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Roman sculpture

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Funeral relief by Publius Aiedius Amphio and his wife Aiedia
Funeral relief by Publius Aiedius Amphio and his wife Aiedia. Object dated to the 1st century BCE | Author: Anagoria / Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

Roman sculpture can be divided into two periods. The first period is the Etruscan period, when Rome, as a city and surrounding areas, was under the Etruscan influence; the second period is the time associated with the Greek style, mainly due to the subjugation of southern Italy and the Greek cities located there, and the acquisition of many valuable Greek works, after the conquests, in the 2nd century BCE, directly in Hellas.

It is believed that the bust, located in the Capitoline Museum, represents Lucius Junius Brutus, the first consul of Rome. The object was made of bronze and dates back to the 4th-3rd century BCE

One of the best examples of Etruscan art are terracotta tombs, on top of which there was a sculpted lying silhouette supported on an elbow, showing the figure during a feast.

The most famous sculptors in ancient Rome were the Greeks, who were often slaves or artists brought to Italy. You can mention:

  • Pasiteles – A Greek working in the south of Italy in the 60-40 BCE His apprentice was Stephanos, who in turn educated Menelaus. They were both Greek.
  • Salpion, Sosibos, Pomtion – Athenians living at the turn of the eras. First of all, they created beautiful sculptures in the form of vessels, which were intended for the decoration of architectural objects. From the place of their activity, sculptures, friezes, altars with similar decorations are referred to as neoattic.

An interesting mention of artists in the world of antiquity was made by Vitruvius:

But as nature has not formed us after this fashion, the talents of many men lie concealed within them, and this renders it so difficult to lay down an accurate theory of any art. However an artist may promise to exert his talents, if he have not either plenty of money, or a good connexion from his situation in life; or if he be not gifted with a good address or considerable eloquence, his study and application will go but little way to persuade persons that he is a competent artist.

We find a corroboration of this by reference to the ancient Sculptors and Painters, among whom, those who obtained the greatest fame and applause are still living in the remembrance of posterity; such, for instance, as Myron, Polyclitus, Phidias, Lysippus, and others who obtained celebrity in their art. This arose from their being employed by great cities, by kings, or by wealthy citizens. Now others, who, not less studious of their art, nor less endued with great genius and skill, did not enjoy equal fame, because employed by persons of lower rank and of slenderer means, and not from their unskilfulness, seem to have been deserted by fortune; such were Hellas the Athenian, Chion of Corinth, Myagrus the Phocæan, Pharax the Ephesian, Bedas of Byzantium, and many more; among the Painters, Aristomenes of Thasos, Polycles of Adramyttium, Nicomachus and others, who were wanting neither in industry, study of their art, nor talent. But their poverty, the waywardness of fortune, or their ill success in competition with others, prevented their advancement.

Vitruvius, De Architectura, III.1-2

The most commonly used carving material was white marble, which was polished to a shine, especially in Greek copies. Chisels, hammers and files were usually used to work with this brittle sculptural material. A water-powered mill that moved a saw was also used to cut the stone – this type of machine remains was discovered in ancient Hieropolis (western Turkey). The later invention of the drill allowed Roman artists to refine the details more freely and in detail without fear of damaging the material. An example of a work made with a drill is a portrait of Julia, granddaughter of Emperor Vespasian, and daughters of Titus.

In the days of the Roman Republic, marble was not more widely known or used stone. He was considered too extravagant. Marble became the ubiquitous stone only during the reign of Octavian Augustus (27 BCE – 14 CE), who gave up brick and marble buildings.

The most popular marble was certainly Carrara – from Carrara in Tuscany, which was perfectly white (devoid of veins and stains) and widely available. Other popular stones were also white, Parisian marble – mined on the island of Paros (Greece), or Pentelite marble containing iron particles, which give it a delicate yellowish shade, especially visible in the rays of the setting sun.

In imperial times, coloured marble was also valued. For example yellow Numidian marble (North Africa), Purple Phrygian (Central Turkey), Red Porphyry from Egypt, and white marble with green “veins” from the Greek island of Euboea.

