Rome In Its Prime And Decline

SIMPLICITY is the basis of art. It is natural expression, direct, powerful, beautiful. Man barely be-gins to learn its secret when he becomes complex. His designs grow one atop the other like fungi. Curve upon curve and line upon line cover the goddess of beauty with vermin. Then the birth of another day. Man sickens with too much sweets. He looks backward with longing eye. Our goddess receives a cleansing. Again refreshed, she is beautiful to behold. Once more we have purity, simplicity.

With the death of Nero and Vespasian’s accession to the throne came the beginning of the most glorious artistic period of the Roman Empire. Vespasian had governed the Oriental provinces. Titus had campaigned there. Both had their schooling in the land of classic art. Domitian, third of the Flavians, carried their work forward with much building on the grounds occupied by the Golden House of the youthful Nero.

Towards the end of his rule Nero had been busy setting up fantastic structures. Much land was used by him for gardens, for statues of himself, for pleasure palaces. On that part of the Golden House which lay on the Palatine, Vespasian built a small palace for public functions. The Flavian amphitheatre, since known as the Colosseum, was built by him and Titus where the Colossus of Nero had stood.

Opposite the Colosseum stands the triumphal arch built toward the end of the first century A.D., commemorating the many victories of Titus. Inside the arch are two historical reliefs of rare artistic value. One represents the goddess Rome and the Senatus leading the emperor’s horses and chariot. The other shows a triumphal pro-cession with attendants bearing the war trophies of the Jewish Temple of Solomon, including the holy vessels and the huge seven-branched candelabra. In both these reliefs we see figures in the full round in the foreground and in low relief in the background. Rarely had sculpture been done in this manner, and never as effectively as in the Arch of Titus. The arch seems to have been originally polychrome, which would further strengthen the effect of perspective attained by this method of modeling.

Besides a number of great arches, the Flavians built what are now known as the Baths of Titus; an Imperial Mausoleum; a large equestrian statue in the Forum in honor of Domitian. They also restored the temple on the Capitoline. Trajan, 98 to 117 A.D., continued the magnificent building program. If you are under the impression that Roman art was tied to the apron-strings of Greece, study up on the work of this period. Better still, go over to Rome and look about. What is left of the great monuments of the time holds thrills aplenty.

Trajan’s Arch at Beneventum, built in the year 114 A.D., is a splendid example of the art of that day. On its walls is depicted the glory of Trajan, perfect ruler, the just, generous father of the people of Rome. He is represented as the noble lawgiver from whose hand great blessings flow; while Jupiter, Juno and Minerva look down upon his noble deeds. Nude figures representing some of the lesser gods also view the emperor’s liberal acts. Here he is granting lands to veterans, there giving concessions to provinces. Within the archway we see him making a sacrifice in honor of peace, while the Roman people acclaim him.

At the foot of the Capitoline stood the magnificent Forum of Trajan. In this he was glorified as a military leader. Apollodorus, a Greek, was the architect. Scattered among the churches and museums of Rome are fragments of this structure, all of great beauty. Almost Oriental in grandeur was Trajan’s Forum. A triumphal arch was the entrance to a colonnaded court, with an equestrian statue of the emperor in its center. On either side was a semicircular structure, and to the rear the Basilica Ulpia, formed of a central nave and four aisles lined with rows of columns. At each end was a tribune. Beyond the basilica was a court with a library on either side, and in its center a great column. A small chamber at the base of this column held the sarcophagus of the emperor. Be-hind the column was a temple dedicated to the emperor. The entire structure stood intact up to the time of the barbarian invasions.

Trajan’s Forum was completely destroyed, except for the column over his tomb. Bearing in mind its relation to the rest of the structure, the size of this column may give you some idea of the vastness of the original Forum. As to the column’s decorations, I have not the words to describe them. Six hundred and fifty odd feet of reliefs bear the record of Trajan’s campaigns on the Danube.

The pedestal depicts military trophies in delicate carving. Above it a series of spiral reliefs wind upward like a tape, representing one after another the campaigns of the great emperor. Events are portrayed with minute detail. Many of the figures are actual portraits. Episodes and battles are merged into one another; yet though the action moves steadily on the meaning of each portion is quite plain. There is remarkable realism in some of the scenes. Barbarians in the forest are discussing and bewailing the struggle. Women are seen taking part in the fight. Decebalus, the barbarian king, dies in battle as the moon, the barbarian’s deity, appears through the clouds. Peaceful scenes follow. Vanquished chiefs pay homage to the emperor, who treats them with his usual generosity. Every episode has the emperor for its principal actor.

