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Arch of Constantine, 315 C.E., Rome Speakers: Valentina Follo, Dr. Beth Harris, Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
Smarthistory.org We're standing here beside the Arch of Constantine. This is Beth Harris and Steven Zucker and Valentina Follo. We're seeing it against the backdrop of the Colosseum. Maybe we should start with "What's so important about the Arch of Constantine?" There were many arches in Rome. Few remain today... ... so few are visible for tourists so far, and students walking through the streets of Rome. And they were dedicated to victorious generals usually to celebrate their victory over another country. They're usually located in strategic areas of the city because of course they needed to send a message and therefore they were located in a specific point. The arch was dedicated to Constantine for a victory over another Roman, actually. There's a time in Roman history where the Empire is starting to have time of unrest so there were different people fighting for the same seat... to become emperors. And Constantine won so in reality it's very strange because you see a monument celebrating a victory of a Roman over another Roman. - Almost a kind of a civil war, in a sense... Exactly... it was a civil war and actually, usually triumphal arch was always dedicated to victories over other countries to show the actual spread of Roman strength abroad. - So that's interesting... this arch really then is an expression of really a point of turmoil in Roman history and in a sense it's really about the unification of Rome. Yes, it's a moment when actually finally Constantine was able to take back all the power in his hands. And it's actually very interesting because it's also located along the route of the Triupmhal way. After a triumph the most important generals would be able to parade along the streets of Rome, ??? [showing] what they accomplished... so they were able to show the animals that they captured, prisoners, spoils - all the objects that had been taken, works of art... - So the Arch functions then as a lasting reminder of that celebration and that pride. Exatcly. And usually the panels that are on the arch depict scenes about this triumph. - So should we go take a look? Yes, we can take a look... Constantine decided to use some of the spoils... ... not directly from this war but from other monuments within the city of Rome. He took pieces from pre-existing monuments to prove the point. It wanted to show that he was really a good emperor and so he picked pieces from emperors who were considered as good emperors. Becoming emperor after a civil was was never a good thing, right, so you need to prove yourself. It was a difficult time - it was a time of unrest, we had a lot of wars... not just civil but also with other population. It went back to what was considered the golden age of Rome. Skipping a century and going back... - Might be like president Obama saying 'I'm like John F. Kennedy.' Exactly, it's like exactly this same point. And he did it not just by saying it but visually by taking pieces from pre-existing monuments. He had actually the portraits of these emperors and placed it on his own arch. Of course, the portraits were recarved with the face of Constantine. So the Arch is actually quite monumental in size. You can read the message going usually from the bottom to the top... and at the bottom we have the scenes of victories - sort of angels... it's ??? [not that] the predecesors of the angels... - Oh I see this is like a niche. It's a niche, it's a ??? - A symbol of victory. Yeah, exactly. So this ??? a female... and then there are usually prisoners, defeated enemies ... ??? of these victories. So, those are general enemies. Of course, they couldn't show Romans because, you know, you don't show your own people defeated in the same arch. So, it's taken the usual elements of a triumphal arch. - But it's a bit more generic here. Exactly, they're kneeling down, you see entire families - the mother, the father, the child... with these very sorrowful faces to show that they are being taken prisoners. Because, of course, the end for prisoners was to become slaves for the city so it was not a happy ending. Then we go on the second level and we start having these round circles that are actually from a previous monument by Hadrian. Hadrian was a very important emperor, he was considered a philosopher-emperor... You see he loved the Greek art, we know that he travelled, had a look at the provinces... So he was this sort of philosopher-emperor that was for the good of the people. They originally narrated scenes of hunting and sacrifice to the gods so they have no connection with a military victory, they have no significance in themselves. But placed within the arch, of course, that's a significant change because you can see the ability of the emperor in every field. So in fact the emperor is a good emperor because he's able to also be a good hunter... - If you think about the front of the American museum of natural history in New York, there you have representations of Theodore Roosevelt represented as a hunter, as a scientist, as a philanthropist and in a sense all of the facets of a... - of a great leader. So what we see Hadrian doing is the boar hunt, the bear hunt, the lion hunt... and then again the hunt that is a sacrifice, of course, to thank the gods. What is interesting is that the round panels had been inserted in red stone. That red stone is typical of the time of Constantine... and it was a special stone called 'porphyry' coming from Egypt that only emperors could use... and is actually quite a difficult stone to carve. ??? ??? something that was 2nd century ??? made of porphyry made it different, because... - So it's an honour? Exactly. - It gives it importance. So