Greek and Roman Sculpture

By: Dr. Eleanor E. Rambo

Originally Published in 1920

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The collection of sculpture includes Greek originals, Roman reliefs and Roman copies of Greek originals, and Roman portrait heads. There are in addition a few plaster casts.

The Greek marbles include a head of Athena (No. 21) of the second century B. C., less interesting for its workmanship than for the fact that it is carved from Pentelic marble, the stone of which the Parthenon was built, and that it shows how this stone through exposure takes on a golden brown tone. A second head (No. 22), the so-called Menander, is interesting as an example of that class of portrait heads known as “ideal” heads. A fragmentary relief (No. 18) affords a very satisfactory idea of the over refined and somewhat affected decoration which in the Graeco-Roman age sprang from uninspired copying of the work of earlier ages.

The Museum owns two fairly complete Attic grave stelae (Nos. 49 and 53). Such reliefs were set up over the graves of the dead in token of grief and affection. They are noted for their dignity, sincerity and restraint. They represent the deceased in some homely, familiar act, frequently, as on these two monuments, seated in the midst of the family. The large stone (No. 53) is particularly good, showing the deceased, Krinia by name, as the inscription tells, seated, clasping in farewell the hand of her husband. In the background between these two is another man, the lady’s father-in-law.

Of the Roman reliefs, No. 48, with the masks of a satyr and a maenad, is interesting for having come by repute from the villa of the great Marius at Tivoli. The relief (No. 34) showing the triumph of Dionysos is chiefly of interest to the student of the history of art as showing the low water mark of Roman art. The overcrowding of symbolism connected with the Dionysiac mysteries, the woodenness of the figures, the meaningless swirls of drapery, the uninspired copying of Hellenistic motives—all this is bad even when it is considered as mere stone cutting. Yet many Roman sarcophagi are of great artistic merit.

The most interesting Roman relief is No. 20. It was part of a monument set up in Puteoli to honor one of the Cæsars. From the finish of the marble on the left of the slab it is obvious that another slab was originally joined on that side. In the Museum at Berlin is a slab similar in style to this, so worked that it might well be joined to this on the right side. Therefore, there must have been at least three slabs to complete the design, the whole forming perhaps a balustrade.

Of the marbles which may go back to Greek originals, No. 29, which is modeled after the type of the Nike of Samothrace, is perhaps the best example. The faun (No. 26) and the Hermes (No. 45) may also be mentioned as well as the seated Dionysos with the lion (No. 36), which at one time seems to have served as a fountain, for two pipe holes run through the back of the lion’s head, emptying through his mouth.

The Roman portrait heads are of a pleasing variety and interest. Portraiture is the one branch of plastic art in which the Romans excelled. The most charming of the specimens in the University Museum is No. 14, the portrait of a middle-aged Roman lady of about the time of Marcus Aurelius. The date is deduced from the dressing of the hair in a fashion prevalent at the end of the first century or the beginning of the second century A.D. No. 16 is perhaps a century earlier, more nearly contemporary with the head of a Roman boy (No. 30). No. 28 is supposed to be the portrait of an unknown Roman emperor.

Other examples of Roman sculpture are the mask of a river god (No. 50), a number of statuettes, two of which (Nos. 17 and 29) had the head and arms inset in a different sort of stone, and five marble urns, each inscribed, CHIO D.D., Chia donum dedit, “Chio gave as a gift.” Of these, No. 35, showing a winged horse fighting a griffin, is the most notable.

Of the casts, two are especially worthy of notice (Nos. 41 and 42). These are copies of two of the so-called Acropolis maidens, dedicatory statues set up perhaps to Athena in the sixth century B.C. on the Acropolis at Athens. They were overturned and broken at the time of the Persian sack of the Acropolis in 480 B.C. Then when the Athenians came back to rebuild their citadel, they made ready to set up new buildings by leveling off the ruins of the old, taking no heed of what might be buried, and so the debris of the Persian sack came to shelter many specimens of early sculpture, pottery, etc. The chief interest of these “maidens” is their revelation of the detailed style of that early Attic sculpture, made when Ionic influence was strong in Attica. These reproductions are, it is to be noted, colored. All Greek sculpture was similarly colored. The nude parts of statues were treated with a preparation to make them appear like flesh; hair, eyes and also accessories were painted. Cold white marble sculpture was unknown to the Greeks. It would have seemed unfinished, monstrous. Even the sculpture of their temples was picked out in colors.

Cite This Article

Rambo, Dr. Eleanor E.. "Greek and Roman Sculpture." The Museum Journal XI, no. 2 (June, 1920): 36-37. Accessed June 21, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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