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Roman Ornament & Decoration

The real greatness of the Romans is rather to be seen in their palaces, baths, theatres, aqueducts, and other works of public utility, than in their temple architecture, which being the expression of a religion borrowed from the Greeks, and in which probably they had little faith, exhibits a corresponding want of earnestness and art-worship.

Fragment in White Marble from the Mattei Palace, Rome, L Vulliamy
Fragment in White Marble from the Mattei Palace, Rome, L Vulliamy.

In the Greek temple it is everywhere apparent that the struggle was to arrive at a perfection worthy of the gods. In the Roman temple the aim was self-glorification. From the base of the column to the apex of the pediment every part is overloaded with ornament, tending rather to dazzle by quantity than to excite admiration by the quality of the work. The Greek temples when painted were as ornamented as those of the Romans, but with a very different result. The ornament was so arranged that it threw a colored bloom over the whole structure, and in no way disturbed the exquisitely designed surfaces which received it.

The Romans ceased to value the general proportions of the structure and the contours of the moulded surfaces, which were entirely destroyed by the elaborate surface-modelling of the ornaments carved on them; and these ornaments do not grow naturally from the surface, but are applied on it. The acanthus leaves under the modillions, and those round the bell of the Corinthian capitals, are placed one before the other most unartistically. They are not even bound together by the necking at the top of the shaft, but rest upon it. Unlike in this the Egyptian capital, where the stems of the flowers round the bell are continued through the necking, and at the same time represent a beauty and express a truth.

The Acanthus, full size, from a Photograph
The Acanthus, full size, from a Photograph.

The fatal facilities which the Roman system of decoration gives for manufacturing ornament, by applying acanthus leaves to any form and in any direction, is the chief cause of the invasion of this ornament into most modern works. It requires so little thought, and is so completely a manufacture, that it has encouraged architects in an indolent neglect of one of their especial provinces, and the interior decorations of buildings have fallen into hands most unfitted to supply their place.

In the use of the acanthus leaf the Romans showed but little art. They received it from the Greeks beautifully conventionalised; they went much nearer to the general outline, but exaggerated the surface decoration. The Greeks confined themselves to expressing the principle of the foliation of the leaf, and bestowed all their care in the delicate undulations of its surface.

The ornament engraved above is typical of all Roman ornament, which consists universally of a scroll growing out of another scroll, encircling a flower or group of leaves, This example, however, is constructed on Greek principles, but is wanting in Greek refinement. In Greek ornament the scrolls grow out of each other in the same way, but they are much more delicate at the point of junction. The acanthus leaf is also seen, as it were, in side elevation. The purely Roman method of using the acanthus leaf is seen in the Corinthian capitals, and in the Plates XXVI. and XXVII. The leaves are flattened out, and they lay one over the other, as in the cut.

Roman Ornaments from Casts in the Crystal Palace
Roman Ornaments from Casts in the Crystal Palace, Plate XXVI.

Roman Ornaments from the Museo Bresciano
Roman Ornaments from the Museo Bresciano, Plate XXVII.

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