A brief tour of Roman art: learn how to identify its painting, sculpture and architecture

Roman art is undoubtedly one of the most important artistic movements in our history and, also, one of the easiest to recognize due to its particular characteristics and the fame of the main works of Roman art.

But do you know what inspired the great artists of Ancient Rome and what are the most representative elements of Roman art? what is a column and a lintel? what are the differences between Greek art and Roman art?

don’t worry! All these questions will be answered throughout this article, so read on and join us to learn about the main characteristics of Roman art in painting, sculpture and architecture.

let the journey begin!

what is Roman art?

Roman art refers to the set of artistic manifestations, such as painting, sculpture and architecture, developed in Rome between the 6th century B.C. and the 4th century A.D. During this period, the Romans expressed themselves through various techniques associated with the decorative arts and the construction of temples and monuments.

Roman art, as well as Roman culture itself, is based on a very complex political and social framework. to better understand the context in which Roman art developed and to study its characteristics, let’s travel back in time and see what is the origin of Roman art.

esculturas de arte romanoSource: Pexels

Origin of Roman art

As Ricardo Celma, teacher of our online course of Painting and drawing of the great masters says, “for art to advance, you must look at its history”. That is why, below, we will tell you a little about the history of the origin of Roman art.

According to information from the website Masdearte, Roman art, as its name suggests, has its origin in Rome and was born from its independence from the Etruscan power, when Rome began to consolidate gradually as an empire and art began to form an essential part in the lives of its inhabitants.

Due to the expansion of Rome, Roman art was influenced by primitive Italic cultures, Etruscan art and Greek art, incorporating cultural elements of each conquered people’s characteristics and thus forming what we know today as Roman art.

In addition, by expanding in this way, Rome became an Empire with great political and economic power, so that the imperial families began to be interested in art, thus generating that the artists and works of Roman art were highly sought after and popular.

Because of this, the themes of Roman art are strongly influenced by politics and are mainly focused on glorifying influential historical figures or representing battles.

did you imagine that the history and culture of a people had so much influence on their artistic style?

pintura de arte romano encontrada en pompeyaSource: Mural found in Pompeii in the House of Vettii

Characteristics of Roman art

Now that you know the origin of Roman art and have a better understanding of the historical period during which it took place, let’s learn about the main characteristics of Roman art:

Roman art expresses the idea of Rome as the center: the power of culture and the Roman State are protagonists.
Roman art had a great Greek and Etruscan influence from the conquest of the Romans to other Mediterranean territories.
The artists who worked in Roman art were mostly Greeks who copied sculptures of that origin.
Roman art was more varied and modern than Greek art, so it had a greater influence on the art of the Renaissance and the Middle Ages.
Among the upper classes, the Romans consumed and encouraged the consumption of Roman art.
Roman art in architecture introduced new typologies and genres by combining the characteristics of Greek and Etruscan styles.
Unlike Greek art, whose subjects tended to be mostly religious or mythological, Roman art exalts men, rulers and politicians.
Roman art narrates and commemorates the battles of men through representations such as triumphal arches and memorial columns.
Roman art in sculpture manifested itself through reliefs in tombs, which represented situations of daily life and Roman culture.
The works of Roman art were always created with the purpose of fulfilling a function.

edifico de arquitectura romanaSource: Pexels

Painting in Roman art

Roman art stands out mainly for its works of architecture and sculpture, since painting in Roman art was not very popular and few pictorial records of this artistic style remain.

However, within the Roman art in painting the most famous works are those that could be rescued from the city of Pompeii.

These rescued works of Roman art in Pompeii are murals and frescoes preserved from the eruption of the Vesuvius volcano that petrified the city in 79 AD. The pieces had themes linked to the daily life of the Romans, to culture and to the Roman gods

Within the painting in Roman art, two pictorial currents or styles can be distinguished:

Neo-Attic Style: concerned with the human form, it highlights mythological themes and epics.
Hellenistic-Alexandrine Style: Concerned with rural painting, landscapes and seascapes.

Although Roman art in painting dates back many centuries, its influence is maintained in the Roman art style that gives particular characteristics to the works created after the fall of the Empire.

