Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

LIFE IN THE ROMAN WORLD OF NERO AND ST. PAUL

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BASILICA AEMILIA.]

[Illustration: FIG. 116.--FRAGMENTS OF THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE REGIA.]

It would be a more than agreeable task to deal at some length with the art of the Roman world of this period, but the subject is vast, and demands a treatise to itself. How general was the love of art--or at least the recognition of its place in life--must be obvious to those who have seen the great collections in Rome, gathered partly from the city itself and partly from the towns and country "villas" of Italy, and those in the National Museum at Naples, acquired mainly from the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Nor are we amazed merely at the quantity of statues, statuettes, busts, reliefs, paintings, mosaic gems and cameos, and artistically wrought objects and utensils, which have been preserved while so many thousands of such productions have disappeared in the conflagrations of Rome, the vandalisms of the ignorant, or the kilns and melting-pots of the Middle Ages. The quality is still more a source of delight than the quantity. This last sentence, of course, contains a truism, since art is no delight without high quality. If we had only preserved to us such masterpieces as the Capitoline Venus, the Dying Gaul, the Laocoon, the Dancing Faun, the so-called Narcissus, and the Resting Mercury, we should realise something of the exquisite skill in plastic art which had been attained in antiquity and has never been attained since. But we might perhaps imagine that these were altogether exceptional pieces and the choicest gems possessed by the world of the time. Yet the preservation of these is but an accident, and there is no reason to believe them to be more than survivals out of many equally excellent. On the contrary, our ancient authorities--such as the elder Pliny--prove that there was a multitude of similar creations contained in public buildings alone. Pompeii, it has already been said more than once, was a provincial town in no way distinguished for the high culture of its inhabitants; yet there is scarcely a house of any consideration which has not afforded some example of fine art in one form or another. We know that several of the Roman temples--such as those of Concord in the Forum and of Apollo on the Palatine--were veritable galleries of masterpieces; and that the rich Romans adorned both their town houses and country villas with dozens of statues, colossal, life-size, or miniature, by distinguished masters. But still more striking is the fact that the comparatively small homes of Pompeii often possessed a work for which no price would now be too large, and of which we are content even to obtain a tolerably good copy. At Herculaneum there evidently lived persons of greater literary and artistic I refinement than at Pompeii, and the discoveries from that only very partially excavated town make an incalculably rich show of their own. What then would be the case with Naples, Baiae, the resorts all along the coast as far as the Tiber, the luxurious villas on the Alban Hills, and the great metropolis itself?

Yet the fact of this universal recognition of art is scarcely made so impressive by these collected specimens of perfect taste and perfect execution, as it is incidentally by observing the delicate and graceful finish of some moulding on a chance fragment from a building, such as the Basilica Aemilia or the office of the Pontifex in the Forum, or the exquisite chiselling of trailing ivy upon a cup from Herculaneum (FIG. 56), or the dainty pattern wrought on no more important a thing than a bucket (FIG. 58), or the graceful shape imparted to a household lamp (FIG. 54). Water could hardly be permitted to spout in a peristyle or garden without doing so from some charming statuette, animal figure, or decorative mask or head. When fine art is sought in things like these, we may guess how uncompromisingly it was sought in things more avowedly "on show."

The age with which we have been dealing fell within the most flourishing period of Roman, or rather Graeco-Roman, taste and craftsmanship. A hundred years later both taste and execution were declining, and by the age of Constantine--two centuries and a half after Nero--not one artist could pretend to achieve such work as had belonged to a multitude between the reigns of Augustus and Hadrian.

It is not indeed probable that, even at our date, the large and noble simplicity of the older Greek masters could be rivalled. It is not probable that most of the former creations of art still preserved could have been wrought as originals by any Greek or Roman artist living in the time of Nero. Nevertheless technical craftsmanship was still superb, and while the contemporary artist could not create a splendid original, he was at least able to create an almost perfect copy. The Roman public buildings and private houses were enriched with a host of such copies, or, when not exact copies, with modifications which, though not improvements, were at least such as could not offend by displaying a lack of technical mastery. Let us grant that it was for the most part Greeks who were the artists; nevertheless the Greek is an active member of the Roman world and of its metropolitan life, and he executes his work to the order of the Roman state or the Roman patron; and therefore the art of the time deserves to be called Roman in that sense. There is little doubt that the Romans, if left to themselves, would have developed only the solid, or the gorgeous, or the baroque. But influences which penetrate a society are part of that society, and the Greek influence accepted by the Roman becomes a Roman principle.

