Historical and General Sketch.

THE few grains of truth that we are able to sift from the mass of legend which has accumulated round the early history of Rome seem to indicate that at a very early period—which the generally received date of 753 B.C. may be taken to fix as nearly as is now possible—a small band of outcasts and marauders settled themselves on the Palatine Hill and commenced to carry on depredations against the various cities of the tribes whose territories were in the immediate neighbourhood, such as the Umbrians, Sabines, Samnites, Latins, and Etruscans. A walled city was built, which from its admirable situation succeeded in attracting inhabitants in considerable [139] numbers, and speedily began to exercise supremacy over its neighbours. The most important of the neighbouring nations were the Etruscans, who called themselves Rasena, and who must have settled on the west coast of Italy, between the rivers Arno and Tiber, at a very early period. Their origin is, however, very obscure, some authorities believing, upon apparently good grounds, that they came from Asia Minor, while others assert that they descended from the north over the Rhætian Alps. But whatever that origin may have been, they had at the time of the founding of Rome as a city attained a high degree of civilisation, and showed a considerable amount of architectural skill; and their arts exercised a very great influence upon Roman art.

Considerable remains of the city walls of several Etruscan towns still exist. These show that the masonry was of what has been termed a Cyclopean character,—that is to say, the separate stones were of an enormous size; in the majority of examples these stones were of a polygonal shape, though in a few instances they were rectangular, while in all cases they were fitted together with the most consummate accuracy of workmanship, which, together with their great massiveness, has enabled much of this masonry to endure to the present day. Cortona, Volterra, Fiesole, and other towns exhibit instances of this walling. The temples, palaces, or dwelling-houses which went to make up the cities so fortified have all disappeared, and the only existing structural remains of Etruscan buildings are tombs. These are found in large numbers, and consist—as in the earlier instances which have already been described—both of rock-cut and detached erections. Of the former, the best known group is at Castel d’Asso, where we find not only chambers cut into the rock, each [140] resembling an ordinary room with an entrance in the face of the rock, but also monuments cut completely out and standing clear all round; and we cannot fail to detect in the forms into which the rock has been cut, especially those of the roof, imitations of wooden buildings, heavy square piers being left at intervals supporting longitudinal beams which hold up the roof. Fig. 122 is an illustration of the interior of a chamber in the rock. Occasionally there were a cornice and pediment over the entrance.

Showing wooden ceiling and decorated walls

Fig. 122.—Sepulchre at Corneto.

[141] The other class of tombs are circular tumuli, similar to the Pelasgic tombs of Asia Minor; of these large numbers exist, but not sufficiently uninjured to enable us to restore them completely. They generally consisted of a substructure of stone, upon which was raised a conical elevation. In the case of the Regulini Galeassi tomb there were an inner and an outer tumulus, the latter of which covered several small tombs, while the inner enclosed one only, which had fortunately never been opened till it was lately discovered. This tomb was vaulted on the horizontal system—that is to say, its vault was not a true arch, but was formed of courses of masonry, each overhanging the one below, as in the Treasury of Atreus, and it had a curious recess in the roof, in which were found numerous interesting examples of Etruscan pottery. It is, however, clear from the city gates, sewers, aqueducts, &c., that the Etruscans were acquainted with and extensively used the true radiating arch composed of wedge-shaped stones (voussoirs), and that they constructed it with great care and scientific skill. The gate at Perugia, and the Cloacæ or Sewers at Rome, constructed during the reign of the Tarquins,[19] at the beginning of the sixth century B.C., are examples of the true arch, and this makes it certain that it was from the Etruscans that the Romans learned the arched construction which, when combined with the trabeated or lintel mode of construction which they copied from the Greeks, formed the chief characteristic of Roman architecture. The Cloaca Maxima (Fig. 123), which is roofed over with three concentric semicircular rings of large [142] stones, still exists in many places with not a stone displaced, as a proof of the skill of these early builders. There are remains of an aqueduct at Tusculum which are interesting from the fact of the horizontal being combined with the true arch in its construction.

Showing the mouth of one of the tunnels

Fig. 123.—Cloaca Maxima.

No Etruscan temples remain now, but we know from Vitruvius that they consisted of three cells with one or more rows of columns in front, the intercolumniation or interval between the columns being excessive. The largest Etruscan temple of which any record remains was that of Jupiter Capitolinus at Rome, which, under the Empire, became one of the most splendid temples of antiquity. It was commenced by Tarquinius Superbus, and is said to have derived its name from the fact of the builders, when excavating the foundations, coming upon a freshly bleeding head (caput), indicating that the place would eventually become the chief city of the world. Another form of Etruscan temple is described by Vitruvius, [143] consisting of one circular cell only, with a porch. This form was probably the origin of the series of circular Roman buildings which includes such forms of temples as that at Tivoli, and many of the famous mausolea, e.g. that of Hadrian, and the culmination of which style is seen in the Pantheon. It is interesting to notice that the Romans never entirely gave up the circular form, one instance of its use in Britain at a late period of the Roman occupation having been discovered in the ruins of Silchester near Basingstoke; and we shall find that it was perpetuated in Christian baptisteries, tombs, and occasionally churches.

