Travel to Italy: Roman Sculpture
Roman sculpture is interesting partly because it is so derivative, partly because it is so thoroughly political, and partly because it has, on occasion, so human a face.
The Ludovisi Throne (Altemps Museum), perhaps the most beautiful object in Rome--but not Roman. It's likely Greek, possibly from the 5th century B.C. The subject on the long side is the birth of Venus; on the visible short side, a girl plays a flute.
In the same museum there's this fine Apis, a bull represented in Egyptian religion with the disc of the sun between his horns. Apis is an old deity, going back to the first dynasty, but in early Roman times he merged with Osiris and as Sarapis diffused from Alexandria to become a popular fertility cult throughout the Roman Empire. This particular statue, also in the Altemps museum, was carved in Egypt in the 2nd century B.C.
A more typically Roman subject. The side of the sarcophagus, now in the Palazzo Massimo, shows the Romans as invincible and the barbarians as dying like flies.
From the arch of Septimius Severus, Persian captives.
A Dacian prisoner, 2nd century AD (Vatican museum).
The dying Gaul was a popular subject, both because it celebrated martial virtue and because it made Roman power seem all the more irresistable. In this case, the dead or dying wife hangs from one savage arm, while the other stabs. From the Altemps museum, this statue is a Roman copy of a Greek bronze from the time of Julius Caesar.
Augustus Caesar as Pontifex Maximus, in the Palazzo Massimo. The statue has a benign quality but also indicates a totalitarian consolidation of political power: Augustus controlled all the levers, spiritual as well as martial.
Images of the emperors were not only carved in profusion but air-brushed to make them look the part. Here, from the Palazzo Massimo, an image of Vespasian intended for public display.
Another image of Vespasian, also in the Palazzo Massimo, but this time intended for use within the family.
The Romans could, under the right circumstances, create likenesses of great verisimilitude. Here, Pompey, from the Vatican museum.
Such honesty, combined with a surprising degree of domestic tenderness, was common on sarcophagi, like this one from the Palazzo Massimo.
Later sculptors also depended heavily--sometimes slavishly--on their antecedents. Consider the Apollo Belvedere, in the Vatican Museum. It's a Roman copy from the second century of a Greek bronze cast perhaps 500 years earlier.
A few feet away, Perseus by Canova (1757-1822), also in the Octagonal Courtyard of the Belvedere, in the Vatican museum.
Here's another comparison. The famous statue of Laocoon and his sons was carved by Hellenistic Greeks from Rhodes and was housed originally in the palace of Titus; it was found in 1506 in the Golden House of Nero. Michelangelo admired it. It, too, like the preceding pictures, is in the Belvedere.
A decade after its the Laocoon was rediscovered, Michelangelo carved his angry if not tortured Moses. It sits a short distance north of the Colosseum, in San Pietro in Vincoli.
Michelangelo's statue in its entirety, unnaturally tense. Freud is said to have speculated that the muscles were bulging because Moses had just sat down after an angry moment.
Museums transmit the classical heritage: here, the Chiarimonti Museum, in the Vatican. It was assembled by Canova for Giorgio Chiarimonti, Pius VII (1800-23). It's changed so little since then that it itself has become part of the city's heritage.
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