De Artibus Romanorum VI

The Roman province of Africa Proconsularis was founded in 146 BC at the conclusion of the Punic Wars. Initially restricted to the area around Carthage, the Roman occupation of northern Africa was extended westwards under the empire and divided into the administrative units of Mauretania (Morocco and Algeria) Numidia (Tunisia) and Africa (Libya). Egypt was a separate geographical entity.

After Italia, Roman Africa was the most important and richest province in the west, producing and exporting olives, grain, and labor. 

Unincumbered with conservative building traditions, Africa was the site of daring and extravagant architectural experimentation in second and third centuries. It was also a source of civilised talent: the comic playwright Terence, the emperors Septimus Severus and Gordion III, Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage and Saint Augustine, rhetor and later Bishop of Hippo Regius, were all Roman Africans. 

Some of the remote outposts on the edges of Mauretania were abandoned soon after their founding. Parts of Africa were, however, under the control of the eastern (Byzantine) empire as late as the 6th century A.D.





De Artibus Romanorum V

Located just outside of Herculaneum, the enormous seaside Villa dei Papiri may have been owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. Built around 30-20 BC, the villa had four levels terraced into the hillside, the lowest one opening on to the beach, and an extremely long peristyle garden. It is named after the library of 1800 Greek and Latin papyrus scrolls, containing texts related to Epicurean philosophy, found on the site. Along with Herculaneum, the villa was buried under 30 meters of ash and rock in A.D. 79, and, over the centuries, its existence was forgotten.

The site was accidentally rediscovered in 1750 by workers digging a canal. The goal of the first exploration of the site, authorized by the Bourbon King of Naples and directed by archaeologist Karl Weber, was not excavation, but the recovery of antiquities. To achieve this end, tunnels were cut through the compressed volcanic matter into the rooms of the villa, which were then cleared of rubble and plundered.

These subterranean labors paid off handsomely. The largest statuary collection from antiquity to have survived intact, comprising over 80 bronze and marble sculptures of the highest quality, was discovered, scattered around the large peristyle and tablinum. The masterpieces, now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, included a bust-length copy of the Doryphorus of Polykleitos, a portrait bust of Scipio Africanus, and a Seated Mercury. Frescoes were chiseled off the walls as well.  After two years of activity, the site was sealed and within a few decades its exact location once again forgotten.


Based on his explorations, Weber was able to create a ground plan of the villa, which was published in Le Antichità de Ercolano esposte (1752-92)a deluxe eight-volume catalogue of the antiquities unearthed in the region. Those conjectural drawings served as the master plan for oil magnate J. Paul Getty’s full-scale replica of the Villa dei Papiri in Malibu. Built in 1972-74 as a museum to house Getty’s collection of antiquities, the Getty Villa was intially dismissed by critics as another Hearst Castle— a rich man’s kitsch exercise in Hollywood historicism.


The lengthy and lavish renovation of the Getty Villa by Machado and Silvetti Associates, completed in 2006, conceptualizes the Malibu site as an archaeological dig—visitors enter at top of the canyon and descend to the building, just as archaeologists explore the buried original. The J. Paul Getty Museum’s ancient art collection is on permanent display in the villa, which also serves as a center for the study of classical antiquity. With it oceanside setting, temperate climate, and impressive works of ancient art, the villa today is frequently praised by architectural historians for its convincing and compelling recreation of a luxurious Roman villa maritima.


In 1986 the location of the Villa dei Papiri was rediscovered and in the early 1990s, a portion of the building was scientifically excavated. Other than a limited incursion in 2007, no further work has been done, leaving over 2800 sq ft untouched.

The excavated portion of the Villa dei Papiri, seen above, is situated 30m below the modern city of Ercolano. The Packard Humanities Institute, which supports research in fields of study related to classical antiquity, has indicated a willingness to fund the excavation of the rest of the villa. Because further work on the site would require the relocation of the current residents, the demolition of buildings and the re-routing of roads in a region infamous for its ability to circumvent official policies, not to mention the expense involved in maintaining yet another monument, the Italian government has no immediate plans to accept that offer.

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De Artibus Romanorum IV

The gemstones onxy and sardonyx often have veins of white onyx running through them. The so-called state portraits cameos, commissioned by or for the Roman emperors, ingeniously exploit that flaw in the stone.

Following Hellenistic models (the most famous being the Tazza Farnese), the carvers cleaved the stone at a vein and working on the cut surface, remove the white stone to varying depths around the image, to create low-relief white portraits set against dark backgrounds. Given the hardness of the stone and the thinness of the vein, and the iron tools the degree of refinement, modeling, and detail is extraordinary.

The cameo technique was imitated in luxury Roman glassware, like the Portland Vase, and, much later, in the Neo-classsical jasperware made by Josiah Wedgewood.

