Etruscan and Roman Art summary



Etruscan and Roman Art summary


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Etruscan and Roman Art summary


Etruscan and Roman Art


 800 BCE – 395 CE


A distinct population lived on the long peninsula now known as Italy, composed of several different subcultures, for at least 150 years before the Greeks established colonies in around 750 BCE on the coastline as well as inland. These peoples included, among others, the Sabines, the Etruscans, and the people in the area of Latinius, the Romans. The city of Rome was founded, according to legend, after the quarrel of the abandoned sons of Mars, Romulus and Remus, as to the best location for the founding of their city. After Romulus killed Remus, the city was named after the victor, in 753 BCE. Rome’s dominance was assured when the warriors of Rome overran the city of Sabine and abducted its women, taking them as wives and concubines. As a result of this cross-fertilization, the hegemony of the culture of the Romans was assured, eventually overwhelming and absorbing the Etruscans, who were dominant in the region until 509 BCE, the ascent of the first consul of the Roman Republic, Lucius Junius Brutus. The Roman ideal is perhaps best expressed in the works of their most beloved philosophers, the Stoics, including Seneca and Cicero, preached a life of reserved service to the state and society, adopting the customs of the time one lived in, and allowing no physical distress to divert a man from his duty; it was a Stoic aphorism that one should be able to undergo surgery without painkiller and read at the same time. This sense of dogged determinism led the Romans to incredible feats of engineering and politics, as well to incredible acts of folly, cruelty, and hubris. 


Etruscan period 800-509 BCE


Many architectural and engineering innovations associated with the Romans began with the Etruscans, as well as the integration of Greek religion and deities, (Apollo, from Veii, terra-cotta, 500 BCE) into general patterns and traditions of ancestor worship and divination. This rather functional approach to the spirit world with the cremated remains of the dead living in “cities”, combined with a broad range of native skills gleaned from the many and various native groups which comprised the ethnic makeup of the peninsula (masonry, metal work, painting, etc.) made the ancestors of the Romans extremely practical and pragmatic, with a general emphasis toward a philosophy of public service, pride, and consciousness. This expressed itself in a variety of forms, from the clear, rational grid on which cities were laid out, to the use of the rounded arch and vault, (Porta Augusta, Perugia, 2nd century BCE), to the vivid images of the pleasures of earthly life painted on the walls of tombs, (Tomb of the Leopards, 480BCE, Tarquina), to the frank depiction of men and women engaged in equitable, friendly, intimate relationships (Sarcophagus from Ceveteri, 520 BCE). Women seem generally to have enjoyed a higher status in Roman society than in Greece, having more direct political and social power.


Republican period 509-27 BCE


After the overthrow of the tyrant king Tarquinius Superbus, the senate gained more influence, especially under the elected first consul of Rome, Lucius Junius Brutus. A long process of campaigns, first dominating the Italian peninsula, subduing the Phoenician city of Carthage, as well as the areas of Macedonia, Greece, Gaul, and Northern Africa, led to the assumption of imperial power of Rome into the hands of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE. This process of change from a primarily representative agrarian society, into a sovereign controlled, urban empire, occurred during what is known as the Roman republic. Even under later dictatorial eras, Romans thought of themselves sentimentally as practical, salt of the earth, rustic folk, people who knew how to negotiate and find mutually agreeable solutions to life’s problems. The true beginning of the period of Imperial Rome was when, after Caesar’s death, his grand-nephew Octavian was declared Augustus, supreme ruler; Rome’s rulers then came to be seen as divine, as gods as part of the great pantheon, and exercised power, for better or worse, as gods.


The Empire Period 37BCE-313CE


The adopted son of Julius Caesar, Octavian, ruled as part of the “Second Triumverate” with Antony and Lepidus, seizing power unto himself after the suicides of Antony and Cleopatra, including dominion over Egypt. He is made into Augustus Caesar, ruler of the Roman world, after playing to his advantage the excesses of Antony’s activities, including his rumored traitorous allegiance to Egypt. Octavian outflanked the better armed Antony both in propaganda and in his alliance with the brilliant admiral Agrippa, who orchestrated the pivotal victory at Actum in 31 BCE. Four years later Octavian was welcomed by the Senate as restorer of the Republic, but at the same time was divinized with Augustus status, against Octavian’s wishes. His stepson, Tiberius, eventually became heir to the throne, and the Julio-Claudian dynasty of his descendents continued until 69 CE, with the ascent of the Flavians, whose rule ended after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius at Pompeii in 79. The long reign of the “Adopted” or “Good” emperors was in many ways the height of the Empire, from 80 to 193, and included well esteemed and judicious rulers such as Trajan and Hadrian, as well as grandiose visionaries such as Marcus Aurelius, as well as madmen such as Commodus, whose irrational rule helped usher out the era of Trajan and Hadrian. Other controversial rulers such as the brutal Caracalla held sway during the Severan dynasty began by Septimius Severus, and lasted from 193-235. The “Barracks” emperors tried to guide the empire through the period of intense warfare and military anarchy between 235 and 272, finally given some stability with the rise of Diocletian and the Tetrarchs, who assented power to the son of the Tetrarch Constantius, Constantine the Great, in 337CE.


