October 04, 2015



Art critic and broadcaster Alaistair Sooke is on a quest, apparently to bust the myth that the mighty Romans did not encourage art and whatever little they did was in fact borrowed from the Greeks. I am doing an online course on Roman architecture on the free learning platform Coursera (Link) and though I am no authority on this topic, I am certainly not aware of the existence of such a 'myth'. As our tutor, Diana Kleiner from the Yale University takes us through the syllabus, showing us the magnificent shrines, the splendid villas and the exquisite entertainment quarters that dot the numerous Roman cities across Campania, my belief is further strengthened. Perhaps, this is the only flaw in what is otherwise a superb three part series from BBC Four, first aired in 2012.

The first episode 'Warts and All' is about the art that developed and prospered in the days of the Republic with bust representing the actual facial characteristics of the subjects; the next episode titled 'Pomp and Perversion' examines the changes introduced with the rise of the Julio-Claudian dynasty in the imperial city and the last part 'The Empire Strikes Back', Sooke discusses the achievements in Roman arts even as the empire itself was crumbling and its assimilation into Christian art, thereby forming the basis of the modern Western Art as a whole. One thing that the makers deserve credit for is the in this 'quest', they have traveled far and wide, from the erstwhile empire's epicenter in Rome to other parts including France, Britain, Libya et all. Secondly, it goes beyond the  works of art that one is more likely to be familiar with - Roman busts and the more famous public buildings including the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Villas of the Emperors and the Temples. Here, Soothe explores the other aspects in which they expressed their creativity genius including the wall paintings adorning the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, the delicately carved silver and glassware, the elegant carvings that embellish the sarcophagi of the generals and so on. Also, we get a perspective of the few modern artisans and sculptors who are still creating these using the same material and more or less the same techniques as did the Roman couple of millennia ago.

When we think of Rome or things Romans, the pictures that come to our mind are that of an imperialistic race intend on subjugating the barbarians on its borders, of powerful men like Caesar, Augustus, Aurelius and Trajan prevailing over the enemies, of the bloody gladiatorial contests that took place within the Colosseum and so on. It is rather easy to overlook the artistic genius that was produced within the city and its colonies. This is where the USP of the series lies; as I have mentioned earlier, it breaks the tradition and views Roman art through the lesser known and lesser famous art forms and artifacts. Certainly, it is must see for all the people who love Rome and things Roman!