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The Colossus of Constantine

The Colossus of Constantine, c. 312-15 (Palazzo dei Conservatori, Musei Capitolini, Rome). A conversation between Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker in front of the Colossus of Constantine. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] SPEAKER 1: Well, there's the head. SPEAKER 2: And elbow. SPEAKER 1: I see a knee and a finger pointing up. SPEAKER 2: And a shin. SPEAKER 1: And a foot. SPEAKER 2: And another foot. SPEAKER 1: We're looking at the remains of a colossal marble representation of the emperor Constantine. SPEAKER 2: And this colossal sculpture was originally, we think, about 40 feet high. So really big. SPEAKER 1: And it would have filled this extraordinary space at the end of the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine. SPEAKER 2: This was a very large public space right here on the Forum. And at the end of it was a rounded area, a niche. And the sculpture was found there, so we think it was meant for that space. SPEAKER 1: Michelangelo is the one who actually brought it up to the Capitoline Hill, which was the ancient government center. Constantine is certainly a Roman emperor, but he's the last pagan Roman emperor. And the person who really ushers in Christianity and all the changes that will take place in Italy and end the former empire. SPEAKER 2: Well, and he moves the capital of the empire to Constantinople, the city of Constantine all the way in the east and so, in a way, begins the decline of the city of Rome that we see happen in the Middle Ages. SPEAKER 1: So maybe it's not so inappropriate that we see him in fragments in this city. SPEAKER 2: I find this portrait so interesting. We think his body had a core of wood and mud brick, and maybe was covered in gilded bronze. We're not really sure. But I find him so different looking than other images of emperors. SPEAKER 1: Well, you know this is a really interesting stylistic moment when we think about ancient Greece and ancient Rome. I think most people just think of the high classical moment and all of its naturalism. But we're talking about a long period of time in the classical era, and styles change there also. SPEAKER 2: If you think about the history of Roman emperors and their images, you often see a combination of realism and idealism. So that the citizens of the Roman Empire could identify that particular emperor. So we know what Hadrian looked like, or Trajan looked like, or Vespasian looked like. SPEAKER 1: Right, there has to be enough specificity so you can say, ah, that's my emperor. SPEAKER 2: Exactly, but at the same time they were idealized to greater or lesser extents and thereby recalled ancient Greek sculpture. And by idealizing them, they were made to seem divine or godlike. But here Constantine doesn't look like either of those traditions to me. SPEAKER 1: Well, this was a moment of real transition. It's not the issue between a kind of really high pitch nationalism that can actually capture the characteristics of an individual's face, and a kind of idealism. This is actually a kind of abstraction of the human body. SPEAKER 2: There's something abstracted, I think, about the oval shapes of his eyes, where we have a sense of them being reduced to geometric shapes. The way that his eyebrows form these semicircles around the ovals of his eyes. There's something that looks geometric about, not only his face, but his hair. And maybe this is a sign of moving towards that symbolic way of representing that we see with the beginnings of Christianity. SPEAKER 1: I think It's impossible to untangle it from the rise of Christianity, because of our subsequent knowledge of what will happen. And I think we perhaps don't know enough about the subtle shifts in Roman style. But my understanding is that there was also different kinds of representation for different strata of society. And that one could recall, that you sort of in the imperial past, one could recall the more intellectual pursuits of the Greeks through a kind of naturalism. But one might speak to the here and the now and the broader population through a greater degree of abstraction. SPEAKER 2: If your figures that look to us as disproportionate, maybe stocky, and stiff in their movements without the lovely contrapposto that we see in ancient Greek and Roman art. So he seems to be looking beyond us and not really in the here and now. And maybe in that way, too, there is some suggestion of the Christian and the Heavenly. SPEAKER 1: Well, certainly of his divinity. [MUSIC PLAYING]