Roman art refers to the visual arts made in Ancient Rome and in the territories of the Roman Empire. Roman art includes architecture, painting, sculpture and mosaic work. Luxury objects in metal-work, gem engraving, ivory carvings, and glass, are sometimes considered in modern terms to be minor forms of Roman art, although this would not necessarily have been the case for contemporaries. Sculpture was perhaps considered as the highest form of art by Romans, but figure painting was also very highly regarded. The two forms have had very contrasting rates of survival, with a very large body of sculpture surviving from about the 1st century BC onwards, though very little from before, but very little painting at all remains, and probably nothing that a contemporary would have considered to be of the highest quality.
Ancient Roman pottery was not a luxury product, but a vast production of "fine wares" in ''terra sigillata'' were decorated with reliefs that reflected the latest taste, and provided a large group in society with stylish objects at what was evidently an affordable price. Roman coins were an important means of propaganda, and have survived in enormous numbers. Other perishable forms of art have not survived at all.
While the traditional view of the ancient Roman artists is that they often borrowed from, and copied Greek precedents (much of the Greek sculpture known today is in the form of Roman marble copies), more recent analysis has indicated that Roman art is a highly creative pastiche relying heavily on Greek models but also encompassing Etruscan, native Italic, and even Egyptian visual culture. Stylistic eclecticism and practical application are the hallmarks of much Roman art.
Pliny, Ancient Rome’s most important historian concerning the arts, recorded that nearly all the forms of art – sculpture, landscape, portrait painting, even genre painting – were advanced in Greek times, and in some cases, more advanced than in Rome. Though very little remains of Greek wall art and portraiture, certainly Greek sculpture and vase painting bears this out. These forms were not likely surpassed by Roman artists in fineness of design or execution. As another example of the lost "Golden Age", he singled out Peiraikos, "whose artistry is surpassed by only a very few ... He painted barbershops and shoemakers’ stalls, donkeys, vegetables, and such, and for that reason came to be called the 'painter of vulgar subjects'; yet these works are altogether delightful, and they were sold at higher prices than the greatest () of many other artists.”〔Sybille Ebert-Schifferer, ''Still Life: A History'', Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1998, p. 15, ISBN 0-8109-4190-2〕 The adjective "vulgar" is used here in its original meaning, which means "common".
The Greek antecedents of Roman art were legendary. In the mid-5th century BC, the most famous Greek artists were Polygnotos, noted for his wall murals, and Apollodoros, the originator of chiaroscuro. The development of realistic technique is credited to Zeuxis and Parrhasius, who according to ancient Greek legend, are said to have once competed in a bravura display of their talents, history’s earliest descriptions of trompe l’oeil painting.〔Ebert-Schifferer, p. 16〕 In sculpture, Skopas, Praxiteles, Phidias, and Lysippos were the foremost sculptors. It appears that Roman artists had much Ancient Greek art to copy from, as trade in art was brisk throughout the empire, and much of the Greek artistic heritage found its way into Roman art through books and teaching. Ancient Greek treatises on the arts are known to have existed in Roman times though are now lost.〔Piper, p. 252〕 Many Roman artists came from Greek colonies and provinces...〔
The high number of Roman copies of Greek art also speaks of the esteem Roman artists had for Greek art, and perhaps of its rarer and higher quality.〔Janson, p. 158〕 Many of the art forms and methods used by the Romans – such as high and low relief, free-standing sculpture, bronze casting, vase art, mosaic, cameo, coin art, fine jewelry and metalwork, funerary sculpture, perspective drawing, caricature, genre and portrait painting, landscape painting, architectural sculpture, and trompe l’oeil painting – all were developed or refined by Ancient Greek artists.〔Piper, p. 248–253〕 One exception is the Roman bust, which did not include the shoulders. The traditional head-and-shoulders bust may have been an Etruscan or early Roman form.〔Piper, p. 255〕 Virtually every artistic technique and method used by Renaissance artists 1,900 year later, had been demonstrated by Ancient Greek artists, with the notable exceptions of oil colors and mathematically accurate perspective.〔Piper, p. 253〕 Where Greek artists were highly revered in their society, most Roman artists were anonymous and considered tradesmen. There is no recording, as in Ancient Greece, of the great masters of Roman art, and practically no signed works. Where Greeks worshipped the aesthetic qualities of great art and wrote extensively on artistic theory, Roman art was more decorative and indicative of status and wealth, and apparently not the subject of scholars or philosophers.〔Piper, p. 254〕
Owing in part to the fact that the Roman cities were far larger than the Greek city-states in power and population, and generally less provincial, art in Ancient Rome took on a wider, and sometimes more utilitarian, purpose. Roman culture assimilated many cultures and was for the most part tolerant of the ways of conquered peoples.〔 Roman art was commissioned, displayed, and owned in far greater quantities, and adapted to more uses than in Greek times. Wealthy Romans were more materialistic; they decorated their walls with art, their home with decorative objects, and themselves with fine jewelry.
In the Christian era of the late Empire, from 350 to 500 CE, wall painting, mosaic ceiling and floor work, and funerary sculpture thrived, while full-sized sculpture in the round and panel painting died out, most likely for religious reasons.〔Piper, p. 261〕 When Constantine moved the capital of the empire to Byzantium (renamed Constantinople), Roman art incorporated Eastern influences to produce the Byzantine style of the late empire. When Rome was sacked in the 5th century, artisans moved to and found work in the Eastern capital. The Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople employed nearly 10,000 workmen and artisans, in a final burst of Roman art under Emperor Justinian (527–565 CE), who also ordered the creation of the famous mosaics of Ravenna.〔Piper, p. 266〕
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