Art History Symposium Looked at Long Impact of Rome

templeton symposium
Alan Templeton, center, with Diane Favro and Nina Dubin

“The Life and Afterlife of Ancient Roman Architecture,” the fifth installment of the Templeton Colloquium in Art History, took place at UC Davis Feb. 10. Diane Favro, associate dean, School of the Arts and Architecture at UCLA, and Nina Dubin, associate professor of art history, University of Illinois, Chicago, gave presentations at the well-attended event to about 160 people.

Favro’s talk, “Wall, Stone, and Column: Process as Power in Augustan Rome,” examined how Augustus, the first Roman emperor from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D., transformed Rome from a city of brick to one of marble. The claim is somewhat unjustified, she noted, because his building projects were only a small part of the entire city. Still he used them to bolster his hold on absolute power.

“Augustus was an expert manipulator,” she said.

Building as civic event

Even so, the construction or major reconstruction of 80 temples, the Forum, the Pantheon and the Arch of Augustushad an impact on how Romans viewed themselves and the city. The city was in a continuous state of construction, filled with towers and machines for lifting heavy stones, she said. 

“There were regular construction parades through Rome that attracted large crowds,” Favro said. Paintings and sculptures of the time commemorated the building projects, depicting workers placing stones and parades of giant marble columns through the streets. 

Nearly 2,000 years later, Rome’s ruins captivated visitors, including 18th century French painter Hubert Robert, the subject of Dubin’s talk “Hubert Robert at the Flower Strewn Abyss.” 

Uncertain time reflected in art

Paris in the 18th century was going through a building boom, with construction of the Louvre and its own Pantheon. Robert’s paintings “present Paris as a new Rome, a city in the throes of remaking itself in the image of its ancient predecessor,” she said.

They also reflect a France going through rapidly changing economic, political and social changes, she said. His paintings have “sketchy handling” and “an overall effect of imprecision” and “render the monuments as yielding as the waters of the Seine,” she said.

The instability of the times is also reflected on more intimate levels in his art. “The Accident” shows a man plummeting to his death from atop a Roman arch, still holding the flowers he’s picked for the young woman watching from below.

The title of Dubin’s talk comes from artworks of the period showing people so taken with the flowers and beauty around them—and maybe blinded by love—that they don’t realize they are standing on a ledge and ready to take a fall.

“It was,” she said, “a culture obsessed with gravity and disorder.”

The focus on ancient Rome was chosen to celebrate the careers of Lynn Roller, professor of art history who is retiring after 40 years, and new assistant professor Alexandra Sofroniew, both experts in early Mediterranean visual and material cultures. 

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science