UNIVERSAL HISTORY-THE ANCIENT WORLD.
It was only when the conquering armies of the Empire brought home to the city the
wealth of vanquished nations that a taste for art began to be cultivated in a
soil to which the plant was an exotic. With the coming of wealth and splendor the
natural taste of the Roman for whatever conduced to magnificence and grandeur led
him to become a patron of that for which he felt no spontaneous enthusiasm. With
no native genius for production, he hired others to produce for him. With little
inner susceptibility to the charms of artistic beauty, he came to admire in a
perfunctory way and by the force of fashion the work of foreign genius. In the
spoliation of distant cities he sent home shiploads of statues and paintings to
adorn the barren halls and palaces of Rome.
Then came the importation of the artist rather than the art. The city of the
Tiber began to create for herself, but to create by proxy. The Roman stood by,
much as a master would stand by a servant, and watched the inspired fingers of
foreign genius while they created for him and his city the forms of light and
Now it was that the culture of the Greeks diffused itself in Italy. From the
central heart of Rome the skill of Ilellas was carried into all lands. Greek
artists were employed to do for the Romans what they could not do for themselves.
It was by means of this foreign genius, working under Roman orders, that the
temples, palaces, and villas of the Eternal City were adorned. Thus was created
that Graeco-Italic culture which prevailed from the closing days of the Republic
to the downfall of the Empire.
From a consideration of these facts it will readily appear that the history of
Roman art will be meager. It is essentially the history of Greek art in the West.
Instead of a regular development from germinal forms to a full artistic
efflorescence, we have in the case of the Romans the history of an exotic,
already in bloom, transplanted from foreign shores, and cultivated with a certain
coarse tenderness by a people who learned to admire what they could not produce.
None the less, a few traces of the primitive arts of Italy are found, and of
these a sketch may prove of interest.
As early as the planting of the first seeds of progress in Latium the civilized
life had already been assured by the people of Etruria. As already said, they had
become a seafaring race, and by their contact with the people of Cyprus,
Phoenicia, Carthage, Ionia, and Greece had acquired the rudiments of art culture.
It thus happened that many elements were present in the formation of the artistic
tastes of the primitive Etruscans. At the first the Phoenician models were most
followed; but the superiority of the Grecian styles were soon recognized, then
preponderated over the older styles, and became the prevailing type.
Nevertheless, the art of the Etruscans fell far short of its model. We are
indebted to the opened graves of Etruria for whatever treasures we possess of the
aesthetic skill of that ancient people. From the works thus exhumed we are able
to form some notion of the painting, sculpture, ornamentation, and decorative
ability of the Etruscan artists, and to measure their inferiority rather than
their approach to the excellence of the Greeks. The coloring and design of the
Etruscan paintings are crude and imperfect. The sculptures, which are for the
most part statuettes done in terra cotta, are so defective in form and expression
as scarcely to rise above the level of caricature. It appears, moreover, that
Etruscan art contained within itself none of the germs of progress. The old types
are adhered to with the fond folly of barbarism, and even in the case of those
Grecian specimens which are found in Etruria there has been an evident attempt on
the part of the artist to conform his work to the rudeness and archaism of
At the first the Romans had no images of the gods and built no temples. It is
believed that the primitive art culture of the people of the Tiber was introduced
from Etruria. The earliest builders of Rome were Etruscans. In so far as art was
cultivated at all in the Sabellian and Latin cities it was of the same type as
that prevalent in Etruria. It is reported by tradition that Etruscan workmen were
employed to build the Cloaca Maxima. An artist of the same race, named Volcanius,
is said to have been procured by Tarquin the Elder, to decorate the temple of
Jupiter in the capitol.