A special misfortune clouds Roman art: we come to it from Greek art, which seems at first its model and master. As the art of India disturbs us by strange shapes, so that of Rome chills us by the monotonous repetition of familiar forms. We have seen long since these Doric, Ionic, Corinthian columns and capitals, these smooth idealized reliefs, these busts of poets, rulers, and gods; even the astonishing frescoes of Pompeii, we are told, were copies of Greek originals; only the “Composite” order is indigenously Roman, and it offends our notions of classic unity, simplicity, and restraint. Certainly the art of the Augustan Age in Rome was overwhelmingly Greek. Through Sicily and Greek Italy, through Campania and Etruria, finally through Greece, Alexandria, and the Hellenic East, the aesthetic forms, methods, and ideals of Hellas passed into Roman art. When Rome became mistress of the Mediterranean, Greek artists poured into the new center of wealth and patronage and made countless copies of Greek masterpieces for Roman temples, palaces, and squares. Every conqueror brought home examples, every magnate scoured the cities for the surviving treasures, of Greek workmanship. Gradually Italy became a museum of bought or stolen paintings and statuary that set the tone of Roman art for a century. Artistically Rome was swallowed up in the Hellenistic world. All this is half the truth. In one aspect, as we shall see, the history of Roman art is a conflict between the architrave and the arch; in another it is the struggle of native Italian realism to recover from the invasion of the peninsula by a Greek art that had pictured gods rather than men, the type or Platonic idea rather than the earthly individual, and had sought a noble perfection of form rather than truth of perception and utterance. That virile indigenous art which had helped to carve the figures on Etruscan tombs hibernated between the Greek conquest and Nero’s philhellenic ecstasy; but at last it broke the Hellenistic mold, and revolutionized classic art with realistic sculpture, impressionistic painting, and an architecture of arch and vault. Through these, as well as by her borrowed beauty, Rome became for eighteen centuries the art capital of the Western world.
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