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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

Etruscan models.

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.