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Ancient Roman

A Marble sculpture of a woman's head. Part of her nose is missing, and her hair is done in an elaborate updo.
Portrait Head of a Young Woman, 130/40 CE. Roman. Edward E. Ayer Endowment in memory of Charles L. Hutchinson.
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The ancient Roman period is considered to have begun in the eighth century BCE and to have ended in the fifth century CE, lasting more than a millennium and encompassing three broad historical periods: the Roman Kingdom, the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire. In its earliest days, Roman society was centered on agricultural work and military service, but following the Romans’ conquests of other neighboring civilizations during the Republic, they began to develop a strong interest in art, which flourished well into the period of the Roman Empire. Works in the Art Institute’s collection, while offering only a glimpse of the artistic splendor of Roman society, represents the variety of media that these ancient people collected and displayed. 

While Romans admired artworks produced in Greek styles, they also valued artworks produced by other Mediterranean cultures, many of which they had either absorbed or overtaken in their expansion. These included the Etruscans, native Italic populations, and the Egyptians, then under Ptolemaic rule. Initially, the Romans acquired existing artworks primarily through conquest and by purchase. By the second century BCE, they began to commission entirely new artworks inspired by earlier examples, which were then adapted in form and function for their distinctly Roman settings. 

In the Roman world, artworks were displayed in a variety of contexts, ranging from public buildings such as theaters, amphitheaters, libraries, and bath complexes, to religious settings including sanctuaries and temples. Within a private home, the display of artworks could attest to one’s wealth, status, and cultural refinement. 

Above all media, the Romans preferred sculpture, viewing it as the highest form of art. Life-size and larger marble sculptures, often depicting deities, heroes, and other mythological subjects, were highly prized. Portraiture, a medium that the Romans valued due to the cultural emphasis placed on the head in reflecting one’s personal qualities and virtues, was also very popular. Such sculptures not only transmitted the image of the emperor and the imperial family across the empire but were also commissioned by private individuals to demonstrate their economic and social standing. Smaller-scale sculptures made of various materials such as marble, bronze, and terracotta often served as decoration in private homes or as dedications at religious sanctuaries. Relief sculptures adorning buildings similarly varied in materials, ranging from costly examples carved from marble to less expensive, mold-made terracotta reliefs to delicate and fragile reliefs in stucco that were made in part with figural stamps. Some of the smallest sculptural works include painstakingly carved gems, which were often incorporated into signet rings, and cameos, which were frequently produced for circulation among imperial circles.

The Romans also placed great emphasis on the medium of painting, which survives today primarily in the form of fragments of wall paintings that adorned interior settings. Paintings were also executed on wood panels, but surviving examples are rare, with the exception of Roman-period mummy portraits that reflect the cross-cultural traditions of Egypt under Roman rule. Such portraits were preserved due to the arid Egyptian climate in which they were buried.  

Other media served both decorative and functional purposes. Mosaics were a key component of architectural decoration and were most commonly created as elaborate pavements. Examples in the Art Institute reflect the variety of figural subjects, patterns, and colors that enlivened such compositions. Glass objects, which were made in a seemingly limitless number of shapes, sizes, and colors using different techniques, served an equally diverse array of functions, from tableware for drinking and dining to cosmetic jars used in personal adornment to burial containers made to house cremated remains. Lamps and other utilitarian objects, which were frequently made of inexpensive terracotta or costly bronze, could also be embellished with figural or ornamental decoration.

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