Roman Art and Architecture: Classic Roman Period Art

Roman Art and Architecture: Classic Roman Period Art

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A Roman Patrician with Busts 
of his Ancestors,
late 1st C BCE
Marble, lifesize
Classic Roman

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Form: This lifesize naturalistic figure, which stands in contrapposto, is also realistic. The individualism of the figure's face and the portrait busts he holds is a bit of a departure from the idealism of the Classic Greek era.  Even during the Hellenistic period of Greek art, the figures were still extremely stylized.  In this case, the idea of a realistic likeness warts, balding, and wrinkles are recorded accurately.  This kind of realism is referred to as verism

This sculpture also incorporates as part of its initial design the use of supports, such as the plant form that supports the bust in the figure's right hand and the robes that support his left.  This is a bit different from the Roman marble copies of Greek bronze originals in which the supports were added as afterthoughts to the initial design to make up for the marble's lack of tensile strength.

Iconography:  This sculpture is a portrait but is also meant to show the lineage (ancestry) of the Roman patrician (leading citizen or founding father.  Literally comes from pater: father).  By holding effigies of his ancestors he is showing his importance and therefore it is fairly important to make sure that the likenesses express the character of the individual.

Context:  The culture of the Roman Empire was fairly different from the Greeks, but much of their plays, music, art, education, and way of representing themselves were based on the Greek culture.  Rome was originally founded as a republic which is a fairly democratic form of government similar to and somewhat based on Greek forms of government.  In a republic, an individual's rights as well as accomplishments can often distinguish them.  Paradoxically, the accomplishments of one's family can also distinguish the individual.  This might explain the increase of realism while still using some of the Greek schemas or conventions for sculpture.

Also see Stokstad's section Roman Funerary Practices

Some of the specific artistic forms and processes borrowed from the Greeks were,

  • the wet drapery style- drapery appears to hang on sculptures as if wetted. This shows off the anatomy underneath the cloth.
  • contrapposto- the subtle shift of weight at the hips that gives sculptures a more lifelike appearance.
  • the Greek orders


Head of a Roman Patrician from Ortricoli,
c75-50 BCE Marble approx. 14" 
Museo Torlonia, Rome
Classic Roman

Head of an unknown Roman.
terra cotta with traces of color. 1st C BCE
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Classic Roman

Form:  The veristic style of the Roman Patrician above is also expressed in Roman portrait busts.  According to Gardner, the Romans, unlike the Greeks, believed that a sculpture of the head alone was enough to fulfill the requirements of creating a portrait of an individual.  The Greeks believed that one needed the whole body for an accurate portrait.  Nevertheless, in each of these busts, every feature is recorded faithfully, but, the age of the sitter and the verism of the portrait was probably influenced somewhat by the gender of the sitter. 

The materials also varied in portrait sculpture.  Marble and cast bronze were often used.  Often the scultures were polychromed as well.  In the case of some sculptures, and even cheaper material, such as terra cotta- was used and then painted with encaustic.  (Terra cotta is fired clay often with a bit of sand or gravel mixed in.)   The use of clay, in which both an additive and subtractive process can be used was probably convenient because with this form of sculpting mistakes can be fixed.

Iconography and Context:  At the start of 200 B.C. individuality was increasing. Sculptures were often produced to show the power and wealth of an individual such as a statesman or a military leader. The Roman Empire had representational form of government run by the Senate. The Senate system was powerful, however, some military leaders "ceasers" who had distinguished themselves in battle and through political coups, became emperors who considered themselves living gods. Often power was passed from relative to relative and through generations. Sculptures were made of these family members almost as a form of ancestor worship.

Interestingly enough these sculptures also express how the Romans viewed male and female roles in their society. Often portraits were made to show the men as older and distinguished, at a time in their lives when they were most powerful. Women are almost never depicted as aged. They are mostly depicted as young and beautiful. Since art was mainly produced and commissioned for a male audience it is possible to draw the conclusion that art reflects a dominantly male view of the world. This is often referred to by art historians and scholars as the "male gaze."

Young Flavian Woman. c 90 CE marble, height 25" Museo Capitolino, Classic Roman

Portrait of Augustus as General.
from Primaporta Rome, Italy
c20 B.C., 6'8''.
Vatican Museum, Rome
Classic Roman

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Form:  This idealized portrait is possibly a copy of a bronze original.  The statue stands six feet eight inches tall and is made of white marble. The statue depicts a male figure wearing armor and some drapery, with his right arm raised. The figure carries a bronze spear or staff in his left hand. The texture of the hair and skin mimic the texture of real hair and skin. Augustus stands in contrapposto, appearing to be stepping forward with most of his weight resting on his right hip. Attached to his right leg is a small dolphin with a winged baby on its back. 