Monumental architecture


The Romans excelled at large building projects; their mastery of stone, development of concrete, development of aggregate walls, and efficient construction organization, led to the erection of massive structures of various kinds. They creatively manipulated the classical Greek Orders, using decorative elements at will, to please the eye. Commonly known as the Roman Composite Order, their use of the syntax of Greek architecture departed from that model by using the components to express visual ideas, rather than elaborate upon structural realities.


Sanctuary of Fortuna, Palestrina 100 BCE. This seven-terraced temple complex culminates in a sanctuary dedicated to the goddess of Fortune nestled into the hillside. It exhibits an expansive, overscaled approach to public building, in contrast to the more intimately scaled ideal of Greek temple architecture. It takes full advantage of the physical site and the possibilities of materials comprising the temple, including concrete and aggregate.


Temple to Portunus, Rome 2nd century BCE. In a modification to the peripteral Greek plan, this temple uses columns both engaged to the cella wall, and over scaled for the size of the temple.


Portrait Sculpture


It could well be said that the Romans invented portraiture as we think of it. Largely as a result of funerary practices involving the display of wax death masks of all of a person’s ancestors at the memorial service, Romans had a keen interest in the exact depiction of likeness, of the precise details of the human face. It became customary to commission sculpted marble replicas of the wax death mask; soon portraits were ordered during the life of the esteemed individual, especially of officials and their wives. The practice of portraiture would seem also to be a result of the well documented sentimentality of the Romans, evidenced by warm and affectionate letters exchanged between soldiers and their families while the Roman armies were on campaign.


Head of a Roman Patrician, marble, 75-50BCE. Roman artist excelled at portrait sculpture, emulating the ancient practice of molded death-masks used for ancestor worship. In contrast to Hellenic portraits, Roman works celebrated and reveled in the details of individual irregularities and the signs of age. Realistic in the truest sense, these remarkable renditions of very particular human persons venerated and reverenced the survival of one’s character in the lines, scars, and ravages of years of responsibility and burden.


Portrait of a Roman general, from the Sanctuary of Hercules, 75-50BCE. The Greek tradition of divine male anatomy is joined here with the tempered and weathered face of the subject, a respected general. The body is realistic, but very much in the mold of the divine hero of Greek classic sculpture.

Augustus of Primaporta, 20(?) CE, marble copy of bronze original. This posthumous portrait depicts Augustus as a divine ruler, with the barefoot, contropposto grace of a Greek god, an orator’s bearing, and the proud general’s sculpted, armored breastplate of achievement. Though the face suggests a Greek idealization of features, it is nonetheless asymmetrical, uneven, and clearly a specific individual.


Ars Pacis Augustae (Altar of Augustan Peace), Rome, 13-9BCE. The establishment of the Pax Romana was given as a kind of birthday present to Augustus’s wife, Livia, in 9BCE. Mythological tableau serve to personify the advent of peace as an ideal, stable state of affairs in Roman society


Female personification of Tellus, (Ceres, or Venus) the Earth Goddess, east façade of the Ars Pacis, 13-9BCE. Whatever her actual identity, the goddess symbolizes the abundance of physical comfort for the masses promised by the Pax. Gentle winds blow through the scene, creating a setting of perfect physical comfort.


Procession of the Imperial Family, south façade of the Ara Pacis, 13-9BCE. The emperor and his family move in natural ease to make their offerings for the Panathenaic festival, occurring every four years. Appealing anecdotal details, such as the scuffling children help to convey the message that even the great Augustus is just another roman citizen.




The Romans seemed to have a true love of the illusion of painting; though the examples we have of fresco, encaustic, and mosaic are not overwhelmingly numerous, they exhibit a wide range of technique, and a true sense of painted three dimensional space. This affinity seems to go hand-in-hand with their notorious passion for the illusions and diversions of the theater.


Second Style wall painting, from the Villa of Livia, Primaporta, 30-20BCE. Romans enjoyed pleasure in their private lives especially, and artists created richly naturalistic interior settings. Both real and theatrical, the frescoes serve to heighten the drama of actual settings and events.


Initiation Rites of the Cult of Bacchus, Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii, 50 CE, a cycle of nearly life sized figures, painted in the so-called Second Style, depicts sculpturally rounded human forms engaged in presumed activities of the ancient Dionysian mystery cult, including ritual flagellation. The figures are shown as actors in front of perhaps a scenae frons.


