Roman Architecture Essay

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Some 2,025 years ago, an aged Roman architect named Vitruvius wrote all he knew on architecture on 10 scrolls and presented it to Emperor Augustus in the hope of developing this dying art. Known as the, Ten Books on Architecture, this piece of antiquity is the only such work to survive through medieval times, and continues to be an important resource for architects today

Prof. Thomas Gordon Smith, Viturvius on Architecture.

The early Christian church was spectacular in architecture. They were an end-product of a combination of assimilation and rejection of precedents, such as the Greek temple, the Roman public building, the private Roman house, and the synagogue. The Early Christian church (the Basilica church) architecture developed from Roman secular basilica; a centralized type from Roman tombs (Early Christian Architecture, Ch.4, p.159-169, n.d) .
2.0 Introduction

Roman architecture dates back in time when Greek architecture was at its best. Many of the Greek style have been perfected by the Romans and this can be seen in the architectural brilliance in their churches to date. The Pantheon is a prime example of architectural brilliance. The Pantheon was originally built as a temple to the seven deities of the seven planets in the Roman state religion, but is now a Christian church since the 7th century. Such is the construction that it remains the best-preserved and the oldest important Roman building in the world. Whats more, this building has its original roof intact. It remained in use throughout its history (Architecture, chapter four, pp. 159-169).

2.1 History

The Pantheon was built as early as 27-25 BC during the third consulship of Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. As testimony stands the inscription of his name on the portico of the building, which reads, M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIUM·FECIT. It was originally built with adjoining baths and water gardens, but this structure lay destroyed by a raging fire in AD 80, only to be rebuilt around 125 during the reign of the then Emperor, Emperor Hadrian. On reconstruction, the text of the original inscription of Agrippa was added; a practice followed during Hadrians rebuilding processes all over Rome. The building went through subsequent repairs under Septimius Severus and Caracalla.

In 609 the Byzantine emperor Phocas presented the Pantheon to Pope Boniface IV, who reconsecrated it as a Christian church, the Church of Mary and all the Martyr Saints. The buildings consecration as a church saved it from the abandonment which befell the majority of ancient Romes buildings during the early mediaeval period. The building however lost some of its external sculptures above Agrippas inscription. The marble interior and the great bronze doors have survived, although the doors came in for repair works several times.

Since the Renaissance the Pantheon was used as a tomb, and those buried here were the late painters, Raphael and Annibale Caracci, the architect Baldassare Peruzzi and King Vittorio Emanuele II and his Queen Margherita, and King Umberto I.  Since 1946, when Italy became a republic, many members of Italian monarchist organizations still maintain a vigil over the royal tombs in the Pantheon. Despite protests from republicans, the Catholic authorities have allowed this practice to continue. The Pantheon however, remains to be a church with masses continuing to follow celebrations and weddings (Architecture, chapter four, pp. 159-169).

2.2 Structure

The Pantheon was perhaps among the most difficult piece of architecture to build. The huge structure would make even todays architects amazed by their precision and craftsmanship. The dome would have taken years to perfect and establish, for it was very high up from the floor and definitely a challenging task. Following is a detailed description of this mighty structure. The Pantheon is circular in structure with a portico of three ranks of huge granite Corinthian columns; eight in the first rank and two groups of four behind. These huge columns, under a pediment, open out into a rotunda, under a coffered, concrete dome, with a central opening called the oculus, the Great Eye, to the sky. A rectangular structure links the portico with the rotunda. On the walls behind the portico are the statues of Caesar, Augustus and Agrippa. The large bronze doors, once gold-plated remain, but without the gold. The pediment, decorated with bronze sculptures depicting the Battle of the Titans, shows gaping holes where once stood the clamps which held the sculptures.

The height to the oculus (the roof) and the diameter of its inner circle are 43 meters, making the whole interior fit within a cube. This dome remains the largest surviving antiquity, and was the largest dome in Western Europe until Brunelleschis dome of the Duomo of Florence was completed in 1436. The dome was covered with gilded bronze plates. The interior of the roof was crafted to symbolize the heavens. The Great Eye, at 27 feet, and at the domes apex, was the source for lighting the interior and represented the sun. The interior also featured sunken panels (coffers) of bronze star ornaments. These coffers not only presented a decorative splendor, but helped reduce the weight of the roof.