Greek copies

The beginnings of the development of Roman sculpture are usually assumed at the end of the 2nd century BCE The works were created at the request of wealthy, most often art collectors. In order to meet the constantly growing demand, copies began to be produced, more or less reflecting the prototypes. It is thanks to the mass copying of Greek works and the survival of some Roman objects that we know the style of Greek sculpture masters.

Initially, copies were made in Greek workshops, later in various cities in Asia Minor, and finally also in Italy itself – especially after the discovery of large marble deposits in Carrara. Statues were copied and whole groups were composed of them. The sculptures were used primarily to decorate baths, interiors and public or private gardens. Large stone vases and sculptures were placed in the peristyle. In the Baths of Caracalla, among others, were discovered The Farnesian Bull or the Farnesian Heracles. Following the pattern of Greek religious sculpture, a mythological decorative sculpture was created. It is worth mentioning that copyists generally did not sign their works, so we do not know many sculptors by name.

Parallel to the activity of copyists, two other trends in sculpting topics developed: historical relief and portrait. Both species are obviously not a Roman idea. They were borrowed and developed on a grand scale in Rome, followed by the Greek masters.

Historical Relief

Altar of Peace (Ara Pacis), is a confirmation of the divinity of the Julian family and their origin in the myth of Romulus.

The beginnings of the historical bas-relief development date back to the turn of the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE. The performances recorded the events that actually took place in the recent past. The creators tried to faithfully depict the characters of the performers, their clothes, weapons, accessories and surroundings; additionally, there were landscape or building elements. Figures were not beautified/rejuvenated; they were presented in a multi-faceted and realistic manner. Roman reliefs with historical themes were most often displayed on buildings and monuments erected in public places.

We can distinguish the following features of Roman sculpture: fidelity to historical facts, narrative and illusionism. A certain contradiction of historicism was placing, often in the foreground, figures of deities. The bas-reliefs depicted on the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) resemble the myths about Aeneas and Romulus, referring to the divine origin of the gens Julia.

During the rule of the Flavians (68-96 CE), more colour was used in the relief creation. Sculptors using various techniques, for example by deepening the perspective, sought to obtain a rich play of light and shade and the illusion of depth of the image. During the reign of Trajan (98-117 CE) the bas-relief returned to classical patterns, drawing on the rich patterns of Greek art. The way of carving differed more and more from the style of the Flavian era. The finest example of a relief sculpture of that period is Trajan’s Column. The relief that runs all the way around the column shows very realistic scenes from the conquest of Dacia.

The greatest decoration of Trajan’s column is the relief made on the ribbon around the column in 23 twists. It presents the history of the war with the Dacians from preparation to victory. Two campaigns are separated by the image of Wiktoria.
Author: Radomil | Under the Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

Made during the reign of Trajan’s successor, Hadrian (ruled 117-138 CE), the figures have garments modelled on sharp contours. Elements of the landscape disappear from the background. The subject of reliefs becomes more and more symbolic. It is visible in the distinct enlargement of the emperor’s figure in relation to the figures around him. The emperor is usually presented frontally, although in accordance with the reality it should be shown, for example, in profile. An example of such a sculpture is the relief from the Silver Gate (from 204 CE) in the Beef Marcuset in Rome. The images of Septimius Severus shown there are shown frontally, although the emperor standing at the altar should be facing the viewer. This gate is also an expression of Eastern influences. The monument is modelled on the holy gates of Syrian temples.

Relief during the period of the reign of Severus was also subject to certain conventions. Documentalism and narration have disappeared. There was no need to wait for events worth showing. Patterns were established, which were brought to life by characters. The only requirement for propaganda was to maintain the ability to recognize the main characters. The reliefs no longer referred to Greek traditions. A characteristic style of the Roman Empire from the 1st-3rd centuries CE was created. Symbolism and convention also dominated later, as can be seen, for example, in the bas-reliefs decorating the Arch of Constantine the Great.

Meanwhile, in the third century CE, there was a regression of Roman sculpture, largely due to the crisis the state was going through at that time.