Third/Fourth Style Wall Painting from Pompeii, 1st Century CE. Any citizen with means had the plain interior walls of their villas embellished with lovely illusions, often reproductions of painted backdrops of popular plays being staged at the time. The paintings are an early attempt at Trompe l’oeil and linear perspective, recreating as well as possible, the objective visual reality of the world of Rome.


Young Woman Writing, Pompeii, 1st Century CE. A “frozen moment”, a Roman artist’s effort to capture a delicate, realistic point in time of an elegant young lady, this wall painting uses a variety of hardness and softness in the delineation of edges, a sense of overlapping, and a three-quarter view of the face to let the viewer into the subject’s space.


The Unswept Floor, mosaic version of 2nd century painting. The highly developed mosaic skill of Roman artists was deployed for the replication of illusory painted space as well as for purely decorative design forms.


Pont du Gard, Nimes, France, 20 BCE. This famous aqueduct brought fresh water into the city from the springs of Uzes, 30 miles north of Nimes. A superb example of Roman engineering, it exploits perfectly balanced tiers of round arches in the creation of a consistent grade for the flow of water into town. Large supplies of fresh water supported the beloved Roman institution of the public bath, where members of all strata of society mixed in a daily ritual of conviviality.


Colosseum, Rome, 72-80 CE.  Begun during the rule of Vespacian, founder of the Flavian dynasty, and completed by Titus in honor of his predecessor, the Flavian Amphitheater became known as the Colosseum in response to the giant statue of Nero that came to be sited next to it. The largest public space, and the greatest Roman arena, built at the time, it commingled a fantastic concoction of the Greek classical orders, and a wide variety of materials, including concrete, brick, marble, and wood. Created with crowd control and efficiency and efficacy in mind, it was a palace for the people of Rome to gather, gaining both a sense of communality in the full round seating, and a sense of Rome as a fabulous center of the world through the lavish, theatrical, and at times violent spectacles staged there. Citizens gained entry to the arena by purchasing a clay or stone “ticket”.


Portrait of Vespasian, marble, 75-79CE. The Roman portrait tradition continues. As an unprepossessing, pragmatic soldier/emperor, Vespasian sought to distance himself from the excesses of more decadent rulers such as Nero. Not aged, but in full maturity, the head discloses a real individual, seemingly filled with both optimism and clear-eyed stoicism.


Young Flavian Woman, 90CE, emphasizes Roman women’s role as one of a beautiful fashion plate, sporting the latest hairstyle, while still retaining some sense of individuality.


The Arch of Titus, detail of relief panel, marble, Rome, 81 CE, a triumphal arch and masterful piece of propaganda, it was erected to celebrate Titus’ putdown of the Jewish Rebellion, and the Roman Army’s capture and looting of the Temple of Solomon.


Column of Trajan, Rome, 106-13 CE, raised by the emperor to celebrate his victory over the Dacians, is a continuous, spiral narrative relief scroll, using more than 2,000 figures to depict the successful campaign. It was situated in a section of the forums of the emperors, commemorative and practical monuments to the succession of Roman power from the time of Julius Caesar.


Pantheon, Rome, 125-28 CE, constructed during the reign of Hadrian, dedicated to Marcus Agrippa. A large coffered dome, housing images of the planetary gods, the exquisitely simple rotunda created a new form of construction, emphasizing the carving out of large interior spaces, the emphasis on the space rather than the architecture. Essentially an interior courtyard, it made possible free flowing and large congregations of groups of people eminently practical in an elegant environment.


Canopus and Serapeum, Hadrian’s Villa, Tivoli, Italy, 125-128CE. Another great architectural achievement accomplished under the reign of Hadrian, this country retreat sited in Egypt improvises on Greek design elements. Lintels are arcuated in an open theatrical arcade, creating framed doorways for entry into the pool.


Al-Khazneh (The Treasury), at Petra, Jordan, 2nd century CE. This elaborate rock-cut tomb is one of several of its type tucked into the rose-colored mountains of the region. The Roman architects create a uniquely two-storey temple, enabled by the medium, again, in a uniquely theatrical use of Greek precedents.


Apotheosis of Antonius Pius and Faustina, marble, Rome, 161 CE. Marcus and Lucius created a memorial column for Antonius Pius shortly after his death, the adopted son of Hadrian. The peaceful succession of his sons lasted from 138-192CE. The sculptural program employs unusual pictorial conventions of floating images in space; Pius and his wife Faustina are swept into the realm of the gods by an angelic figure, Mercury?, flanked by symbolic figures, Mars (Rome at War, at rest after victory), and a youth (Apollo or a River god?) holding the stolen Egyptian Obelisk from the Roman plaza, here functioning clearly as a phallic symbol.


