Roman Art IV : Narrative relief
by: P. Dionysius Mus
PARS I | PARS II | PARS III | PARS IV | PARS V

The emperors commemorated their outstanding achievements in narrative relief on monumental altars, triumphal arches and columns. Historic events had been depicted from the third century BC on. Sometime during the late years of the Republic, the temporary representations of such events began to assume more monumental and permanent forms. They were no longer painted, but carved and attached to structures meant to last indefinitely. They were thus a ready tool for the glorification of imperial rule, and the emperors did not hesitate to use them on a large scale.

Ara Pacis [detail] Augustus preferred to appear on his monuments as the 'Prince of Peace' rather than as the all-conquering military hero. The most important of these monuments was the Ara Pacis, voted by the Roman senate in 13BC and completed four years later (figure 1). It is probably identical with the richly carved Augustan altar that bears his name today. On the Ara Pacis we see a procession in celebration of one particular event - probably the founding of the altar in 13BC - idealized to evoke something of the solemn air that surrounds the procession on the Parthenon frieze, yet filled with concrete details of a remembered event. The participants, at least so far as they belong to the imperial family, are meant to be identifiable as portraits, including those of children dressed in miniature togas who are too young to grasp the significance of the occasion. The softening of the relief background has been carried so far that the figures farthest removed from us seem partly immersed in the stone.

The spatial qualities of the Ara Pacis relief reached their most complete development in the two large narrative panels on the triumphal arch erected in 81AD to commemorate the victories of the Emperor Titus. One of them shows the triumphal procession celebrating the conquest of Jerusalem. The booty displayed includes the seven-branched menorah, or candlestick (figure 2), and the other sacred objects. The movement of a crowd of figures in depth is conveyed with striking success, despite the mutilated surface. On the right, the procession turns away from us and disappears through a triumphal arch placed obliquely to the background plane so that only the nearer half actually emerges from the background - a radical but effective compositional device.

Arch of Titus - Menorah Scene     Arch of Titus - Coronation

The other panel (figure 3) avoids such experiments, although the number of layers of relief is equally great here. We also sense that its design has an oddly static quality, despite the fact that this is simply another part of the same procession. The difference must be due to the subject, which shows the emperor himself in his chariot, crowned by the winged Victory behind him. Apparently the sculptor's first concern was to display this set image, rather than to keep the procession moving.

Trajan's Column - detail Just how incompatible the purposes of imperial art, narrative or symbolic, could sometimes be with a realistic treatment of space becomes fully evident in the Column of Traianus (figure 4), which was erected between 106 and 113 AD to celebrate that emperor's victorious campaigns against the Dacians. Single, freestanding columns had been used as commemorative monuments from Hellenistic times on; their ultimate source may have been the obelisks of Egypt. The column is distinguished not only by its great height (125 feet / 38m) but also by the continuous spiral band of relief covering its surface and recounting, in epic breadth, the history of the Dacian wars. Since there are no clarifying inscriptions, the pictorial account had to be as self-sufficient and explicit as possible, which meant that the spatial setting of each episode had to be worked out with great care. Visual continuity had to be preserved without destroying the inner coherence of the individual scenes. And the actual depth of the carving had to be much shallower than in reliefs such as those on the Arch of Titus. Otherwise the shadows cast by the projecting parts would make the scenes unreadable from below.

Emperor Constantine's conception of his role is clearly reflected in his triumphal arch (figure 5), erected near the Colosseum between 312 and 315 AD. One of the largest and most elaborate of its kind, it is decorated for the most part with sculpture taken from earlier imperial monuments. This procedure has often been viewed as dictated by haste and by the poor condition of the sculptural workshops of Rome at that time. These may have been contributory factors, but there appears to be a conscious and carefully considered plan behind the way the earlier pieces were chosen and employed.

Arch of Constantine The arch also contains a number of reliefs made especially for it, such as the friezes above the lateral openings, and these show the new Constantinian style in full force. One frieze represents Constantine, after his entry into Rome in 312 AD, addressing the Senate and people from the rostrum in the Forum. The first thing we notice here is the avoidance of all the numerous devices developed since the fifth century BC for creating spatial depth. We find no oblique lines, no foreshortening, and only the barest ripple of movement in the listening crowds. The architecture has been flattened out against the relief background, which thus becomes a solid, impenetrable surface. The rostrum and the people on or beside it form an equally shallow layer: the second row of figures appears simply as a series of heads above those of the first. The figures themselves have an oddly doll-like quality. The heads are very large, while the bodies seem not only dwarfish because of the thick, stubby legs, but they also appear to be lacking in articulation. The mechanism of contrapposto has disappeared completely, so that these figures no longer stand freely and by their own muscular effort. Rather, they seem to dangle from invisible strings.

All photos Leo C. Curran/Maecenas

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