Sculpture and portrait

The bust of Septimius Severus is now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome.
Author: antmoose | Under Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

With the conquests in ancient Rome, a large market for Greek artworks was created. As the Greek originals ran out, the demand for copies of popular artworks developed. Figures of Greek gods became a model for the statues of Roman rulers – placed in public places and performing propaganda functions. The Roman portrait was divided into two groups. Originally, the need to present entire figures was dominant, and the sculptures were erected to honour people who deservedly deserve the country. In the 3rd-2nd century BCE, bronze casts were made and placed in city squares, especially in Forum Romanum. Around the 1st century BCE, statues made of stone appeared, due to the cheapness of the material compared to bronze. In this convention, portraits of historical, sometimes legendary, and contemporary figures were taken. Despite the resemblance to the people portrayed, the presented characters were idealized.

There was a clear change in the convention of how important people were presented during the rule of Octavian August (he ruled from 27 BCE to 14 CE). In his portraits, we can see propaganda elements. Augustus was depicted as an eternally young ruler, full of strength and dignity. The manner of presenting the emperor and his family was to contribute to justifying the concentration of power in his hands and to allow it to be easily transferred to his successors in the future. His children, regardless of age, must have had features that clearly showed his fatherhood. The women of the immediate family have always been young and beautiful.

A good example of a propaganda portrait is the famous statue of Octavian Augustus of Prima Porta. The emperor was shown as a commander speaking to his army.

Statue of Octavian of Prima Porta

Particularly interesting examples are the portraits of Augustus made in the eastern provinces. Sculptors had at their disposal a model of the current image of the emperor. However, they presented the character in accordance with the convention prevailing in their cultural circles. Found in the collection of the British Museum, the Augustus head sculpture found in Meroe (Egypt) has a tilted head, deep-set eyes and furrowed brows. The sumptuous image of the ruler with an expression unforeseen by the principals was made.

There were exceptions to the imperial convention. For example, portraits of Marcus Agrippa are shown in the so-called republican style, therefore no idealization. Importantly, his sons already: Lucius and Gaius Caesar, who were expected to be heirs to the throne, were shown as persons similar to grandfather August.

Roman relief showing the legionary and signifer during the march. Dated on the 1st century CE.
Author: MatthiasKabel | Under Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

In the middle of the first century CE, under the influence of Eastern customs, the way of portraying emperors changed. Already during his lifetime, he could be shown in the form of a god. However, not every ruler took advantage of this privilege. Emperor Claudius wanted to show his face realistically. His monument showing the figure of a young man with the head of an old man is known. Claudius-Jupiter combines the features of veristic portraits (modelled on posthumous masks, emphasizing the physical features of old age) with the common depiction of gods. This sculpture is in the collection of the Vatican Museum. From that moment on, the portraits of emperors were intertwined with convention and verism. Only the women of the ruling community consistently have young faces with regular features and careful, elaborate hairstyles. Especially during the rule of the Flavians, the painterly depiction of the figures was revealed with softly modelled robe lines, careful elaboration of the smallest details of hairstyles, which at that time required the wearing of curls in the front of the head (the so-called “wasp nest” or “bee nest”). Deeply carved grooves introduced a rich play of chiaroscuro. The marble processed in this way lost the character of hard stone. The fashion prevailing in the court spread by placing the images of the rulers on the coins they minted. This was especially true of the empress’s hairstyles (on the obverse of the coins there was an image of the emperor or his wife).

Statue of Barberini it is a statue of a standing Roman (patrician) dressed in a toga, which holds the portraits of two men (his ancestors). This sculpture is important in the study of the history of Roman sculpture, as it allows to confirm the assumption of death masks as a pattern for a portrait, although it also proves that it was not simple copying of wax casts in stone.

