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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Roman Architecture

The basic architectural gifts left us by the Romans.
It's amazing how much our art and architecture have changed in the past two thousand years. Yet, at the same time, it's equally amazing as to how much such thing have not changed. There are many cities, or parts of cities in the world today in which a citizen of ancient Rome, walking down the street, would not feel at all out of place in gazing up at some of our more important social and governmental structures. They would very often still see the same classical orders of columns they would have encountered in the Roman Forum. They might be startled by the sheer number of people milling about but not by the forest of stone columns supporting the massive porticos they and their friends the Greeks first constructed. Even the layout and appearances of our places of worship would remind them of their temples and basilicas. Architects might disagree, but, directly or indirectly, I would argue that the single greatest historic influence in world architecture today came from the ancient Roman Empire.
The oldest and best preserved example of Roman architecture
in the "Eternal City" today.
In discussing classical architecture, it would be easy to go back still further in time to the ancient Greeks, but their simple, post and lintel construction pales in comparison to the remarkable innovations the Romans made in borrowing (or stealing) the basic structural engineering and decorative motifs from their Mediterranean neighbors. Likewise, in discussing Roman architecture, it would be all too easy to zero in on a few great surviving structures (the Pantheon, and the Coliseum, for example) while largely ignoring everything else. That's not to say they both weren't great triumphs in Roman architecture, but the houses in which the Romans lived, the baths where they relaxed, the basilicas where they did business, and the theaters where they were entertained are at least as interesting and important (if not more so).
The Roman insula--no elevators, no air conditioning, no
privacy, and not much in the way of sanitation or security.
Let's start with their homes. As with us today, the type and size of our domestic architecture is almost totally dependent on the size and type of our wallets (or money bags in the case of the Romans). Then, as now, the lower classes could barely afford to live in small, cramped, noisy apartment buildings which they called insulae. They lacked indoor plumbing, privacy, safety features, central heating, and offered little protection from crime and drunken violence. Moreover, they burned to the ground every decade or two (the Roman version of urban renewal). Those Romans with the brains and work ethic to learn and practice a trade lived in modest, but often quite substantial dwellings, some of which survive today. They featured shops along the street, which supported the family business and three or four other rooms along with a lovely garden in the back. As with virtually all urban housing in Roman times, the orientation was inward while the outer walls were fortress like.
The street frontage usually featured small shops.
Once you moved up in the Roman world, even in crowded cities and suburbs, the more well-to-do lived quite comfortably, even by modern-day standards. They had servants, their homes were spacious and gracious, tastefully furnished and often ornately decorated. They traveled on horseback or in "litters" carried by slaves, while their social life included daily hours spent at the baths, the theater, or at sporting events. Food was fresh from nearby farm markets, wine was plentiful, and fresh, clean water from the cities' numerous aqueducts was taken for granted. Still, the architectural orientation was inward, the structural appearance more akin to a prison than our idea of a fine home.
Though they may not have been all that attractive from the
outside, the homes of more wealthy Romans housed within their
thick masonry walls a relaxed, secure, pleasant world of their
own replete with many of the creature comforts we enjoy today.
On the domestic front, Roman architecture reached its zenith not with the merchant class but the Plebeians, landowners of great wealth and political power, owners of hundreds of acres and sometimes thousands of slaves. They very often they also had their hands in a number of less reputable business (even criminal) endeavors such as prostitution, gladiators, and the slave trade. These Romans, if they spent any time at all in the cities, also had second homes (or villas) several miles from the crime, grime, and slime of major cities such as Rome, Naples, and Messina (Sicily). Here the architecture didn't resemble a fortress so much as a small village with thin, minimal walls linking a number of separate structures, These villas were, in fact, large farms without which the major nearby cities could not have survived. In time, their weak defenses made them prime targets for invading marauders. Few examples exist today.