Perhaps it is also true that many a Roman who possessed fine works of art, and even exquisite ones, was not in reality a true connoisseur; that, even if he were, he lacked instructive and ardent appreciation of art for its own sake; and that, like his cultivation of intellectual society or learning, his cultivation of art was rather that of a man determined to be on a level with the culture of his times. Nevertheless the fact is palpable, that the cultivation was there, and was displayed in public architecture and in household embellishment in a way which puts the modern world to shame. With us art is a luxury for the few, and a keen enjoyment for still fewer; in the age of Nero it penetrated the life of every class.

In architecture the native Roman gift was for the practical combined with the massive and grandiose. The structures in which they themselves excelled were the amphitheatre, the public baths, the triumphal arch, the basilica, the bridge, and the aqueduct. Their mastery of the arch, their excellent concrete, and their engineering genius, enabled them to produce works in this kind which had had no parallels in the Greek world. Nor had the Greeks felt the same need for such buildings. They had been innocent of gladiatorial shows, and they had been unfortunately too innocent of large conceptions in the way of water-supply. When an amphitheatre or aqueduct of the Roman kind was to be found in the graecized half of the empire, it was constructed under Roman influence. The modern may well afford to wonder at and envy the profusion of such structures in the ancient world. How noble and at the same time how strong was the work of the Romans when they undertook to supply even a provincial town with abundant and adequate water, is manifest from such aqueducts as are still to be seen at Nîmes (FIG. 1) or at Segovia. In other architectural conceptions the Romans of the time of Nero mainly followed the Greek lead and employed Greek artists. The architectural "orders" were Greek, with sundry Graeco-Roman modifications, particularly in the way of more ornate or fantastic Corinthian capitals; the notions of sculptural decoration were equally of Hellenic origin. Their theatres also were of the Greek kind adapted in non-essentials to the somewhat different conditions of a Roman performance. The Greek taste in decoration was the simpler and purer: the Roman cultivated the sumptuous and the ornate, sometimes, with conspicuous success, often with an overloaded effect. As Friedlander (who, however, deals with a much longer period than ours) puts the matter: "Nowhere, least of all at Rome, was an important public building erected without the chiseller, the stucco-worker, the carver, the founder, the painter, and mosaic-maker being called in. Statues, single or in groups, filled gables, roofs, niches, interstices of columns, staircases in the temples, theatres, amphitheatres, basilicas, public baths, bridges, arches, portals, and viaducts. . . . Triumphal arches generally had at their summits equestrian figures, trophies, chariots of four or six horses, driven by figures of victory. Reliefs and medallions bedecked the frieze, and reliefs or paintings the walls; ceilings were gay with stucco or coloured work, and the floors with glittering mosaics. All the architectural framework, supports, thresholds, lintels, mouldings, windows, and even gutters were overloaded with decorative figures."

