Roman Decorative Art And Sculpture
( Originally Published 1893 )
Again starting from Pompeii as the main center of such finds, we have to mention the wealth of utensils and furniture of daily life which is in the Naples Museum. Naturally it is the bronzes and metals which have survived. Nothing is left of the luxurious upholstery and wooden furniture which the paintings illustrate. In the bronze vases, tripods, lamps, and utensils of the Naples Museum we again learn how much taste and fine art adorned the lives of the everyday people of antiquity. Constant variety of invention and originality of designs are united with constant attention to use and structural form. The ornament emphasizes and develops the construction. In the pitcher-shaped vases it is, for instance, the handle itself which forms the ornamental motive or else it is the joints of its attachment. In the tripods, tables, and settees the feet and legs and joints are the points or lines of the ornament. These various objects again illustrate the way in which Greek art had permeated the life of Italy and its dependent provinces and, with slight distinctions as to style, would equally well illustrate the art of the centuries before and after the time of the Pompeiian pieces. The bronze weights finely executed in the shape of human heads are an instance of the fertile devices for combining use with beauty.
Utensils similar to those of Pompeii have been otherwise most largely found in Etruscan tombs, but this simply means that, for reasons unknown to us, the fashions of interment among the Greeks themselves chose other objects for the burials. Aside from burial finds it is a rare occurence that such objects have been found outside of Pompeii and Herculaneum. A unique discovery was made, however, near Hildesheim in Germany, in 1869, of nearly a hundred pieces of the elaborately decorated silver table service of a Roman officer or general. It is supposed to date from the defeat of the Roman legions under Varus, near this place, in the year 9 A.D. This find is in the Berlin Museum.
Perhaps the most interesting objects among all those found at Pompeii are the carpenter's and workman's tools, medical instruments, gardening implements, etc. Although these do not come under the head of art, they have an equal or greater value in stimulating the imagination to resurrect the life of the ancients and it is solely for this purpose that we study their art. Their forms are largely the types of those in use today.
Decorated pottery like that of the Greek vases was not used after the second century B. C., and is consequently not found at Pompeii. The pottery of the Roman period, found in all countries of the empire, was the so-called "Samian " (aside from the coarser and ordinary ware). This Samian ware is of a fine red paste decorated with molded or pressed designs, but it has no great artistic value.
The use of the finer early Greek pottery was displaced largely by glass, which was not very familiar to the Greeks of the fifth century B. C. Glass manufacture was an Oriental and especially an Egyptian art which spread to the Phenicians and was much cultivated in Syria. Here were many of the important factories throughout the time of the empire and even in the early Middle Ages. Glass manufacture was independently cultivated in all territories of the empire also, and its forms and colors rival those of the modern Venetian glass, which is a traditional survival of this ancient art. It was a favored article for the interments and many beautiful specimens have thus survived. The "Portland Vase" of the British Museum is the most celebrated instance. The finest single collection of ancient glass is the Slade Collection of the British Museum, but the New York Museum possesses the best collection of the whole world, next to this.
We may finally return to the Roman sculpture to observe that the reputation of individual busts or statues is rather owing to the fame of the personalities represented, among whom nearly all the great Roman statesmen and emperors are included, than to special distinction in workmanship. The merit of the execution and the obvious fidelity to nature are marvelously uniform and marvelously good. The largest collections are naturally in Rome and Naples, and the Louvre at Paris stands next in this department. The most interesting portraits are those of poor people made by ordinary artisans, because they best exhibit the talent of the people at large rather than that of some artist employed by a person of distinction.
The grand point, in fact, which distinguishes ancient art from modern is the surpassing excellence of the ordinary popular art —and this excellence is not only mechanical and technical but also that of observation, of patient labor, of simplicity, and of the ability to distinguish the thing which is characteristic and essential from that which is transient and unimportant.
Although the study of original Greek art is so largely made through Roman copies that we may feel disposed to hurry over this portion of the subject when the Roman period itself is in question—we must still say, after all necessary distinctions have been drawn regarding the superior merit of earlier Greek works and the various signs of relative decadence in the times of the empire ; that the statuary and relief art of Roman antiquity in its minor works, in its artisan copies, in its popular productions, is a most marvelous instance of the possibilities and true greatness of the average man under favorable conditions.
How favorable these conditions were to the art of sculpture we must not, however, forget. The enormous amount of work done was one main condition of its technical excellence. This again is explained by a large popular demand.
In spite of the inroads of skepticism and the weakening influence of philosophy the mythology of the Greeks, as adopted by the Romans, retained a vital hold on the popular consciousness as late as the third century A. D. The ancient Greek method of personifying abstract ideas, virtues, and moral lessons, in the guise of bodily forms continued till this time. An entire series of subjects of legendary art was employed in the relief decoration of the sarcophagi. The open-air life of antiquity, the interest in monumental decoration, and the public attention to public art made much patronage for the ordinary artisan and promoted the education of other and superior artists. On the whole, in insisting on the value of Roman statuary copies for a study of the earlier Greeks, we must not overlook the significance of these statuary works for the empire itself.
For the comprehension of all art before the invention of printing and the consequent diffusion of books we cannot insist too much on the point that books and printing have taken the place which art once took. It was not only the means of monumental record but also of popular instruction and of popular amusement. We should never dream of studying the daily life of the nineteenth century through its painting and its sculpture, but this is our main authority and our necessary authority for the daily life of antiquity. The greatest importance consequently attaches to the minutest and apparently most trivial objects of Roman art, because they are most significant for this daily life and most characteristic for the taste of everyday people. It is from this point of view that the Roman engraved gems used in the signet rings are interesting. A wealth of beauty and of artistic adaptation of means to ends is apparent in these little objects.