Iconography: This sculpture presents a more realistic portrait of Augustus than Greek portrait sculpture did however he is still idealized because he is the ideal.  The unnatural height of the statue is symbolic of the god-like status of Augustus. The figure's armor is a symbol of his role as a military leader. His raised right arm with an extended index finger appears as if he is gesturing or lecturing. According to Professor Farber, this is "called ad locutio gesture that traditionally conveyed the power of speech in Roman art."  This is symbolic of his abilities as a leader and a speaker. The bronze staff in its left hand is an icon that signifies his status as a leader. The statue appears to be stepping forward and most of the weight appears to be resting on his right hip. This pose referred to as contrapposto was first developed in classical Greece. The use of contrapposto represents a legacy inherited from the classic Greek culture. Engaged against the right leg is a small dolphin with a winged baby on its back. The dolphin is a maritime reference and the small winged figure on its back, may represent winged victory. The two icons when juxtaposed against one another may represent victory at sea. However, some interpretations of this iconography have suggested that the winged figure is Cupid and therefore represents Augustus relationship as a descendent of the gods.

Context: Augustus Caesar (1st century B.C.) was a dictator who considered himself a God.  He subverted the Roman republican, democratic system, but pretended it still existed by granting the senate some power.  This statue is probably one of the copies that  was placed as public art in many town squares as a work of political propaganda. Augustus waged an extremely profitable series of wars and was able to extend the Roman Empire's borders as well as control the Senate. The unnatural height of the statue is symbolic of the god-like status of Augustus because the average height was around five feet. His raised right arm symbolic of his abilities as a master orator refers to an earlier statue, the Aulus Metellus. The raised arm, a symbol of rhetorical power as a speaker is combined with the bronze staff and armor are references to the abilities that any Roman leader should possess. In some ways, this is the originating idea of our conception of the "Renaissance Man" of the 1500's. The references to the Aulus Metellus statue, contrapposto pose, invented by the classical Greek culture, and the Cupid, that represents Augustus as a descendent of the gods, grant both the Augustus Primaporta and Augustus authority based in time honored traditions.



Colosseum, (Flavian Amphitheater) 
Rome Italy 70-80 CE
Classic Roman

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Form: One of the major innovations in this building is the technology used to create it.  A combination of complex arches (see Stokstad for more in depth description) and concrete which is a building material which consists primarily of lime, cement, sand (pozzolana), and water with rubble mixed into it and as such is very inexpensive and easy to work with.   Since concrete can be easily molded or poured into a durable and strong stonelike substance, it was also used to create the arches and the internal filling of the walls. 

A an excellent student, Sue Che wrote,

with the invention of concrete, the Romans were much more daring in creating new styles in construction. They came out of the shell of ‘post and lintel’ and started with simple arches like the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamian. The simple arches such as the triumphal arches could not satisfy their creative minds, the Romans extended the arches and got the barrel vaults. To add more interests to the vaults, they were placed across or next to each other and created the groin vaults and the arcades. Finally, the easily bored Romans put all the ideas and efforts together and built this giant oval shaped amphitheater called the Colosseum. The whole structure was designed with arches, connected vaults and arcades. The outer fa├žade is tiers of arches all the way around. When you go inside, barrel vaults and cross vaults support the tiers of seats for the audiences. It is truly amazing what the Romans can do when you put concrete in their hands.

Stokstad points out that it existed before but that the Romans perfected it and without many Roman building would not have been able to be created.  (Before you do the worksheet, make sure you read Stokstad for a more complete description of concrete and the different forms and ways it was used.)

The exterior walls were of a creamy colored calcium carbonate material called travertine, the inner walls of siliceous rock deposits called tufa, and the vaulting of the ramped seating area of monolithic concrete (for support). The fourth floor was embellished with Corinthian pilasters (ornamental) which carried wooden masts from which an awning was suspended to shield spectators from the sun. Composite are on top of the pilasters and are more visually and though makes the building look more taller. Marble and wooden seats accommodating up to about 50,000 spectators surrounded an arena measuring 280 ft by 175 ft. The floor of the arena was made of heavy wooden planks: chambers below the floor housed animals for the games. 
quoted directly from:
Its construction was started by Vespasian in AD 69 and inaugurated in AD 80. This Amphitheater was very important because of arch technology. This building had four stories and its arches were framed by superimposed orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian or Composite. This orders were used to adorned several stories of a building, they were normally in an ascending sequence from heaviest to most slender.

Doric order was assigned to the ground floor of the building,
Ionic order to the middle story, and
Corinthian order to the top story.