These reliefs on Trajan’s column form the finest eulogy imaginable. The emperor’s campaigns are shown in great detail. He is in the midst of every crisis, instilling courage, inspiring his men with the serene comfort of his great personality. In the Divine Comedy Dante says of this column, “There was recorded the lofty glory of the Roman prince.” Michelangelo remarked that the Venetians could never achieve perfection in art, not having before them the Column of Trajan for inspiration.

Hadrian, who like Trajan was a Spaniard, was also a lover of architecture. He even drew plans and supervised construction during his reign. An enthusiastic traveler, whatever he saw in the ancient world he strove to imitate in Rome. He also influenced the construction of splendid monuments in Egypt and the Oriental provinces. Hadrian’s Arch at Athens still bears testimony to his love for Greece. He tried to build it in purely Greek design, yet the semicircular arch of the lower part is Roman. His villa near Rome is in imitation of Egyptian and Oriental architecture. This royal residence included a theatre, large libraries, baths, guests’ quarters, and temples. Its ruins furnished a vast number of art objects for museums, likewise an inexhaustible supply of precious marbles for the builders of the Renaissance.

Let me now point out another commemorative column, quite different from Trajan’s. It is one dedicated to the emperor-philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Its reliefs represent his campaigns. Also the apotheosis of Antonius and Faustina, whose adopted son he was. A winged genius accompanied by two eagles carries the latter aloft. The scene is witnessed by the allegorical figure of Rome seated on a pile of war trophies. In this work is a marked decline in quality of reliefs, which began with the middle of the second century.

Yet reliefs of the same period found near the ruins of the ancient library at Ephesus are of exceptional merit. These commemorate Marcus Aurelius’ campaign against the Parthians. They show much vigor, and the traditional Hellenistic Asian expression. The emperor steps upon his chariot; Rome leads the horses, Victory holds the reins. The Sun casts his rays on the scene. Mother Earth with horn of plenty reclines on the ground. Both action and grandeur are here.

Excellent work is displayed in portrait sculpture throughout the second century A.D. In the Vatican is a statue of Nero, seated, with mantle draped over his left shoulder. This abnormal emperor is seen in all his ugliness and vulgarity. Portraits in marble of Trajan and Hadrian have come down in great numbers. Rome was at the height of its power; its provinces, exceedingly prosperous, wanted statues of the emperor. Hence the quantity. Modern equestrian statues follow along the lines of that of Marcus Aurelius, the only one of the kind known to the sculptors of the Renaissance.

Much sculptured was the handsome Asiatic youth Antinous, a favorite of Hadrian. He achieved immortality by drowning himself in the belief that his sacrifice of himself would perpetuate the emperor’s good fortune. Hadrian ordered a city built in his honor. An endless number of portrait statues were carved of him. He be-came an idealized type. His beautiful curly head set upon the broad shoulders of an Apollo, he was in all manner of positions and attitudes a rare combination of manly vigor and effeminate sensuality. Another idealized type was the barbarian prisoner. With flat nose, long hair and long beard this allegorical representation of the conquered peoples, in belted tunic and cap and with hands bound, was a popular figure in Rome. A companion piece was a long-haired German woman with bowed head in whose face was the intense grief of the captive. These three figures were the last classic types ever created.

More interesting than the idealized and multiplied royal figures are the great number of sculptured portraits of patricians and of the middle class. Dress and style of hair in each of these tell us the period in which it was done. Invariably they follow the fashion established by the emperor of the time and his family. Thus we see women wearing their hair in coiffure during the reign of Trajan; a little later it is in pompadour. In the time of Marcus Aurelius it is parted and waved. Still later we find the hair smoothly parted, a style presaging the simplicity of the early Christian period.

Sculptured heads of great interest and variety were produced at this time in the provinces as well as at the capital. Often they show an analysis of the face and character of their sitters comparable with that of sixteenth century Dutch and Spanish painters. Amazing, lifelike, audacious portraits are here. Types are represented—German, Spanish, Venetian, Greek. They have individuality besides. Realism is here in full array; a new realism, born of a broad knowledge and keen appreciation of individual traits.

In friezes and reliefs simple designs give way to others more complicated. Combined high and low relief for illusion of perspective is developed to a very high point. Finally there comes a breaking away from realism and a definite tendency toward impressionism; a change making for marked increase in richness and decorative effect. Roman art ascends in a spiral curve. It never stands still, and never falls into vulgarity. By this, however, I do not mean that it always retained its highest quality. Far from it.

Painting follows reliefs in gradually getting away from sharp outline. It tends more and more to producing depth by a skillful combination of masses of color. Here, too, we find the “continuous style” seen on Trajan’s Column. Scenes run into one another “like a succession of dissolving views.” An illustration in a fifth century manuscript of Virgil shows two episodes from the story of Laocoon. On the left is Laocoon, the priest, about to make a sacrifice before the temple; while in a corner, in the sea, are the two serpents who later strangle him. Before the same altar on the right is depicted the death of Laocoon and his two sons. Not a line divides the two scenes. In this manner were religious stories to be portrayed in the Middle Ages, one picture making up an entire narrative.

