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A Brush and a Chisel:


A Comparison of Roman Sculpture and Paintings
Carrie A. Watson

April 19, 2011


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Imagine there is a museum that is filled with the antiquities of the Roman world. Many pieces

of well known Roman sculpture and other art have been included in the display. There are two within

the museum that are considerably eye catching. One of them is a bronze cast sculpture of the Roman

Emperor Vespasian; the other a painting found in Pompeii of a husband and wife. There are many

similarities between these two art forms that tell us a great deal about the people of the Roman world.

Although they are quite different in how each was created, the connections between them remain. This

paper will deal with the comparisons concerning these two types of art, and what this may say about the

people who lived in the Roman Empire during first century CE.

The Development of Roman Art

In the early days of Rome long before it was an empire, the city was ruled by the Etruscans who

lived in the area previously. Most of the art of this era was created by the Etruscan people and used

generally for the tombs and palaces of their rulers. (Roman, para. 1). The art created by the Etruscans

was very much like the art of Greece, a society which was quite ingenious in ability. These two

civilizations must have had an association between them given that their styles in art were quite similar.

This began a natural movement for the Roman people once the Etruscan leaders were no longer in

control. The people of Rome had seen the beauty of the Greek art and sculpture and admired it greatly.

This initiated the duplication of a lot of Greek artwork in Rome, sometimes replacing one material for

another such as stone in place of bronze.

Most sculpture in the early days of Rome was fashioned after the flowing, detailed style of the

Hellenistic Greek art that came before them. (Roman, para. 5). Roman sculptures were often direct

imitations of their Greek predecessors. After a period of time, the Romans began developing their own

approach to the creation of art. They built upon what they had learned by imitating Greek art and

developed their own art forms. The fantasy of perfection notorious in the sculptures of the Greek gods
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was carried over in the Roman style but was now used to represent the rulers of Rome. Later in the

Roman era the use of perfection in portrait sculpture waned, and rulers began to appear as they did in

life.

Sculptures and Frescoes of Rome

Sculpture appears to be one of the most dominant forms of artistic expression seen in early

Rome. Stone sculpture may have been created in any size, from the smallest pieces that might fit on a

tabletop to artwork that was significantly large. While some stone sculptures were created using a

single block of stone, there were some that had been carved from separate portions and then put

together to make one large model. The largest quantities of sculpture that have been found from the

Roman era were fashioned from stone, but other types existed as well. The cast bronze sculpture of

Vespasian was another form of sculpture that was represented in Roman times.

Cast bronze sculptures required a process that was more involved than stone sculpture,

although that didn’t necessarily make bronze sculptures better. Stone sculptures involved carving the

image into the stone and if a mistake was made, it was very difficult to repair. Bronze sculpture used a

technique that allowed for error to be corrected more simply. The carving would first be worked on a

temporary substance that would lay the foundation for the later, final piece of bronze. This allowed for

inexpensive alterations before the final piece would be created. While the ability to more easily repair

mistakes made an obvious advantage for bronze sculptures, the process took much longer and the end

result was not as permanent as a stone sculpture would be.

Although sculpture held a prominent place within the Roman world other art forms were

beginning to gain influence as well, frescoes being one of them. A fresco is a work of art that is painted

into wet plaster. (History, para. 3). This makes the painting more enduring because it has become a

part of the wall itself instead of being on top of the surface of the wall. As the Roman Empire increased
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in power, frescoes began to appear regularly in the abodes of Roman palaces and homes. Just as Rome

progressed as a nation and a variety of art began to appear, those art forms also evolved into differing

styles. Frescoes developed into four different methods within the Roman era. No single one of these

Roman methods were any better than another but the form that was chosen for a room was chosen to

give an entirely different experience to the viewer.

Early on in Rome’s fresco painting history the purpose of the fresco was to make a wall appear

as an entirely different material such as wood or marble. (Devaney, para.2). The rationale for a fresco

such as this was to make a room appear more rich or luxurious. This was also a much cheaper option

than to have those materials actually placed in a room themselves. Frescoes had become important

because now not only the rich could have decorated homes, but the common people would be more

likely to be able to put in features that would make them happier in their own dwellings. This initial

style of fresco that developed within the Roman world was called Incrustation.

After the development of the Incrustation fresco, artists began to realize that there was great

potential for this art form. A second style of fresco soon appeared titled the Architectural style. This

new approach brought with it the idea of scenery painting. Scenes and structures were now being

created within the walls that had a three-dimensional appearance to it. This was a very important

development in the world of art. Now there was the ability for realistic three-dimensional paintings on a

two-dimensional surface. (Devaney, para. 3). Adding this form to the fresco painting already available

created a sense of depth and warmth to the room.