The top of the rotunda wall had a series of brick-relieving arches that were visible on the outside were once hidden by marble facings. The Pantheon is made up of such devices; there are relieving arches over the recesses inside, all that were again originally hidden by marble facing. An important aspect of the structure is that the proportions of the building are in discord to classical ideal. The rather large pediment appears far too heavy for the columns supporting it; the earlier expectation was that the building would be much taller than its current size actually is, and this raises the issue of its affect on the larger columns. Since there was shortage in supply of raw material (imported stones), the columns were not enough to build as per designs, and completed somewhat out of proportion.

The composition of the concrete used to construct the dome remains a mystery. It would need technological excellence to create anything close to this, for; the dome was so heavy that it would barely have been able to stand on its own weight. Concrete has very low tensile strength, yet the Pantheon has stood for centuries. It is believed that the Romans used pozzolanic ash from a nearby volcano and fist-sized rocks to the concrete made up of a hydrate lime. The high tensile strength it appears, seems to come from the way the concrete was applied in very small amounts and then tamped down to remove excess water. This would have removed the appearance of air bubbles that form in concrete as it dries, increasing its strength enormously (Architecture, chapter four, pp. 159-169, n.d).

The Roman Christian church remains one of the most brilliant discoveries in architectural history. This was achieved through ways of assimilating and rejecting various precedents, such as the Greek temple, the Roman public and private buildings, and the synagogue. Italy was the home of Christianity, and this effectively led to the development of an underground Eastern mystery cult during the first three centuries AD, and established as the state religion of the Empire under the successors of Constantine.  The early Christian Architecture saw the development of basilica churches from Roman secular basilicas. In Rome, classical marble wall membering, vocabulary and massive walls were gradually replaced by broad, flat surfaces. Evenly lighted, these structures had plain brick exteriors and mosaic bands as interiors.

3.0 Literature Review

The Romans adopted the classical Greek architecture for their own purposes, but which, they modified to suit their needs and create a new architectural style. Both, the Greek and Roman styles of architecture are thus, often considered one body of classical architecture. Roman architecture represents a fusion of traditional Greek and Etruscan elements, notably the trabeated orders (Early Christian Architecture, n.d), with changes coming about in their structural principles based on the design of arch and usage of concrete.  The Romans achieved originality very late in their existence; they were nearly carbon copies of early Greek structures. It was only later that the influence of Etruscans in the form of arch and the three-dimensional countenance of domes began to take shape.

The two developments of any significance were the Tuscan and Composite orders. While the Tuscan model was made of the shortened, simplified variant on the Doric order, the Composite model was more elaborate; tall orders with the floral decoration of the Corinthian and scrolls of the Ionic. With the discovery of concrete, the Romans were able to construct curved and stronger structures.  Tile-covered concrete took over from marbles as the primary building material and architects were able to innovate using its flexibility to build huge, structural buildings that were extremely brilliant monuments. Structures with huge supporting pillars to support arches and domes came into being; they also inspired the development of colonnade screens, a row of purely decorative columns in front of load-bearing walls.

Tiling took the Romans by storm, as many Roman homes joined the well known mural in decorating floors, walls, and grottoes in geometric and pictorial designs (Early Christian Architecture, n.d).  A recent study of Eastern Roman architecture illustrated the imperial style and universality of Roman architecture, drawing upon Greek prototypes but designed to be of single theme to integrate a common cultural basis. Architecture was seen as a manifestation, a tool to enforce its power over subject nations by a common, imposed vocabulary seen to be the same in every city of the empire, except for some minor decorative details and construction techniques. There is a homogeneity to Roman architecture cannot be denied, but it was never the overriding factor either. Nowhere was regionalism more important in Roman architecture than in the East. In this past, this has been minimized, usually because Roman architecture has been viewed almost wholly from the Classical perspective (Ball W, p.247, 2000).

