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Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus

The Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus features Romans and Goths in a chaotic battle scene. Romans are depicted as noble heroes, while Goths appear as barbarians. The carving is incredibly detailed, with deep relief and multiple layers. The sarcophagus shows a departure from classical Greek style, reflecting the unstable Roman Empire during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano music) Man: It's clear looking at this. Who the Romans are. The good guys, and who their enemies, likely the Goths. Lady: And the Romans perpetrating themselves as the good guys here, and they look more noble, more heroic. Their features are more idea. The Goths, their enemy, look almost character with puffy noses, and cheeks, and wild expressions on their faces. Man: Well, their the barbarians, and it's interesting because that's something that the Ancient Romans are borrowing directly from the Ancient Greeks. Yet, this is the style that is pulling away from the traditions of classical antiquity. Lady: In that we have none of that clear since of space around them. Instead, their piled one on top of another. Man: That's right. They've lost their autonomy in the world. They don't have room to move. Instead, we have this dense carpet of figures. We're looking at the Ludovisi Battle Sarcophagus. It's this large tomb. A huge piece of marble, that has been carved in this incredibly deep relief. Lady: And the skill of the carving, I think, is one of the most remarkable things here. Not only is every area of this sarcophagus covered with figures, and horses, and shields, but there are some places where the carving is so deep that the forms, the limbs, the heads of horses are almost completely off-set from the background. There two to three or four layers of figures and forms. Man: Well, it's such a dense tangle, that it actually takes us a moment to be able to follow each body and understand where each persons body begins and ends. Lady: And when we look closely, what we see in the center at the top is obviously the hero. He is coming in on his horse. He's twisting around opening his right arm bringing his horse along with him. Look how he is off-set against his horse. He looks almost wild and passionate, but he looks calm. Man: His body is splayed out. The drape of his armor creates this radiating sense. He's almost like a sunburst in the center of this composition. Lady: Yeah and moving at the same time. In fact, everything here is moving. Man: It's almost impossible to remember that this is just static rock, because the surface is so activated. Lady: When we look closely, we see that the Romans look stern and serious. For example: The figure at the far left. He's charging into battle. So there's a sense of the seriousness of battle. Man: There are these moments of moral decision making. Look at the Roman soldier who has a captured Goth bound at the wrist. He's holding his chin, he's holding the back of his head, and you have the sense that he's making a decision as whether to be merciful or to slay this prisoner. Lady: And strangely if we look toward the bottom of the sarcophagus the figures get smaller instead of larger. Which we might expect for the horses along the bottom are smaller. The figures who are slaying or wounded on the bottom are also slightly smaller. Man: It's as if we are looking down from above some hell. We have a kind of interesting perspective that's constructed in here, certainly not linear perspective, but kind of an organizing perspective that makes sense of this complex surface. One of the issues that I find most interesting is the way in which the shields and other elements create canopies that frame individual figures, and bring our eye deeply into this composition. Lady: Look at the figure who we see in profile. Whose head is framed by two shields. Man: That's right. Peeking through at this wonderful moment. Lady: That dark shadow behind him, it's really wonderful about this sarcophagus is the alternation of light and dark that animates the surface. Where we see the most shadow and the most deep carving is in the hair of the Goths, in their faces, and the smooth surface of the marble is reserved for the Romans, who are left deeply carved. Man: That's right. That texture is associated with the enemy and a kind of roughness. Lady: We see more and more sarcophagi, or the plural of sarcophagus, beginning in the second century in Rome, and continuing through the third century. Man: Right. Previously the Romans had cremated their death, but we know that by the second century it became fashionable to bury the dead in the sarcophagus. After all it does give one the opportunity to create these monumental sculptural forms. Lady: Artisans have been trying to identify the figure whose sarcophagus this is, and they have one or two ideas, but we're not really sure. It must have been someone wealthy and powerful, because this is an enormous piece of marble. That would have taken a very long time to carve. Man: So what we can see here is a choice to move away from the high classical Greek carving that we associate with the great sculptures of the Parthenon that we know the Romans also loved. Instead, we see the intention been put on the interaction between these figures. Lady: It's important to remember than in the second and third centuries the empire was not as stable as it was in 100 or 200 years after Augustus. There's civil war, there's instability in the empire generally, and it's possible to associate this style with these political and historcial changes. Man: It might be too much to say in the chaotic qualities of this surfacing to mirror the chaos of the empire. I think it is appropriate to say that we see a turning away from the high classical tradition, and the adventure of a more complex style that is less concerned with the elegance of the individual human body. (piano music)