Characteristics of Roman painting

Some of the characteristics that make Roman art in painting stand out are the following:

The painting technique used in Roman art is that of colored stains in tempera, with flat colors and almost no mixtures.
Roman art paintings depict situations where many individuals are involved.
Painting in Roman culture is very important because through it, it was possible to know to a great extent how the Romans lived, their styles and their society.
In the paintings of Roman art, silhouettes and figures without movement or perspectivewere worked a lot.
The predominant theme is always realistic, landscapes, people or war scenes.
Among the main representatives of Roman art in painting we can highlight Pietro Cavallini, Arelio, Cornelio Pino and Cayo Fabio Pictor.

pintura de arte romano la mujer poetisa de pompeyaSource: Portrait The Poetess of Pompeii

The four Pompeian styles

remember when we mentioned that Roman art is inspired by its Etruscan and Greek roots? and that, in addition, the most famous Roman works are those that could be rescued from the city of Pompeii? Well, given the circumstances and influences that surrounded Roman art, today we can mention that Roman painting developed in the form of four styles known as Pompeian styles:

mixed (or ornamental) and
illusionist (or scenographic).

Thanks to the hard work of the German art historian and archaeologist August Mau, who studied and classified the Roman paintings of Pompeii, this classification emerged from the various frescoes of the buried city. Let’s see, then, what are the four main styles of Roman painting.

First style: inlay

The first style or “inlay style” is the oldest style of Roman art (from the second century BC). It is so called because stones (such as marble or serpentine) were often inlaid into the walls, as well as precious metals, in an attempt to imitate an architectural model or structural style inspired by Greek painting.

The inlay was characterized by having images that used to extend coherently along the different walls of a room, divided into three vertical levels, from bottom to top: the seat, the orthostat (rectangular blocks of stone located at the bottom of the wall) and the cornice.

According to the ArteEspaña portal, the inlay is a very colorful Roman style, with a very luxurious appearance, in which the wall is usually divided in three:

a painted plinth imitating granite,
a middle zone imitating marble and a cornice
and a stucco cornice.

Primer estilo arte romano

Image: leg8.fr.

Second style: architectural

As its name suggests, this style of Roman art is characterized by imitating architecture. It began in the early 1st century BC, and is also known as “architectural perspective style”, as it tries to find breadth and depth in its images.

Roman paintings found in this style made spaces appear much larger. Often, there are windows through which we can see representations that mix architectural motifs, characters, animals and objects. Often, landscapes also appear between the columns, giving it a more theatrical look and a sense of “realism”.

This is known as the art of trompe l’oeil, an artistic technique that seeks to deceive the visual perception. Thus, they gave depth to the rooms they decorated.

Segundo estilo dormitorio de la Villa de Boscorea Arte romano

Image: algargosarte.blogspot.com

Third style: mixed or ornamental

The third style of Roman art appeared at the end of the first century B.C. and is called “mixed“, “ornamental” or “ornamented”. Here you will notice how Roman artists begin to replace the architectural perspective to experiment more with decorative or ornamental motifs.

The mixed style occurs in the time of Augustus and his successors, a time when Roman artists were known for breaking the coherence of a room as a complete Roman work, turning each wall into a largely autonomous canvas.

Also, elements such as the representation of landscapes, figures and mythological scenes are introduced. Some historians agree that the ornamental style was more prevalent in Roman times than in Pompeii.

Tercer estilo Pintura romana Fresco en el cubículo de la casa della Farnesina

Image: leg8.fr

Fourth style: illusionistic or scenographic

From the mid-first century AD, architectural perspectives reappear in Roman art, but the scenography becomes exuberant, fantastic and excessive, which makes it lose uniformity in its aesthetics, according to experts.

The overflowing fantasy of Roman art at the time of Nero is fully seen in this fourth style or scenographic style because, in their eagerness to maintain the effects of architectural perspective, Roman artists focused on multiplying ornaments and decorative aspects.

The fourth style is also a mixture of styles that we have already studied, that is, of the second and third styles. But it differs from the third style, for example, because it brings back the scenography on the walls. However, at this time it dispenses with links to architecture, giving rise to buildings that have a phantasmagoric appearance and that serve as a stage for characters or divinities that seem to interact with the spectators.

The scenographic style of Roman art appears in the Domus Aurea at Neroand in the house of the Vettii at Pompeii, as well as in frescoes called “Megalographic” by Vitruvius.

Cuarto estilo Pintura romana

Image: http://algargosarte.blogspot.com

As you have noticed, Roman mural painting maintained a gradual evolution. From the beginning, it was mainly intended for the walls of tombs and temples, since in those times it was not customary to have luxuries in the home.

However, with the influence of Greek Hellenism that flourished among the high spheres of Rome, mainly, mural paintings were integrated into Roman customs.

The ArteEspaña website mentions, on the other hand, that portraits have also existed since the first century B.C., but it was in the second century when they proliferated. This is how the portraits of El Fayum stand out, some funerary portraits on canvas or wood that are made with the encaustic technique.

would you like to follow this fascinating tour on what is Roman art? Very well. Now we are going to show you what El Fayum portraits are and their role in Roman art.

