Friday, October 28, 2011

Ancient Rome (pt. 7)

So, how did one of the greatest empires in history collapse?  Eventually, as they accumulated more territory, the Roman Empire became too large to keep under a single Caesar's control.  The Empire was divided into a tetrarchy (rule by 4), which was the first step to a divided empire.  Diocletian (one of the Caesars) was the one who issued this tetrarchy into order.  Then, in 305A.D., after suffering from illness the year before, Diocletian did the unthinkable and became the first Caesar to retire from office.  This shocking abdication of power further divided Rome.  As fighting broke out, another controversial move was made by the Roman leaders: the capital was changed from Rome to the ancient Greek city of Byzantium (later called Constantinople, after Constantine).  An ensuing schism eventually ended the Roman Empire, splitting it into Byzantine East and Latin West.  During the long struggle with invaders from the north, cities in the Western Roman Empire were abandoned by frightened inhabitants who sought refuge in the countryside.  The population dwindled from 1.5 million to about 300,000.  Magnificent temples, palaces, and amphitheaters were torn down, and the stone, marble, and concrete was used to erect fortifications to keep the invaders out.  The effort was useless.  Once-proud cities were overrun, and their art treasures, destroyed or carried off.  Following this is the Dark Ages.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Ancient Rome (pt. 6)

The Colosseum was a huge arena built for gladiator tournaments.  It is a great example of how Roman architects took from previous Greek ideas and made them their own.  Notice the half-columns on the outside.  The bottom row is the Doric Greek Classical Order; the second row, Ionic; and the third, Corinthian.
Once again, this gigantic structure was made possible via light, quick, inexpensive concrete.  Why is the Colosseum in such poor condition today?  Over the centuries, different rulers took parts of the Colosseum for various things.  The extra concrete came in handy particularly during the chaotic Medieval period, when castles were being erected fast and with those materials that were easiest to find.
As you can see, there is very little religion pictured here.  These monumental infrastructures were not built for the gods but for the people themselves, and (more often than not) merely for their own entertainment.  Theaters, amphitheaters, and stadiums like the Circus Maximus were all constructed for the entertainment of the masses.  Fascinating sociological implications here.  We know that the culture was steeped heavily in debauchery, violent spectacles, and homosexuality.  They are infamous for their persecution of Christians, more of which I'll get to up ahead…

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ancient Rome (pt. 5)

The Pantheon, which was a temple built for all of the gods, was the first large dome.
Concrete allowed the Romans to construct large-scale buildings.  Many of the famous Roman monuments still stand today.  Because the empire covered such a wide territory, their building skills covered a large area too and were very big.  (Hence, the Romans are considered to be the "great builders of the world").
Baths were vast enclosed structures that contained libraries, lecture rooms, gymnasiums, shops, restaurants, and pleasant walkways.  They had rooms with progressively cooler water: a Calidarium, a Tepidarium, and a Frigidarium.  The largest Bath in Rome was built by Caracalla; the vaulted ceilings were up to 140 feet high.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Ancient Rome (pt. 4)

For their architecture, the Romans took the basic idea of post and lintel and added an arch.  A barrel vault is a series of arches from front to back that form a tunnel.  They used a round arch at the top of two columns that was connected and supported with a keystone (the top stone of the arch).  The arch kept going like a tunnel that you could go through—like so…
The basic architectural style stayed the same (pediment, entablature, columns, and 3-tiered platform), but the Romans added more stairs that only went up to the front of the building, whereas Greek temples had stairs around every side.  Half columns were a new feature, also; these were attached to the solid walls to create a decorative pattern.  Basilicas featured a nave (long, wide, central aisle) and an apse (semicircular area at the end of the nave).  (More on this when we get to the Medieval era…)
Examples of Ancient Roman architecture are: baths, amphitheaters, theaters, triumphal arches and bridges, the Colosseum, and the Pantheon—among many others.  Another huge innovation at this time was the Roman aqueduct, which was a system that carried water from mountain streams into cities by using gravitational flow.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Ancient Rome (pt. 3)

A staple of Ancient Roman artwork is murals, which are large pictures painted directly on walls.  These walls were the interior walls of private civilian homes, and the murals were generally of landscapes or buildings.  The paintings made it look as if the wall was a window into another place.  Although many of them are plain, simple household images, the art element introduced here will later become known as trompe l'œil, which is French for ("fooling the eye").  The images were meant to look three-dimensional and totally real as if the mural really were a window showing viewers actual objects on the other end.  Here is a mural of some peaches with a vase of water.  Notice the light reflecting off the water vase?  So realistic!
The city layout during Ancient Rome is what we still follow today—parallel and perpendicular streets, facing North-South (cardo, the Romans called these), or East-West (decumanus).  The place of meeting (called a forum) would be located on the intersection.  A typical forum included shops as well as the primary religious and civic buildings—Senate house, records office, and a basilica.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Ancient Rome (pt. 2)

