Roman art: Sculpture

Large polychrome terra-cotta images, such as the Apollo of Veii (Villa Giulia, Rome), sandstone tomb effigies, and tomb paintings reveal a native feeling for voluminous forms and bold decorative color effects and an exuberant, vital spirit. From c.400 BC through the Hellenistic age, the vitality of the archaic period gave way to imitation of the Greek classical models combined with a native trend toward naturalism (Mars of Todi, Vatican). The merging of these trends produced the establishment of Hellenistic realism in Roman Italy at the end of the republic and the beginning of the empire (Orator, Museo Archeologico, Florence; Capitoline Brutus, Conservatori, Rome.).

After the conquest of Greece (c.146 BC), Greek artists settled in Rome, where they found a ready market for works executed in the Greek classical manner or in direct imitation of Greek originals. While the many works by these copyists are of interest principally for their reflection of earlier Greek art, they throw light on the eclecticism of Roman taste, and their influence was of paramount importance throughout the development of Roman art. Roman portraits, however, have an origin very remote and altogether Italianate. It was a Roman custom to have a death mask taken, which was then preserved along with busts copied from it in terra-cotta or bronze.

By the time of the empire, the Roman conception of art had become allied with the political ideal of service to the state. In the Augustan period (30 BC–AD 14) there was an attempt to combine realism with the Greek feeling for idealization and abstract harmony of forms. This modification is seen in the famous Augustus from Prima Porta (Vatican), which represents the first of a long series of the distinctly Roman type of portrait. Under the emperors from Tiberius through the Flavians (AD 14–AD 96) portrait busts reveal in general a growing concern with effects of pictorial refinement and psychological penetration. The magnificent reliefs from the Arch of Titus, Rome, commemorating the conquest of Jerusalem in AD 70, mark a climax in the development of illusionism in historical relief sculpture.

From the time of Trajan (AD 98–AD 117) the influence of the art of the Eastern provinces began to gain in importance. The spiral band of low reliefs on Trajan's Column (Rome), commemorating the wars against the Daci, employs a system of continuous narration. In the period of Hadrian (117–138) there was a reversion to the idealization of the Augustan style and at the same time a growing sense of voluptuousness. Major works from the later period of the Antonines (138–192) are the column and the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (Rome).

From the time of Caracalla to the death of Constantine I (211–337) the rapid assimilation of Eastern influences encouraged a tendency toward abstraction that later developed into the stiff iconographic forms of the early Christian and Byzantine eras. The reliefs of the friezes from the Arch of Constantine, Rome (c.315), may be regarded as the last example of monumental Roman sculpture.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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