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A few words about Roman art...

Compiled by Jasper Burns

Mosaic from Roman Sepphoris, Judaea, early 3rd Century C.E.

Greco-Roman art has seduced generations of art-lovers with its grace and beauty, variety, and technical brilliance. The Renaissance, which produced many of the most famous artists of the Western tradition, was in many ways an attempt to emulate the Classical masters and recapture their level of achievement.

One of the most surprising aspects of Greco-Roman art is its abundance and the high level of competence displayed even by those artists who created for patrons of modest means. As an artist and fan of ancient culture, I stand in awe of the accomplishments of the ancients. As I am no art historian, I would like to quote a few passages that give some insights into this golden age of artistic expression. Most of these passages relate to ancient art as preserved in the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum as only there can the richness of ancient art be appreciated in something approaching its full diversity and context.

...The average amount of skill displayed by the paintings (in Pompeii) is remarkably high, rising at times to magnificent. They seldom fail to be light, airy, gay and graceful, seeking to charm and succeeding in doing so, and suggesting a general, widespread high standard of visual civilization, which extended quite a way down the social scale, has never been exceeded in any subsequent age, and is very markedly superior to what could be found in any town of comparable size today.

Indeed the only comparison that even begins to suggest itself is with Holland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when good paintings were likewise to be seen in fairly humble houses. But in Holland the pictures were separate easel-panels hung on the walls, whereas at Pompeii and Herculaneum they were painted directly onto the wall surfaces...

Michael Grant, Cities of Vesuvius: Pompeii and Herculaneum, Penguin Books, 1971

...Not infrequently, beautiful objects are to be found in the dwellings of the poor. Nor is this surprising, as the artisans were the actual creators of the beautiful objects in the houses of the rich. If the taste of the patricians inspired the creation of art, and patrician money paid for art, nevertheless only the long training and skill of the artist made possible those masterpieces, never surpassed in any civilization... If a microcosm like Herculaneum could command such artists (painters) for its courthouse (compared to Michelangelo and Raphael), then what of the great cities?...
Joseph Day Deiss, Herculaneum: Italy's Buried Treasure, Harper and Row, 1985

...Whether a (Roman) dwelling belonged to a wealthy man or a not-so-wealthy man, its floors, walls, and ceilings were covered with mosaics in vivid colors, with stucco, and with paintings of decorative and mythological subjects. Fantastic trompe l'oil architecture created imaginary spaces in the walls... When we consider what Roman society was like, with its clientele system and ponderous civism, nothing seems more unlikely than these domestic feasts of imagination and color..

Whether at Ephesus in Turkey or Karanis in Egypt, modern visitors are invariably surprised by the ubiquitous presence of art and images. There is yet another shock: reliefs and statues were always painted; the ideal of ancient sculpture was the painted plaster statue of France's village churches. Ancient cities were never white. In Pompeii the columns of one temple were painted yellow and white, the capitals red, white, and blue. The Parthenon was painted to cover the marble sheen, and what we now call the Pont du Gard was painted red.

Paul Veyne, A History of Private Life from Pagan Rome to Byzantium, Belknap Harvard, 1987

...Many may consider it surprising that peoples like the Romans, who were manifestly so imperialistic, together with the numerous races and nations in the provinces which they brought into being in order to make their empire, should have produced such superb art. And it is, perhaps, surprising. But that is what the Romans were like. They were imperialists, and yet they produced and inspired great artists - artists as great, even if often nowadays unidentifiable, as any whom the world has seen since.

One reason, therefore, for studying the art and architecture of the Roman empire is that they are so good; they are in many ways better than anything that preceded or followed them...what followed them to a large extent echoed and copied what the Romans had done. And that still applies to ourselves today...

Michael Grant, Art in the Roman Empire, Routledge, 1995

It can be affirmed, without exaggeration, that the very large majority of Pompeiian and Herculanean houses, from the villas of the aristocracy to the shops of dealers and artisans, from the temples to the brothels, were covered in paintings... the inhabitants of the Campanian cities had a most unerring and discerning taste, an artistic sense as common among the ordinary people as among the upper classes...
Marcel Brion, Pompeii and Herculaneum: The Glory and the Grief, Paul Elek, 1960

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