Roman Art

Roman art came in many different forms including paintings, sculptures, pottery and mosaics. A lot of Roman art was based upon the works of Greek and Etruscan artists, this was documented by Pliny, a Roman historian, who stated that nearly all of Rome's art was based upon that of the ancient Greeks. Following the Roman conquest of Greece and the surrounding area many Greek artists migrated to Rome in order to pursue their career. The main difference between Greek and Roman art was the purpose the art was meant to serve; the Greeks had a great appreciation for aesthetic beauty and the philosophical theory behind it. Whereas Roman art was used to illustrate wealth and were more so decorative.

Roman art was constantly evolving in order to incorporate the changing culture of ancient Rome. Roman art began to change as the 2nd century AD progressed. Sculptures and imperial monuments began to sacrifice delicate features in exchange for harsh looking faces which emphasized the power of the Roman elite. The best example of this is the Arch of Constantine in Rome; Ernst Kitzinger described the monument as having 'stubby proportions, angular movements, symmetric and a repetition in its features', 'it appears emphatic in hardness, heaviness and angularity'.



Paintings

Only a small amount of ancient Roman paintings have survived to this day. Most of the paintings which did survive came from the town of Pompeii and the nearby villages. There are large amounts of paintings which date from the 3rd century onwards which have been found in the Catacombs of Rome. Much of the fine art that has been recovered from the period has come from Nero's palace, which survived in parts.

The Romans drew artistic inspiration from a number of subjects. These included animals, still lives, portraits and mythological creatures. The Romans in contrast to the Greeks incorporated a great deal of perspective and paid attention to surface textures, shading and spatial awareness in their art. Portraits declined in popularity as the Roman civilisation continued, this was one of Pliny's main criticisms of Roman art, claiming that "Portraits which were used to transmit through the ages the accurate likenesses of people, has entirely gone out". Romans would often be buried with a portrait. These portraits would illustrate the persons head in quite some detail accompanied by a colourless background.

During the third century BC triumphal paintings began to become popular, they would depict military victories and conquered enemy cities and regions. During this period the Romans also painted decorative maps in order to show the major locations of a particular campaign. These paintings would be surrounded in gold and ivory frames. Triumphal scenes can also be seen elsewhere, most evidently on Trajan's Column where there are images of Roman battles during the Dacian wars.

The oldest painting found in Rome was found in a tomb on Esquiline Hill. It describes a historical battle, painted on a plain background in four enlarged segments. The painting details both Marcus Fannius and Marcus Fabius. The image illustrates a city surrounded by fortified walls, in front of which there is a large warrior surrounded by soldiers with short tunics and armed with spears. The lower segment depicts a battle scene between the Romans and Samnites. The image is most likely referring to the Second Samnite War in 326BC.

Triumphal Painting

Sculptures

The Romans used many materials when creating sculptures, these included stone, metals and glass. However, as metals such as bronze were in high demand many of them were melted down to be re-used. That's why today the only remaining sculptures were made using marble. Towards the middle of the first century AD, Roman art began to become more realistic with emphasis being put on optical affects and facial features. Beyond the second century AD, Roman art became more impressionist, utilizing abstract forms and the effect of light.

Sculptures throughout the Empire began to become monumentally large with statues of emperors and gods being immortalised in enormous bronze statues. Examples of this include the statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback and the even larger statue of Constantine I, both located in Rome. As Roman art developed further sculptures began to lack proportion with heads being enlarged, this was a distinct feature illustrating the influence of Eastern art.


Mosaics

Roman mosaics are one of the most common and spectacular artistic remains in Britain, they reflect the high artistic tastes of the wealthy villa owners, these mosaics would often decorate the floors and walls of richer Roman households. Most are in colour and would illustrate historical scenes, gods, animals and mythological creatures.

Cupid Dolphin Mosaic
Medusa Mosaic

Pottery Mosaic
Detailed Mosaic

Ganymede and Eagle Mosaic
Sea Horse Mosaic

Architecture

Roman art can be seen throughout the buildings of ancient Rome. Many of the buildings had exquisite details and were built to illustrate the power and wealth of the state or individual. Roman artistic values were at their height during the reign of Trajan and Hadrian, when the empire was at its largest. The baths of ancient Rome were works of art, namely the Baths of Diocletian and the Baths of Caracalla. Roman monuments were the pinnacle of Roman art, Trajan's Column illustrates the campaign of the Roman triumph in the Dacian wars.



Burials

Noble Roman families would often display portraits of ancestors in the atrium of family house. Tombs would often be decorated with masks, busts and portraits of the deceased person. There are no surviving ceremonial masks, however, many of the busts have been recovered and are detailed in illustrating the faces of historical figures. Funeral masks would have been made using wax and would have probably been moulded directly from the deceased person. Funeral busts would depict the deceased along with their immediate family and sometimes even their slaves. The figures would be shown wearing a toga whilst the women would hold a pundictia pose.


Ceramics

Roman pottery was predominantly created for practical use and were not as decorative as previous civilisations. However, a number of decorative pots have been found across the Roman Empire. Lead-glazed pottery was a common method used throughout the eastern provinces, it would give the pots various looks and colours which would differ from amber to shades of green. Within the borders of ancient Italy the most common style of pottery was 'red-gloss', this would give pots a glossy effect and the colour would vary from light orange to bright red.


Examples

Lycurgus Cup | Date: 4th Century AD

The Lycurgus cup is the only whole example of dichroic glass work. This exquisite cup changes colour when held up to light, from a dark green to a translucent red. This was achieved by fusing gold and silver into the glass.

The cup is depicting the Thracian king, Lycurgus. In a fit of violence he attacked Dionysus and one of his maidens. The maiden called out to Mother Earth who transformed her into a vine, she wound herself around the king and held him captive. This gives the cup its nickname the 'cage cup'.

Lycurgus Cup

Augustan Portland Vase | Date: 1AD - 25AD

The images which are depicted on the Portland Vase are ambiguous and there are currently over 45 interpretations of the vase. The two most likely theories are that the figures represent either historical men and women or secondly the characters are from mythology. The most likely historical scene is the emperor Augustus celebrating the glory of Rome. The most widely accepted theory of the vase depicting a mythological scene is that of the myth of Peleus and Thetis.

Augustan Portland Vase

Gemma Augustea | Date: 37AD - 41AD

The images which are depicted on the Portland Vase are ambiguous and there are currently over 45 interpretations of the vase. The two most likely theories are that the figures represent either historical men and women or secondly the characters are from mythology. The most likely historical scene is the emperor Augustus celebrating the glory of Rome. The most widely accepted theory of the vase depicting a mythological scene is that of the myth of Peleus and Thetis.

Gemma Augustea

Blacas Cameo | Date: 14AD - 20AD

The cameo portrays Augustus, the first Roman emperor, it is just a fragment of the original portrait. Augustus is wearing a sword belt, illustrating his military power and the aegis which is associated with the Roman goddess Minerva. The jewelled headband was added in the medieval period when restoration was done to the piece.

Blacas Cameo