Ancient Roman art is another story.  The Romans were obsessed with Greek art, and they copied the style whenever they could.  They purchased artwork from Greece and even imported many Greek artists.  This is why there is so much Greek influence seen in Roman art and architecture.  The original statues made by Greek sculptors like Polyclitus and Myron have been lost; and the ones we have today are Roman copies (of which there are many).  In fact, it could be said that Roman art was merely a copy of Greek art, but for a few changes.
The Romans, like the Greeks, loved idealized bodies of young athletes to show power and domination; however, they believed that a person's true character was to be seen in the person's face.  And as Greek artists had to satisfy the tastes of their patrons, the result was young athletic bodies with old heads.
Eventually, the Romans realized that it was cheaper just to make busts (head portraits) instead of whole body portraits.  Since they cared so much about faces, many busts appear during this time.  And not all of these were public works of art.  Sometimes a bust was made for the private purpose of remembering a deceased loved one in a particular family.  The Romans introduced "death masks" at this time, which were busts cast from an imprint of the actual head of a corpse, giving the exact image of the deceased's face.  Realism enters the scene, as people want to remember the images of others as how they really looked, wrinkles and all.  Where the Greeks tried to exaggerate the human physique tout entier, the Romans focused on specific traits unique to each person.  The art had become realistic, lifelike, and personal.
Also note the appearance of common people in art.  More or less up till now, hierarchic scaling has pointed out the king or ruler who we are supposed to look at in a piece of art, but many Roman busts are of common citizens.  This fresco shows an ordinary baker and his wife.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Ancient Rome (pt. 1)

In 509B.C., Rome established a Republic.  The mythological story of the founding of Rome is probably a familiar one to you: Remus and Romulus, two brothers raised by a she-wolf, the latter of whom kills the former and founds Rome.  In actuality, Rome began with a tribe of people called Latins, since they were from Latium (in modern-day central-western Italy), and after a long period of warring with neighboring tribes (namely the Samnites and Etruscans), the Latins took Rome and began to form an independently wealthy city.  The new Roman leaders decided to invest in a strong army, and the Roman government instituted a Senate in supreme authority.  (The Ancient Roman Senate was the basis from which the United States' founding fathers took much influence in forming their nation's government).  Of course there was the Roman Caesar, who claimed kingship by divine right (by claiming to be the descendant of some god or other); here is Caesar Augustus (Octavian), who claimed to be a descendant of Venus, with the god Cupid tugging on the edge of his tunic.
By 300B.C., the Roman Empire had control over most of the Italian peninsula, and it eventually became the largest empire in history.  In 200A.D., the Roman sphere of influence included basically all of Europe, an enormous chunk of the Middle East, and a vast strip of Northern Africa.  For all intents and purposes, this is arguably the grandest civilization the world has ever known.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Ancient Greece (pt. 13)

I don't mind thinking of Minoa as the historical equivalent to Atlantis, but I'm no scholar and am probably good with it just because I've always been fascinated with the myth ever since my imagination was sparked reading The Magician's Nephew, C. S. Lewis's epic fantasy, in which the character Uncle Andrew explains the following to his nephew in the second chapter:

"Ah—that was a great day when I at last found out the truth.  The box was Atlantean; it came from the lost island of Atlantis.  That meant that it was centuries older than any of the stone-age things they dig up in Europe.  And it wasn't a rough, crude thing like them either.  For in the very dawn of time Atlantis was already a great city with palaces and temples and learned men."

Not too accurate, but then again the myth of Atlantis is such that gets fantasized all the time.  It is almost like El Dorado, or Mars, or the Garden of Eden itself—everybody has their own opinions about its history, about what it could have been like.  And it is fun to make up stories about it, like Lewis did.  Even Tolkien (a close friend of Lewis's) made a fantasy version of the Atlantian myth to put in his own stories of Middle Earth (the island of Numenor shares several characteristics of Atlantis).  Lewis actually wrote a lot about Atlantis.  (I know we're way off topic, but I'm there now, so I'm just gonna keep going).  He always referred to it as a "mythology," however, not a historical fact or even a possibility.  An entry in his diary from 1922 tells of a conversation he had with a friend of his, Dr. John Askins ("the Doc"):

"He talked about Atlantis, on which there is apparently a plentiful philosophical literature: nobody seems to realise that a Platonic myth is fiction, not legend, and therefore no base for speculation."