The full story of Roman road building has never been told. It is an historical epic, one of the outstanding achievements of mankind. About the middle of the second century AD. the entire Roman world was covered with routes of communication. Starting at the gates of Rome were many great highways paved with bricks and stone, forking again and again as through various ramifications they reached out to all parts of the empire. In the museum at Vienna there is a mediaeval copy of a Roman road-map showing the principal cities of the empire and stopping places along the road, like the Inn of Apii Forum where the Christians went out to meet St. Paul. Across the Alps, into Gaul, Spain, Germany and throughout Britain, through western Asia and northern Africa wound and intersected the great high-ways of Rome. Bridges along them were remarkable feats of engineering.

So were the huge aqueducts for bringing water to the cities. An interesting example is the Pont du Gard, a bridge in Provence crossing the Rhone. Here is a Roman aqueduct with three colonnaded stories, the water conduit running through the upper one. The bridge towers over the Rhone, its enormous mass and height the most prominent feature of the landscape. Other remarkable examples are the three-storied aqueduct at Sagovia, Spain, and one at Merida, the huge remains of which are still standing; the Peunte del Diablo at Tarragona and the aqueduct at Seville. In Roman Africa, where water supply has always been a vexing problem, were many aqueducts in which the water from winter rains flowed through complicated canals and was stored in reservoirs. Precautions taken not to lose any more of the precious liquid than absolutely necessary show remarkable ingenuity.

City gates were important artistically as well as from a military standpoint. Cities of strategic importance had gates colossal in size, with two towers for defense. As you travel through various parts of Europe you may still see many Roman city gates. The state of preservation of some of them is amazing. You will find the Prata Nigra at Treves, Germany, with its three colonnaded stories, an interesting example. In Barcelona some of the towers of one of the gates are still Roman originals.

Among Rome’s provinces during the third century A.D., Egypt showed the greatest amount of intellectual activity. Ivory portraits bear witness to the fine art of the Egyptian school as well as the refinement of the people. Youths with crisp hair are seen, and women with elongated faces and large black eyes. Egypt at this time exerted a very strong influence on Rome, not only in art but in religion. The Roman Jupiter became a horned Ammon. Minerva took on wings. The Syrian Diana of Ephesus, with her many breasts, took the place of the Roman Diana. Strange Oriental religious groups boldly sought converts in Rome.

Rome itself continued with the even tenor of her way. That is to say, she maintained the same general style in architecture and sculpture, except for an appalling de-cline in quality. You may still see two early third century arches at Rome. One commemorates the tenth anniversary of the accession to the throne of Septimus Severus. It is elaborately carved with a confusion of crude reliefs. The other, the “Arch of the Silversmiths,” erected in honor of this emperor by the money-changers of Rome, no better in line, is overloaded with ornamentation decidedly lacking in merit.

In the baths, basilicas and palaces built from this time on vaulting shows the old creative tendencies of Roman architecture. But it expresses itself in enormous size rather than beauty. The Arch of Constantine, built in 313 A.D, is perhaps the most important monument of the period of Roman decadence. It possesses a certain elegance of proportion. It has the usual three gateways, the principal one in the center and two small ones on the sides, with reliefs over the arches. The sculpture of the reliefs, however, is borrowed from an earlier and better day. This is literally true. For the adornment of his own Arch of Triumph Constantine despoiled the monuments of his predecessors. Such reliefs as were originated with this arch serve as an illustration of the depths to which Roman art had sunk.

Yet though sculptured ornamentation of this time is crude, grotesque and expressionless it seems to have a new spiritual force. Compared to classic types of earlier periods there is decadence indeed. We find neither the calm beauty of Augustine art nor the strength of that of Trajan’s time. Yet there is something about it which seems to presage the spirit to follow during the Middle Ages.

In portraits fourth century sculptors show personality combined with intensity. Busts grow larger and larger, until they take in almost half the figure. In the Metropolitan Museum of New York is a portrait of Treboniannus Gallus in which the attitude is somewhat ridiculous and the statue stiff-kneed, yet the head is full of life.

Mosaic became the principal element of ornamentation by the end of the fourth century. Floors, walls and vaults were covered with it. Glass, too, now achieved real merit. Much of it seems to have come from Egypt and the other Oriental provinces.

During the fourth century we see in Rome a new trend of thought and ideals. Religion and ethics take on the hues which were to develop centuries later. We find artistic allusions to a life beyond the grave. Stories of gods give way to problems of the soul. Rather than licentious pleasure-seeking there appears to be a desire for another and more spiritual life—the life which later was to be considered the only true and eternal one.