The Roman country villa. Notice that in such estates the
courtyard is minimally walled and located in front of the
main dwelling, which is awash with trading activities
and social intercourse.
Back in the big cities of the Roman Empire, the architectural jewel and centerpiece was the forum. There the upper classes and the upper middle-classe met to walk, talk, listen, complain, trade, worship, and basically, kill time. Though the forum of each city or town was the central feature of the community, city planning (except for military camps) was not one of the Romans' strong suites. Sometimes, after a major fire, some effort was made to make the city more livable, but there was seldom an organized grid of streets, which were, in any case, usually too narrow for the hordes of pedestrians, wagons, chariots, horses, and livestock being driven to market. Crossing a major street became a life-threatening undertaking.

In general, the Roman people, even the lower classes, tended to be relatively clean. And if the center of the city was the forum, the central focal point of the forum was the bath. In terms of our modern-day understanding, they were basically athletic clubs featuring gyms, changing rooms, saunas, and most importantly, two or three "swimming pools" of different temperatures--cold (the frigidarium), medium (the tepidarium), and hot (the calidarium). The water feeding these sometimes giantic public swimming pools (swimming was not common skill at the time) came from the massive aqueducts which fed the city. And, though not particularly hygienic by modern standards, they were far better than not bathing at all. Water was heated using giant fire-pit furnaces beneath the pools of water. Contrary to popular belief, the Roman baths were not over decorated dens of sexual promiscuity. Though they were nude, men and women bathed at separate times of the day or separate days of the week.

The size and architectural grandeur of a city's baths reflected
the size and affluence of its population.
Roman architecture also reflected the "form follows function" mantra of modern art, as applied to entertainment venues. For chariot racing stone bleacher were arrayed on two sides of a long, shallow valley. There was no extended curvilinear track like we'd see today in Formula racing, but instead two long straightaways with hairpin turns at each end. Although the chariots theoretically boasted only four to six "horsepower," speed was a major part of the thrill in following the sport, as was the ruthless disregard on the part of the drivers (often slaves) for any theoretical "rules" regarding competition. Such drivers, though highly honored and admired, would also have found it difficult to acquire life insurance. Rome's famous Circus Maximus was the epitome of chariot racing prestige at the time.

Once a hotbed of thrills, death, and destruction, the Circus Maximus area is now a long, grassy urban park often filled with picnickers.
On a slightly (but only slightly) more genteel note, the Roman architects have also passed down to us the open-air theater and the sports arena (amphitheaters), which are basically two of their theaters arranged facing one another to form an oval arena. The famous Coliseum in Rome, architecturally speaking, is technically an amphitheater. The original, semi-circular outdoor theater is an architecture hand-me-down from the Greeks (in some cases quite literally). The amphitheater, however, is a purely Roman invention. As for the entertainment each venue featured...well, let's just say, you wouldn't want to bring along young children.

The Roman amphitheater raised showmanship and mechanical
stagecraft to levels not seen again until the opening of the Paris
Opera House more than a thousand years later.
Architecture is not a static art, despite the relative permanence of the structures it provides for the culture, comfort, and wellbeing of humanity. It moves on. Engineering improves, tastes change, needs change, and in the case of the Romans, Christianity changed the underlying morality and way of life of an entire civilization. Though they were highly evolved architectural wonders, the Roman civilization became...well, civilized. Their gigantic arenas became convenient stone quarries as Roman's replaced (or remodeled) their pagan temples into Christian church (as in the case of the Pantheon). As the church became the chief employer of architects, the Roman style evolved into what we've come to call the Romanesque (or Roman-like) style of architecture. The new style was structurally adopted and adapted from the old Roman basilica. With its grand arches, soaring domes, and barrel-vault ceilings, the Romanesque style was one ideally suited to the grandiosity of newly-built churches on virtually every street corner in Rome.

Depending upon the region, the Romanesque style evolved into the Gothic or the Baroque architecture of the Medieval and Post-Renaissance eras.
In case you were wondering...


1 comment:

  1. Highly informative and very beautiful article. A must read for modern architects. Thanks a lot Jim Lane