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Ancient Roman Sculpture – Immortality through Statues

Ancient Roman Sculpture – Immortality through Statues


Hellenistic and ancient Greek Sculpture had a significant influence on Roman statuary reflected by the great amount of pieces copied from the Greek counterparts, the most celebrated example is the Roman Apollo Belvedere. Despite the many similarities, great differences still existed between the two civilizations' view of art.

Differences between Ancient Roman Sculpture and Ancient Greek Statuary

While Greek statuary was created to represent idealized human forms of athletes and gods, Ancient Roman sculpture represented real, ordinary people with their natural beauty and imperfections. The main purpose of the statuary was to immortalize, though many Greek and Roman statues were originally painted with bright colors which over the centuries lost the pigment. Greek sculptors derived the facial features from the idealized inner and intellectual characteristics, whereas the Romans inferred the personality from the physical features. As a very representative example, I suggest observing any bust of Vespasian, Roman Emperor depicted with each feature without any glorification. When comparing the statuary of the two great civilizations we can notice another significant difference. The traditions of the Roman Republic equate the nudity represented by the Greek sculpture as a dishonorable impudicity, more in favor of an iconography that represents the republican values of the citizenship.

Zeus-Greek-Bust-sculptureVespasian Roman Bust Sculpture

Comparison between Zeus bust and Vespasian bust sculptures

Materials used in Roman Sculpture

Due to Etruscan influence the first sculptural materials employed in Ancient Rome were terracotta and bronze. By the time, artists quickly made use of an abundant material easily accessible in the region, the limestone. From the 2nd century BC. Roman sculptors began to use stones from Greece, mainly the marble of the Pentelic and that of Paros. And at the time of Julius Caesar, the opening of the marble quarries of Luna (present-day Carrara) fundamentally changed the habits of sculptors and most of the statues and monuments of the city of Rome, with the worldwide famous white Carrara marble. The more modest works in the provinces generally used the available stone resources.

Although most of the surviving Roman Sculpture are in marble, bronze was just as favored. Unfortunately, this metal has always been in high demand for many applications, resulting in significantly less examples left to admire. In less quantity, the Romans also used precious metals and glass to create special statuary.

Antinous Standing Marble StatueAntinous Standing Bronze Statue

Antinous Standing Statue in white and basalt black.

The types of Roman sculpture

Busts

Above all, the roman bust sculpture or portraiture is the most dominant genre of Roman statuary that origins from the unique tradition of the Roman aristocracy of creating a genealogical chart of masks, each face model of their ancestors. Read our blogpost ‘Ancient Roman Bust Sculpture’ to know more about this topic.

Statues

In the case of Roman statuary and specially when depicting an emperor in an idolized position, an incongruity between the representation of the body and the head is immediately apparent. While the head often represented the signs of aging, the bodies were depicted according to the ancient norms of classical Greek sculpture, idealized with an eternal youth and strength.

Statuettes

Roman sculptors also created miniaturized copies of Greek originals, often in bronze, which were enthusiastically collected by art lovers and displayed in cabinets in the domus or in the peristyle.

Reliefs

The monumental altars, commemorative columns and triumphal arches were excellent surfaces for decorative reliefs of the typical narrative style of the Roman Sculpture. To mention some classical examples, the Ahenobarbus Altar, the Ara Pacis and the frieze of the Basilica Emilia in the Roman Forum are rare ancient masterpieces.

Reliefs were not only found on architectural elements but also on sarcophagi and grave altars. In general, family members and memorable moments of the deceased’s life were depicted as a sign of veneration. Read our article about Roman bas-reliefs with plenty of images of the most significant examples.

Reliefs of Domitius Ahenobarbus

Should you inspired by above facts, we invite you to browse our wide collection of Roman sculptures containing statues, statuettes, busts, reliefs, fountains, vases, marble & stone tables and more.

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