During the reign of Hadrian, sculptors introduced a more detailed treatment of the eye in portraits. The iris and pupil have been distinguished. The way the emperors are portrayed reveals their preferences. The portraits are like a psychological study. Trajan, the emperor-warrior, is most often shown as a leader in armour. Short hair, knitted eyebrows and pursed lips speak of a resolute and energetic man. Marcus Aurelius, a writer and philosopher, was shown with a pensive expression. Caracalla, soldier, cruelty – was pictured with a fierce look, an angry expression on his face. Moreover, during the reigns of the Antoninans (2nd CE) and Severus (2nd-3rd century CE), the custom of portraying emperors with symbols showing their divinity became widespread, a halo of which they surrounded themselves during their lifetime.

In the late Roman period, individual features are lost. In the portrait, the ruler is presented as a spiritual man, with his eyes directed towards space. The stability and the stillness of the figure show its majesty. The statues are huge. Red porphyry becomes the favourite material for portraits of the ruler. For example, a group of tetrarchs built into the corner of St. Marcus’s in Venice. The characters are similar to each other. The most important thing, in this case, was to show the idea of ​​co-governance. The consent is symbolized by the mutual embrace of the figures shown. Naturalism was forced out of the portrait; it was replaced by symbolism.

Another portrait group are busts. Their form has changed throughout history, from the head with a cut of the neck to the sculpture extending over a large part of the torso. The genesis of the creation of this type of sculptures is derived from the Roman custom of removing wax death masks, which over time began to be copied in stone. The masks were displayed at funerals and then displayed at homes. The size of such “collection” testified to the antiquity of the family. The most valuable monument of this trend is the Barberini Statue. It is a male figure in a toga supporting two busts – images of ancestors. The sculpture is dated from the years 40-30 BCE.

Statues were coloured

Wherever we look, the film productions show us the world of ancient Romans devoid of colours, but full of white and beige statues and buildings. This was the case in William Wyler’s “Ben Hura” (1959) and Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” (2000). Certainly, this way of showing the Roman civilization proved its power and role in the Mediterranean world at that time.

Reconstruction of the bust of Emperor Gordian III

The reality, however, is quite different, which is confirmed by the research of scientists. Most (if not all) of public buildings, statues, monuments, etc., shimmered with many colours which, due to the influence of wind, sun, sand and time, lost their colour and faded.

The privilege of removing masks and creating an ancestral gallery was allowed only for senior government officials (at least those holding the dignity of the edile). Each self-respecting domus had an atrium with busts of prominent members of the family. The dominant practise was to depict men with a strict and respectful expression.

The remaining, often wealthy citizens, often coming from liberated families, did not have such opportunities. Their portraits in the form of busts were placed in Roman necropolises. A characteristic feature of these figures, like portraits made on the basis of death masks, is the realism of the figures, fidelity to features, even with a certain exaggeration of the shortcomings of beauty.

Roman sculptors tried to depict reality in the best order. It wasn’t about beautifying the face, adding muscle, or adding extra hair. This is because often a posing person having sufficient power to issue punishments could accuse his sculptor of not following “natural rules” and condemn him to beheaded or tortured. Very similar rules had to be followed by artists in England in the 17th century.

In addition to the “official” sculpture including historical reliefs and portraits of rulers, other works were created in the form of statues, busts and bas-reliefs commissioned by the inhabitants of Rome. They also reflected the fashion and changes in style prevailing in a given period. Products related to this trend include reliefs decorating secular buildings, private houses or tombs, and reliefs made on sarcophagi. The main intention of the private portrait was to faithfully reproduce the model, showing its true age. Roman artists were the first in the history of art to present character traits in portrait sculpture. They were great observers. They did not stop at surface observation, thanks to which the Roman portrait faithfully reflects reality and is also a psychological portrait.


Marie-Lan Nguyen | Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic

Tropaion (tropaeum) was a symbol of victory in antiquity, originally depicted in the form of armour pulled from an enemy and hung on a tree or stand. Later, made of marble or metal, it took the form of a monument. An example of a trophy is Trajan’s tropaion in Adamklissi, erected after the victory over the Dacians in 109.