Marcus Aurelius, 161-80CE.  Acknowledged as the earliest surviving great equestrian statue, the emperor is depicted here as a military hero, on horseback, wearing the costume of a philosopher. He was equally proud of his military and intellectual achievements, and was commemorated in this gilded bronze as a virile, dynamic, and martial philosopher. However, Aurelius’ tragic willing of the throne of Rome to his brutish son Commodus almost brought the empire from its greatest era of wealth and expanse to naught, effectively ending the period of the “good emperors”. 


Commodus as Hercules 190 CE. The son of Marcus Aurelius, was evidently not only decadent, but quite mad, fond of getting himself up in costume for a variety of personal and state occasions. Many of his colleagues and peers plotted his demise and he was finally assassinated in 192, succeeded by Pertinax (who ruled for only eighty-seven days) and finally Septimius Severus, founder of the Severan dynasty.


Caracalla, 200CE. Later empire portrait sculpture more and more emphasized the individual psychology of the subject, exhibiting the conflicts and passions underlying the majesty of office. Caracalla, successor to Septimius, continued and intensified his mentor’s aggressive neutralizing of those he held in contempt, especially his Brother Greta, whom he murdered with the knowledge of their mother, Julia. Caracalla was rumored to have all of the vices of the provinces of his ethnic descent, and none of their virtues.


Phillip the Arab, 244-49CE. The first of the “barracks” emperors, Phillip I presided in Rome during a period of true military rule, and the time of the first official empire wide official persecution of Christians. The portrait depicts him as curiously both aggressive and withdrawn, seeming to carry in his face the impossible contradictions and compromises inherent in trying to lead the unwieldy empire.


The Tetrarchs, 305CE. This stylized, geometrically unified image of Diocletian and his three associates, effectively conveys the solid, stable, but rigid leadership of the “rule of four” of the Tetrarchs. Diocletian and his co-Augustus Maximium ruled Rome with two junior emperors, titled “Caesars”: Galerius and Constantius. This image, symbolic of the union of power vested in the Tetrarchs, expressed their desire government to overcome the cult of personality and tyranny of individual whim which had plagued the “barracks” empire.


Constantine and the Late Empire


After the variously corrupt, insane, and brutal reigns of various emperors, from Commodus to Caracalla to Phillip the Arab, Diocletian attempted to restore some sense of equitable government by the institution of the three co-rulers, the Tetrarchs. After he and his fellow Augustus, Maximian, tried to abdicate and create a peaceful succession of power, competition soon arose between Maxentius and Constantine, sons of Maximian and Constantius. The night before the decisive 312 CE battle of the Milvian bridge, at the gateway to Rome, Constantine experienced his legendary vision, in a dream, of the Chi and Rho laid over the sun (Apollo), with a banner and voice saying “by this sign you shall conquer”. The symbol to be associated with Christianity, “Chrestos,” literally, “anointed,” was inscribed on his army’s shields, and they were victorious. In Constantine’s 313 edict of Milan, the emperor legislated official tolerance of Christianity, and encouraged his mother, Helena, in her conversion. The emperor never officially converted, but supported the building of Christian shrines and churches, such as the Church of the Holy Seplechre in Jerusalem in 326, and he was variously a devotee of the cult of Helios Apollo and Mithras, which both bore a striking resemblance to Christianity. Constantine finally moved the capitol of Rome to the old Greek town of Byzantium, renaming it in typical Constantinian modesty, Constantinople.


Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, Rome, 306-13 CE. The “New Basilica” was an innovation based on the traditional imperial forum great hall, with a new open floor plan in the central nave, making it eminently useful for large, organized gatherings of people. It became the standard plan for Christian churches for centuries.


Arch of Constantine, Rome, 312-15. Constantine used bits and pieces from other monuments to create this powerfully massive collage-sculpture to venerate his success.


Constantine the Great, from the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, Rome, 325-26 CE. This massive seated portrait, once over thirty feet tall, combined the likeness of the emperor with a new interest in an otherworldly sort of idealism; the stone seems to exude a visionary presence concentrated on something above the Earthly horizon.


Although the new Christian-inspired empire dominated the power structure of Rome, some of his successors, notably Julian the Apostate, encouraged a return to traditional Roman religion, and classical motifs remained popular, even among the converted.. Julian’s successor Theodosius I effectively banned all non-Christian practices, and secured the hegemony of Christianity in the empire, though the “barbarians” continued to hack away at both its borders and heartland.


Priestess of Bacchus, 390-401, Delicately beautiful and powerfully feminine, this ivory panel testifies as to the persistence of the ancient mystery cults in the new Christian Rome.


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