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Introduction to Roman Art

The concept of "Roman art" is a complex one, characterized by molteplicity and a number of lines of development and styles, as it spans for almost 1000 years and spread for an immense territory.

Legends want Rome to be founded in 753 B.C., the date being so important that it was used as a zero-mark for the counting of years: you can find the Latin terms ab urbe condita in ancient texts, meaning "from the foundation of the City" (Rome), but we usually refer to Roman Art from 500 B.C. circa to 330 A.D., when Constantine placed the new capital of the Roman Empire where was the ancient Greek city Byzantium, renamed to Constantinople.

The Byzantine Empire art is not included in the lifespan of Roman Art, though some argue it should be.

Involving many areas and populations, it inevitably worked a broad spectrum of materials and media: painting, gold, silver and bronze, marble, mosaic, gems, terracottas, statues and more, all are part of it.
Romans were eclectic and practical people, with a tendency to welcome the best (and more useful) influences from the conquered populations. It is no secret that Greece lent the models and theme for an important part of the Roman imaginary, both in literature and for other forms of art. But before the Greek influence, it was the Italic people who played the main role in this infusion of concepts and techniques, especially the Etruscans -the arch, for instance, being the best-known architectural element borrowed from this ancient population and basic tecnique to raise millenia-lasting buildings.

Romans did not disregard copies or elaborations as inferior products, and this openness led to a prolification of combinations and variations on pre-existing themes.

The legends place the fall of the last Etruscan king (Tarquinius Superbus) in 509 B.C., the Republican period starts from here (the consuls being its most important political figures) and ends with Augustus and the Imperial rule, when art mostly became a way to celebrate the ruler and his family or, privately, the wealth of important figures.

So, the periodization in Imperial Roman art are named after individual rulers or major dynasties:

  • Augustan
  • Julio-Claudian
  • Flavian
  • Trajanic
  • Hadrianic
  • Antonine
  • Severan
  • Soldier Emperor
  • Tetrarchic
  • Constantinian

The art of the empire "steals" from the Classical art of the past, referring broadly to the influences of Greek art from the Classical and Hellenistic periods; it included idealized nude forms, highly balanced proportions, smooth lines, elegant and well-reproduced drapery.

Later Imperial art moved away from earlier Classical influences, and Severan art signals the shift to art of Late Antiquity, characterized by frontality, stiff poses and diminshed naturalism and individualism; important figures are often slightly larger or placed above the rest of the crowd to denote importance, a trick that will later explode in Medieval art, where figures are often of totally different dimensions.
Under Constantine, Late Antiquity elements are developed even further.

Roman artists are essentially nameless and we know very little about them, also because of the lack of documentary evidence (this anonimity will also characterize the Medieval art). Their most famous works are not just for public use as rich and influential people adorned their villas with precious paintings, mosaics and statues; small luxury items such as metal figurines were common.
The subject matter ranged from busts of important ancestors to mythological and historical scenes, still lifes, and landscapes, all to create the idea of an erudite and wealthy patron.

Ruins and well preserved temples, villas and entire cities from the Romans are scattered all over the territory of the Empire, from France to Turkey, from England to Tunisia, in three continents. Wherever you find yourself not far from the Mediterrenean Sea or much further too, it may be worth to take information about Roman Art places to visit.

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