Iconography and Context:  According to the Britannica, 

"CONSTRUCTION OF THE COLOSSEUM WAS BEGUN SOMETIME BETWEEN AD 70 and 72 during the reign of Vespasian; the structure was officially dedicated in AD 80 by Titus in a ceremony that included 100 days of games. Later, in AD 82, Domitian completed the work by adding the uppermost story."   The Colosseum was used by the Roman Empire to entertain the masses of people who lived in the city. Gladiators were often prisoners of war or criminals. Sometimes gladiators would fight one another and other times they would fight ravenous beasts. Enemies or individuals who were perceived as threats (a good portion were Christians) to the Roman Empire sometimes were thrown in the in the ring with wild animals. This was often done dramatically by utilizing elevators and trap doors that would raise the animals into the arena. Sometimes these atrocities were committed while a massive water powered organ made music that accompanied the events. This is one of the reasons why organ music does not become popular in the Catholic Church until around 1500.

Pantheon. AD 118-125 
architect was possibly Emperor Hadrian Rome, 
Rome, Italy
Classic Roman

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Art 103A Term Paper
Sara E. Foster
Pantheon: the unknown truth

Form, Formal, Physical

The Pantheon is noted as one of the best-preserved monuments because of the building and landscape renovations that have been done throughout the centuries. It is surrounded by some of the original baths built by Agrippa as well as a few smaller temples by Hadrian and a long courtyard that leads to a church at the far end. According to William Mac Donald, the author of The Pantheon: design, meaning and progeny, the Pantheon has three major parts to its structure - the porch, the structural niches and the domed rotunda. The front of the building is the large porch with a series of columns that act as support and design. The columns throughout the monument were constructed of carved granite using the Corinthian order that was originally developed but the Greeks for interior use but soon afterward also used for the exterior of temples and other monuments. The outer perimeter walls of the entirety are 20 feet thick that raise nearly 75 feet high. These walls were put together using concrete and wood materials so that the architect and design crew could cover a large amount of interior space and create vast apparent ceilings. The dome rotunda is 143 feet in diameter and 143 feet in height supported by a circular wall known as the drum. The drum is deigned with block coffers that service as both esthetic and structural purposes. Structurally the coffers are used as a compression system: the building is stabilized by unabsorbed weight that is properly placed. There are a total of 143 coffers in 28 rows. The dome consists of 9/10th concrete that has been poured over an immersed hemispherical wooden form. Both the interior and exterior walls are believed to be finished with alabaster porphyry or marble for esthetic purposes. Coffers also give the human eye an illusion of the dome being lightweight and having depth. To show the richness and importance of this culture here are a few other examples of the materials used to create such a masterpiece. The floors were covered with a wide range of colored marble designed in geometric shapes, the doorframes were made of bronzed metal and the original roof was glided gold plates that were eventually replaced with lead plating. 

Icon, Iconography, Symbol

The true iconography of the Pantheon is still questioned today but we do know that it is represented as a great spiritual building. When Hadrian created the building it was a house for all gods, which meant it was a non-religious monument. It housed the twelve major gods and goddesses: Jupiter, Juno, Neptune, Minerva, Apollo, Diana, Mars, Venus, Vulcan, Vesta, Mercury and Ceres who all represent something of good/bad nature in the world (Ebscohost). These gods are houses in the dome rotunda, which presents the visitor with a sense of emptiness and apotheosis, a feeling one could float upward to escape and commune with the gods. The circular design of the monument originally descends from two sources: religious buildings and tombs. They were never intended for internal visitor use, only external viewing because they questioned the safety of the structure and it was a sacred place that only priest could enter.

Context, Social, Historical

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, the cities had public squares that were surrounded by buildings such as the Pantheon. The Roman’s built these to accommodate the vast expansion of the Roman Empire. When designing the Pantheon they were highly influenced by the Greek and Etruscan construction using arches and post and lintel; however the dome rotunda was primarily a Roman invention (Ebscohost). The argument still stands on who the buildings architect and creator really was - was it Marcus Agrippa or Hadrian? Before the Pantheon was built an earlier temple (in honor of the Anthony and Cleopatra defeat) accompanied the site which was built by Agrippa in 27 BC and burnt down in 110 BC. Then between 125 –128 CE Hadrian and still an unknown architect built the Pantheon. Historians do believe there was an actual architect that helped him because at that time Hadrian was just an amateur at what he did. Why then is the creator unknown? It is not clear whether or not Hadrian kept the originally porch and roof or if he recreated the original which says the following, "M`AGRIPPA`L`F`COS`TERTIVM`FECIT –Marcus Agrippa the son of Lucius, three times consul, built this (Mac Donald, pg.13)." Though it is clear that Hadrian constructed the monumental dome rotunda that makes the building so grand. When the Pantheon, a temple for all gods, was finished it was used to house the twelve Olympian gods but in 609 CE Pope Boniface IV dedicated it as the Christian church of St. Mary and the Martyrs. From that point in history that event brought the destruction of all of pagan temples to this day.

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