Counter Reformation attitudes however are not reflected or influenced the architectural development in ancient Roman architecture. The influence of early Christianity and Scholasticism can be seen in some isolated cases, such as the Cathedral of Mantua in 1545 by Giulio Romano, where colonnades, architrave, and flat ceiling of the nave can be traced back to Old St.Peters (Kruft H. W, Ch.8, p.93, 1996) .  The Romans contribution to architecture remains exemplified through its robust presence throughout Europe and North America by way of arches and domes of governmental and religious buildings (Early Christian Architecture, n.d).

During the 17th century, Roman Catholic churches reveled in artistry that combined architecture as well as painting and sculpture. The interiors were conspicuous by the baroque combines all three arts to produce a sense of emotional exuberance. This style differed from the Renaissance. The Roman Catholic world was the home of baroque, and the Catholic Church enjoyed an aura of centuries of authority and prestige. St. Peters Church in Rome set the example for numerous other churches built and decorated in the 17th century to put baroque. Welcomed by rows of saints, gesticulating eagerly in stone from alcove or roof line, the interior was full of mingling curves of columns, altars and sculpted groups, breaking up the solidity of side walls, leading up to an illusionist ceiling that became a source that provided light to the inside. The ceilings were decorated with angels and people of fame or virtue, streaming upwards into the distant clouds of heaven (Historyworld, n.d).

Frescos were predominant Roman style architectural revelations. The Romanesque and Gothic St Marys Cathedral, built between the 9th and 14th centuries, featured impressive frescos, an 11th-century bronze portal, a Romanesque crypt, and paintings by Hans Holbein the Elder. The survival of a few twelfth-century windows displaying the prophets (see photo at the end) are among the oldest stained glass windows in German churches (HHOG, 2006).

Erfurts landmark is dwarfed by Mariendom (Cathedral of Mary) and the Severikirche (St. Severus Church). The churches are standing examples of German architectural masterpieces of gothic style. The Gloriosa (1497) (see photo), also called, the queen of bells, has been praised for centuries for her magnificent sound. Inside the cathedral one sees the impressive gothic choir with its colorful cycle of stained glass windows that number 13 in all. They are over 40 feet high and are considered to be among the greatest works of medieval stained glass art. The Cathedral houses many noteworthy treasures of art created over the centuries. A wide and impressive open air stairway leads up from the Cathedral Square to the Cathedral and the Church of St. Severus (HHOG, 2006).

4.0 Summary

Roman architecture dates back in time when Greek architecture was at its best. Many of the Greek style have been perfected by the Romans and this was evident in the way they built their churches. The Pantheon was an example of Roman architectural excellence, for the structure used some of the most complicated designs and shapes to defy logic. The Roman Christian churches remain one of the most brilliant discoveries in architectural history. Their style of designing and construction was achieved through ways of assimilating and rejecting various precedents, such as the Greek temple, the Roman public and private buildings, and the synagogue.

5.0 Illustrations

The Pantheon: Photo Courtesy:

Twelfth-century windows displaying the prophets are said to be the oldest stained glass windows in Germany
Photo Courtesy:

Cathedral and Church
Photo Courtesy:

6.0 Bibliography

Ancient Roman Architecture,
Reading: Architecture, chapter four, pp. 159169

Early Christian Architecture,

Prof. Thomas Gordon Smith, Viturvius on Architecture,

Hanno-Walter Kruft, A History of Architectural Theory: From Vitruvius to the Present, 1996, Princeton Architectural, ISBN 1568980108

Warwick Ball, 2000, Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire, Routledge, London, ISBN 0415243572

Historyworld Index Search, HISTORY OF ARCHITECTURE, Baroque as a style: 17th 18th century AD,

HHOG, Historic Highlights of Germany, Dom (Cathedral), Augsburg: The German Renaissance,

HHOG, Historic Highlights of Germany, Erfurt: The Medieval City, Mariendom (Cathedral of Mary) and Severikirche (St. Severus Church)

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