All About Ancient Roman Sculpture: Materials, Styles And Artists

Roman sculpture set the standard for what we think of as beauty today. Learn about sculptural techniques subjects and artists.

When we think of classic beauty, we think of the statues of gods and goddesses, heroes and leaders created by the ancient Romans. The Roman modeled their earliest statues out of clay. They then fired the clay sculptures at a low temperature were and painted them after they were fired, using a technique referred to as "terra cotta." The Romans learned this technique from their rivals the Etruscans. The Etruscans ruled the Romans briefly and then were conquered by them. Once the Etruscans were out of the way Roman civilization expanded further, conquered Greece and the art of sculpture began to flourish. The Roman style of sculpture is influenced strongly by Greek style. The Romans saw what the Greeks were doing, like it and imitated it. Greek sculptors worked primarily in bronze, a metal that is a mixture of copper and tin, and in marble. The Romans became accomplished in working with metal and marble.

Both Greeks and Romans used the lost-wax process to make bronze sculpture. In this technique the first version of the statue is molded from wax. This means that the statue can be modeled with enormous detail because the wax is so easy to work. This wax model is then enclosed in a clay mantle. When the clay shell has dried, molten bronze is poured in through small holes in the mold. The hot bronze melts the wax, and fills the mold. When the bronze has cooled the clay mantle is removed, revealing the bronze statue.

The Romans considered bronze sculpture to be more valuable than marble. They particularly liked statues of gods, leaders and heroes in action. They further increased the impact of bronze statues by making them life size or even larger than life. Large statues had to be cast in sections that were later attached to form a completed sculpture. Historians suspect that much ancient bronze sculpture has been lost because later generations melted the statues down and reused the metal for other purposes.

Marble is a very different medium than bronze. Since it is stone it cannot easily be re-used. While it is being sculpted marble is relatively workable. It does not attain its full hardness until it is exposed to the air.This relative malleability explains the beauty and realistic detail of marble sculpture. Stone sculpture more successfully endured the wear and tear of centuries. Statues like the Venus de Milo may lose fingers, arms or other parts but much of their beauty survives today.

Sometimes it is hard to tell whether a statue is Greek or Roman. Roman statuary has some characteristics that make it quite distinctive. The Romans were realists and the Greeks, idealists. A Greek statue attempted to portray a perfect version of a god, goddess or hero. A Roman statue is more likely to portray an actual person, warts and all.A sculpture with wrinkles and warts that looks like a face you might see on the street is probably Roman rather than Greek. A primary source of the realism common to Roman sculpture is the Roman belief that a completely accurate depiction of a person contributed to that person's immortality after death. An accurate picture had the power to appease the ghost of the dead person and so could protect the living. This belief created a steady demand for funerary sculpture of public figures and private citizens. Sometimes funerary sculptures were heads or statues of the person, and sometimes they were coffin-like structures called sarcophagi.

Roman sculpture also fulfilled a public relations and publicity role. In a society without newspapers or photographs, public statuary was an important source of information and communication. A whole category of battle and heroic sculpture filled the citizenry's need for information on conquests made by Roman armies. Arches and walls of public buildings were decorated with large sculptures carved in marble or cast in bronze using a style called bas-relief.



Bas-relief is one of the most common forms of Roman sculpture that remains today. Instead of being three-dimensional sculpture, a bas-relief is carved into a slab of marble.If the sculpture is made of bronze, it will be modeled on a surface and poured as a sheet, which can be attached to a wall. This technique creates a picture like sculpture and allows the artist to include a great deal of detail which might be difficult to include in a three dimensional sculpture. Many battles and historical events were commemorated by bas-relief sculptures since bas-relief is a perfect technique for a sculptor who wants to tell a story; such sculptures are a bit like stone newspaper photos or comic books.

Roman Emperors were usually portrayed both in sculpture and on coins. The faces on coins were actually a sort of shallow bas-relief. More people than saw the grand sculptures of the emperors saw these tiny metal portraits, but the many hands that touched them wore them down. The big marble busts and architectural bas-reliefs of Roman emperors and their accomplishments remain to remind us of how important they were in their day. Many are larger than life and some have inset glass and stone eyes, which adds to the illusion of reality and infallibility. As time went by, more and more important people became the subjects of sculpture. The Emperor's family became public figures as well, rather like today's celebrities. There are many statues and carvings of members of the Imperial family.

Another technique related to bas-relief is that of intaglio. Intaglio is an image that is cut into a surface rather than carved out of it. An intaglio sculpture can be pressed against soft clay or wax to produce a raised reproduction of the image. Intaglio sculptures are usually small, and could be used as seals. Sometimes jewels were carved as intaglio sculptures. Jewelry often took the form of miniature sculpture. The cameo was another form of tiny bas-relief that combined sculpture with ornamentation. To see some examples of the sculpture described in this article, it is useful to go to the on-line museum sites of the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These museums have extensive virtual collections of all kinds of Roman sculpture, and the images available on line are worthy of extensive study.

As the centuries went by, the subjects of Roman sculpture became increasingly theatrical. The late Roman Empire had a taste for violent and explicit depiction of warfare and gladiatorial combat. Imagery from the new religion of Christianity also began to appear in sculpture. Some statues were intended for private viewing only, as their subject matter might not be popular with the Roman people. Sometimes the offensive content was sexually explicit, but often it was political. As Roman Emperors became more and more godlike, they became estranged from the population who supported them. Rome began as a Republic, and elements of the population resisted the deification of the Emperors.

Whatever the subjects they depicted, most sculptors remained nameless. Many were Greek slaves who had come to Rome with their captors and they did not sign their work. We do have a few signed pieces such as the marble statues of the god Pan, which bear the signature of a man named M. Cossutius Cerdo. This name is apparently Greek, but the fact that it has three parts makes it likely that he was a slave who earned his freedom. Another sculptor whose name we know is Myron, who was active in the fifth century BC.

The most famous of Roman sculptors, Michelangelo Buonarroti lived in the 1500s. Although he was born centuries after the end of the Roman Empire, his work was deeply influenced by the sculptures of the unknown artists who preceded him. During the Renaissance, or rebirth, the ideals of classical Roman antiquity were rediscovered, and artists from all over Europe came to Rome to study the ruins of the Roman period which were still to be seen there. By the end of the Renaissance, the techniques of ancient sculpture had become part of the knowledge and artistic skill of artists all over the emerging modern world.

© High Speed Ventures 2011