Friday, February 14, 2014

Roman Architecture: Weeks 3 & 4

House of Sallust
circa 100  B.C.E.
I signed up last autumn for an online course from Yale University Department of Classics on Roman Architecture. There are lectures, homework, exams, the full experience of which I would like to share some of it with you! The last couple of weeks we have been discussing Campania, the area around Mount Vesuvius whose devastating 79 C.E. eruption preserved so much of Ancient Rome's art and culture for us today. I'll first share a few thoughts on Roman painting styles and then conclude with my response to our second essay assignment: Should Rome Be an Artifact or a Living City?

Roman Painting Styles

Room of the Masks
circa 25 B.C.E.
The First Style of Roman wall painting was actually a Greek import. Popular during the 2nd century B.C.E. it featured a series of panels (socle, orthostats, isodomic blocks) surmounting a plinth and terminating above with a stringcourse and projecting cornice. All of this was realised in plaster relief and painted to resemble precious, imported marbles, an indication of sophisticated Hellenistic taste.

The Second Style was uniquely Roman and was typified by the introduction of architectural forms and the panorama. The panoramic scene might be either naturalistic or a fantastic stage set. A few of the finer examples such as at the 1st century B.C.E. House of Augustus are evidence that Roman artists were familiar with and occasionally employed linear perspective.
Red Room at Boscotrecase
circa 11 B.C.E.

If the previous styles might be what we think of as a faux finish and a trompe-l'œil mural, the Third Style makes no attempt to imitate materials or fool the eye. It is instead intended in its very design to appear strictly as decoration. Often it is characterized by highly attenuated colonettes and cornices that serve as devices to constrain an idyllic landscape not unlike a framed picture hung on a wall.

Ixion Room, Pompeii
circa 70 C.E.
All of this experience in fresco painting culminated in the Domus Aurea or "Golden House" of Nero. At the outset of construction Third Style painting was employed. However, the Master painter Fabullus developed a unique Fourth Style that seemed to combine elements from the previous styles that created a unique composition. This last style was emulated in Pompeii in the rebuilding efforts following the earthquake of 62 C.E. Imitation of marble was introduced in the plinth and socle resembling the First Style but simply painted instead of in relief. Substantive architectural elements were also reintroduced but as fragments and artifacts rather than logical compositions. Much of the framed decoration and free floating fantasy elements of the Third Style were maintained.

Should Rome Be an Artifact or a Living City?

Museum of the Ara Pacis
Unquestionably Rome today is a living, vibrant city largely due to its great architectural tradition, a conventionalized system of geometric proportion coupled with humanistic principles. Yet, the seat of the once mighty empire now appears the province, with the recent imposition of an unsympathetic, foreign Modernist style that threatens the architectural unity of the Eternal City.

Richard Meier's dour Museum of the Ara Pacis led the assault in 2005. There is nothing Roman about the building. Richard's signature over-sized museum: a blocky mass of travertine, glass and steel is completely indifferent to the function of a piazza the museum was meant to anchor. Its relation with the adjacent neoclassical churches of San Rocco and San Girolamo? Erecting a wall to obstruct their view!

MAXXI Museum
Deconstrutivist Zaha Hadid was featured recently in Steven Semes' blog "The View from Rome". The MAXXI Museum of Contemporary Art quite literally cannibalizes the existing traditional architecture, a canvas of "rupture" and "transgression". No link to the traditions of Rome, no human scale, pure egotistical aggrandizement.

Must contemporary construction be incompatible with the historic urban fabric of Rome? Not at all! A distinction should be made between contemporary architecture and a Modernist architectural style. A fine  example is the bustling Richmond Riverside Development near London realized in the mid 1980's by architect Quinlan Terry in traditional architectural styles. Rome too must decide either to expand their legacy or permit their architecture be mummified as artifacts in a city museum of glass and steel.

Richmond Riverside

Contributed by Patrick Webb 

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