12 B.C. on the return of Augustus and the pacification of the Empire. The largest of the two series of reliefs that decorated the wall surrounding the altar contained two sacrificial processions moving forward with slow dignity and comprising many members of the imperial family, the college of priests, attendants, and victims. The heads of the imperial personages are so idealized as to make identification almost impossible in most cases, quite in contrast to the novel realism of Roman portraiture.

Although eminently graceful, the figures lack the force given to later sculptures by a higher relief, greater vigor of movement, and an individual character. Augustus was noted for his love of simplicity in art, and for a strong predilection for the archaic masters of Greek sculpture. He not only brought to Rome many masterpieces of pre – Pheidian sculpture, such as works by Bupalos, Endoios, Hegias, and Myron, but he encouraged the imitation of the style by contemporary Greek artists of the ” archaistic ” school, such as Pasiteles and Arkesilaos. As soon, however, as the influence of Augustus was removed, the Roman school showed a tendency to follow the picturesque, comic, and grotesque style of the genre school of Alexandria, as well as the dramatic style of Asia Minor. At this time the respect with which works of Greek art had usually been treated seems to have largely disappeared. Nero and Caligula were more destroyers than patrons of sculpture, and surpassed in their vandalism the earlier exploits of Verres, stigmatized by Cicero.

The development of relief sculpture on sarcophagi, which in the time of Augustus was rescued from the mechanical level of the Etruscans and raised to the sphere of an art, continued on a grand scale. Many of the sarcophagi of the first two centuries of the Empire, such as those of the Licinii, are superb works. Portraiture also, reached, during these two centuries, its greatest perfection before dying out under Caracalla.

The Greeks never did any work in this domain as great as was then done by the artists of Rome. The artists of the Ptolemies alone, had fore-shadowed this application of sychological intuition to sculpture, and the Herculaneum bronzes show, as mere art, an even higher power than the best Roman work. But Roman portraiture was a whole art-world in itself.

Roman relief sculpture during the first century of our era developed away from the idealism of Augustus, and produced a series of important decorative works on a large scale, such as the arches of Titus and Trajan, the columns of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, which are of extreme interest to the student of history. The finest of these monumental sculptures are those of the reign of Trajan, especially his arch at Beneventum, which shows a distinct advance on the reliefs of Titus, themselves more life-like and effective than the low reliefs of Augustus. The pictorial element predominates, the figures are in different planes; there is more movement, animation, effectiveness. The figures themselves are heavier, the draperies more rich. Almost as fine, from the purely artistic stand-point, are the reliefs of the column of Trajan, which possess an equal value as giving a picture of the Roman army in all the vicissitudes of a campaign—camping, marching, and fighting. At the same time, pure Greek idealism and the reproduction of Greek divine types of the best period are a feature of such works as Trajan’s Beneventum arch. Single figures among Trajan’s sculptures, like those of the barbarian prisoners, show that in larger works Roman sculpture had gained rather than lost in power and dramatic intensity.

Aside from a cold and artificial revival in the time of Hadrian, when, by the choice of rich materials and the use of high finish, the artists sought to make up for their loss of mastery, there is almost an uninterrupted decadence, at first slow, under the Antonines, who sought to arrest the decay, but becoming quite rapid in the third century, until, in the time of Maxentius and Constantine, there were no sculptors capable even of making fair copies. During this century there was a return to the mechanical multiplication of carved sarcophagi, as in earlier Etruscan days.

EXTANT MONUMENTS. Besides the important standing monuments in Rome, Beneventum (arch), the Rhenish province, the south of France, Roumania (Adam-Klissi), and Africa, works of Roman sculpture are present in large numbers in almost every museum : in Rome, in the Vatican, Lateran, Albani, Torlonia, Capitoline, and Baths of Diocletian Museums in Naples, in the Museo Nazionale. The British Museum, the Louvre, and the Berlin Museum are especially rich among the collections outside of Italy. In these and other more local collections we can study the variations of Roman art that arose in Gaul, along the Rhine, in Egypt, in Northern Africa, and among the Phoenicians.