Architecture / Art / essay

The Decline and Fall

The Tetrarchs,  Corner of Saint Mark’s in Venice, porphyry sculpture, From the 4th Century.

Recently, I have read some articles and viewed some videos that attempted to rehabilitate the impression of art during the end of the Roman Empire leading up to the Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire and redefine the Dark Ages as one of lighter description.

If societies were completely judged by art, one might get a very skewed understanding of history. Rome was not a sum total of its grand architecture and artistic endeavors. The civic engineering and the order of its legal and traditional institutions easily dominated in importance.

When the last Emperor was deposed, the sophisticated manipulation of water, the building of roads was well on their out in the collective memory. The use of hydro power for grist mills, the expert raising of fish and other animals were becoming a hard to find technology. Many of the things that made Roman cities great such as city planning were becoming lost to posterity.

Architecture on the scale of the Pantheon, the Flavian Amphitheatre, or the Baths of Caracalla was no longer possible not just due to expense but also to the lack of knowledge and ability to build on that scale if it were not for the Eastern Roman Empire that persisted for much longer and built such incredible structures such as the Hagia Sophia.

Interior view of the Hagia Sophia, A Print on Paper by Louis Haghe after a Painting by Gaspard Fossati, 1852.

The most notable Western Roman structure constructed in the 5th century is Santa Sabina. A familiar basilica form, it was begun in 422 CE by Peter of Illyria, a Dalmatian priest.

Santa Sabina, Rome, circa 422-432. Photo by taken by Dnalor_01.

One may present art and architecture of the late Roman through Early Christian periods and still not address the concept of the “Dark Ages”. Writers of ancient Rome wrote on many subjects. Of those Pliny the Elder wrote Naturalis Historia which contained books on metallurgy, an important element of Roman economy and technology. We can see the skill the Romans had in producing objects of art in metal such as the large equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.

Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, Bronze, Capitoline Museums, Rome, 175 CE.

The incredible expertise in producing such a large work in bronze is even amazing in modern times. Yet the Romans developed alloys such as pewter for vessels and refined a high degree of metallurgical technology.

Glass was also an important significant creation of the west and, in particular, Rome. During the 1st century the Romans developed the method we know as glass blowing and greatly increased its production. Glass trade spread from all over the Empire to as far away as India and China. The Chinese may have invented porcelain but the west invented glass.

The Munich Cup, “Caged Cup” or Diatretum, Found in Cologne, Staatliche Antikensammlung, Munich, after 350 CE.

The Romans also gained extensive understanding of hydrology, the movement and utilization of water. The obvious example being the aqueducts and the engineering necessary to produce the gradual inclines that brought water from great distances. We know of Roman lead pipes and the creation of large baths plus the sanitation involved with the Cloaca Maxima. The Cloaca Maxima is said to go back to the early days of the Republic and possibly the last king of Rome.

Caldarium from the Roman Baths at Bath, England. The floor is missing. Hot air would have been flowed through the standoffs.

The Outflow of the Ancient Sewer, Cloaca Maxima. Possibly built by Tarquinius Superbus, Rome’s seventh and last king.

The Roman economy also had the vestiges of modern contemporary monetary policy. In many works by ancient Roman writers, we find sophisticated credit and trade transactions. Trade was so extensive as to reach India and China. Taxation was as complicated then as it is now and investment speculators made vast fortunes. Financial investments involved loans and their attendant interest accumulations. Augustus and other Emperors are known to have tried to involve the government in interest and private monetary transactions.

Of course, the literary and legal achievements of Rome have inspired the world and have a persistent influence on modern civilization. Today, many countries have political systems that allude to the Senate of Rome as well as of the imperial systems after the fall of the Republic. The artistic symbols of Roman civility continue in many places in the world.

United States Supreme Court, Designed by Cass Gilbert, 1935.

Model of The Ulpian Library, Important Roman Library in Trajans Forum, CE 114.

I need not go on any further. Many functions of government, industry, and politics disappeared after the collapse of Rome. Institutions and systems that trained people in not only rhetoric and literacy, but in engineering, sculpting, trade, and in the many skilled professions were lost to the point that only the clergy and some high-level authorities were the only people capable of studying classical literature; that is if copies could be found.

The argument one likely hears is that this or that method or skill still remained. No one would insist that everything known under the Roman Empire entirely vanished. However, advances in many scientific and technological endeavors did! Art also declined in spite of what is preached these days.

The main argument for determining that there was really no dark age in art is that the production of art simply changed from one thing to another. Yet, I say the reason sculpture, for instance, became an idealized and unrealistic portrayal of individuals is because this skill was lost. The demand for naturalist images shrunk considerably as not to maintain a level of study and apprenticeship necessary for its continued production. One must remember that among the artifacts obtained from the remnants of ancient Rome are many high-quality statues kept as household gods or for display. Even the oil lamps during the time show sophisticated images. And all of these were in abundance.

The Dark Ages were indeed dark until the rebirth of the Renaissance when many of the artistic impulses lead to a new civic understanding and the resumption of great endeavors. All spurred by the rediscovery of Roman antiquity as found in the Domus Auria and later with the emergence of the ruins of Pompeii. Many a western artist engaged in the Roman Tour to gauge the ruins of this once powerful civilization and to rediscover the art associated with the Empire.

It should seem obvious that when a civilization or society decays and suffers severe economic and political distress, the institutions that upheld the creation of art can also suffer greatly. This is not simply of a “change” from one thing to another. The interim between the reestablishment of the basic support for organized artistic endeavors and the original collapse is indeed a “dark age”.

Ruins of the Forum, Looking Towards the Capitol, Oil on Canvas, Windsor Castle Collection, Canaletto, 1742.

Self-Portrait in Chair, Oil on Canvas, HBosler, 2010


One thought on “The Decline and Fall

  1. I found your copy of Henry James’ article on Sargent…very, very helpful. Personally I think Sargent erred in not delving deeper into Greek and Roman antiquity. As well he scans classicism and neoclassicism; instead I wish he’d dived in, therefore paid his way into a higher, more complex aesthetic achievement.

    Liked by 1 person

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