The most powerful of all the pictures recovered from these ruins is the Medea found at Herculaneum, and preserved in the Naples Museum- a brooding woman, magnificently draped, meditating the murder of her children; apparently this is a copy of the painting for which Caesar paid the artist, Timomachus of Byzantium, forty talents ($144,000).
Few pictures of such quality have been found in Rome. But in the suburban villa of Livia at Prima Porta a supreme example was discovered of that landscape painting in which Italy so far excels Greece. The eye is lured as if across a court to a marble trellis, beyond which is a jungle of plants and flowers so accurately reproduced that botanists can now identify and catalogue them; every leaf is carefully drawn and colored; birds perch here and there as if for a moment, and insects creep amid the foliage. Only less masterly is the “Aldobrandini” Wedding found on the Esquiline in 1606, and enthusiastically studied by Rubens, Vandyke, and Goethe. Perhaps it is a copy of a Greek work; perhaps it is an original by a Roman Greek, or by a Roman; we can only say that these figures- the quiet and timid bride, the goddess who counsels her, the mother absorbed in preparations, the maidens waiting to play the lyre and sing- are all done with a delicacy and sensitivity that make this mural a distinguished relic of classic art. Roman painting laid no claim to originality; Greek artists carried with them everywhere the same traditions and methods; and even the vague impressionism of these pictures may be offshoots of Alexandrian skills. But there is in them a fineness of line, and a richness of color, that explain why painters like Apelles and Protogenes were held in as high repute as sculptors like Polycleitus and Praxiteles. Sometimes the color is as full as if Giorgione had laid it on; sometimes the subtle gradations of light and shade suggest Rembrandt; sometimes a crude figure catches the ungainly realism of Van Gogh. Perspective here is often faulty, and hasty workmanship limps behind mature conception. But a fresh vitality redeems these faults, the rhythm of the drapery lures the eye, and the woodland scenes must have been a delight to dwellers in a crowded town. Our taste today is more restrained; we like to leave a wall its own significance, and have hesitated, till yesterday, to cover it with paint. But to the Italian a wall was a prison, seldom opening through a window upon the world; he wished to forget the barrier, and be deluded by art into some verdant peace. Perhaps he was right: better a pictured tree on a wall than a magic casement’s prospect of a thousand unkempt rooftops blaspheming the sky and festering in the sun.
1. Principles, Materials, and Forms
We have reserved for the climactic edification of our forgotten visitor the greatest of Rome’s arts, that in which she most ably defended herself against the Greek invasion, and displayed all her originality, courage, and power. Originality, however, is not parthenogenesis; it is, like parentage, a novel combination of pre-existing elements. All cultures are eclectic in their youth, as education begins with imitation; but when the soul or nation comes of age it stamps its character, if it has any, upon all its works and words. Rome, like other Mediterranean cities, took the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders from Egypt and Greece; but also she took the arch, the vault, and the dome from Asia, and with them made such a city of palaces, basilicas, amphitheaters, and baths as the earth had not yet beheld. Roman architecture became the art expression of the Roman spirit and state: boldness, organization, grandeur, and brutal strength raised these unparalleled structures upon the hills. They were the Roman soul in stone.