Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Source of the Aqua Traiana Found

Aqueducts are among Ancient Rome's most famous engineering achievements. Today, many impressive ruins can be seen throughout the Roman world, including in Rome itself. In fact some Roman aqueducts are still used today, including the restored Aqua Virgo and Aqua Traiana, which feed the Trevi Fountain and Fontana dell'Acqua Paoa respectively. Famous as they are, some Roman aqueducts have also held an air of mystery. The source of one aqueduct in particular, the Aqua Traiana, has long been a secret. Lake Bracciano has fed the aqueduct since ancient times, but the Aqua Traiana's exact starting point has been unknown until now. On the shore of Lake Bracciano, a pair of amateur archaeologists have discovered underground chambers, beneath a 13th century church, which they believe is the source of the aqueduct. The chambers exhibit typicall Roman opus reticulatum masonry and vaulted ceilings. The team's findings have yet to be confirmed by professional archaeologists, but if this is the true source of the Aqua Traiana, it would be an amazing find.

Aqueducts were common not only in the city of Rome, but were an instrument of 'Romanization' throughout the Mediterranean. The first aqueduct built in Rome was the Aqua Appia, built in 312 BCE. Aqueducts were usually named for the person responsible for building them, in this case the Appius Claudius Caecus the Censor. Many aqueducts were constructed during the Republic, and once emperors came to power, aqueducts were often named after them: the Aqua Claudia, finished by Claudius and the Aqua Traiana, built by Trajan. By the time the Aqua Alexandrina was built in 226 BCE, there were 11 aqueducts feeding Rome. The fresh water brought into Rome by these engineering feats greatly helped sanitary conditions in Rome and after the fall of the empire, such measures would be neglected for centuries. In the provinces, aqueducts helped spread sanitation and Roman culture. Some famous examples are the Nimes aqueduct (known for the Pont du Gard) and the aqueduct in Segovia, Spain.
Aqueducts in general are more impressive to an engineer than anyone else. Most are simply masonry channels that carry water from one point to another, with a very slight gradients. What is most impressive today are the massive structures built to compensate for terrain. Valleys and gorges had to be tamed in order to keep gravity working in the aqueduct's favor. The Pont du Gard in France is probably the most famous example of this type of architecture, which is synonymous with Rome itself. These structure are what people think of when they hear the word aqueduct, but in reality these bridges only represent tiny stretches of aqueducts, which are usually tens of miles long.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Where do Artifacts Belong?

Italy is at it again. This time their target is the famous 'Victorious Youth,' currently located at the Getty Villa in California. The statue is exceptional in the fact that it is bronze and Greek, a very rare combination in surviving ancient art. Italy's case is this: the statue was fished out of the sea near Fano, Italy in 1964 and subsequently illegally smuggled out of the country, later to be purchased by the Getty. The Getty's version is the same, minus the 'illegally smuggled' part. I'm sure both sides have what they believe to be concrete evidence supporting their case and it's going to be difficult to determine who acted in good faith and who didn't. The Getty's track record regarding stolen antiquities is certainly tarnished, but the Italians may also be accused of trying to drain other countries of antiquities for their own political purposes.

Does it matter that the 'Victorious Youth' may be stolen? Of course it does. Looting archaeological sites for objet d'art is not only illegal, but it irreversibly damages the archaeological record and prevents us from learning more about the past. Ancient art is concerned with far more than just aesthetics. Examining ancient art in context can tell us a great deal about the ancient world as a whole. So, if the 'Victorious Youth' was stolen, then what? Should it be returned to Italy or left in California? These are hard questions to answer but there are several things to take into consideration. First, who has the right to 'own' our cultural heritage and does it matter who owns it? Just because the current Italian state resides on the same land that the Romans did doesn't necessarily make them cultural heirs. The Roman Empire was huge, covering land from Scotland to Iraq. So who gets to claim they are the cultural heirs of Rome? Also, this is a Greek statue we're talking about, one that was probably stolen by the Romans. Does Greece have a claim to this statue then? The important issue here is the study of the statue and its treatment. If Italy had the statue, would it be as well cared for and studied as it has been at the Getty? I don't see why the Getty can't admit wrongdoing (if that was the case) yet still keep the statue. If Italy was actually concerned with the welfare of the statue, they should be happy that it has been so well cared for.
The 'Victorious Youth' is seen by tens of thousands of tourists a year, exposing them to ancient art and culture. Ancient artifacts are meant to be studied, appreciated and shared. What would Italy, especially Fano, do with it? Political bickering and scholarship don't make good bedfellows. Italy may posture all it wants, but what is really at stake here is something beyond national pride. What Italy and other countries should be doing is focusing their efforts on illegal looting and smuggling that's happening right now. Museums across the world have put in place strict guidelines regarding the purchase of antiquities to help stem looting. Punishing institutions for what they did in the past, under leadership that's long gone, is not the way to fix the problem. A mass exodus of antiquities from world museums is also not the answer. Did the Getty buy stolen goods? In the case of the 'Victorious Youth,' perhaps and in other cases most definitely. The question of who owns such artifacts is debatable and I'm not prepared to answer it. What I do know is that scholarship should have no national boundaries and that Italy's demand that the 'Victorious Youth' be given to them is not productive.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Ancient Roman Perspectives

Art is meant to be seen. If you go to any art museum, you will see throngs of people examining all types of art, often contorting themselves to get the right perspective or to see certain details. I'm guilty of this; I can only image what the museum guards think of me as I twist my body and practically do handstands to get a certain exact view of some Roman statue or Greek coin. How people interact with art is a big part of my interest in ancient art. In particular, I am interested how ancient people viewed their art, why they created it and what it meant to them. Today, we view ancient artifacts in a museum setting, thinking of them as relics from a lost world. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, thought, their art was contemporary and alive, created for their every day use. How ancient people viewed their art can tell us a lot about their perspectives, but unfortunately literary evidence on such perspectives is scarce. We must instead look at the archaeological record and disseminate what information we can.

So, how did the ancient audience view their art? That's a question not easy to answers, but Martin Beckmann from the University of Western Ontario is on the case. To better understand how the Romans viewed their art, he examined the Alexander Mosaic, one of the most famous objet d'art of the Roman world. The mosaic, from the House of the Faun at Pompeii, was repaired many times in antiquity, and based on those repairs, Beckmann established the zones worn the most by feet. These zones indicate where the most foot traffic was and hence tells us were people stood to view the mosaic. I think his theory is sound and by examining art in this way, we can learn how such works were viewed and what aspects appealed to contemporary audiences. The zones that have the most foot traffic are interesting for several reasons. First, zones 1 and 2 would have given the viewer a panorama of the scene, but it would appear up-side-down. I find this very strange and wonder what Beckmann thinks about this. The other zones are obvious for their placement; they are located near scenes of intense emotion and it is clear that such scenes would have appealed to the Romans viewing the work. What isn't addressed in this article, but which would be of much interest to myself, is the pattern of foot traffic throughout this room and the entire house. Are some of the repair zones merely the result of being passively walked over, not a result of people 'touring' the mosaic? We must always keep an open mind and continually ask such questions to keep scholarship on its toes and to uncover the answers that the archaeological record holds. I think Beckmann's work in wonderful and feel that such research is key to our better understanding ancient art and what it meant to ancient society.