it's really Constantine here who is placing Hadrian within the porphyry, paying real homage to the earlier emperor, showing his respect and in a sense, therefore, taking some of Hadrian's grandeur for himself. - Then if you go to the top layer, sort of to the top floor, the attic, we see two things: There are free standing statues of prisoners and they are represented with these strange pants, a short tunic, a mantel (?), and a very weird cap - it's like a pointed soft hat. These are called 'Phrygian hat' and used to represent foreign people. Remember that pants were only used by barbarians, Romans would use a toga. In this case those are a representation of the nations, the people that Trajan defeated. And they'd been taken probably from the major forum... the major square that Trajan built after the war to celebrate his victory. - So another taking from another great emperor, the emperor Trajan in this case. But I wonder if we can talk about the styles and all the different ways that things look on the arch. The most important thing is if you go really in the front and we look at the only element that actually was carved for this arch at the time of Constantine... it's a long frieze - it's actually a representation of the emperor seated on the throne, distributing coins - distributing money to the population in a gesture of largesse. That was a typical element of Roman iconography - the emperor was good, the emperor would distribute to the people,... he was generous, He was able to redistribute the wealth of the war. - And he's missing his head. Exactly. He's the one with the missing head. What is important about this panel, if you look at the people, the people are on a smaller scale with respect to the emperor who's actually on a higher level, the major figure at the frontal. So it's an idea of something that was going to appear later in art - the fact that the most important people are looking directly at you from the monument. - So that might remind us of later developments in medieval art. Exactly. That's actually the beginning of this type of style. If you look at the other panels, you'll se that the emperor is not looking at you. He's interacting with the other people within the panel. What they wanted to send was a message that the emperor was the most important. And therefore he was bigger and in a prominent position. - But we're seeing that kind of ??? leading ??? that way of communicating in medieval art where everything is very direct, the most important figure frontal, bigger, with hierarchic (?) scale instead of something that looks very naturalistic. So we're moving away from the kind of classicism of the 1st and 2nd century... - It's simply a different development. It's simply telling you something different about the society that produced art (because that's what art does), this fact that the emperor starts detaching himself from the people that he's supposed to watch over. - Interesting. Because I think many people would look at the frieze and see these forms... not only as more hierarchic but also as, in a sense, more symbolically represented, right. I mean, you mentioned before the greater naturalism of the medallions and here the figures seem, I think, to many people's eyes less studied. - This seems to be produced by somebody not really able to carve in certain cases. The fact is that partially it is true that one reason that some of the scholars aduced to the fact that Constantine reused elements from the previous monuments is... ... the fact that when he let to built to arch there were not so many artists able to produce something as before. Other scholars actually say that it's a sign of the influence of what is called 'popular art' - the art that people, the regular people, had been using for centuries. Because if you look at monuments like funerary monuments of the middle class, even in the 1st and 2nd century, they are not so different. - So the suggestion is being made by some scholars that this more popular art is really ??? directly to the middle classes... and in a sense you're ??? their style as opposed to a much more sort of elaborate and perhaps rarified kind of style. So we're really having a political purpose. ??? these kinds of influences from the lower classes to the upper classes. - When you think of much later, it is like in the 19th century when they are intentionally drawing on folk art... or the art of untrained, or less trained, people than the official government trained or ??? trained style. ??? have a very different motivation and purpose. - They're hard not to see as a decline or decadence as you said. They stopped knowing how to make the human figure or they just were not able to be trained... but instead it may be something that was very intentional. - And of course the ancient Romans were credited with really perfecting the arch and using it for architechtural purposes and so. We can see very clearly the keystone and the voussoirs and the impost. - The arch has been used in the Roman architecture as a development... And here it's just something beautiful that you can decorate so it's like ??? a form has been embellished. ??? ??? ??? still a passageway but you know you don't need this type of passage within a city. I mean, of course, it's the turning part of this procession, this triumphal procession so it was important. You know, once upon a time, even we could walk underneath. Now thay fenced it off... in a way detaching the monument from the city. It lost completely the connection from the streets and the people. Now it's just a monument and it's not what it was before anymore. - So ??? would have been connected to the street, and then through the street left, up and to the forum. - The main square of the Romans, the civic core of the city. - So really a gateway, a critical turning point as you said.