The portraits of El Fayum

As described by the newspaper La Vanguardia in its headline, these portraits are like “photos” of ancient Egypt, a jewel of the time, when Egypt was a Roman province. They were produced between the 1st and 5th centuries all over Egypt and, therefore, we could not avoid including them as an important part of Roman art.

Firstly, because they are the only surviving Roman easel paintings from antiquity, with the great particularity of showing the existing mixture between Roman and Egyptian culture.

Although the name of El Fayum is used only by convention, the truth is that these portraits of Roman art are characterized as funerary paintings painted at the level of the face of the Egyptian mummies. The faces that appear in them seem to represent people of wealthy classes, as evidenced by their clothing and the jewelry depicted.

Most of these portraits are painted in encaustic, a technique that uses wax to add pigments to the painting. However, they were also done in tempera (watercolor) on wooden panels, which were imported because of the scarcity of wood in Egypt.

One of the characteristic features of these Egyptian portraits of Roman art is the disproportion of the eyes in relation to the rest of the face. Otherwise, the artists manage to replicate them to life size, but, as you will see in the example below, the face appears slightly larger in relation to the rest of the body.

However, they were supposedly used to decorate mummies in funerary art, which for a time cast doubt on the relevance of the term “portrait”. But some studies of these Roman paintings showed that they were painted before the people died, since in many of them traces of plaster or frame marks were found, so they could have been used as portraits during their lifetime.

Retratos de El Fayum Pintura romana

Image: leg8.fr

Sculpture in Roman art

Sculpture in Roman art, especially from the consolidation of the Empire, brought with it Greek models but adapted to the Roman conception of the world, a much more concrete, realistic and practical conception.

The main characteristic of Roman art in sculpture was the introduction of two genres: portraiture and narrative relief.

The portrait in Roman art sculptures went from being more rigid and austere to having an idealizing tendency of the characters. Although, towards the end of the Empire, Roman sculptures were much more detailed and expressive, seeking to reproduce reality in a natural way.

Regarding the narrative reliefs in the sculptures of Roman art, these represented military glories of the Roman emperors, being captured in altars and triumphal arches.

Even today, we can notice the influence of Roman art in the three-dimensional sculptures that are produced digitally and when thinking about sculptures, the first thing that comes to mind for many are the famous works of sculpture of Roman art.

If you want to learn more about the main works of Roman art, you can take a virtual tour of the National Museum of Roman Art in Merida, Spain. you can download the app for free!

Characteristics of Roman sculpture

Sculptures in Roman art always served a purpose: they fulfilled a narrative, descriptive or commemorative function.
Roman sculpture shows energy and movement to show the power of generals and emperors.
Generally, Roman art sculptures were anonymous and extremely naturalisticworks.
The most common subject matter in Roman sculptures is portraiture, in which they try to achieve excellence in the identification of the model.

escultura de arte romano de augustus de prima portaSource: Augustus of Prima Porta

Architecture in Roman art

Roman art in architecture is the discipline in which the power of the State was best manifested. Roman architecture was based on the construction of great public works that to this day can be documented more easily than sculptures or paintings. The Romans, in fact, wrote a theoretical treatise on architecture in the 1st century BC. which was very important and significant for the history of architecture.

Undoubtedly, amphitheaters, basilicas, baths, triumphal arches and circuses were the most known typologies of Roman architecture. A very close example of this is the Roman Colosseum, which is an icon of Roman art to this day.

If you are fascinated by the architecture of Roman art and want to venture to recreate some of the most popular buildings of this era, these architecture presets for Adobe 3D MAX will fit you like a glove. what are you waiting for to download them and test your skills?

coliseo romano representante del arte romano arquitecturaSource: Pexels

Characteristics of Roman architecture

Roman architecture is characterized by:

Use of arches, vaults and domes, due to the influence of the Etruscans.
Use of column and lintel, coming from the Greeks.
Use ofconcrete (full and brick).
Roman art design with paintings and frescoes inside the buildings.
Urban space planning.
The main types of buildings of Roman art in architecture are the following: baths, amphitheaters, circuses, forums, triumphal arches, basilicas, temples, aqueducts and roads.

templo de arte romano con columnas arquitectura romanaSource: Pexels

As you may have noticed, Roman art in all its expressions, both in painting, sculpture and architecture, marked an era of great triumphs for the Romans and communicated to the whole world the greatness and power of their empire through their majestic works.

Now that you know what Roman art is and know how to identify the characteristics of the main works of Roman art in painting, sculpture and architecture, you can surely appreciate and better understand Roman culture. Now it’s your turn to continue exploring the many ways there are to make art.


Leave a Comment