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This post is part of a series called A Beginner's Guide to Art History.
History of Art: Ancient Greece
History of Art: Byzantine and Islamic Art

Welcome back to our series on art history! From Ancient Greece we move on to a rather familiar culture in Ancient Rome! From pottery to sculpture to architecture, Roman art was heavily influenced by Greek, Etruscan, and Egyptian art. Let's run through some of the major contributions and themes found in Roman art.

Augustus of Prima Porta
Augustus of Prima Porta, Image by Till Niermann

Sculpture

The major reason we see such influence from Greece is on account of Rome's military prowess. As you'll find throughout history, when an area or people are conquered, their culture has a tendency to influence their conquerors. As the Romans conquered the Hellenistic world, Hellenistic sculptural styles began appearing in Rome. Another interesting and pretty terrible note about this influence is that by the 2nd Century BCE, the sculptors working and living in Rome were Greeks enslaved by the Roman military.

Original Roman design is seen in the tombs of middle-class Romans. The main focus was portraits and busts, something that the Romans excelled at and that we'll discuss more when we get to their paintings. Very few sculptures of this type and from this era have survived through the centuries.

Capitoline Brutus
Capitoline Brutus

One bust, however, that's attributed to this time (we're at around 4th or 3rd century BCE) depicts Lucious Junius Brutus, the founder of the Roman Republic himself. Sculpted in bronze, the bust has eyes carved and inlaid from a different material, which isn't terribly common for surviving artwork, either due to separate pieces breaking, gems and other materials (such as ivory or marble) being stolen, or eyes being sculpted or cast and simply painted if defined at all.

Relief sculpture on the Arch of Constantine
Relief sculpture on the Arch of Constantine. Image by Radomil.

Stone, relief sculpture, and other types of the art form were created throughout this time until the 2nd century CE or so, when Roman art's classical style was abandoned. What once showed off a fantastic understanding of anatomy, spatial awareness, and skill in creating art itself, was replaced by giant eyes and harsh forms and angles. The Arch of Constantine shows off this change in some of its relief sculpture (while still mixing in Greco-Roman influence throughout).

Painting

The Romans were big into painting and excelled at the art form. Sadly, however, a great deal of Roman painting hasn't survived thanks to natural disasters (Pompeii being the most notable), war, and the ravages of time itself. From the body of work that has survived, however, we have a wide variety of subject matter: landscapes, portraiture, still lifes, and a variety of genre scenes.

Pompeii Painter
Pompeii Painter

Paintings of landscapes are a Roman invention. It's funny how simple and commonplace landscape and vista paintings may be considered today; they were revolutionary in Ancient Rome! 

It's thanks to the development of perspective (nowhere near what we can create today) that an interest in landscapes as art began. While inaccurate in terms of space and rendering, landscape paintings showed everything from urban scenes of the time to mythological landscapes from popular stories of the day.

Boscotrecase Pompeii Third style
Boscotrecase, Pompeii. Third style

Roman portraits, especially those on panels, were considered higher forms of art than wall paintings (which were often quite a bit more popular, lining the walls of many Pompeian buildings in the homes of well-to-do residents). 

Few wood panel paintings exist today, but those that do show off the fashion sense and features of their subjects wonderfully. A Fayum mummy portrait, a painted panel that was attached to mummies during the Coptic period in Egypt (around 3rd and 4th centuries during Roman rule), shows a fashionable woman, painted in a naturalistic style, with ringlet curls and jewelry.

Fayum Woman in ringlets
Fayum. Woman in ringlets.

A painting technique we haven't yet discussed in this series of art history articles is that of gold glass. Also known as gold sandwich glass, this technique involved fixing a layer of gold leaf between fused layers of glass. Interestingly, most designs using this technique were rather small, having been made from the bottoms of cut-off wine glasses or cups. These gold glass circles were used to adorn graves in the Catacombs of Rome.

Gold Glass painting Possibly Galla Placidia with her children
Gold Glass painting. Possibly Galla Placidia with her children.

Genre scenes were another subject for paintings. Whether depicting the military triumphs of the day or showing Romans in their leisure time, the surviving paintings or even descriptions of them in old texts are incredibly interesting for focusing on mostly human matters (though some paintings did depict gods in leisure activities as well).

Architecture

It's cities that the Romans excelled at creating most. Concrete was used to great success by the Romans in many of their great buildings, like the Pantheon. Roman architecture was durable, unlike a lot of art forms up to this point. Many Roman buildings were converted to churches or for other uses over time.

The Pantheon in Rome
The Pantheon in Rome. Image by Roberta Dragan.

These buildings, with their impressive arches and construction, weren't simply made of concrete, however. They were covered in a variety of materials, including marble, plaster, brick, stone, and more. Decorative features such as sculpture or gold-gilded details made these buildings a marvel to behold in their day. 

Like many valuable creations throughout time, however, these materials were pilfered, leaving only the concrete skeleton to remain. A famous example of this is the Basilica of Constantine.

Minor Arts

Our final subject for this quick look at the art of Ancient Rome is that of the “minor arts” or the hodge-podge of other art forms that weren't as widespread or came from other cultures. These were mostly decorative arts that were considered luxuries, though some things such as terracotta figurines were more commonplace. Roman pottery was decorated with molded relief pieces, unlike the painted vessels of their Greek counterparts.

Blacas Cameo of Augustus
Blacas Cameo of Augustus

Some luxury arts included glass making, including cameo glass which aimed to look like engraved gems and stone carvings. Wonderfully, the style of cameo glass has been carried on throughout the ages. In the Roman era, designs were created by etching a design through fused layers of glass. This was done with white opaque glass, giving it the distinct cameo style.

Naples National Archaeological Museum Alexander Mosaic
Naples, National Archaeological Museum, Alexander Mosaic. Image by Berthold Werner.

Mosaics were considered a minor Roman art until the late 4th century CE, when Christians preferred it for large religious wall pieces. For the Romans, however, mosaics covered floors, walls (especially those that were going to get wet, such as bathhouses), or ceilings. 

Interestingly, most of the signed mosaic pieces had Greek names affixed to them. This typically means they were created by Greek artists or slaves in Roman workshops. As much as I want to celebrate art, it's important to note the history of that art, and how many artists were not creating art for art's sake as you or I do today.

Conclusion

Like the Egyptians and Greeks before them, the Romans contributed heavily to the world of art, and to many modern-day cultures. We will see shades of Rome and Greece in eras to come, for sure. In the meanwhile, I hope you learned a bit more about Roman art. 

Check out some links below for further reading, and join me next month when we discuss Islamic and Byzantine art.

Article sources include the following:

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