Some would see the technical decline of late Roman art as a manifestation of the decadence and “deculturisation” which went hand in hand with other symptoms such as the reduced degree of literacy. The alternative view is that this is a rebirth of popular art, more apt to describing the interior symbols and consciousness of the people living in the age of decadence.
There was always a people’s art closely associated with the Italic, plebeian roots of Rome and then, superimposed, there was the external influence of high art driven by the elite and their political needs which found embodiment in Greek observation of nature and man. Once the political needs ended so too did the demand for what we know as “Classical” art.
To get a good idea of this we only need to look at the wonderful three-dimensional and tonal effects of Roman portraits found at Pompeii and Herculaneum or indeed the frescoes in the villa of Livia (Rome) which depict gardens with lemon trees and birds all in perfect three-dimensional effect. These paintings are surprising because they hardly surprise us! They are so easily regarded as modern and “normal” to our eyes.
How could it be that this concept of figurative reality could be forgotten and replaced with the flat, stiff and deformed figures of the Dark and Middle Ages?
- A slow change of fortunes and wealth
- A change in the consumers and message of art
- Increased Eastern influence, which in time resulted in iconoclasm
One of the answers suggested is that the symbolism and style provided by the art of the common people was more apt to describing their aspirations and concerns. These aspirations and concerns were less and less of a material and territorial nature and of an increasingly spiritual intent as the empire came under attack. In a word: The consumers of late Roman art were different from the consumers of high Roman art. This tendency began to be manifest in art as early as the reign of Emperor Commodus.
The shift of power from Rome to Constantinople in the fourth century also had its tangible influence. Constantinople (now Istanbul) was in the East and as such constituted a new direct source of eastern influence in the art of Rome. The Christian Orthodox theology imposed a move away from excessively naturalistic representation in favour of a more spiritual approach.
This meant that human figures should be symbols as opposed to attempts at illusionary portraiture. Ie Figures (within the religious context) were not supposed to be interpreted as individuals recognisable by their facial attributes. Human figures were “flattened” and rendered generic whilst the relief of the folds in their clothing might still retain a naturalistic approach. Mosaics of this style are still to be found in some of the more ancient churches of Rome and are easily spotted by the bright gold backgrounds, the stiff bodies and those big round eyes which (to me) look as if they’ve been outlined with mascara.
Art in ancient Rome: | Art in Ancient Rome – Introduction | The decadence of classical art | Foreign influence | The Greek revolution | Ancient Roman Paintings | Painting Styles | Drawing | Ancient Roman Mosaics | ancient roman jewelry | Sculpture | roman statues | Architecture |Ancient Rome Literature | Literature and Theatre | poems about Rome | roman music | roman pottery |