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 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.
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.
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