ORIGINS OF ROMAN ART AND PERIOD OF THE REPUBLIC (753 to 44 BC)

Villanovan culture cinerary urn shaped as a hut thus showing the likely shape of Romulus’ Hut in Rome: a simple mud and straw house, ca. IX to VIII centuries BC. (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore).
Reconstruction of a Terramare settlement at Veneto (Italy).

There are several archaeological evidences about Prehistoric times in Rome.  The Italian prehistoric man tattooed and painted his skin.  Their funerary customs included burials and cremation, the ashes were deposited in rude vessels buried in the bottom of artificial holes opened in the rock like those found in the necropolis of Villanova where bronze objects were also found.  These funerary urns contained small urns shaped as huts where the ashes were placed, they represented kind of a miniature replica of the house the deceased inhabited during his/her life.  These post-Neolithic people occupied central Italy while simultaneously other peoples in the north of the Italic Peninsula were living  in a more advanced civilization state. These peoples inhabited some campsites built on wooden platforms supported by stilts known as terramares (or Terramare culture).  These terramares were surrounded by a wall of soil with four gates in the centers of the four sides of this enclosing which was trapezoidal or rectangular.  Two wide streets ran from North to South and East to West and these citadels were aligned following the spring solstice.  The rectangular plan of terramares and its two streets at right angles persisted in the rules later followed by Roman urbanization plans.

The people from these terramares’ villages migrated from northern Italy down to central Italy and either imposed themselves by force or infiltrated among the primitive populations of Latium of central Italy.  The peoples that originally occupied Latium would be called the plebs, while the newcomers from northern Italy would founded the Roman patrician families or vice versa, both groups always kept separated with their own different funeral rites and customs.  Plebe and Patriciate, which lived together without mixing, formed the Urbs or Eternal City as Rome was called.  The undeniable skills of Rome for government and administration have to be traced back to the almost municipal organization of the terramares’ villages.

The newcomers from the North learned in Latium how to build large stone walls to enclose their square cities like the first enclosure of the Palatine.  This hill of Rome, which later will be occupied by the imperial palace, was exclusively inhabited by patrician families during the time of the Republic.  It was considered as the first core of Rome’s seven hills, the Septimontium, and was called Roma cuadrata because its upper platform was about the shape of a square as were terramares.

Remains of a Fanum Roman-Gaul at the town of Lestards (France).

The terramares had at one side of the village’s platform an artificial mound made of soil which served for the tribal cult.  It was a place called mundus or templum where it was supposed that the will of the divine numens (or divinities) was manifested.  This mound could have been the origin of a type of Latin sanctuary called fanum which was a sacred place where devotees gathered in honor of a local deity or numen.  Here are two aspects of the religions of the Italic peoples which make them entirely different from the Greek cult and which had major consequences for the development of their art forms.  The italic fanum is not the home of a god, as was the Greek temple, but a holy place without any monumental structure to accommodate the divinity or store his/her image as the italic numen had no corporeal or physical appearance and was uncertain whether it was male or female.

The primitive italic religion of the numens was gradually transformed first by the Etruscan culture and second by the influence of Hellenic cults.  The numens eventually were identified with Etruscan and Greek gods and therefore took human form.

The walls of the Acropolis of Alatri, built by the Romans ca. 385 BC. (Lazio Region, Italy).

In the early eighth century not only the italic fanums but most of the cities of Latium were enclosed in large square or polygonal walls.  So besides Rome other cities turned into city-states which in turn were also enclosed within strong stone walls.

Reconstruction of the ancient Capitoline Hill with the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.
Back wall of the foundations of the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus.

Some religious Acropolis of this period are the precinct of Alatri and the Capitol (or Capitoline Hill) of Rome.  This mount, separated from the “square town” of the Palatino by the valley of the Forum, was fortified by the Etruscan kings and its double summit served as a place for a temple and a citadel.  The temple of Jupiter Capitolinus also known as the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, which was rebuilt several times, was the center of Roman piety.  It was divided into three separate cellas for three cults together in one sanctuary, the so called Capitoline Triad: Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, the protecting numens of the Roman people.  It had a double portico with four columns in the facade much farther apart than those of the classical Greek temple.  The cornice was decorated with very complicated acroterion and its pediments with groups of terracotta statues executed by artists who were imported from Etruria.  In conclusion, this temple offered all the features of an Etruscan sanctuary, from the idea of giving a home to the numens to its ceramic decoration.

The Etruscan civilization played a major role in the organization of early Rome.  The Etruscans not only introduced in Rome their religious rites, a structured priestly class, and the form of the official sanctuary, but for several years (from 550 to 509 BC) Etruscan men were rulers of the Eternal City until about the year 509 in which the Etruscan Tarquinius Superbus was overthrown by the Romans whom then adopted the regime of the Republic.  Three Etruscans were kings of Rome: Tarquinius the Elder, Servius Tullius and Tarquinius Superbus.  Servius Tullius was the builder of the first city walls while the Tarquins, father and son, ordered the building of the Cloaca Maxima (one of the world’s earliest sewage systems) and the aforementioned temple of Jupiter Capitolinus.