Intaglio is the opposite process, wherein the image rather than the background  is carved down into the stone. The Romans excelled at this technique as well.


De Artibus Romanorum III

If the accepted datings and chronologies are correct, then the short history of mural painting in Campania is one of the most eccentric, dynamic and imaginative in western art. The parameters of the problem were first articulated Die Geschichte der dekorativen Wandmalerei in Pompeji (1882) by the archaeologist and librarian August Mau. In this lavishly-illustrated survey of the Roman frescoes preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, Mau identified four distinct styles in use during the late Republic and early Empire. It is important to note that in Mau’s system, the four styles were developed sequentially, but they were, in some sense, practiced simultaneously.

The history of Roman wall painting is complicated by the fact that the pace of stylistic development increases geometrically. The First “Incrustation” Style, was the Samnite style, used without much change in the second and early first centuries B.C. The Second “Architectural” style, was introduced at the time of the Roman annexation of Pompeii in 80 B.C., and dominates the remainder of the first century B.C. The Third “Ornate” Style has as shorter run, from about 10 B.C. through the middle of the first century . The Fourth “Intricate” Style, introduced around A.D. 60, has a brief heyday in Pompeii until it is cut short by the cataclysm of A.D. 79. Outside of Campania, the  all four styles continued to be used, with the Fourth being the most popular.

While the duration of the styles diminishes from longest to shortest, the styles themselves follow no rational development; instead they reverse each other and differ from each other wildly:

The First Style, exemplified by the fauces of the House of Sallust in Herculaneum, and illustrated  above by a plate from Mau’s book, is a stucco and paint of a imitation of the multi-colored marble incrustation used in Ptolemaic and Hellenistic palaces. Designed to make ordinary walls look like expensive walls, the style appealed to prosperous, pretentious Samnites. The fictive marble of the socle zone, however, is continued through the other three styles;

The Second Style replaces the literal-minded mimesis of the First with illusionism. Using perspectival and naturalistic effects, the artists created not a fictive wall, but a fictive view through the actual wall into an implied space. The creators of magisterial Second-Style frescoes the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale and the Villa A at Oplontis used depictions of monumental architecture, which seemed to project and recede, to dissolve the walls of the room and offer the viewer a fantasy experience of expansive, unbounded vision (a perfect visual metaphor of the ideology of the early Empire). The famous triclinum frescoes from the Villa of Livia at Primaporta take Second Style illusionism to the farthest extreme, reducing the architectural elements to a few palings and low walls and presents the viewer with an uninterrupted panorama that completely negates the wall;

The Third Style, which began as the court style of Augustus and Agrippa, rejects and, at times, seems to rebuke the pomposity and intellectual deceptions of its precursor. It does so by emphasizing the decorative nature or mural painting, underscoring the opacity and flatness of the wall, without ever lapsing into the ersatz reality of the First Syle. The Second Style’s fictive window opening on to hazy, late afternoon vistas of fruit trees and shrines in garden courtyards is slammed shut by the the Third Style’s unbroken walls soaked in impenetrable, monochrome pigments. The provocations do not end there: the firmly-grounded, monumental, fictive architecture of the Second Style is displaced by precious images of perversely miniaturized, delicate structures that exist outside of an definable spatial setting. The framing devices consist of architectural elements super-attenuated to the point of deformity and deployed in irrational structures. As unappealing as this may sound, the stunning frescoes of Cubicula 15 and 16 of the imperial Villa of Agrippa Postumus at Boscotrecase and Caldarium 8 at Oplontis Villa A show, the overall effect of the Third Style is one of severe elegance and tasteful restraint, the Roman equivalent of the Less-is-More aesthetic;

The Fourth Style, is both a reaction to the asceticism of the previous style and a lunatic synthesis of the dialectical oscillations that proceed it. It was developed by Nero’s court painter, Fabullus at the Domus Aurea. The More-is-More principle that guided the design of the 300-room palace extends to the Fourth Style, in which a profusion of clearly quoted elements of Styles 1-3 are recombined and multiplied to create complex, quasi-architectural, semi-realistic systems of imagery. The sensory overload and ostentatious display of pictorial wealth seen in extravaganzas like the Domus Aurea or the Ixion Room in the House of the Vettii dismayed purist theoreticians like Vitruvius, but clearly delighted everyone else from Nero’s mistress Poppaea to Cicero to wealthy parvenus like the Vettius brothers. Finally,  the Fourth Style is a microcosm of Mau’s theory: it was the last style in a succession of four, and yet within it, those four styles are practiced at the same time.

To the Mau paradigm, one might append three reminders: 1) The Romans believed that paintings on buildings should refer to or depict buildings; 2) the hectic and productive development of Pompeiian painting was artificially truncated by a natural disaster–a Fifth or Sixth Style might have emerged had the winds blown in a different direction and 3) one-third of Pompeii, two-thirds of Herculaneum, and most of the Domus Aurea remain unexcavated.

