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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
BETH HARRIS: 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 Coliseum. Maybe we should start with what's so important about the Arch of Constantine? VALENTINA FOLLO: There were many arches in Rome. Few remain today. So few are visible for a tourist, or for any students walking through the streets of Rome. And they were dedicated to retired 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. And there's a time in Roman history where their empire is starting to have time of unrest, so there were to 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 the victory of a Roman over another Roman. STEVEN ZUCKER: Almost a kind of civil war, in a sense. VALENTINA FOLLO: Exactly. It was a civil war. And actually, usually triumphal arches were always dedicated on victors over other countries to show the actual strength-- the Roman strength abroad. STEVEN ZUCKER: So that's interesting. So this arch, really, then, is an expression of a point of turmoil in Roman history. And in a sense, it's really about the unification of Rome. VALENTINA FOLLO: 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 triumphal way. After a triumph, the most important generals would be able to parade along the streets of Rome spurting out what they accomplished doing the siege. So they were able to show the animals that they captured, prisoners, spoils. All the objects that had been taken, works of art. STEVEN ZUCKER: So the arch functions, then, as a lasting reminder of that celebration, and that pride. VALENTINA FOLLO: Exactly. And usually the panels that are on the arch depict scenes about this triumph. STEVEN ZUCKER: So shall we go take a look? VALENTINA FOLLO: 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. We took pieces from preexisting monuments to prove a point. He wanted to show that he was really a good emperor, and so he picked pieces from emperors that were considered as good emperors. Becoming emperor after a civil war was never a good thing, 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 populations. It went back to what was considered the Golden Age of Rome, skipping a century and going back. BETH HARRIS: Might be like President Obama saying, I'm like John F. Kennedy. VALENTINA FOLLO: Exactly. It's that's exactly the same point. And he did it not just by saying it, but visually by taking pieces from preexisting monuments that had the portraits of these emperors, and place it on his own arch. Of course, the portraits were re-carved 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 these scenes of victories. Sort of angels. Those are the predecessors of the angels. STEVEN ZUCKER: So this is like a Nike. VALENTINA FOLLO: It's a icon. It's a victory. BETH HARRIS: A symbol of victory. VALENTINA FOLLO: Yeah, exactly. So this winged female. And then there are usually prisoners, defeated enemies, at the feet of this victory. So those are general enemies. Of course, they couldn't show Romans, because you don't show your own people defeated in the same arch. So it's taken the usual elements of a triumphal arch. STEVEN ZUCKER: But it's a bit more generic here. VALENTINA FOLLO: Exactly. They're kneeling down. You see entire families, the mother, the father, the child, with these very sorrow faces, to show that they are been taken prisoner. Because, of course, the end of 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. So he loved a lot of Greek art. We know that he traveled in all of 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 significance changed. Because you can see the ability of the emperor in every field. So it's the fact that the emperor is a good emperor, because he's able to also be a good hunter. STEVEN ZUCKER: If you think about the front of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where 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-- BETH HARRIS: --of a great leader. So what do we see Hadrian doing? VALENTINA FOLLO: It's the boar hunt, the bear hunt, the lion hunt. And then, at the end of the hunt, there is a sacrifice, of course, to thank the gods. What is interesting is that these round panels have 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 it's actually quite a difficult stone to carve. So the fact to embed something that was second century in this sort of bed of porphyry made it different. STEVEN ZUCKER: So it gives it honor and it gives it importance. So it's really Constantine here who is placing Hadrian within the porphyry, paying real homage, then, to the earlier emperor, showing his respect. And in a sense, therefore, taking some of Hadrian's grandeur for himself. VALENTINA FOLLO: Then if we go to the top layer-- so to the top floor, the attic-- we see two things. They are freestanding statues of prisoners. And they are represented with these strange pants, a short tunic, a mantle, and a very weird cap. It's like a pointed soft hat. Those are called Phrygian hat, used to represent foreign people. Remember that pants were only used by Barbarians. Romans would use a toga. In this case, it's a representation of the Dacians. The Dacians were the people that Trajan defeated. And they had been taken probably from the major forums, of the majors square that Trajan built after the war to celebrate his victory. BETH HARRIS: So another taking from another great emperor, the emperor Trajan in this case. But I wonder if we could talk about the styles, and all the different ways that things look on the arch. VALENTINA FOLLO: The most important thing is if you go 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 a throne distributing coins. So distributing money to the population in a gesture of largesse. That was a typical element of Roman iconography. If the emperor was good, the emperor would distribute to the people, was generous, he was able to redistribute the wealth of the war. BETH HARRIS: And he's missing his head. VALENTINA FOLLO: Exactly. He's the one with the missing head. What is important about this panel is if you look at the people, the people are on a smaller scale, in respect to the emperor that's actually on a higher level. The major figures are frontal. So it's something that was going to appear later in art, the fact that the most important people are looking directly at you from the monument. BETH HARRIS: So that might remind us of later developments in medieval art. VALENTINA FOLLO: Exactly. That's actually the beginning of this type of style. If you look at the other panels, you see 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. BETH HARRIS: But we're seeing that almost leading toward that way of communicating of medieval art, where everything is very direct. Most important figure frontal, bigger, with hieratic scale, instead of something that looks very naturalistic. So we're moving away from the kind of classicism of the first and second century. VALENTINA FOLLO: 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. STEVEN ZUCKER: Interesting. Because I think many people would look at the frieze and see these forms not only as more hieratic, but also as, in a sense, more symbolically represented. Right? You mentioned before the greater naturalism of the medallions. And here the figures seem, I think, to many people's eyes, less studied. VALENTINA FOLLO: 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 adduced to the fact that Constantine reused elements from the previous monuments, is the fact that when he had to build the 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 popular art. So the art that the 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 first and second century, they're not so different. STEVEN ZUCKER: So the suggestion is being made by some scholars, then, that this more popular art is really playing directly to the middle classes. And in a sense, usurping their style, as opposed to a much more elaborate, and perhaps rarefied kind of style. So really having a political purpose. VALENTINA FOLLO: You start seeing these kind of inferences from the lower classes to the upper classes. BETH HARRIS: Well, you can think of much later artists, like in the 19th century, who were intentionally drawing on folk art, or the art of untrained, or less trained people than the official government-trained or state-trained style. STEVEN ZUCKER: Which could have a very different motivation and purpose. BETH HARRIS: It's very hard not to see it 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, may be something that was very intentional. STEVEN ZUCKER: And of course, the ancient Romans are credited with really perfecting the arch, and using it for architectural purposes. And so we can really see very clearly the keystone, and the voussoirs, and the imposts. VALENTINA FOLLO: The arch has been used in the Roman architecture as a development. And here it's just something beautiful that you can decorate. So as you were saying, a form that's been embellished. Hasn't completely lost the function, because it's still a passageway. But you don't need this type of passageway in a city. Of course here it's the turning part of this triumphal procession, so it was important. Once upon a time, even we could walk underneath them. Now they're fenced off, in a way detaching the monument from the city. And lost completely the connection from the streets and the people. Now it's just a monument, and is not what it was before anymore. BETH HARRIS: So it would have been something that would have been connected to the street, and then through the street left up into the Forum. VALENTINA FOLLO: The Roman Forum. So the main square of the Romans. The civic core of the city. STEVEN ZUCKER: So really a gateway. A critical turning point, as you said. VALENTINA FOLLO: Yes.