The desire for more intricate patterns within the homes of the Roman people inspired the third

style of fresco painting called the Ornate style. This style changed form from that of three dimensional

objects to very detailed designs throughout the rooms. (Devaney, para. 4). Large blocks of color were

painted on the walls of these rooms and surrounded by detailed designs. Quite often the blocks would
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be a rich red and the details would typically be gold although they may include many colors. Every so

often small landscape scenes or other paintings would be found within some of the large blocks. The

details of these frescoes were very lavish and are reminiscent of what you might see inside an older

theater of our own time.

Ultimately the frescoes of Rome evolved one last time creating the Intricate style of Roman wall

painting. This style is probably the most common type of fresco that was used in Rome. The fourth

style is a combination of both the Architectural and the Ornate forms. A fourth style painting would

include many intricate designs around large blocks of color as well as many three-dimensional scenes

within the fresco. The result of this remarkable combination was a room that was rich in color and

incredibly luxurious. It often would make a small area appear much more spacious.

A Look at Roman Art between 60-80 CE

Roman art in all forms tended to evolve from one fashion to another over time. The sculptures

of Rome began with the Etruscan and Greek influences that had a sense of perfection or idealism to

each piece. Sculptures then developed into a Roman style original to their own culture and became

more realistic in appearance. The world of frescoes evolved much the same way progressing from the

simple look of the Incrustation era to the magnificent richness of the Intricate style. With a better

understanding of the development of artwork in Rome it is essential to also consider individual pieces

crafted during this time frame.

The bronze cast sculpture of Vespasian is a very good example of the later artwork of the Roman

era. This model of the Emperor of Rome was created using the later example of realism. This piece

shows what Vespasian actually looked like in life. An earlier version of a bronze cast sculpture of an

Emperor would have appeared as he looked when young, even if he was an old man at the time of the

casting. This monument shows Vespasian as an older gentleman. The Barakat website points out that,
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“Here, deep, horizontal lines are incised into the forehead.” (Art, para. 2). The signs of an aging man

are not hidden in this piece of work.

Another good example of artwork of the later period in Rome is a fresco found in Pompeii of a

husband and wife. This portrait was created around the year 75 CE, the time period when realism was

taking hold and fourth style painting was becoming the craze throughout Rome. (Portrait, para. 1). This

example was found on a fourth style fresco wall in Pompeii. The portrait is very interesting in that you

can see the development from the earlier style of artwork to the later. This is revealed in the portrait

itself, as it appears that the bodies of the couple are stylized or painted from other idealized forms. The

heads of the couple on the other hand look as if a lot of detail and care went into creating them. This

indicates that the faces of the couple are probably what they both actually appeared like in life. There is

so much detail added to the faces of this portrait that you can distinguish each individual eyelash quite

easily.

The art of Rome progressed throughout its rule from one of simplicity and imitation of others

around them to one of their own style of luxury and elegance. Early Roman artwork was highly

dependent on the Etruscan and Greek cultures. With a willingness to learn and grow, the Roman people

soon developed their own style and methods when it came to artwork. It is amazing to see the change

from unadorned first style frescoes and sculptures that looked too perfect to the luxurious fourth style

paintings and the realistic portrayals of the people of the later period. There was an obvious explosion

in the growth of artwork of the Roman people. The discovery of many important finds throughout

Rome and particularly in Pompeii has shown us a great deal about the people of this time. (Log, para.

14). The people of Rome loved to learn, grow and develop. They also must have loved to have the best

that was available surrounding them.


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Biography

Art from Ancient Lands. (n.d.). Retrieved April 16, 2011, from Barakat; Mirror of All Ages &

Culture : http://artfromancientlands.com/RomanBronzePortrait%20ofEmperorVespasian

X0147.html.

Devaney, E. The Four Styles of Roman Wall Painting. (May 6, 2010). Retrieved April 16, 2011,

from EHow: http://www.ehow.com/list_6468728_four-styles-roman-wall-pai

nting.html.

History of Fresco Painting. (n.d.). Retrieved April 16, 2011, from Fresco Art; Classic Wall Art:

http://italianfrescoes.com/history.asp.

Log 38 – July 2005 - A Visit to Pompeii & Paestum En Route to the Strait of Messina. (July,

2005). Retrieved April 16, 2011, from Logbook and Photos; Mariner’s Definition –

“Racing”: Popular Nautical Contact Sport: http://www.tiogaadventures.com/

Log38.htm.

Portrait of Husband and Wife, Pompeii. (n.d.). Retrieved April 16, 2011, from MS Museum

Syndicate: http://www.museumsyndicate.com/item.php?item=36655&tag=1.

Roman Art. (n.d.). Retrieved April 16, 2011, from The Encyclopedia of Art: http://www.visual-

arts-cork.com/roman-art.htm
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