It’s time to join Alastair Sooke on BBC iPlayer for the third episode of the series Treasures of Ancient Rome – and this time we are heading off to Libya to discover how Roman art blossomed in 3AD.
Sooke takes us on a tour of Leptis Magna and shows how the art of the city points Roman art in a new direction, as the empire begins to cross-fertilise traditional Roman art -normally thought of as second rate, Sooke explains. Severus Septimius of Leptis Magna got busy building, it seems, with a vast basilica and splendid rooms for his family. The basilica served as a courthouse and is rectangular rather than circular, as well as being fabulously carved in its decoration.
We also see the origins of drill work in Roman art, so that the sun threw the reliefs into spectacular chiaroscuro.
Septimius hailed from Africa rather than Rome – and his wife was Syrian, making them the perfect poster couple for the Roman Empire.
If you like mosaics, you will also get a peak at “an epic expanse of mosaic” discovered in a villa outside Leptis Magna. And very bloody it is, too, focusing on the hippodrome and gladiator scenes. Very bloody and very beautiful, revealing a sense of perspective and human insight into the gladiators themselves.
Then set off with Sooke to visit a Roman villa with mosaics in situ – and learn how Egyptian techniques such as wax began to influence Roman art, but were not seen again until the Renaissance.
On to Great Britain and Bath’s temple dedicated to Sulis Minerva, with echoes of Celtic art adorning the walls. If the Celts disappoint with their naive relief work, Rome’s Northern Empire stuns with its relief work in silver. We end up in the British Museum drooling over embossed silverware and the Mildenhall Hoard. It’s enough the bring the Gollum out of anyone.
If you love cameo work, we also get to see some of the most fabulous examples Rome has to offer and the techniques employed that used gold and silver to manipulate light.
We have to visit Rome, of course. It is eternally beautiful but in 3AD, the empire was waning while its art was waxing. We visit the Hall of the Emperors in the Capitoline Museum, with more emperors than you can shake a stick at, all bunched together for your inspection. They are a handsome lot, generally – and the modelling is wonderfully naturalistic and brings out the character of the man. But man turns to dust and the rise of the magnificent Roman sarcophagus reveals some of the most wonderful relief work that exists.
As if we haven’t been spoiled enough, it’s off the Venice next, albeit it in winter, and Sooke emerges from a speedboat at St Mark’s Square in search of four tetrarchs, sitting on a corner of San Marco. If you did not already know it, beards signify senior emperors; no beards, junior emperors. In Venice, we get a pair of each, embracing, so the empire does get a happy ending of sorts, after all.
We end up with Constantine – parts of him, anyway, as displayed in the Capitoline Museum. If you are going to be a Roman emperor, go large or go home.
Constantine introduced the artwork of a minor cult to the wider world – that of Christianity. Sooke goes underground to the Catacombs to uncover the first examples, before Christianity became the choice of emperors.
Finally, we head off to Ravenna and the stunning mosaics of San Vitale and the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia.
Soooke ends up with a pint of lager in a bar near the Pantheon. If that doesn’t make you want to visit Rome immediately, nothing will.
Treasures of Ancient Rome: The Empire Strikes Back is now available to view on BBC iPlayer.
All images copyright A. Meredith unless stated.