Perhaps not.  Since then more archaeological discoveries have been made.  But whether there was a real Atlantis or not, it's still just fun to imagine (and I think Lewis and Tolkien would have agreed with me there).  It's fun to make up stories about it and think about how cool it would be to ride on one of those super fast flying fishes that they have in the Disney movie (heehee).

Friday, October 7, 2011

Ancient Greece (pt. 12)

It's evident that the Minoans were a highly advanced civilization.  So, what happened to them?
The evidence shows us that the entire civilization came to a sudden end around the 15th century B.C.  (The Exodus from Egypt is dated around this time).  Scholars disagree over whether the Minoans were destroyed by a volcano eruption (the nearby Santorini volcano) or tidal wave, or a combination of the two.  Both the tidal wave and volcanic eruption were probably caused by a massive earthquake that is said to have taken place around that time.  Whatever it was, it was a natural disaster of apocalyptic proportions that wiped the Minoans off the map, although it may not have been altogether instantaneous, as some historians believe.  Sources for information are scarce, but one History Channel documentary on the subject claimed some Minoan survivors may have had time to flee north, and that there was some proof of Minoan presence found either in the Aegean Islands or southern Greece (I honestly forget which).  For you conspiracy theorists, they say the Minoan survivors birthed a long line of other highly intelligent and advanced people: Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton, and Albert Einstein being among some of their alleged descendants.
Now, also take the two characteristics of this civilization—their advanced innovations and their sudden demise—and some scholars claim the Minoan civilization may be the factual, historical version of the mythical Atlantis.  The Greek philosopher Plato wrote, "In a single day and night of misfortune...the island of Atlantis disappeared in the depths of the sea."  Disney would have it be discovered underneath Iceland…
"I will find Atlantis on my own—if I have to rent a rowboat!"  Haha, love that movie!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Ancient Greece (pt. 11)

A typical Minoan home featured a lot of artistic and aesthetic elements.  One of the determining factors of a culture's degree of advancement is their art: how much art do they have, and what is the art like.  You'll remember back in the Stone Age the art was for survival (depictions of animals and hunting strategies) and it was small and portable, like the Venus of Wilendorf (since these were nomadic people).  From that scholars would argue (not reflecting any personal opinion here) that the prehistoric civilizations had a lesser degree of intelligence—or, at least, did not get the chance to become too educated due to imminent survival needs, etc.  Well, open the door to a two-story Minoan house that practically resembles a Renaissance villa, and you see this.
As you can see, these are not cave paintings; these are highly complex murals that took careful designing and paint mixing—the colors today still as bold as if they were applied just a couple years ago.  The Minoans had time to develop their art because they had such innovations and were not fighting every day for survival.  Since Ancient Egyptian art was primarily for religious purposes, for the pharaoh in the afterlife, it is possible that the Minoans (who came before the Amarna Period) were actually the first to craft art merely for recreation, for beauty, for art's sake.  Take a look at this wonderful jar fashioned and painted by Minoan artists.
Frescos like this one lead historians to believe the Minoan culture had their own sporting events before the Greeks introduced the Olympic Games.  It shows a game called bull-jumping, which sounds a little dangerous, if you ask me (heehee).

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ancient Greece (pt. 10)

Now go back a ways—about a thousand years—to the island of Crete, off the southern tip of the Greek peninsula.  (Sorry, I try to avoid anachronistic writing, but there's lots of history, ya know!)  Circa 1,700B.C., the Minoan civilization flourished.  What's so special about them is that they were probably the most advanced civilization of their time, featuring innovations that would not reappear until the Roman Empire, in the first century A.D.  Remnants of the Minoan culture on the island of Crete show us first-hand that these people had such advancements as: two-story houses (where the second floor was in use), toilets, running hot and cold water, vibrantly colorful wall frescos, and stunning gold artifacts made some of the finest goldsmiths of the time—among other things.  Furthermore, the people spoke a language totally lost to us and wrote in characters so far unintelligible to us.  It is for this reason the Greeks used the word "barbarian" to refer to people like the Minoans—outside cultures whose languages the Greeks did not understand (from the onomatopoeic word "barbar," which means to speak nonsense—"bar, bar, bar, bar").  But these were far from the primitive kinds of people we usually think of when we hear the word "barbarian."  In fact, apart from just surpassing the Greeks, the Minoans may have been the single most advanced civilization in the world at that time.  Let's have a look at the art…