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When we think of Greek and Roman sculpture, we tend to think of figurative sculpture, statues so life-like that it seems they could come alive at any moment and step from their plinth, as happened in the ancient myth of Pygmalion. Or we think of portrait busts. But not all Greek and Roman statuary was displayed at ground level, any more than all Greek and Roman statuary was figurative. Statuary was often placed high up on temples and on top of triumphal arches and columns or made for niches and incorporated into the multi-tiered facades of theatres. Distance and angle, and the shadows cast, changed how people related to it.

Sculpture was an important part of Greek and Roman temple-building. Sculpted pediments, metopes, columns, friezes and antefixes marked the temple as a building to rival other temples, and prepared the visitor for meeting the cult image within. Some of these elements were abstract in design, with acanthus leaves, vines and skulls as standard vocabulary. Other elements, such as the pediment and friezes, were a space to fill with figurative sculpture telling stories that related to the visitors and their gods. Inscriptions were also often an integral part of these structures. To call this carving ‘decoration’ would be to under-estimate its purpose. In its original setting, it defined the building’s function, channelled the viewer’s approach, and demarcated space.

 

 

 

The colossal caryatid on display in the Fitzwilliam Greece and Rome gallery, is one of two columns carved in the form of women that supported the southern lintel of a Roman monumental gateway at the sanctuary of Demeter at Eleusis in Greece. When the sculpture was first discovered by Cambridge Professor, E. D. Clarke, it was wrongly thought by him and by the locals to be a cult statue. But it is no less impressive for being one of a pair of caryatids, the other now in the museum at Eleusis, which were originally seen against a plain stone wall, each of them sufficiently different from the other as to accentuate their detail. This pair of caryatids functioned as a stage-post on the way out of the sacred precinct towards the great gateway beyond, a building based on the Propylaea on the Acropolis in Athens. The reference to classical Athens is reinforced by the pair of Eleusis caryatids, who echo the six caryatids that support the southern porch of the Erechtheum, also on the Athenian Acropolis. What were once pin-up girls of classical Athens have become evidence of Rome’s conquest of Greece.

 

 

Elsewhere in the gallery, two Corinthian column capitals (GR.82.1850 and GR.83.1850), said to be from the villa of the Emperor Hadrian in Tivoli, just outside Rome, are testament to the beauty of more abstract sculpted forms. They are very similar to those inside the Pantheon in Rome, the round temple that was rebuilt by Hadrian, and in keeping with the ornate marble pillars, decorative plaster work and exotic marbles that were used throughout the villa. They would have enhanced its luxury, leading the eye upwards to embrace the full expanse of space.

In private and public building, sculpture was a crucial part of the architecture and architecture, power. Today, percent for art schemes are again bringing sculpture back into the design of public building.

Further reading

John Pinto and William MacDonald, Hadrian’s Villa and its Legacy (London and New Haven, 1995).

Tony Spawforth, The Complete Greek Temples(London, 2006).

Mark Wilson Jones Principles of Roman Architecture (London and New Haven, 2000).