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Comparing Art in the Greek and Roman Eras

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Comparing Art in the Greek and Roman Eras Greek and Roman arts were both original and distinguished by features which can be compared and contrasted. In both cultures the major trends in art were set in their ancient periods. However, the comparison and contrasting of both are best restrained to the later periods of each society. Greek art began in the Fifth Century B.C. It was done mostly in relatively small cities and was usually in honor of some religious or civic event. In Greek society, their art was usually created in the more public places of the time so that the citizens could admire more visual creations in the places in which they spent a large part of their time.

“During this period, art underwent dramatic transformations and evolved on the road paved previously by the Classical artist. This era expanded his formal horizons with dramatic posing, sweeping lines, and high contrast of light, shadow and emotions. The conventions and rules of the classical period gave way to the experimentation and a sense of freedom that allowed the artist to explore his subjects from different unique points of view” (Greek Art: The Hellenistic Period 1).

Greek art mostly includes much pottery, sculpture, architecture and painting. The ancient Greeks made pottery for everyday use; for example cups, jugs and bowls were often used. The few exceptions were trophies that were won at games such as the Panathenaic amphorae. The Panathenic amphorae was a large ceramic vessel that contained the olive oil that was from the sacred grove of Athena. Another exception was that pottery was also used for funeral urns. The history of Greek pottery is divided into different periods; Proto-Geometric (1050 BC) , Geometric (900 BC), Archaic (750 BC), and the Red Figure (530 BC). The range of colors which could be used on pots was restricted by the technology of firing: black, white, red, and yellow were the most common. In the three earlier periods, the pots were left their natural light color, and were decorated with slip that turned black in the kiln. “During the Proto-Geometric and Geometric periods, Greek pottery was decorated with abstract designs. In later periods, as the aesthetic shifted and the technical proficiency of potters improved, decorations took the form of human figures, usually representing the gods or the heroes of Greek history and mythology. Battle and hunting scenes were also popular, since they allowed the depiction of the horse, which the Greeks held in high esteem. In later periods erotic themes, both heterosexual and male homosexual, became common” (Wikipedia 1).

Those who practiced the visual arts, including sculpture, were held in low regard in ancient Greece, viewed as mere manual laborers. Plutarch (Life of Pericles, II) said "we admire the work of art but despise the maker of it"; this was a common view in the ancient world. A lot of sculptures during the Greek era were based on many different deities and heroes. Many sculptures of Greek gods were in the great temples like Parthenon in Athens, and the Temple of Zeus in Olympia. During this period sculpture became more and more naturalistic. Common people, women, children, animals and domestic scenes became acceptable subjects for sculpture, which was commissioned by wealthy families for the adornment of their homes and gardens. Realistic portraits of men and women of all ages were produced, and sculptors no longer felt obliged to depict people as ideals of beauty or physical perfection.

Sculpture is by far the most important surviving form of Ancient Greek art, although only a small amount of sculptures have survived. Greek sculpture was very significant during the Italian Renaissance, and remained the “classic” model for European sculpture until the arrival of modernization in the late 19th century.

During the Archaic period, the Greek city-states on the mainland, on the Aegean islands, and in the colonies grew and flourished. Athens, which had lagged behind the other city-states in population and economic development in the seventh century, began moving artistically, commercially, and politically to the head (Stockstad 618). The Greek arts developed rapidly during the Archaic period. As Greek temples grew steadily in size and complexity over the centuries, stone and marble replaced the earlier mud-brick and wood construction. Also, sculptural decoration took on increased importance. Among the earliest surviving examples of Greek pedimental sculpture are fragments of the ruined Doric order Temple of Artemis on the island of Korkyra. The figures in this sculpture were carved on separate slabs, then installed in the pediment space. They stand in such high relief from the background plane that they actually break through the architectural frame, which was more than 9 feet tall at the peak. At the center is the snake-haired Medusa. On the sides were Medusa's children. Ancient Greeks would have seen the image of Medusa at the center of this pediment as both menacing and protective (Stockstad 621).

Architecture was no longer in Greece from the end of the Mycenaean period, about 1200 BC, until the Seventh century, when urban life recovered to a point where public building could be undertaken. Since most Greek buildings in the Archaic and Early Classical periods were made of wood or mud-brick, nothing remains of them except a few ground-plans, and there are almost no written sources on early architecture or descriptions of buildings. Most of our knowledge of Greek architecture comes from the few surviving buildings of the Classical, Hellenistic and Roman periods since Roman architecture heavily copied Greek (Stockstad 700). In comparison, The Romans learned sculpture and painting largely from the Etruscans and Greeks and helped to transmit Greek art to later ages. Roman art is the sculpture, pottery, painting, and other art produced in Ancient Rome in the middle of the Eighth Century BC until the decline of the Roman Empire by the Fifth Century AD. Ancient Roman art was heavily influenced by the art of the ancient Greece, and later by the art forms of countries within its empire, especially Ancient Egypt, or of civilizations which its empire bordered.

Though the Romans got many ideas from the Greeks, their art was more complex, and defined. The Romans were a practical people, in their original works, observation was key. Portrait sculptures are often carefully detailed; portraits of Roman emperors, however, were often used for propagandistic purposes and included ideological messages in the pose, accouterments, or costume of the figure. The Romans also depicted warriors and heroic adventures, in the spirit of the Greeks who came before them. While Greek sculptors traditionally illustrated military exploits through the use of mythological allegory, the Romans used a more documentary mode. Another major contribution of Roman art is the use of concrete in architecture. Buildings like the Flavian Amphitheater, or Colosseum, could never have been constructed with previous architectural means.

While the traditional view of Roman artists is that they often borrowed from, copied, or even outright stole Greek precedents, much of the Greek sculpture we know of today is in the form of Roman marble copies. More recent analysis as indicated that Roman art is a highly creative pastiche of Greek, Etruscan, native Italic, and even Egyptian visual culture. Stylistic eclecticism is the hallmark of much of Roman art.

The art of the first and second centuries AD pretty much continued the traditions of portraiture and Greek imitations. Roman artists added more use of art as propaganda to show what the emperors wanted people to know or to think. Some examples of this are the Arch of Titus and Trajan's Column (Witcombe 2). Roman people were particularly interested in portraiture, such as making statues that really looked like one particular person. Greek people were more interested in ideals, such as what is the most beautiful man? What is the most athletic man?

In conclusion the difference between Greek and Roman art is revealed in a comparison of the sculpture created by each culture. While the Greeks were content to idealize their images, the Republic Romans preferred representations in stone and bronze that emphasized the reality of the person being portrayed. And later they searched for depict the majesty of the rulers. The Greeks used a combination of ideal parts in their art but not showing any actual people. The Romans were masters of realism, no matter what motivated Roman to create their real images of people, the fact is that these portraits are a powerful evidence of the industriousness of the Romans. Indeed, it seems fair to say that in some respects, the Romans wanted to create the world in their own image.

Works Cited

Etruscan & Roman Art - Roman Imperial Period. November 2007. http://www.mcps.k12.md.us/schools/quinceorchardhs/art/2000-2001/arthistory/rome/imperial.html

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York website -"Greek Art". November 2007. http://www.metmuseum.org/explore/publications/pdfs/greek/divided/f-Greek-Art.pdf

Stockstad, Marilyn. Art History-Combined Volume. New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2005.

Wikipedia The Free Encyclopedia. December 2007. www.wikipedia.org

Art History Resources on The Web. Witcombe, Christopher. December 2007. http://www.witcombe.sbc.edu

Greek Art: The Hellenistic Period. November 2007. http://www.greeklandscapes.com/greece/athens_museum_hellenistic.html


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