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De Artibus Romanorum II

After the fire that devastated Rome in A.D. 64, Nero confiscated over 300 acres of scorched public land on which he built a private villa. Not to be confused with the Domus Transitoria, Nero’s first villa on the Velia, the new palace straddled three of Rome’s seven hills and included an artificial lake, vineyards, and gardens. The walls of its 300 rooms were covered in gold leaf, ivory, colored marble, and frescoes. One dining hall with a mechanized cieling painted with stars that turned above the guests. A 35-meter gilded bronze statue of the Emperor towered over the main entrance. The gilded façade gave the structure its name, Domus Aurea. Suetonius records Nero’s opinion of the finished pleasure palace:

When the edifice was finished in this style and he dedicated it, he deigned to say nothing more in the way of approval than that he had at last begun to live like a human being.

The decadent edifice, however, appalled the Roman aristocracy. Following Nero’s forced suicide in A.D. 68, the Seante ordered a damnatio memoriae, which encouraged the demolition of all visible public monuments associated with the emperor maudit. The Domus Aurea was closed, stripped if of its precious materials and works of art, and systematically buried.

Under Vespasian, new public buildings were erected on the site, including the Flavian Amphitheater, referred to in antiquity as the Colosseum, because is stood next to Nero’s bronze colossus, (which had been given new facial features and rededicated as Sol) and a gallery displaying Nero’s statuary collection. By Hadrian’s reign, the Domus Aurea had been completely obliterated. Over the centuries, its precise location was forgotten. It was accidentally re-discovered only in the late 15th century. 

What survives of the vast complex is now mainly 6 meters underground and very little of it has been excavated. Due to the deterioratied condition of the exposed frescoes and fears about the instability of structure after several recent vault collapses, the site been only intermittently opened to visitors for the last 10 years. Parts of the so-called Esquiline Wing, which were incorporated in the the Baths of Trajan, however, are visible above the current groundline.  These monumental fragments–and the distances between them–attest to the colossal scale of both the edifice and the ego of its imperial patron.

Given the fragmentary state of our knowledge of Domus Aurea, its importance for the history of Roman architecture is hard to determine. That said, the evidence of the octagonal room in the Esquiline Wing, which is vaulted in concrete, framed by sculptural subsidiary spaces, lit by a large oculus and was originally clad in exotic marble revetments indicates that the revolution in Roman architecture culminating in the Pantheon was well under way in Nero’s time.




De Artibus Romanorum I

The consecration of the Ara Pacis Augustae in the year 13 BC is recorded by Augustus Caesar himself:

When I returned to Rome from Spain and Gaul, having successfully accomplished deeds in those provinces … the senate voted to consecrate the altar of August Peace in the Campus Martius … on which it ordered the magistrates and priests and Vestal virgins to offer annual sacrifices (Res Gestae Divi Augusti, 12).

Completed in 9 BC, the complex consisted of an altar, open to the air, surrounded by a precinct wall. Although there were doors on both the eastern and western sides, the structure was approached from the west, by a single staircase. Its location was chosen for its proximity to the Via Flamminia, by which Augustus had triumphantly entered Rome after the Gallic campaign. It was also aligned with the mausoleum of Augustus and an Egyptian obelisk symbolizing Octavius Caesar’s victory at Actium. A sundial erected in the Campus Martius cast its shadow on the center of the altar precinct on the emperor’s birthday.

In keeping with Augustus’ plan to remake Rome in the image of a Greek city, the Ara Pacis was executed not in the traditional travertine, but in pure white marble, quarried from the recently-discovered quarries at Luna (modern day Carrara). The U-shaped altar was also inspired by a Hellenistic monument, the great Altar of Zeus at Pergamon.

The the inner and outer walls of the Ara Pacis are decorated with relief sculpture, which was polychromed in antiquity. On the inner walls, seen only by the priests, depictions of garlands suspended between bucrania allude to the altar’s sacrificial function. The iconographic program of the exterior walls, addressed to those attending the ceremony, proclaims the ideology of the Augustan Peace in both allegorical and historical terms.

On the west wall images of Romulus and Remus suckling the wolf and Aneas offering a sacrifice illustrate the founding of Rome. As the re-founder of the Roman state, Augustus thusly legitimates his authority by drawing historical parallels between himself and the honored figures of Roman history.

The panels of the east wall depict mythological figures including Tellus, the personification of the earth, nursing two infants surrounded by vegetation and livestock. Her curvaceous bod revealed by the Hellenistic damp-fold drapery style of carving, Tellus is an allegory of fertility. Along with the lush acanthus scroll of the lower panels, she represents the productivity and abundance of the Augustan Age after the destructive upheavals of the Civil Wars.

