Monday, July 1, 2013

ArtSmart Roundtable: The Arch of Constantine or How Ancient Rome Upcycled

Happy July!  A new month means a new ArtSmart, and this month, we’re revisiting the topic of sculpture.  Honestly, there’s SO MUCH sculpture in the world that I could talk about it every month.  I had a hard time choosing what to touch upon, but I decided to highlight a controversial work of public art that ignites debate among art historians and historians.  One that is seen by millions of tourists: the Arch of Constantine.


Why is it so controversial?  Well, I wrote an entire senior thesis on its historiography (the history of its history).  Basically, there are three schools of thought about its odd collection of reused Imperial Roman art and unique Late Antiquity style art.  The “fathers of art history and history” deem it as the marker of the decline of the Roman Empire and the collapse of classical art because artists just magically forgot how to make realistic art.

My response to that school of thought?


The other two schools of thought are that the collection of artistic styles try to legitimize Constantine’s power by visually linking himself to the artistic legacies of the 200 year old art taken from other imperial monuments, or that a more populist form of art was becoming favored over traditional Hellenistic art.  Of course, we can’t possibly know for sure.  However, I argued that if you actually LOOK at Roman art, there was a long history of upcycling and borrowing to legitimize power and that the flattened style that goes on to become Early Christian, Byzantine, and medieval has an earlier precedence than Constantine’s triumphal arch.

The side of the Arch facing away from the Colosseum.

The side of the Arch facing away from the Colosseum.

The Arch of Constantine is located smack in the middle between the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, seen by tons of visitors to Rome each year.  It is a triumphal arch built to celebrate Constantine’s victory over Maxentius in 312 at the Battle of Milvian Bridge.  That victory ended the tetrarchy and biarchy to reunify the Roman Empire under a single emperor.  Triumphal arches were built throughout the history of ancient Rome to serve as visual reminders of essentially how amazing said emperor/consul was at defeating enemies and glorifying Rome.  There was a hugely elaborate ritual involved in triumphal marches that you can read about here.

What makes it so important to academics is that you can easily spot the differences between the upcycled art of Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, and Hadrian and the contemporary art commissioned specifically for the Arch.  I like to point to the very common practice of architectural and sculptural spolia that seems to be ignored in the history of Roman upcycling.  Caesar and Augustus shipped obelisks from Egypt over to be displayed around Rome.  Why?  They conquered Egypt but also Egyptian art was fashionable thanks to Caesar’s and Marc Antony’s relationships with Cleopatra.  Commodus was obsessed with Greek culture and fancied himself an incarnation of Hercules so he turned to Greek sculpture for inspiration, long after Augustus did the same to create a new identity distinct from the Roman Republic.  Emperors always added to or repaired earlier monuments or altered/updated dedication inscriptions to erase the visual memory of their predecessor or create a visual “look at me” stamp on something tied to an earlier time in Roman history.

Frieze from Arch of Constantine.  Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Frieze from Arch of Constantine. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Scene from Trajan's Column.  Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Scene from Trajan’s Column. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, my other issue with the flat, hierarchical art  as “artists just forgot how to make realistic art) theory is that Trajan’s Column uses the SAME LOOK 200 years earlier.  Trajan’s is a bit more dynamic and organic, but the figures are beginning to squish together with no individualizing characteristics.  They are stacked on top of each other, and the important figures are larger than the supporting figures.  The Constantine frieze does the same things in a more dramatic fashion.

Marcus Aurelius attic panel and Hadrianic roundels.  Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Marcus Aurelius attic panel and Hadrianic roundels.  The figures in these are more dynamic and realistic looking.  That doesn’t mean artists forgot how to execute that style. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The iconography of the Arch is in three sections: the attic, the main arch, and the inside of the arch.  The attic (top part) has a large inscription at the center (on both sides) and 8 panels taken from the Arch of Marcus Aurelius (most likely, as they all depict triumphal scenes).  The reign of Marcus Aurelius was seen as the last stable reign of the Empire.  In the main section, there are eight roundels from the rule of Hadrian.  They show scenes of hunting and sacrifice, but Hadrian’s head was reworked into Constantine’s head on all of them.  Why Hadrian?  Hadrian was big on rebuilding and sprucing up Roman pubic buildings (just like Constantine), and he followed Trajan in the line of the Five Good Emperors (the last was Marcus Aurelius).  The rest of the space is occupied by original friezes that tell the story of the battle and victory against Maxentius.  The inner arch show’s Trajan’s Dacian War (which is the battle shown on the column that handily looks like the style of Late Antiquity) and the remaining busts are so badly damaged that the rest of the scene is indeterminable.  You can get closer looks at each section (with descriptions) here.

Basically, Constantine linked himself to a time when the Roman Empire was doing well under the rule of capable emperors by appropriating their monuments into his own.  The new Late Antiquity style of art can be seen in Trajan’s Column.  It was not the decline in classical art, but the rebirth of Rome in a new style of art.