It is worth adding that in ancient times there was a custom of placing a trophy after a victorious fight. In the era of ancient Rome, the trophy was set only in the capital, when, for example, in Greece, it was done on the battlefield. The Romans attached more importance to a political career and the willingness to document their success than to religious aspects. (especially during the Republic). Tropaeum was intended to be devoted to deities in exchange for support and protection during the battle.

Temples and sarcophagi

Funerary relief (98 – 117 CE)
Author: Folegandros | Under the Creative Commons Attribution license - On the same terms 3.0.

As the religious aspect dominated the public and private life of the Romans, it was necessary to ensure the most appropriate presentation of deities. The sculptures were located in temples, parks or private gardens. Vitruvius even presents a method of designing temples and placing statues:

If there be nothing to prevent it, and the use of the edifice allow it, the temples of the immortal gods should have such an aspect, that the statue in the cell may have its face towards the west, so that those who enter to sacrifice, or to make offerings, may have their faces to the east as well as to the statue in the temple. Thus suppliants, and those performing their vows, seem to have the temple, the east, and the deity, as it were, looking on them at the same moment. Hence all altars of the gods should be placed towards the east.

VitruviusDe Architectura, IV.5.1

Roman altars, by contrast, were simple and rather too abundant ornamentation was avoided; the exception is the “Altar of Peace”. Regarding the altars, Vitruvius also left a fragment:

The aspect of altars should be to the east, and they should always be lower than the statues in the temple, so that the supplicants and those that sacrifice, in looking towards the deity, may stand more or less inclined, as the reverence to be shewn may proportionably require. Hence altars are thus contrived; the heights of those of Jupiter and the celestial gods are to be as high as they may conveniently be; those of Vesta, the Earth, and the Sea are made lower. On these principles, altars in the middle of temples are fitly proportioned. In this book the method of designing temples is given; in the following, rules will be given for the arrangements to be observed in public buildings.

Vitruvius, De Architectura, IV.9.1

Another interesting motif of Roman sculptures is the ornamentation of sarcophagi. Originally the ancient Romans preferred cremation and burying ashes in urns; however, from the 2nd century CE, we can speak of significant interest in the burial of the whole body in a sarcophagus. Many Romans wanted to ensure a dignified burial, and therefore attention was paid to ornaments in stone.

Roman sarcophagi had the richest relief usually made on the cover and the front. The back walls were unadorned (the sarcophagi were placed in deep niches, so not all sides were clearly visible). They were decorated with scenes related to mythology, especially Greek. The most frequently depicted scenes were dramatic and allegories expressing victory over death. At the end of the 2nd century CE, battle scenes appeared, glorifying the deceased, presenting him as a victor, a brave man.

The gradual expansion of Christianity led to changes in the style of sarcophagi – symbols of Christ and biblical scenes began to be placed. A famous example is the sarcophagus of a certain Junius Bassus, from the middle of the 4th century CE.

Decoration in construction

Ancient Romans avoided the abundant decoration of the building. If it was for friezes or sculptures, which, however, have been preserved in a small amount to this day. For example, the Pantheon had statues, but virtually none survived. Evidence that the Romans avoided ornamentation is the small amount of information on this subject in Vitruvius.

Vitruvius became famous as the author of the treatise De Architectura, which was written between 20 and 10 BCE. It was dedicated to Emperor Augustus and was a compilation of Greek architecture textbooks. This work is today an invaluable source of knowledge about the architecture and building art of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Vitruvius describes in detail both the Greek classical cleanups and their Roman variations.

  • Jane Fejfer, Roman Portraits In Context
  • Brigitte Hintzen-Bohlen , Sztuka i architektura
  • Historia Powszechna t. 4. Konsolidacja hellenizmu. Początki Rzymu i przemiany świata klasycznego, kons. prof. dr hab. E. Papuci-Władyka, prof. dr hab. J. Ostrowski
  • Historia Powszechna t. 5. Epoka Augusta i Cesarstwo Rzymskie, kons. prof. dr hab. E. Papuci-Władyka, prof. dr hab. J. Ostrowski
  • Kazimierz Kumaniecki, Historia kultury starożytnej Grecji i Rzymu, Warszawa 1969
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