A solemn procession of  priests, soothsayers, officials and members of the imperial household, led by the Augustus, leading to the altar’s entrance, is depicted on the long walls. Augustus saw himself as the new Perikles presiding over another Golden Age, an analogy furthered by the close resemblance of these compositions to the Parthenon frieze. The togate and veiled emperor is seen fulfilling his duties as pontifex maximus, the head of the state religion, offering sacrifices in the manner of Aneas. By stressing historical continuity and the proper observance of public traditions, the reliefs assure he viewer that the advent of the imperium is a natural extension of Rome’s history, consistent with its identity and values, and not a coup d’état that violently broke with centuries of political custom.

Buried under six meters of silt for centuries, the Ara Pacis was first rediscovered in 1588, but not fully-excavated until the Fascist era. In 1937, Its fragmentary remains were reconstructed in a modern building near its original location.  That structure was replaced by the current museum, designed by Richard Meier, the only modern building erected in Rome since the 1930s. Although Meier’s design was initially criticized for its failure to blend in with its surroundings when it opened in 2006, the architect’s trademark classical restraint, his use of travertine and the spectacular lighting design by the German company ERCO quietly update the monument rather than clash with it.



Piero della Francesca, Madonna del Parto, 1467, Monterchi, Cappella delCimitero

Carlo Ginzburg’s biographical “investigation ” into the art of Piero della Francesca, Indagini su Piero, was translated into English as The Enigma of Piero. The translated title strikes a very true chord: there is an opacity or reticence or unknowability to Piero and his artistic style is the formal equivalent of a blank affect. This is registered in both the impassive, expressionless visages he depicts, but also in the broad, simplified, static formal language used to depict them.

The remoteness of Piero’s style is best seen by comparing it to that of his contemporary, Andrea Mantegna. Since the 15th century, Mantegna has been faulted for his cold, lapidary style of painting, his intellectual distance and an excess of gravitas.

Andrea Mantegna, Cristo Scorto, Milano, Pinacoteca di Brera

However, pictures like the Cristo Scorto, the Agony in the Garden and the Man of Sorrows depict a raw emotionality meant to elicit an empathetic response from their viewer. The edges may be exact and hard, but they reveal the contours of the human body.

By contrast, Piero’s work is devoid of such passions and his figures, from the Baptism through the unfinished Nativity, resemble simple volumes hewn from ashy, cold, stone. Earlier, I described Piero’s painting style as laconic, when, in fact, mute might be more accurate. The act of speech is almost never depicted, leaving the figures to communicate with each other through gestures with their lips sealed.

Piero della Francesca, Annunciation, 1452/66, Arezzo, San Francesco.

The avoidance of the representation of speech might have posed problems for the narrative components of the paintings, but Piero compensates for that omission in unexpected ways. As Michael Baxandall has observed, for Piero, feet are social, and if one attends to their representation in his painting, one realizes that a great deal of animated interaction takes place below the knee.

Piero della Francesca, Exaltation of the True Cross, 1452/66, Arezzo, San Francesco

Finally, to complete the Mantegna comparison, Piero’s figures are beyond lapidary–the body is generalized and anecdotal detail kept to a bare minimum. As he demonstrates in De Prospectiva Pigendi, his figures are conceived of as geometric volumes plotted on a spatial continuum.

Piero della Francesca, De Prospectiva Pigendi, 1474.

Piero’s remoteness and imperturbable resistance to expressionism, are not, however, Ginzburg’s topic. His Italian title might have been better translated as Investigating Piero or The Unsolved Case of Piero. The allusion to mystery novels and police forensics is deliberate–the mysteries requiring investigation revolve around lacunae in the historical record about patrons, textual sources, circumstances of production, and chronology, which the historian/detective “solves ” by sifting through the evidence.

The evidence, which is to say, the period documentation of Piero’s art, is relatively scanty. When confronted with this problem while writing his admirable biography of Piero, historian James Banker delved into the archives and with great diligence, discovered over 100 hitherto unknown records concerning Piero. Ginzburg, chooses a different approach: fills in the gaps in the record with lawyerly speculation, “logical” inferences and hunches.


Piero della Francesca, Flagellazione di Cristo, 1455, Urbino, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche.


The validity of this methodology aside, Ginzburg has nothing nothing to say about Piero’s laconic style or any other artistic concern or issue. He apparently finds a picture like the Flagellation of Christ to be fully comprehensible once one knows who is in it, who owned it, who saw it and when. To follow Ginzburg’s argument to its logical conclusion, there is nothing enigmatic about Piero’s art–or old pictures in general.

Carlo Ginzburg, Indagini su Piero (Einaudi, 1985) translated as The Engima of Piero (Routledge, 1988; 2nd revised edition 1994).
James Banker, Piero della Francesca, Artist and Man (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Michael Baxandall, Words for Pictures (Yale, 1997).

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