CHAPTER XXII. THE ROMAN PROFUSION OP ART
It would be a more than agreeable task to deal at some length with the art of the Roman world of this period, but the subject is vast, and demands a treatise to itself. How general was the love of art - or at least the recognition of its place in life - must be obvious to those who have seen the great collections in Rome, gathered partly from the city itself and partly from the towns and country "villas" of Italy, and those in the National Museum at Naples, acquired mainly from the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Nor are we amazed merely at the quantity of statues, statuettes, busts, reliefs, paintings, mosaic gems and cameos, and artistically wrought objects and utensils, which have been preserved while so many thousands of such productions have disappeared in the conflagrations of Rome, the vandalisms of the ignorant, or the kilns and melting-pots of the Middle Ages. The quality is still more a source of delight than the quantity. This last sentence, of course, contains a truism, since art is no delight without high quality. If we had only preserved to us such masterpieces as the Capitoline Venus, the Dying Gaul, the Laocoon, the Dancing Faun, the so-called Narcissus, and the Resting Mercury, we should realise something of the exquisite skill in plastic art which had been attained in antiquity and has never been attained since. But we might perhaps imagine that these were altogether exceptional pieces and the choicest gems possessed by the world of the time. Yet the preservation of these is but an accident, and there is no reason to believe them to be more than survivals out of many equally excellent. On the contrary, our ancient authorities - such as the elder Pliny - prove that there was a multitude of similar creations contained in public buildings alone. Pompeii, it has already been said more than once, was a provincial town in no way distinguished for the high culture of its inhabitants; yet there is scarcely a house of any consideration which has not afforded some example of fine art in one form or another. We know that several of the Roman temples - such as those of Concord in the Forum and of Apollo on the Palatine - were veritable galleries of masterpieces; and that the rich Romans adorned both their town houses and country villas with dozens of statues, colossal, life-size, or miniature, by distinguished masters. But still more striking is the fact that the comparatively small homes of Pompeii often possessed a work for which no price would now be too large, and of which we are content even to obtain a tolerably good copy. At Herculaneum there evidently lived persons of greater literary and artistic I refinement than at Pompeii, and the discoveries from that only very partially excavated town make an incalculably rich show of their own. What then would be the case with Naples, Baiae, the resorts all along the coast as far as the Tiber, the luxurious villas on the Alban Hills, and the great metropolis itself?
Yet the fact of this universal recognition of art is scarcely made so impressive by these collected specimens of perfect taste and perfect execution, as it is incidentally by observing the delicate and graceful finish of some moulding on a chance fragment from a building, such as the Basilica Aemilia or the office of the Pontifex in the Forum, or the exquisite chiselling of trailing ivy upon a cup from Herculaneum (FIG. 56), or the dainty pattern wrought on no more important a thing than a bucket (FIG. 58), or the graceful shape imparted to a household lamp (FIG. 54). Water could hardly be permitted to spout in a peristyle or garden without doing so from some charming statuette, animal figure, or decorative mask or head. When fine art is sought in things like these, we may guess how uncompromisingly it was sought in things more avowedly "on show."
The age with which we have been dealing fell within the most flourishing period of Roman, or rather Graeco-Roman, taste and craftsmanship. A hundred years later both taste and execution were declining, and by the age of Constantine - two centuries and a half after Nero - not one artist could pretend to achieve such work as had belonged to a multitude between the reigns of Augustus and Hadrian.
It is not indeed probable that, even at our date, the large and noble simplicity of the older Greek masters could be rivalled. It is not probable that most of the former creations of art still preserved could have been wrought as originals by any Greek or Roman artist living in the time of Nero. Nevertheless technical craftsmanship was still superb, and while the contemporary artist could not create a splendid original, he was at least able to create an almost perfect copy. The Roman public buildings and private houses were enriched with a host of such copies, or, when not exact copies, with modifications which, though not improvements, were at least such as could not offend by displaying a lack of technical mastery. Let us grant that it was for the most part Greeks who were the artists; nevertheless the Greek is an active member of the Roman world and of its metropolitan life, and he executes his work to the order of the Roman state or the Roman patron; and therefore the art of the time deserves to be called Roman in that sense. There is little doubt that the Romans, if left to themselves, would have developed only the solid, or the gorgeous, or the baroque. But influences which penetrate a society are part of that society, and the Greek influence accepted by the Roman becomes a Roman principle.