It was above all in plastic art that the contemporary world was enormously rich. Not only could no public building dispense with such decorations as those above mentioned; no private house of the least pretensions was without its statues, busts, statuettes, carved reliefs, and stucco-work. Never was statuary in marble or bronze so plentiful in every part of the empire, in public squares, or in the houses of representative people--in reception-hall, peristyle court, garden, or colonnade. Portrait statues in the largest towns were to be counted by hundreds, and sometimes by thousands. Men distinguished in war, in letters, in public life, and in local benefactions were as regularly commemorated by statues or busts as they are in modern times by painted portraits. Sometimes--unlike the modern portraits of course--these were paid for by the recipient of the compliment. In the comparatively unimportant Forum of Pompeii there stood five colossal statues, between seventy and eighty life-size equestrian statues, and as many standing figures, while the public buildings surrounding this open space contained their dozen or twenty each. As has been said already, most of the best work in sculpture--apart from these bronze and marble portraits of contemporaries--was reproduction of Grecian masterpieces dating from the time of Pheidias onward. Particularly did the Roman affect the more elaborate work of the period of the later "Macedonian" kings. Where the actual work was not exactly copied it at least supplied the main conception or motive. It followed naturally that there would be in existence many copies of the same piece, and, in procuring these, both the public and the householder would feel relieved of any danger of betraying the wrong taste. The workshops or studios of Greek artists turned out large numbers of a given masterpiece--a Faun, a Venus, or a Discobolus--at prices from £50 or so upwards. It followed also that there were numerous imitations passed off as originals, and many a wealthy man boasted of possessing an "original" or a genuine "old master"--a Praxiteles or a Lysippus--when he owned but a clever reproduction. The same remark applies, not only to the statues, but to the genre-groups and animal forms of which such fine examples can be seen in the Vatican Museum, and also to silver cups by "Mentor" or to bronzes of Corinth. Petronius, the coarse but witty "arbiter of taste" under Nero, mocks at the vulgar nouveau riche who imagined that the Corinthian bronzes were the work of an artist named Corinthus.

[Illustration: FIG. 117.--WALL-PAINTING. (Woman with Tablets.)]

[Illustration: FIG. 118.--WALL-PAINTING FROM HERCULANEUM. (Women playing with Knuckle-Bones.)]

Next to sculpture came painting, and in this art Romans themselves appear to have often acquired a technical skill which rivalled that of the Greeks. There is also plenty of evidence that among the pictorial artists there were no few women. For us practically the only painting of the time which has been preserved is that upon the walls of private houses, and it is probable that we see some of the worst specimens of the kind as well as some of a high order of excellence. It is not difficult to distinguish between the truly artistic design and colouring of wall-pictures in the House of Vettii or of the "Tragic Poet" and the crude journeyman work in sundry other Pompeian houses which must have belonged to anything but connoisseurs. Paintings, it must be remembered, were the ancient wall-papers, as well as the ancient pictures. Here, as in sculpture, we find the same or similar motives and groupings repeated in a way which shows that the painter--or rather the collaborating painters--must have been reproducing or adapting an original which was particularly admired or had obtained a fashionable vogue. The wall-pictures, done in fresco or distemper and in various dimensions, fall into four main classes. There are landscapes, from a pretty realistic garden scene to a fantastic stretch of sea and land diversified with woods, rocks, figures, and buildings. There are subjects from mythology and from poetical "history" or legend, chiefly representing "moments of dramatic interest." There are genre-pictures, such as those of the Cupids acting as goldsmiths, oil-dealers, or wine-merchants. Finally there are pictures of still-life--of fishes, birds, fruits, and other objects--often admirable in their kind. Serving as frame or setting to many of the scenes there are architectural paintings--sometimes in complicated but highly skilful perspective, but often extremely unreal and confusing in conception--representing columns and pediments of buildings. It must here suffice to offer one or two characteristic examples out of the multitude of wall-paintings which have been found (see also Figs. 43, 44).

Though Romans themselves, and even persons of standing, sometimes dabbled in the fine arts, it is unquestionable that they commonly regarded the professional artist as only a superior tradesman. They admired his skill, but rendered little esteem to the man. A Roman knight or a Roman lady might occasionally paint for pleasure; Nero himself might model a figure or handle a brush; but so soon as art ceased to be dilettante and became a calling, so soon as its work was produced for payment, the artist ranked with other hirelings, however superior he might be in kind. Seneca expresses an open contempt, although he is perhaps, here as elsewhere, judging by a standard more severe than that of his contemporaries in general. To some extent this attitude is explained by the very abundance of objects of art, and by the immense number of artists, now nameless, belonging to the period; it is also to some extent excused by the fact that the craftsmanship, however consummate, was not at this period accompanied by the originality of the great Greek times from which it borrowed. Much of the work--particularly perhaps in painting and metal-chasing--was done by slaves. Apart from this consideration, the studios were so numerous and taught so well, that there must have been thousands of persons working either alone or co-operatively, whose position, however excellent the performance, became analogous to that of a house-decorator. On a wall to be painted in fresco a number of painters would be employed together. Throughout the Roman world, wherever works of art were wanted, the professional would travel, often with his assistants, and take up a contract. In modern parlance, the communities requiring some monument of art "called for tenders" and were prone to accept the lowest.