Cloaca Maxima (above, exterior; below, interior), from VI century BC. (Rome), which made use of vaults and arches typical of the Etruscan construction. Later, Roman architecture would make use of both techniques with majestic results.

 

During the Republic, Rome started its expansion throughout Italy, but long before beginning in the seventh century BC it had been opened to the Hellenic cultural influence of Greece, and with this influence from Naples was introduced the Greek art from the colonies existing in the South of the Italic peninsula.  It was then when a strong Greco-Roman cultural contact begun, but this time not thanks to the Greek colonies in southern Italy but to Greece itself.  The Greek influence was irresistible.  The old Roman numens had to be identified with the Olympian gods: Jupiter the numen of Monte Albano volcano was mistook with Zeus; Juno the numen of Lavinia with Hera; Diana the numen of a small forest in Lazio near Rome was recognized as Artemis; Mars a Latin numen identified with farming was resigned to become the Greek Ares god of war; Athena was reduced to Minerva.  For these new deities it was necessary to build temples in Greek style.

Few buildings and sculptures from the time of the Republic are preserved in Rome and Lazio.  The architecture of the early Republic of Rome derived from the Etruscans and Greeks of southern Italy.  In Cori, a small town of Latium near Rome, there is a building called the Temple of Hercules, Doric in style with slender columns and flat moldings in its entablature.  The front porch with four columns in the facade was covered with wood.  The combination of Etruscan and Hellenistic style is clearly seen here.

Temple of Hercules at Cori (Lazio, Italy), II century BC. The building rests on a podium, a typically Roman feature.

In Rome there was also a temple consecrated to the numen of the Fortuna Virile also called Temple of Portunus.  It is pseudo-peripteral, which means the colonnade that should surround it has been abbreviated so the columns of the portico are free-standing while the five columns on the long sides and the four columns at the rear are engaged along the walls of the cella.  The columns’ capital is Ionic and from the volutes some curved palmettes extend.  Both the Cori’s temple and the Temple of Portunus are settled on a high plinth or podium holding the entire temple.  This is a genuinely Latin element which will later be retained by the Roman temples of the imperial era.

The Temple of Portunus known also as the Temple of Fortuna Virilis (“manly fortune”), ca. I century BC., located in the ancient Forum Boarium by the Tiber, Rome. Again, the temple rests on a podium.

The podium was usually decorated only with a lower molding and other high as a top, but sometimes was enriched with a frieze divided by triglyphs and stylized roses on the squares of the metopes.  The Corinthian order was also used by the Romans.  In the circular temples of Tivoli, called Temple of the Sibyl, and that dedicated to Vesta in Rome have capitals that reproduced all the elements of the Greek Corinthian order, although these capitals were much more rude, crude, and the acanthus leaves are devoid of the ideal fineness observed in Greek models.  The circular temples were almost a specialty of Roman art, this form was adopted perhaps by tradition as a reminiscent of the huts of the primitive inhabitants of Latium in central Italy.

The “Temple of the Sibyl” in Tivoli, Italy, dating to the early 1st century BC., its frieze is decorated with garlands of Hellenistic taste.
Temple of Vesta at Rome, 1st century BC. The roof rests directly over the columns, and its podium is not as tall.

A very characteristic feature of Roman building that began to manifest from the time of the Republic was the superposition of the architectural orders; thus using the more robust Doric style in the lower floor, the Ionic order was employed in the second floor, and sometimes the third floor had Corinthian style columns.  This will facilitate Roman architects the construction of very complex monumental civil works using the same basic types that Greeks used for one story buildings.  The first example of this is seen in the old building of the Tabularium or Archive which closes the valley of the Forum by the side of the Capitol.

The Tabularium or official records office of ancient Rome, located within the Roman Forum, on the front slope of the Capitoline Hill, below the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, ca. 78 BC. (Above: exterior; below: interior).

This building was built under orders of the consul Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felixin 86 BC and is nothing more than a double wall with narrow corridors between the two walls where official documents were filed in time of the Republic.  The facade facing the Forum is not only of great strength but monumental, it is decorated with Doric columns embedded as decorative pilasters that appear to support the arches of the large porch.

The remains of the Basilica Aemilia in the Roman forum, built in 179 BC.

The basilica, then a large public building where business or legal matters could be transacted and which didn’t have any religious function at all, was another building typical of Roman life.  Although the origin of the basilica should also be sought in Asiatic Greece was in Rome where the basilica became a space with three naves: the largest being the central formed a big hall with a colonnade on each side.  The first basilica in Rome was built by censor Fulvius Aemilius the year 179 BC and because it was under the patronage of this family it retained the name of Basilica Aemilia.  It was on one side of the Forum and had five naves.  Its porticoes lacked exterior walls.  In later basilicas though the naves were enclosed by a wall with windows, as would happen centuries later in Christian basilicas.

