While the Roman provinces were developing new artistic ideas and fashions that influenced Rome itself, the Empire’s official art evolved from Septimius Severus to Constantine.
In Rome there are two triumphal arches from the reign of Septimius Severus, one of them is located at the Forum and built to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Septimius reign and his victories in Asia. This arch was highly decorated with reliefs that appeared almost medieval making almost hard to believe that they are indeed from the early third century. Equally astonishing are the reliefs from the called “Arch of the Silversmiths” located in the Baotian Forum, which was built by Roman money changers in 204 A.D. in honor of Septimius Severus. The pilasters and architrave of this arch are covered with a plane acanthus ornamentation; one of the decorative reliefs depicts the emperor and his wife Julia Domma, he wears priestly attire while making a sacrifice. Roman art begun to turn rough and heavy; it seems that in order to produce better artistic effects it relied solely on the profusion of decorative elements, in the realism of representations, and in a sculptural technique that produced reliefs equivalent to paintings with heavy light and strong shadows.
Architectural techniques also experienced a process of gradual transformation, especially in Rome. The architects of that time stood out particularly in the construction of large brick vaults at the style of those of Syria and Mesopotamia. Even today, the baths built in Rome in the time of Caracalla, the son and successor of Septimius Severus, are an eloquent testimony to the skill and ability of the Roman architects of those times. The skeleton of this huge building shows a perfect mastery of techniques applied to colossal building exemplified by vaults that were combined to cover an ingeniously traced floor plan consisting of circular and polygonal rooms. The system of arches and vaults of this building indicates that it was designed according to a plan of mechanical forces and as such it implies an entirely scientific design. The real wonders of this building are, as has been said, its vaults. Even today with the resources of modern construction we won’t dare to built such a colossal vaulted plan without relying on the support of an iron skeleton.
A century later, and following the same colossal plan, Diocletian built his baths between the Esquiline and the Quirinal in Rome’s highest area. The novelty of these baths is that they included a series of blind arches forming friezes, columns corbels or consoles constituting architectural decorative belts, and other ornamental themes that were later imitated by Romanesque and Byzantine architecture.
The same decorative elements, blind arches, columns resting on corbels without any structural function and other architectural details that could be called Romanesque, are found in the gigantic ruins of Diocletian’s palace at Spalato or Split (now in Croatia).
For small merchants, emperors also built large markets such as that built by Trajan, a giant five-story semicircular construction capable of holding 150 different stores. It was a Syrian architect, Apollodorus of Damascus (previously mentioned in a past essay) who designed the plans for this outstanding building.
But the most significant monument of the late Roman art is the famous Arch of Constantine, built to commemorate his victory over Maxentius in 313 A.D. This triumphal arch repeats the type with three doors: one bigger in the center and two on the sides, with reliefs above the arches. As noted in a previous essay, some reliefs of the Arch of Constantine were taken from other triumphal arches of the Flavian and Antonine dynasties. The Arch of Constantine also has its own reliefs which already reveal an almost identical taste to the one that will later be seen in the art of the high Middle Ages. The figures were sharply cut over the background to isolate them from each other; there was no flexible application of forms on the background which in previous years was used to produce the effect of perspective. Particularly expressive of this new artistic sensitivity are the Victories holding military trophies located on the spandrels of the main archway, while at their feet stand the traditional figures of the barbarian prisoners. The last Roman sculptors who worked on the Victories of the Arch of Constantine did not portray the classic type of flying Victory, but in their interpretation they expressed a new taste in which we see appear the style of the Romanesque decorators of the Middle Ages. The same can be seen in the plant ornamentation: garlands and decorative themes of the fourth century did not have the beauty of Augustan art nor the robustness of the art of the century of Trajan. This new plant ornamentation has no life but, by using the stylization of the forms and their subsequent accumulation on a plane, they were the origin of a new style that will flourish, as we will see, during the Middle Ages.
These changes begun during the reign of Septimius Severus (193 A.D.) and created an art avid of being understood rather than being sensible. This was a very intellectualized art that, instead of paying attention to the diversity of forms that nature offers, preferred the uniformity of conventions (characters depicted in front view, their sizes corresponding to their respective hierarchical importance…), an art that preferred the graphic design of the relief, painting or mosaic, to the volumetric expression of the statue, a spiritualist art for which the human body was no longer the greatest wonder because it was capable of destroying its proportions to express ideas that seem more important: authority, pain, transcendence.