Whatever abundance of art the Roman world cultivated and possessed; however indispensable to a public place was a wealth of buildings with lavish decoration of sculptured pillars, of statues, or of triumphal arches; however necessary to a private house were originals, supposed originals, and copies in the way of statuary, paintings, bronzes, mosaics, and other means of artistic adornment; it is very doubtful whether any large number of Romans entertained that spontaneous enjoyment of the beauty of art which is known as genuine "artistic feeling." In their literature we look in vain for any expression of enthusiasm on the subject. There are many references to works of art, but none which possess any intense glow of warmth. Doubtless art was so abundant that, as has already been said in reference to the appreciation of natural beauty, the absence of "gush" need not indicate absence of real enjoyment. Enjoyment there was, but it was apparently for the most part the enjoyment either of the collector or of the man who realises that an appreciation of art demands a large place in culture, and who is determined to be as well supplied and as well informed as his neighbour, while his judgment of a piece of work, though far from unintelligent, and often excellent in regard to principles of design and technical execution, is mainly the result of a deliberate training and cult, and is in consequence somewhat chill and detached.

[Illustration: FIG. 119.--LYRE AND HARP.]

Of music the Romans were passionately fond, but the music itself was of a description which perhaps would hardly commend itself to modern notions, particularly those of northern Europe. The instruments in use were chiefly the harp, the lyre, and the flageolet (or flute played with a mouthpiece). To these we may add for processions the straight trumpet and the curved horn, and, for more orgiastic occasions or celebrations, the panpipes, cymbals, and tambourine or kettledrum. Performers from the East played upon certain stringed instruments not greatly differing from the lyre and harp of Greece and Italy. Women from Cadiz used the castagnettes. Hydraulic organs with pipes and keys were coming into vogue, and the bagpipes were also sufficiently familiar. In the use of all these instruments the ancients knew nothing of the harmonisation of parts; to them harmony and concerto implied no more than unison, or a difference of octaves. Whatever emotions may have been evoked by the music so produced, it cannot be imagined that they were of the intensity or subtlety of which the modern art and instruments are capable. Apart from the professionals, many Roman youths and the majority of Roman girls learned both to play and Sing, the instrument most affected being the harp, and the teacher of harp-playing being held in the highest esteem and receiving the highest emoluments. Sacrifices were regularly accompanied by the flageolet; processions by this and the trumpet; the rites of Bacchus by pipes, tambourines, and cymbals; performances in the theatre by an immense orchestra of various instruments; the more elaborate dinners by flute, harp, concerto of the two, singing, and such coarser and more exciting performances as were to the taste of the host or his company. The greatest houses kept their own choir and orchestra of slaves; the less wealthy hired musicians as they needed them. As for the Romans themselves, certain religious ceremonies called for singing of boys and girls in chorus; and in a purely domestic way the women of the house played on the harp and sang. Where there was singing, the words dominated the music and not the contrary, but snatches from recent popular pieces were sung and hummed in the streets for the sake of their taking air, just as they are in modern times. We cannot conceive of any Roman festivity without abundance of music. When in spring at Baiae on the Bay of Naples the holiday frequenters of that resort were rowed about the Lucrine Lake in their flower-bedecked gondolas or boats with coloured sails, the musicians were no less in evidence than they are now at every opportunity on the waters of the same bay or in the evening on the Grand Canal at Venice. In the truly Greek portion of the empire music, though no more advanced in method, was for the most part of a finer and severer kind; but at Alexandria--where it amounted to a mania--the influence of the native Egyptian style, blent with the more passionate among the Greek modes, had produced a music extremely exciting and highly demoralising.

On the whole, it may reasonably be held that music played at least as important a part both in the houses and the public entertainments of the ancient Romans as it plays in modern Italy. The artists were as carefully trained, the audiences as critical or as receptive, the personal affectations of the musicians as characteristic, and their effect on emotional admirers of the opposite sex as great, as they are at the present day. The difference between the two ages consists in the nature of the music itself, and in the instruments through which it is respectively delivered; and in these respects the advantage is entirely with the modern world.




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