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Roman Architecture - Palaces

( Originally Published 1921 )

The Palaces of the Emperors, Rome (p. 140 B), are impressive, even as ruins, of which enough remain to show their enormous extent and imposing character. Excavations on the Palatine Hill, started by Napoleon III in A.D. 1863, and since continued by the Italian Government, have revealed remains of a group of magnificent palaces which were commenced by Augustus (A.D. 3), added to by Tiberius, Caligula, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian, and remodelled with gigantic additions by Septimius Severus. The palaces, which crowned the Palatine and looked down on the centre of civic life in the valley below, were approached from the Forum along a clivus " or rising slope which branched off from the Via Sacra,. west of the Arch of Titus.

The principal portico of the palace was of fluted Cippolino columns and led into the public halls, the Tablinum or throne-room, flanked on one side by the Temple of the Lares or Imperial household gods, and on the other by the Basilica or Hall of Justice. Thus, according to Roman traditions, the Imperial power was firmly planted, in architectural planning at any rate, between religion and justice. Directly beyond the throne-room was the Peristylium, a square garden surrounded by marble colonnades designed for court life and pageantry. This, in its turn, opened into the Triclinium or Banqueting Hall with its three couches for the reclining guests. This social sanctum of time-honoured hospitality was remote from the distraction of the public courts and looked out into the peristyle and two nymphaea or open gardens with flowering plants, playing fountains, and running water. There were also many minor chambers for service and sleeping, such as would naturally be required for a palace retinue. The disposition of the buildings was governed by axial lines and thus magnificent vistas were obtained, while irregular spaces, caused by later additions, were rendered symmetrical by the introduction of hemicycles and other devices which disguised the different angles at which the buildings had to be placed in relation to each other, a method frequently used by modern architects. Not only were the Imperial palaces on the Palatine imposing in extent, plan, and proportions, but both within and without they were decorated on the grand scale and in a manner made familiar to us by the revelations of the buried city of Pompeii. The floors were worked in conventional and pictorial mosaics for which the craftsmen of Italy are still famous ; the walls were relieved by marble columns and painted with frescoes, and the ceiling vaults were picked out with bright colours, while everywhere there were niches for the splendid statues brought from conquered Greece.

The Golden House of Nero, Rome (A.D. 65), built after the great fire in the city, has become a synonym for all that is magnificent in royal palaces, but it was destroyed by the Flavian Emperors and made room for the Colosseum and Imperial Therm. Pliny describes the lavish ornamentation and fittings, and Raphael drew inspiration from its buried frescoes.

The Palace of Diocletian, Spalato (A.D. 300) (p. 183) now forms the greater part of the Mediaeval town of Spalato in Dalmatia, which has therefore been called a city in a house. This magnificent palace, with its imposing colonnade, stretches along the sea-front of the Adriatic and may be described as a royal country house, or a chateau by the sea. Its original appearance can be well understood from the restored view (p. 183 C). The plan of the palace was approximately rectangular, occupying 8 acres, almost equal in extent to the Escurial in Spain (p. 683). There was a square tower at each angle, and in the centre of the north, east, and west sides were the " golden," " brazen," and " iron " gateways, flanked by octagonal towers with subsidiary towers between them and the angles. These gateways formed entrances to four porticoed avenues, 36 ft. wide, which met in the centre and gave the palace the character of a Roman camp. The two northern portions were probably for guests and principal officers of the household ; while the whole of the southern portion was devoted to the palace and also included the Temples of AEsculapius (pp. 146, 183) and Jupiter, the latter sometimes known as the Mausoleum of Diocletian (p. 15o). A circular vestibule, with a portico in antis, formed an entrance to a suite of nine chambers overlooking the sea, which included the private apartments and baths of the Emperor. The fine portico or colonnade, 524 ft. long by 24 ft., on the sea-front served as a connecting gallery and probably contained works of art (cf. Elizabethan gallery, p. 709). The detached columns of the upper portion rested on carved corbels, similar to those of the " golden gateway " (p. 183 A). The outer walls were lined internally on three sides of the palace with cells for slaves and soldiers of the Imperial retinue. The octagonal temple or mausoleum and the more lofty halls of the palace proper, visible above the enclosing walls in distant views by land and sea, were impressive features of the group. The architectural character is somewhat debased in style with broken and curved pediments and decadent detail. The palace has, however, a value as a transitional example, for the entablature of the peristyle is formed as an arch (p. 183 B) and thus loses its constructive significance, while the arches of the northern gateway rest directly on capitals, without the intervention of an entablature, and form an early instance of a principle which was carried to its logical conclusion in the Romanesque and Gothic styles.

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