We know from the traces of such buildings which exist, that the Etruscans must have constructed theatres and amphitheatres, and it is recorded that the first Tarquin laid out the Circus Maximus and instituted the great games held there. At Sutri there are ruins of an amphitheatre which is nearly a perfect circle, measuring 265 ft. in its greatest breadth and 295 ft. in length.

There are no remains of other buildings which would enable us to form an opinion as to the civic architecture of the Etruscans: they must, however, have attained to a considerable skill in sculpture, as in some of the tombs figures are represented in high relief which show no small power of expression. They, too, like the Egyptians, embellished their tombs with mural paintings. These are generally in outline, and represent human figures and animals in scenes of every-day life, with conventionalised foliage, or mythological scenes such as the passage of the soul after death to the judgment-seat where its actions in life are to be adjudicated upon. In the plastic arts the Etruscans made great progress, many of their vases showing a delicacy and grace which have [144] never been surpassed, and exhibiting in their decorations traces of both Greek and Egyptian influence.

We now reach the last of the classical styles of antiquity, the Roman,—a style which, however, is rather an adaptation or amalgamation of other styles than an original and independent creation or development. The contrast is very great between the “lively Grecian,” imaginative and idealistic in the highest degree—who seemed to have an innate genius for art and beauty, and who was always eager to perpetuate in marble his ideal conception of the “hero from whose loins he sprung,” or to immortalise with some splendid work of art the name of his mother-city—and the stern, practical Roman, realistic in his every pore, eager for conquest, and whose one dominant idea was to bring under his sway all the nations who were brought into contact with him, and to make his city—as had been foretold—the capital of the whole world. With this idea always before him, it is no wonder that such a typical Roman as M. Porcius Cato should look with disdain upon the fine arts in all their forms, and should regard a love for the beautiful, whether in literature or art, as synonymous with effeminacy. Mummius, also, who destroyed Corinth, is said to have been so little aware of the value of the artistic treasures which he carried away, as to stipulate with the carriers who undertook to transport them to Rome, that if any of the works of art were lost they should be replaced by others of equal value.

When the most prominent statesmen displayed such indifference, it is not surprising that for nearly 500 years no single trace of any architectural building of any merit at all in Rome can now be discovered, and that history is silent as to the existence of any monuments worthy of [145] being mentioned. Works of public utility of a very extensive nature were indeed carried out during this period; such, for example, as the Appian Way from Rome to Capua, which was the first paved road in Rome, and was constructed by the Censor Appius Claudius in B.C. 309. This was 14 ft. wide and 3 ft. thick, in three layers: 1st, of rough stones grouted together; 2nd, of gravel; and 3rd, of squared stones of various dimensions. The same Censor also brought water from Præneste to Rome by a subterranean channel 11 miles long. Several bridges were also erected, and Cato the Censor is said to have built a basilica.

Until about 150 B.C. all the buildings of Rome were constructed either of brick or the local stone; and though we hear nothing of architecture as a fine art, we cannot hesitate to admit that during this period the Romans carried the art of construction, and especially that of employing materials of small dimensions and readily obtainable, in buildings of great size, to a remarkable pitch of perfection. It was not till after the fall of Carthage and the destruction of Corinth, when Greece became a Roman province under the name of Achaia—both which events occurred in the year 146 B.C.—that Rome became desirous of emulating, to a certain extent, the older civilisation which she had destroyed; and about this time she became so enormously wealthy that vast sums of money were expended, both publicly and privately, in the erection of monuments, many of which remain to the present day, more or less altered. The first marble temple in Rome was built by the Consul Q. Metellus Macedonicus, who died B.C. 115. Roman architecture from this period began to show a wonderful diversity in the objects to which it was directed,—a circumstance perhaps [146] as interesting as its great scientific and structural advance upon all preceding styles. In the earlier styles temples, tombs, and palaces were the only buildings deemed worthy of architectural treatment; but under the Romans baths, theatres, amphitheatres, basilicas, aqueducts, triumphal arches, &c., were carried out just as elaborately as the temples of the gods.

It was under the Emperors that the full magnificence of Roman architectural display was reached. The famous boast of Augustus, that he found Rome of brick and left her of marble, gives expression in a few words to what was the great feature of his reign. Succeeding emperors lavished vast sums on buildings and public works of all kinds; and thus it comes to pass that though the most destructive of all agencies, hostile invasions, conflagrations, and long periods of neglect, have each in turn done their utmost to destroy the vestiges of Imperial Rome, there still remain fragments, and in one or two instances whole monuments, enough to make Rome, after Athens, the richest store of classic architectural antiquities in the world.

But it was not in Rome only that great buildings were erected. The whole known civilised world was under Roman dominion, and wherever a centre of government or even a flourishing town existed there sprang up the residences of the dominant race, and their places of business, public worship, and public amusement. Consequently, we find in our own country, and in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, North Africa, and Egypt—in short, in all the countries where Roman rule was established—examples of temples, amphitheatres, theatres, triumphal arches, and dwelling-houses, some of them of great interest and occasionally in admirable preservation.


[19] The story of the Tarquins probably points to a period when the chief supremacy at Rome was in the hands of an Etruscan family, and is interesting for this reason.


Showing section and front view

Fig. 124.—“Incantada” in Salonica.