Reconstruction of the Basilica Aemilia.

During the Republic, Etruscans exercised a major role in sculpture.  They were skilled bronze casters and although the models were often Greek, their ultimate style was definitely influenced by Etruscan, Latin and Roman artists.

It is possible to recognize two sets of bronze portraits dating from the time of the Republic.  The first included purely Etruscan works, while in the second series the Etruscan influence is not as notorious and the typical Roman style becomes stronger even if they still used the Etruscan techniques of bronze casting.  The Etruscans continued to maintain a large colony in Rome which lasted until the time of Augustus.  They had their own neighborhood: the vicus Tuscus (or “Tuscan neighborhood”) located close to the Capitol.

Patricio Barberini, end of 1st century BC, (Capitoline Museum, Rome).

It seems that in early Rome there was a particular law -the jus imaginum– which prohibited portraits of people who had not held important positions in the city’s administration.  These positions were only three for the magistrates who were entitled to a chair seat: consul, tribune, and praetor.  Note the difference between portrait restrictions between the early Greeks and Romans.  In Greece, during the first centuries after the invasion of the Dorians, were only entitled to a portrait the heroic characters either for winning the race of one hundred meters in Olympia or by Zeus’ will of giving them the category of heroes by instant death by lightning.  In Rome the right to the effigy was obtained to serve the State and vice versa.  The jus imaginum was rigorously followed only in the early centuries of the Republic.  This requisite prescribed that these positions were of high category, that is with the right to a chair seat like a remnant of the royal throne, meant that the portrayed person had no limitations on his power, thus during the time they served the State these people were considered numens, something more than simple mortals and therefore should not be prohibited to be portrayed.

Head of Agrippa, consul of the Republic, ca. 25-24 BC. (Louvre).
Portrait of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, general and statesman of Republic, bronze (National Archaeological Museum, Naples).

Early portraits of Roman officials who got the right to an effigy were just busts and were made in wax.  They were kept in a special cabinet, like a shrine, called tablinum opened in one of the walls of the central atrium of the Roman house.  Over time these busts became rumpled and soiled and should be replaced by copies in bronze or marble.  The wax busts were polychrome and had natural hair, all of which contributed to the disarray of these ancestral portraits.

Roman sculpture remained rough and almost crude almost throughout the whole time of the Republic.  Only in the second century BC the Roman patrician who had traveled through Greece and East began importing statues for their private collections, as well as trophies arrived in Rome coming from military conquests.

Diana or Artemis of Pompeii (National Archaeological Museum, Naples).

In Naples was founded a local school of sculpture reproducing old models that were highly esteemed by collectors of the time of the Republic.  During this time one of the most curious characteristic of this school was the imitation of archaic works.  We know countless statues and reliefs that have tried to mimic the naive way of stiffly arranging clothing folds and fringes in rigid zigzag, the attitude, and gesture somewhat static of works from early Greek art.  In one of these statues called “Diana of Pompeii” the artist has tried to imitate the sense of “movement” displayed in works of archaic Greek style.  The face also shows the archaic or stereotyped smile, long eyes and symmetric hair curls which the artist used to infuse the clear impression of an Ionian Greek statue of the sixth century.

One of the features of the Hellenistic school of Naples was a singular erudition and great knowledge of the classical types.  The founder of this school was a Greek named Pasiteles.  Menelaos (disciple of Estéfano who in turn was a disciple of Pasiteles) was the author of an academic group housed in the Roman Baths Museum.  It is an elegant composition with two figures artfully arranged and neatly executed, but cold in expression as are always works from overly scholarly schools inspired by a retrospective admiration for forms of art already surpassed.  From the same school is the group housed in the Prado Museum called of “San Ildefonso“.  One of his two statues resembles the type of the Doryphoros of Polykleitos while the other repeats the type of the Satyr of Praxiteles.

Statue of Orestes and Electra, 1st century BC., a Hellenistic-type work by Menelaus (Villa Ludovisi, Rome).
The San Ildefonso Group also known as Orestes and Pylades, ca. 10 BC. (Museo Nacional del Prado, Spain). Other authors identified these statues as the brothers Castor and Pollux.

In painting was famous a Roman artist named Fabio Píctor whose frescoes depicted military scenes with descriptive and commemorative value.  By this time Rome started to produce its characteristic pottery of a thin, shiny, and reddish clay on which reliefs were carved by applying molds with ornamental forms (such as egg shaped designs and palms) or with figures, or adding reliefs made with the same clay without using molds.  This pottery is found throughout the whole Roman world and it is called arretine pottery or arretine vessels because their most famous factories were located in Aretium (modern Arezzo).  Their bright red appearance and delicate reliefs were imitated by local workshops in some roman provinces of Southern Gaul (France) and Hispania (Spain) who manufactured the style of pottery archaeologists call terra sigillata.

An example of Arretine pottery or terra sigillata (Archaeological Museum, Barcelona).
South Gaulish bowl, late 1st century AD, (British Museum).
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