Thursday, November 12, 2020

Realism in Roman miniatures

The Romans favored bronze and marble above all else for their finest work and loved miniatures.  By the mid-1st century CE, Roman sculptors began to move away from emulating their Etruscan and Greek predecessors and sought to capture and create optical effects of light and shade for greater realism.  This trend may well have developed from the tradition of keeping realistic wax funeral masks of deceased family members in the ancestral home.  Although few bronze examples have survived due to a high demand for reuse of the alloy, those that did, like this poignant figurine, portrayed a people who were realistically scarred, wrinkled, or plump, like this healthy-appearing little girl.

Sadly (from my viewpoint anyway), towards the end of the Empire, the influence of art from the eastern Mediterranean resulted in figural sculpture with enlarged heads, vacantly staring eyes, and out-of-proportion torsos and limbs such as those seen in works portraying the emperor Constantine.

In his excellent article on Roman art in the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Mark Cartwright points out, "Perhaps, though, their greatest contribution to world art was the fostering of the idea that the appreciation of art for its own sake was a fine thing and that to possess art objects or even a collection was a real badge of one’s cultural sophistication. In addition, even for those who could not afford their own art, there was the provision of public art galleries. Art was no longer the exclusive domain of the rich, art was for anyone and everyone. The Romans, like no other culture before them, were champions of art as a popular, affordable, and accessible means of expressing and communicating the human spirit."

Read his full article at:

Image: Bronze statuette of a girl holding a puppy, Greek or Roman, 1st century BCE – 2nd century CE courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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