Sunday, October 10, 2010 at 10:57 PM |  

The emperors imposed new organs of government and a centralized administration, with themselves as head of the army and Pontifex Maximus. On the accession of Augustus (27 BC—14 AD), a new sense of optimism swept away the nightmare of the civil wars. Augustus announced his determination to re-establish Roman order

and encouraged literature and the arts. The result of this new centralizing force was an impressive unity of form. There was a clear intention to assimilate the myths of Rome’s origins in such works of art as the Ara Pacis or Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid, which presents the exploits of its Trojan hero as prefiguring those of Augustus himself. In architecture, Augustus transformed the city of Rome, making extensive use of marble and surpassing the achievements of Julius Caesar by building his own forum exalt the gens lulia.

The statue of Augustus wearing a cuirass, from Livia’s suburban villa at Prima Porta on the Via Flaminia (Vatican), shows the Emperor in short military dress, paludamentum over his left arm and lance in hand. His right hand makes an energetic gesture as he calls for silence. In carving the figure, the sculptor clearly drew inspiration from famous models such as the Doryphorus of Polyclitus. This portrait epitomizes the new idealizing tendency characteristic of Augustan Classicism.

The Prima Porta statue is particularly noteworthy for the decorative reliefs on the Emperor’s cuirass. The composition is dominated by a personification of the sky, which hovers over the chariot of the Sun god as he follows the figures of Aurora and Phosphorus. Tellus, god of the Earth, accompanied by two putti and flanked by Apollo riding a griffin and Diana on a hind, occupies the lower part of the cuirass. The middle register is taken up by a highly symbolic scene which defines not only the ideology of Empire but the entire propaganda effort of Augustus’s reign. The king of the Parthians, Phraates IV, is shown restoring the standards lost by Crassus. He hands them to a Roman general, probably Tiberius, who pacified Germany and Pannonia in the years 12—8 BC. This gives us the clue to the date of the statue or its model. The statue therefore emphasizes Augustus’s support for Tiberius and exemplifies an emerging Neo-Classical style with an admixture of Neo—Atticism, evident in the reliefs of the cuirass.

The greatest, though not earliest, work of the Augustan age is the Ara Pacis, an altar dedicated to the Pax Augusta. This monument best sums up the prevailing sense of the sacred and the universal power at the heart of the imperial idea. On the fourth of July of the year 13 BC, the Roman Senate voted for the erection of an altar devoted to the Pax Augusta, on the Campus Martins, to celebrate Augustus’s return from Gaul and the Iberian peninsula. It took four years to complete. Fragments of the monument were discovered over a long period between the sixteenth century and excavations carried out in 1903 and 1937—38. The work has since been reconstructed from the recovered fragments, with aid from other figurative sources, particularly coins, though not on the original site. The Ara Pacis is rectangular in plan, with two wide doorways on the shorter sides. The altar proper is at the centre of the monument, which stands on a podium and was decorated, inside and out, with monumental reliefs separated by pilasters carved with candelabra of foliage. On the outside, the decoration is arranged in two horizontal bands, the lower adorned with foliage and acanthus motifs, the upper done in figurative relief The four panels flanking the doors are sculpted with mythical and allegorical scenes, while the longer sides feature two processions. The smaller panels display a general form of symbolism, in which peace leads to the prosperity of Rome. The processional scenes make a close association between the official aspects of religion, with its priests, and imperial power as mediated by the family o( Augustus. The procession is led by Agrippa, the principal heir of the dynastic line, who died in 52 BC. Identification of the members of Augustus’s household has raised a great deal of controversy over the years. At times, the extremely formal processions have been interpreted in very realistic and objective ways; at others, they have been viewed as idealistic presentations of the dynasty and the problems surrounding the succession.

The Ara Pacis is a monument which, in the style of its figured reliefs and the decorative power of its friezes, exemplifies the long-awaited independence of Roman art from Greek models. The Classicism of this period is marked by a predilection for marble and by innovations in form: relief sculpture itself, perspective, a sense of space and depth, and the detailed treatment of clothing. The impressive unity of inspiration and technique one feels in these works reflects an aristocratic approach to art, at the service of political power. In the Ara Pacis, we discern an emerging taste for the Neo—Attic style, which the Roman elites favoured to the point of making it an essential feature of official art. The spiritual and political tranquillity of this period of peace, replacing the anguish and dangers of earlier times, is evidenced by an eschewing of eclecticism and the choice of a new style pregnant with the Greek spirit. It marks one of the high points of Roman art. It is hardly surprising that historians of Neo—Classical art have given special emphasis to this period, although they have not always noticed its specifically Neo—Attic components. Its novel elements include the juxtaposition of figured and purely decorative friezes — a practice the Greeks would never have consented to — and the difference in style between the processional scenes and the smaller panels. This lack of organic and structural links, unheard of in the Greek world, betrays the Italo-Etruscan background against which the new style developed, drawing its inspiration from the artistic traditions of the Hellenistic kingdoms and from that of consular and Republican Rome.

A similar overlapping of Hellenistic models and local roots is apparent in the reliefs of the altar of the Vicomagistri, (Vatican) mentioned earlier. This continuous frieze depicting a religious procession was reconstructed from fragments discovered in 1939. Thought to date from the third or fourth decade of the first century AD, the frieze exhibits the same overall unity of style as the Ara Pacis, with similar inter—relationships between the figures. The presentation of foreground and background makes for a more realistic effect, and the portraits are considered to be true likenesses.

Closely related to these two monuments is another altar, the Ara Pietatis, voted by the Senate in 22 AD, but not dedicated until AD, by the Emperor Claudius. So close is the resemblance between these and the earlier reliefs, there is on doubt that the Augustan style outlived the Emperor himself. But official ideology did gradually change, as is evident if we compare the unreal, almost timeless, quality of the reliefs for Augustus’s altar with the very precise topographical indications of the Ara Pietatis, which harks back to an older tradition of triumphal painting. Neo-Atticism gradually gave way to the Neo-Hellenism that was to represent the hallmark of the first century. It is epitomized by the desire to imitate the works of the great Hellenistic courts in small artefacts of monumental conception, such as, for instance, the Gemma Augustea (Vienna) or the Grand Camée de France (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris).
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