Rome was also deeply influenced by the art of the Hellenistic world, which had spread to southern Italy and Sicily through the Greek colonies there. Plutarch, writing in the 2nd century AD, wrote that before Rome’s conquest of Greek Syracuse in Sicily, ‘Rome neither had nor even knew of these refined things, nor was there in the city any love of what was charming and elegant; rather, it was full of barbaric weapons and bloody spoils. As Greek treasures continued to arrive in Rome, for example after the sack of Corinth in 146 BC, Hellenistic art continued to exert a fascination on the more austere Romans. Yet Greek culture was not fully accepted until the reign of the Emperor Hadrian and his court (AD 117-38). Greek artists were brought to Rome where they designed buildings, repaired sculptures and made new ones. Original Greek statues were copied by Roman artists, though usually in marble rather than bronze, and removed from their original contexts.
The portrait bust became a popular form, tending to be more realistic than Greek portraiture. However, Roman art also had its own original contributions. Compared with Greek architecture, Roman was more secular and utilitarian and showed an interest in grandeur and scale, for example in the Colosseum and public baths in Rome. The Romans also developed the use of the arch, the vault and the dome, and discovered concrete, which all allowed for a much grander architecture, its culmination being found in religious buildings such as the Pantheon in Rome and the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Both these buildings (which still stand today) had important influence far beyond the Roman period. The triumphal arch was another Roman invention that was revived in the Renaissance and stands as an important example of Roman civic and monumental architecture.
The triumphal arch used relief sculpture and inscription to carry its historic and commemorative messages, and this narrative technique decorated the entire surface of the commemorative Trajan’s Column. Relief sculpture was also used for funerary art. The Romans developed the use of mosaic decoration from the Greek example and with wall painting it became an important aspect of patrician domestic decoration, the best surviving examples being from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Wall painting showed an interest in landscape and the illustration of scenes from myth and literature. Though the barbarian tribes who finally overran the empire brought their own arts and traditions they held the Roman culture in awe, adopting and adapting their art as well as their laws and religion, by then Christianity, as they saw fit. However it was the 15th century Italian Renaissance that saw the greatest revival of Roman art. Its influence and heritage survives in all branches of the arts today. Pliny, Ancient Rome’s most important historian concerning the arts, recorded that nearly all the forms of art—sculpture, landscape, portrait painting, even genre painting—were advanced in Greek times, and in some cases, more advanced than in Rome.
The high number of Roman copies of Greek art also speaks of the esteem Roman artists had for Greek art, and perhaps of its rarer and higher quality. Many of the art forms and methods used by the Romans—such as high and low relief, free-standing sculpture, bronze casting, vase art, mosaic, cameo, coin art, fine jewelry and metalwork, funerary sculpture, perspective drawing, caricature, genre and portrait painting, landscape painting, architectural sculpture, and trompe l’oeil painting—all were developed or refined by Ancient Greek artists. One exception is the Greek bust, which did not include the shoulders. The traditional head-and-shoulders bust may have been an Etruscan or early Roman form. Virtually every artistic technique and method used by Renaissance artists 1,900 year later had been demonstrated by Ancient Greek artists, with the notable exceptions of oil colors and mathematically accurate perspective. Where Greek artists were highly revered in their society, most Roman artists were anonymous and considered tradesmen. There is no recording, as in Ancient Greece, of the great masters of Roman art, and practically no signed works.
Where Greeks worshipped the aesthetic qualities of great art and wrote extensively on artistic theory, Roman art was more decorative and indicative of status and wealth, and apparently not the subject of scholars or philosophers. Roman culture assimilated many cultures and was for the most part tolerant of the ways of conquered peoples. Roman art was commissioned, displayed, and owned in far greater quantities, and adapted to more uses than in Greek times. Wealthy Romans were more materialistic; they decorated their walls with art, their home with decorative objects, and themselves with fine jewelry. When Constantine moved the capital of the empire to Byzantium (renamed Constantinople), Roman art incorporated Eastern influences to produce the Byzantine style of the late empire. When Rome was sacked in the 5th century, artisans moved to and found work in the Eastern capital.
The Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople employed nearly 10,000 workmen and artisans, in a final burst of Roman art under Emperor Justinian (527-565 AD), who also ordered the creation of the famous mosaics of Ravenna. Our knowledge of Ancient Roman painting relies in large part on the preservation of artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum, and particularly the Pompeian mural painting, which was preserved after the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. Nothing remains of the Greek paintings imported to Rome during the 4th and 5th centuries, or of the painting on wood done in Italy during that period. Roman painting provides a wide variety of themes: animals, still life, scenes from everyday life, portraits, and some mythological subjects. During the Hellenistic period, it evoked the pleasures of the countryside and represented scenes of shepherds, herds, rustic temples, rural mountainous landscapes and country houses. Erotic scenes are also relatively common. In the late empire, after 200AD, early Christian themes mixed with pagan imagery survive on catacomb walls.
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