Roman Art during the Antonine dynasty. Decorative arts.

This essay will address the evolution of the style in monumental decoration during the Antonine dynasty.  Gradually, the fine figures of the background in any composition, carved in low relief, begun to flatten, while some elements carved in high relief of the foreground projected strong shadows. See for example the fine Pillar of the Roses from the time of Hadrian found in the Tomb of Haterii.  This was the same illusionistic style used by the Roman artists in the historical reliefs but now it was also applied to decorative motifs; the perspective effect obtained by the combination of these two type of reliefs (almost flat in the background and very high and pronounced in the foreground) is the same that has been discussed previously for the compositions found in the reliefs of the Triumphal Arch of Titus.

The Pillar of the Roses (Lateran Museum, Rome).
Relief from the Trajan Forum.

Soon, these background decoration gained importance, and the smooth (flat) area of the relief gradually disappeared. This “chiaroscuro*” technique was then employed as seen in the beautiful relief of the Trajan Forum, now in the Lateran Museum, representing two winged genies pouring water from a jug with a decorative vase in the center.  This”chiaroscuro” implied that the figures in relief completely filled the background of the composition.  The appearance of the relief was almost similar to a “flat” surface, because the whole high relief decor is now forming a new surface so there was no evident contrast between light and shadow.  This assumption forced the artist to “redraw” the decorative theme with deep holes, carving and cutting figures using trepan (see for example the frieze of the Vineyard of the Lateran Museum ca. late 2nd century AD).  During Augustan times the effect achieved in reliefs used a “wide-clear” background filled with the bright white figures in moderate high relief, however by the time of the Antonine dynasty the effect of tri-dimensionality of the reliefs was achieved by the strong black shadows of the background projected by the high and strongly carved reliefs of the figures of the foreground that completely filled the decorated area.  This method will be adopted by Christian and Byzantine art and was particularly used in the East with great preference.  These profound changes in art techniques have tried to be explained by the intervention of certain Oriental elements in Roman art.

Still life with bird, fresco from Herculaneum (Archaeological Museum, Naples),

Thus, the overall progress of the ancient Roman art, as it has also been in all the arts, tended in one direction: Impressionism.  The reliefs emphasized aerial perspective and became surfaces filled with spots of light and strong shadows that gave them an appearance of an inlaid surface or of an elaborated tapestry.  Frescoes and decorations rather than being primarily drawn by contours were increasingly becoming a set of color spots artfully combined to produce their effect at a distance.  In painting was also widely used the continuous narrative style by drawing different scenes right close to one another and chronologically describing an action like the reliefs of the Trajan column.  This employment of the continuous narrative will have an extraordinary impact on Art History because in the Middle Ages, Christian representations would be combined in one same painting illustrating not a moment of a particular action but a whole story.

Basket with flowers, fresco, detail from a grave of Via Portuensis (National Museum of Rome, Palazzo Massimo alle Terme).

The Roman art from the imperial heyday from the times of Trajan and Hadrian, Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius (almost one century) progressed in its ability to represent motion in the portrayed scenes but also in representing perspective and atmosphere.  It was a “pictorial effect for sculpture”, and in turn painting also achieved atmospheric effects.

This deviation from realism to immaterial impressionism may also be attributed to the dominant philosophical trend in Rome during the second century.  The scientific epicurean philosophy of the time of the Caesars was replaced by the moralizing stoicism of the Antonines.  That is why artists of this time did not insist in drawing silhouettes or the contour of images, but the effect produced by the combination of light and shadow.

The frieze of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, ca. 141 AD.

The predominance of the Stoic mindset can also be recognized in the themes depicted.  In decoration, instead of tridents, seashells and dolphins alluding to water, were represented griffins referring to fire, the main element according to the Stoics.  The acanthus leaves lost importance in favor of the leaves of the grape vine.  In the friezes* of the temple of Antoninus and Faustina, dedicated by Marcus Aurelius, griffins* alternate with chandeliers.  The cherubs from the relief of the Trajan Forum, quoted above, seem to pour something similar to lava.

Griffin and Acanthus decoration, detail from the frieze of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, ca. 141 AD.


Chiaroscuro: The use of strong contrasts between light and dark, usually bold contrasts affecting a whole composition. It is also a technical term used by artists and art historians for the use of contrasts of light to achieve a sense of volume in modeling three-dimensional objects and figures.


Frieze: In architecture refers to the wide central section part of an entablature and may be plain in the Ionic or Doric order, or decorated with bas-reliefs. In interiors, a frieze is also a long stretch of painted, sculpted or even calligraphic decoration in the section of wall above the picture rail and under the crown moldings or cornice, normally above eye-level. Frieze decorations may depict scenes in a sequence of discrete panels.

Griffin: The griffin, griffon, or gryphon is a legendary creature with the body, tail, and back legs of a lion; the head and wings of an eagle; and an eagle’s talons as its front feet. Because the lion was traditionally considered the king of the beasts and the eagle the king of birds, the griffin was thought to be an especially powerful and majestic creature. The griffin was also thought of as king of all creatures. Griffins are known for guarding treasure and priceless possessions. In antiquity, griffins were a symbol of divine power and a guardian of the divine.