art, funerary, Roman

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Early republican tombs at Rome have none of the decorative features of contemporary Etruscan funerary art (see etruscans), but by the mid to late republic some aristocratic tombs show a desire for elaboration (e.g. the façade of the tomb of the Scipio family, painted and decorated with statues in niches). From the last years of the republic onwards funerary art ceased to be the prerogative of the rich: even freedmen and slaves decorated their tombs and bought funerary monuments. Several media were used to decorate the tomb outside and inside, and to provide memorials for the dead. The exterior might have decorations in relief (stone or terracotta) alluding to the deceased's offices or profession (e.g. fasces and curule chair for a magistrate, or a scene of everyday business). Portraits of the deceased were also popular, esp. with freedmen in the late republic and early empire. Inside the tomb there were sculpted free‐standing monuments, including the containers for the remains of the deceased—ash‐chests in the early empire and, increasingly from c.ad 100 onwards, sarcophagi. The interior of the tomb itself might be decorated with stucco, painting, and mosaic. In the catacombs painting was the dominant form of decoration, but here biblical stories and Christian symbols replaced the pagan ones in use elsewhere. Mosaic was used primarily for the floors of tombs, but also appears on ceilings and walls.

The iconographic repertoire of Roman funerary art is rich. Motifs might refer directly to the deceased: portraiture, whether full‐length or in bust form, was popular throughout the imperial period, and portraits are found both on the façades of tombs and on a variety of monuments such as sarcophagi, where they can appear both in relief on the chest and as a reclining figure on the lid. The deceased might also be represented engaged in an everyday activity, on their death‐bed, or in heroized and idealized form, with the attributes of a deity or hero, and women might be represented with the beauty and attributes of Venus. Battle and hunt scenes, designed to show the deceased's manliness, were widely used on sarcophagi. Mythical scenes were popular, and a wide selection of episodes from Greek myth was used in all contexts. Motifs from the natural world abound. There were many other motifs, such as cupids, seasons, sphinxes, and griffins, which could be combined in different ways. Some of these designs alluded allegorically to beliefs in and hopes for an after‐life. The mystery cults, with their promise of salvation, gained in popularity, and Bacchic themes (see dionysus) and Hercules (paradigm of a mortal attaining immortality) appeared more often.

Much of the private, non‐state art of Rome was funerary, and the production of sarcophagi became a major industry (see marble; quarries), with partially carved chests travelling considerable distances. Usually standardized motifs were taken from pattern books, personalization being achieved by the addition of an inscription or portrait. Nevertheless, commemoration of the dead, as lavish as could be afforded, was a major concern for most Romans of the imperial period. See cemeteries; dead, disposal of; death, attitudes to; imagery; sculpture, roman.


Subjects: Classical Studies.

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