featured image of Fred S. Kleiner - Fred S. Kleiner: History and Landscape in Roman Art

On the evening of March 7, 2018, a lecture entitled “History and Landscape in Roman Art”, co-sponsored by the School of Humanities, CAFA, Wu Zuoren International Foundation of Fine Arts, and the Center for Visual Studies of Peking University was held at the red chair lecture hall in Building 7, CAFA. Fred S. Kleiner, Professor of Art History at Boston University, USA and the author of “Gardner’s Art Through the Ages”, had been invited to bring the audiences a feast of Roman history and landscapes on the themes of “historical reliefs” and “landscape frescoes”. The lecture was presided over by Shao Yiyang, Professor of Art History at CAFA.

At the beginning of the lecture, Prof. Fred S. Kleiner expressed his thanks to Prof. LaoZhu and Prof. Shao Yiyang who invited him to China, and he was pleased to be able to give lectures at the Peking University and CAFA in the same week and he was also honored to be able to communicate with the teachers and students from two internationally famous universities. In these two lectures, he discussed three topics in Roman art: portraits, historical reliefs, and frescoes. This lecture had a discussion on historical reliefs and frescoes.

Prof. Fred S. Kleiner started from the political side of Roman art and used it to tell the audience some basic characteristics of Western art. It is these basic characteristics that make Western art different from the majority of Chinese art and Asian art. Prof. Fred S. Kleiner highlighted the discussions on two reliefs from a monument built by the Roman Emperor Domitian (reigned 81-96 AD) in the first century AD. He hoped through introducing these two reliefs to explain the problem of “pictorial language” in Roman art for the audience. It is an unique narrative method in Rome (and other Western cultures). It did not only use the men and women, gods and goddesses to narrate but also used the abstract ideas of human forms.

First of all, Prof. Fred S. Kleiner introduced the historical background of the Flavian dynasty, involving political disputes between Emperor Domitian and his father Vespasian, his elder brother Titus. He displayed the first piece of relief that depicted the scene of Vespasian’s entry into Rome. Although the motif of the work was not marked on the relief, Prof. Fred S. Kleiner translated the image into the textual language as an interpretation, and then presented the method of transformation in this process. It is worth noting that the heads of the reliefs are well-preserved, and it is almost impossible to find another piece that is as well preserved as this sculpture from all the 2000-year-old sculptures collected in all museums throughout the world.

The second relief that is opposite to the first piece, depicts the Roman emperor that did not return to Rome after a victory on the battlefield, but began a new campaign. Prof. Fred S. Kleiner analyzed the new characters and stories that appeared in this relief. He once again emphasized the perfect state of the reliefs, and the characters’ heads were almost perfectly preserved, which was rarely seen in ancient art. Such an intact state of preservation is an important clue for art historians who are like detectives. Similar with the first piece, these figures correspond to the rules of ancient Greek and Roman art. Their facial features and body proportions are perfect, of a classical style in Western art. One figure is different from the rest, however. It is the emperor himself. His face is too small compared to the body and his neck is too long. Why doesn’t this figure meet the perfect proportion of classical art? Prof. Fred S. Kleiner declared this person was Domitian according to his unique hairstyle, but his head was not a Domitian’s face and his face has been removed. We can even see the hair over the forehead that has been cut off, when the face was removed. By comparing the head of the figure with the statue of Nerva, the emperor that reigned after Domitian’s death. It can be determined that it was replaced by Nerva’s face. In this way, Prof. Fred S. Kleiner told the audience that it was the tradition that Senate removed the “memories” of the disfavored people in the Roman era, and it was called “Damnatio memoriae”. This happened to Domitian, and the Roman Senate plotted and assassinated him. Why is the Domitian’s head intact in the first relief? Prof. Fred S. Kleiner explained that these two reliefs were made for a large monument or building for Domitian, one relief remembers the time when he was a young man, as his father’s representative in Rome; the 2nd piece was in commemoration of a war he waged, and it had been created only a few years before he was assassinated. At the time of his death, the two reliefs had been finished, waiting in the studios for the completion of the building. Later, one of the reliefs was changed to commemorate Nerva, and the imperial sculptors used Nerva’s face to replace Domitian’s face. However, Nerva passed away after he had been in office for only a year and a half, and it has been impossible to replace Nerva’s head with the next emperor because the small head did not match the life-size body. So these two reliefs were thrown away like garbage by Roma in an ancient tomb (the two reliefs were found next to a Roman tomb), which also answered why both reliefs were still intact. We can see that the political art of Rome is not “the art for art”. Artists were employed by the Roman Empire, although they were very talented, they had to act under orders. When the reliefs they created they lost their political significance, they were discarded. It was very similar in China during the era of the Empire.

The second part of the lecture was on Roman frescoes. The most important discoveries of Roman frescoes came from Pompeii and the nearby Herculaneum. In this section, Prof. Fred S. Kleiner showed four styles of Roman frescoes: the first style uses colored plaster to cover the walls to imitate the marble surfaces of the major quarries in the Mediterranean region; the second style attempts to break the room’s closure and to create an illusion that the room is placed in the artist’s imagined three-dimensional world and round temples, columniations, and landscapes are common themes for the second style; the third style is represented by a large block of plain color on each wall, and the framed paintings which are placed in the center, and it is a decoration on the wall; the fourth style of the fresco design tends to be complex, and the framed landscapes are still the central element of the wall. This practice of framing the landscapes with red lines also appears in Han Xiu’s tomb of the Tang Dynasty in China. However, it is difficult to prove that the Chinese painter had seen Roman frescoes. He thought there was a possibility that it would be linked to the spread of Roman books, but he did not want to rush to give a conclusion on this issue.

After listening to such interesting historical stories hidden in ancient Roman reliefs and admiring the rich and bizarre Roman frescoes, the audience, together with Prof. Fred S. Kleiner, had hot discussions on the content, materials of Roman frescoes, techniques of frescos, shadow rays, perspectives, and other issues.

Text by Zhang Chi, Photo by Hu Sichen/CAFA ART INFO

Translated by Chen Peihua and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

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