CHAPTER IV. ART IN THE ROMAN EMPIRE.
The aesthetic glories of art are among the grandest triumphs of civilization, and attest as well as demand no ordinary force of genius. Art claims to be creative, and to be based on eternal principles of beauty, and artists in all ages have claimed a proud niche in the temple of fame. They rank with poets and musicians, and even philosophers and historians, in the world's regard. They are favored sons of inspiration, urged to their work by ideal conceptions of the beautiful and the true. Their productions are material, but the spirit which led to their creation is of the soul and mind. Imagination is tasked to the uttermost to portray sentiments and passions. The bust is "animated," and the temple, though built of marble, and by man, is called "religious." Art appeals to every cultivated mind, and excites poetic feelings. It is impressive even to every order, class, and condition of men, not, perhaps, in its severest forms, since the taste must be cultivated to appreciate its higher beauties, but to a certain extent. The pyramids and the granite image temples of Egypt must have filled even the rude people with a certain awe and wonder, even as the majestic cathedrals of mediaeval Europe, with their imposing pomps, stimulated the poetic conceptions of the Gothic nations. Art is popular. The rude savage admires a gaudy picture even as the cultivated Leo X. or Cardinal Mazarini bent in admiration before the great creations of Raphael or Domenichino. Art appeals to the senses as well as to the intellect and the heart, and is capable of inspiring the passions as well as the loftiest emotions and sentiments. The Grecian mind was trained to the contemplation of aesthetic beauty in temples, in statues, and in pictures; and the great artist was rewarded with honors and material gains. The love of art is easier kindled than the love of literary excellence, and is more generally diffused. It is coeval with songs and epic poetry. Before Socrates or Plato speculated on the great certitudes of philosophy, temples and statues were the pride and boast of their countrymen. And as the taste for art precedes the taste for letters, so it survives, when the literature has lost its life and freshness. The luxurious citizens of Rome ornamented their baths and palaces with exquisite pictures and statues long after genius ceased to soar to the heights of philosophy and poetry. The proudest triumphs of genius are in a realm which art can never approach, yet the wonders of art are still among the great triumphs of civilization. Zeuxis or Praxiteles may not have equaled Homer or Plato in profundity of genius, but it was only a great age which could have produced a Zeuxis or Praxiteles. I cannot place Raphael on so exalted a pinnacle as Luther, or Bacon, or Newton, and yet his fame will last as long as civilization shall exist. The creations of the chisel will ever be held in reverence by mankind, and probably in proportion as wealth, elegance, and material prosperity shall flourish. In an important sense, Corinth was as wonderful as Athens, although to Athens will be assigned the highest place in the ancient world. It was art rather than literature or philosophy which was the glory of Rome in the period of her decline. As great capitals become centres of luxury and display, artists will be rewarded and honored. The pride of a commercial metropolis is in those material wonders which appeal to the senses, and which wealth can purchase. A rich merchant can give employment to the architect, when he would be disinclined to reward the critic or the historian. Even where liberty and lofty aspirations for truth and moral excellence have left a state, the arts suffer but little decline. The grandest monuments of Rome date to the imperial regime, not to the republican sway. When the voice of a Cicero was mute, the Flavian amphitheatre arose in its sublime proportions. Imperial despotism is favorable to the adornment of Paris and St. Petersburg, even as wealth and luxury will beautify New York. When the early lights of the Church were unheeded in the old capitals of the world, new temples and palaces were the glory of the state. Art was the first to be revived of the trophies of the old civilization, and it will be the last to be relinquished, by those whom civilization has enriched. Art excites no dangerous passions or sentiments in a decaying monarchy, and it is a fresh and perpetual pleasure, not merely to the people, but to the arbiters of taste and fashion. The Popes rewarded artists when they crushed reformers, and persecuted inquiring genius. The developments of art appeal to material life and interests rather than to the spiritual and eternal. St. Paul scarcely alludes to the material wonders of the cities he visited, even as Luther was insensible to the ornaments of Italy in his absorbing desire for the spiritual and moral welfare of society. Art is purely the creation of man. It receives no inspiration from Heaven; and yet the principles on which it is based are eternal and unchangeable, and when it is made to be the handmaid of virtue, it is capable of exciting the loftiest sentiments. So pure, so exalted, and so wrapt are the feelings which arise from the contemplation of a great picture or statue, that we sometimes ascribe a religious force to the art itself, while all that is divine springs from the conception of the artist, and all that is divine in his conception arises from sentiments independent of his art, as he is stimulated by emotions of religion, or patriotism, or public virtue, and which he could never have embodied had he not been a good man, rather than a great artist, or, at least, affected by sentiments which he learned from other sources. There can be no doubt that, through the vehicle of art, the grandest and noblest sentiments may be expressed. Hence artists may be great benefactors; yet sometimes their works are demoralizing, as they appeal to perverted taste and passions.