Where did these artistic tendencies come from? Most likely, the answer lies in the importance that East had in the evolution of late Roman art. A whole repertoire of Mesopotamian forms invaded Rome and the West. The African Septimius Severus (born in Leptis Magna in current Tripolitania) when married Syrian Domma Julia began the series of Syrian emperors (Caracalla, Elagabalus and Alexander Severus). This Syrian and Mesopotamian influence converged with the internal evolution of Roman art, by then product of the economic, political, military and moral crisis that characterized the third century. Disturbing religions (mysteries of Isis, Mithraism, Christianity, etc.), coming from the East, preached a new morality and promised their devotees a salvation after death.
The most convincing proof that the fourth-century Roman sculptors were pursuing absolutely new artistic objectives are the portraits of this time. Multiple images of the last emperors showing a true spiritual value have survived to these days. The personality of each one was more strongly expressed than in the portraits of the Caesars, Flavians and Antonines.
Another proof of the ever persistent vitality of Roman art until the time of the founding of Constantinople, and even later, are the sarcophagi. In these marble boxes, Roman sculptors made wonders of artistic technique and invention. The artists spiritualized the old themes of hunting scenes and battles, so common in the Hellenistic sarcophagi, thus giving these heroic efforts a new mystical and philosophical sense; in the fight with barbarians and Amazons, in hunting, kidnappings, duels, and sacrifices the artists also referred to the laborious, sincere, and honest life imposed by Stoic and Epicurean philosophy.
At the end of the third century the enormous size of the Empire by itself corroded its foundations. The accession to the throne by Diocletian (284 A.D.) with his reorganization of the Empire based on the recognition of the variety of Roman provinces, and in the decentralization posed by the institution of the Tetrarchy (an Augustus and a Caesar for the West and other two for the East), sped up the process of the destruction of the Ancient World and of the Greco-Roman art that expressed it. A new world and a new sensibility appeared. In the Arch of Galerius in Thessaloniki, the scenes were arranged in superimposed friezes as in ancient oriental monuments and with a total disregard for the architectural structure of the Arch. In the “Piazzetta” of Saint Mark in Venice when looking at the group made of red porphyry representing the four Tetrarchs we feel transported to the Middle Ages. These four heavy, solid figures, almost crushed by responsibility, indeed seem medieval. The roundness of shapes and the Greek understanding of the human body have completely disappeared. These chubby figures with stiff arms and legs also have another surprising element: the design of their heads as nearly cubic volumes to which facial features were added and reduced to a summary of a few elements from which dominate their obsessed and haunting stare. This statue represents an undeniable power in which can be foreseen the new world that during a millennium will be the Medieval and Christian Europe.
The use of trepan which produces strong contrasts of light and shadow, instead of chisel which produced the wisely modeled volumes of the Greeks, gave these sculptures and reliefs an illusionist-expressionist air in which an intellectualized angst has completely swept out the former Greek sensitive beauty. Thus, late Roman sculptors then proposed what will become the main characteristic of Romanesque sculpture: to forget the sensuous point of view to try to express the transcendental order of the intelligible world of ideas. This is already the typical expression of the coming medieval artists eager to tell their stories from a moralistic point of view. So, what we find in the decline of Greco-Roman art is not merely decadence, but attempts of a new way of seeing and interpreting the world.
The trend toward sensationalism and illusionism that we have seen in the evolution of Roman sculpture was demonstrated much more effectively in painting. If the reliefs became pictorial, the frescoes became impressionists trying to suggest what was not present in the portrayed scene. At the end of the second century classical painting ignored precise drawing and silhouettes, and shapes faded in color spots. It was an almost analogous phenomenon to that of present modern painting.
Moreover, a technique already discussed before in previous essays, but that was then increasingly in vogue, the mosaics*, forced precisely the opposite of what painting was portraying: to precisely draw the contours of figures. A mosaic cannot be executed based on a poorly defined design. Therefore, mosaic forced to put aside the artistic concept followed for painting, so to speak the impressionist concept, and led to the creation of a new style: a sort of pictorial, fantastic, imaginative, and expressive superrealism which led the artist to expand details with great accuracy and to neglect, however, the accuracy and the plausibility of the whole composition. By late fourth century, mosaics constituted the main element of decoration; they not only covered floors but also walls and vaults of the main rooms. As a general rule, the floor mosaics were made of small marble cubes; for the mosaics on walls and vaults artists used inlays of colored marble in combination with tiny cubes of shiny glass surfaces.
*Mosaic: A piece of art or image made from the assemblage of small pieces of colored glass, stone, or other materials. It is often used in decorative art or as interior decoration. Most mosaics are made of small, flat, roughly square, pieces of stone or glass of different colors, known as tesserae. Some, especially floor mosaics, are made of small rounded pieces of stone, and called “pebble mosaics”. Others are made of other materials.