What is ArtSmart?  A couple fellow travel bloggers with an interest in art and I decided to do a roundtable series focused on making our readers “art smart”, e.g. understanding why certain works of art are famous and worth the visit while traveling.  At the end of this post are links to the other ArtSmart posts by participating bloggers.  Interested in joining the Roundtable?  Check out our Facebook page or email me.

This Month’s Fellow ArtSmart Roundtable Articles:

Christina of Daydream Tourist: The God of Mozia, Sicily

Jenna of This Is My Happiness: Sculpture in the Bargello Museum in Florence

Kelly of Travellious: London’s Sculpture in the City

Murissa of The Wanderfull Traveler: Venice Decoded: Top 3 Lion Statues

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13 Responses to “ArtSmart Roundtable: The Arch of Constantine or How Ancient Rome Upcycled”

  1. 1

    Sculpture at the Bargello Museum in Florence — July 1, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

    […] The Arch of Constantine or Ancient Roman Upcycling by Erin at A Sense of Place […]

  2. 2

    ArtSmart Roundtable – The God of Mozia, Sicily | Daydream Tourist — July 1, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

    […] Erin of A Sense of Place – Arch of Constantine or Ancient Roman Upcycling […]

  3. 3

    Venice Decoded: Top 3 Lion Statues | The Wanderfull Traveler — July 1, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

    […] Erin at A Sense of Place wrote: “The Arch of Constantine or Ancient Roman Upcycling” […]

  4. 4

    Lesley Peterson — July 1, 2013 @ 3:19 pm

    Seeing the dynamic reliefs on the Arch of Constantine is a vivid memory of Rome for me. The theory that artists ‘just forgot’ how to do realistic art is laughable in retrospect. Anyone who has taken art classes knows that learning to copy nature is much easier than developing an original style. Newbies who couldn’t sculpt wouldn’t get a commission on the scale of the Arch! These artists would have been the best available at the time. Historians (and art historians) of yesteryear pushed their favorite theories which were very much a product of their time, i.e. often political and/or racist. That masterpieces of western art may have grown out of or been influenced by the continent of Africa (Egypt) was difficult for them to believe or accept. Scholarship is very much a product of time and place. That’s why more is always needed!

    • ehalvey replied: — July 1st, 2013 @ 3:53 pm

      It’s such an old theory, but I still see it/hear it, and it drives me batty. Of course, they also saw realistic art as the *only* real art, so I’m sure they saw AbEx as sacrilege.

  5. 5

    The Wanderfull Traveler — July 2, 2013 @ 7:10 pm

    I was able to see the arch but only briefly and while I was taking cover beneath the colosseum from the torrential rain that fell on us after our tour of the arena.
    I had no idea it was so controversial but it seems implausible and impossible that an entire art culture could simply forget how to create realistic art. Especially when one first learns to draw from reality.

    Great post!


    • ehalvey replied: — July 3rd, 2013 @ 10:59 am

      Oh no! I had the opposite problem in Rome, it was an early heat wave in May.

      This is another case of historians and art historians ignoring context by looking solely at their field (just the art or just the historical, exaggerated texts). Thankfully, most professors have moved on, but there are still some dinosaurs out there.

  6. 6

    Christina — July 3, 2013 @ 5:09 pm

    Great post Erin! Is Roman up-cycling more commonly observed for arches? I’m wondering if the need to get a triumphant arch put up in a “timely manner” necessitated borrowing or if given the time and resources, the emperor still wanted to just take from established pieces?

    I’ve always thought the “Romans forgot how to make art” was put forth by the “and that’s why medieval art is terrible” crowd in order to have the “wow, look how amazing the Renaissance is!!!” theory. Wrong on all fronts! And major points for the NeNe gif. Totally understood your point on that one! 🙂

    • ehalvey replied: — July 4th, 2013 @ 11:01 am

      Busts were often reworked/upcycled from previous emperors either to link that emperor to the previous one of to reuse pieces that had been defaced due to damnatio (emperors who failed at life often were visually erased from Roman history). Or if that emperor died before a piece was completed, it would be retooled for the next emperor.

      Exactly on the “medieval art is awful” front. They had to “explain” why a culture wouldn’t want to communicate in a realistic style. Eyeroll.

      I’m glad the NeNe GIF helped 🙂

  7. 7

    Hogga — July 4, 2013 @ 9:29 am

    lol i like to think that there’s a little NeNe in all of us

    • ehalvey replied: — July 4th, 2013 @ 11:04 am

      Of course. The NeNe-less are no fun.

  8. 8

    A Sense of Place » Awesome Links: July 2013 Edition — July 31, 2013 @ 9:19 am

    […] The Arch of Constantine or How Ancient Romans Upcycled […]

  9. 9

    A Sense of Place » Artsmart Roundtable: The Overlooked Reliquary — April 14, 2014 @ 5:58 pm

    […] of sculpture. I’ve covered a broad range in this topic from fun modern pieces to triumphal Roman arches. Usually, you think of a piece of stone or bronze as a larger-than-life object for sculpture or […]

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