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Late antique: an art of transition!

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What is Late Antique? Well it is really not easy to affirm uniquely what is late antique art,both because it is difficult to establish the date of its beginning,and because it is come to the fore thanks to a range of trasformations social,politics,economic and religious as well. Conventionally is placed betweeb III ad IV century the period of greater impulse of Late Antique but it doesn’t make much sense to determine the exact year of the beginning and end of this way to perform art. What is certain about Late Antique is that it was a period of breakdown compared to classic hellenistic art. The new artistic expression was not so new since it took its cue from that plebeian provincial art that it had always been relegated to a lesser art during Roman empire. At first art historians branded Late Antique as a period of decadence since it was completely different from harmony and formal perfection of ancient classic art,that is greek hellenistic art which deeply influenced roman art and not only. This alleged “decadence” suggested decline of the artistic skills especially techique,but actually this was a premature and superficial judgment that indeed was reviewed by historians nineteenth-century who renamed Late Antique as a period of “change of taste” or “new trend” rather than decadence. In the decades following even such theory about “change of taste” was revised and it was established that Late Antique represented perfectly the society of that time since it was born due to specific historical,political and economic events. What was the cause of breakdown of classical schemes? Surely there were a range of events which led to the abandonment of elegant and harmonious shapes of hellenistic art and among them there were, without doubt, the barbarian invasions and Christianity. But not only. The economic situation of Roman empire was no longer stable flourishing as in the beginning and this led the empire on the edge of crisis to every succession. Economic crises becoming more and more common due to the strong inflation of the currency contributed to the impoverishment of the lower middle classes and this fact sharpened the sense of instability and uncertainty all over the empire. It goes without saying emperor tried to reverse course and sometimes it looked like they were able to achieve the feat but it lasted a short time. The last attempt was tried by Diocletian with the experiment of Tetrarchy which consisted in the partitionig of Empire into four parts each of which governed by an administrator but even this attempt failed miserably. The instability of Empire was not resolved not even with simple principle of inheritance wanted by Constantine indeed it got to the point that the Senate had no more power besides formal one. The power of state structures fell into the hands of rural and provincial bourgeoisie which was always opposed to the Roman aristocracy which had always been expression of the Senate. All this social and economic overturning caused incertain for the future as well as anxiety and anguish, sometimes even disperation but also a sense of social revolt. Clearly all of that had repercussions on art, that as we know,is expression and mirror of society. The desire to escape from reality expressed itself in isolation and estrangement from rationality to find refuge in the metaphysical world through irrational thinking. This deep spiritual crisis led to birth of three currents of thought; the first philosophical linked to Neoplatonism of Plotinus,the second pagan connected with new mistery religions and the third related to Christianity.

Late Antique brought great innovations pretty revolutionary at the time and we can sum up them as follow:

  • Perspective overturned on one level;
  • The proportions between figures no more according to nature but on the basis of a moral hierarchy;
  • The main characters were depicted frontally;
  • You perceive an abstraction and autonomy of single elements;
  • The human figure is no longer noble as for the Greeks but it become a simple decorative element sometimes twisted and warped;

The study of artistic production during the third century is not simple since there is a lack of dated of artworks and we can notice a big difference about style so it is not possible to recognize a coherent development. Art of such period concerns mainly sarcophagi more or less large which were decorated with hunting scenes or mythological but there was not lack of scenes about sages and muses. During the period of the Tetrarchy the most representative monument is precisely the monument to the Tetrarchs in which we can notice the almost total lack of Hellenistic influences. In this century were built several imperial palaces such as those of Antioch and Spalato even though we have to say that, sadly, the vast majority are reduces to ruins. Worth mentioning even the monuments were built by Galerius in Thessaloniki among which palace,the Arch of Triumph,circus and mausoleum. Moreover we need to remember that in the period of the Tetrarchy still we can notice alternately between hellenistic style and late antique indeed historians attribute to Arch of Constantine the departure point of Late Antique but also a sort of “trait d’union” between hellenism and new manner.

Arch of Constantine,the most important example of Late Antique

In the following century,which meansthe fourth,the most important artworks are to be counted in the field of architecture indeed there is a massive buildings of churches and basilicas especially in Rome,Constantinople,Milan,Ravenna but even in Holy Land where we need to mention the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem that has been restored and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.Self-evidently in Rome we must remember the Basilica of St.Peter in the Vatican that is also the biggest basica in the world and the Basilica of St.John Lateran but we must also remember that we don’t know the original appearance of the two buildings. Regrettably many works among which mosaics,decorative paintings in the churches,sculptures and sarcophagi have been lost but from the little we have,it can be deduced that Late Antique shows the same features of gradual separation from harmony and classicism Greek Hellenistic,to reflect,with its shapes sometimes twisted and not very harmonious,the period of turmoil and changes faced by people.


Even if it was an art of transition Late Antique was very important because other than break the ancient canons led art towards the Middle Ages which would have in turn gave rise to new art forms such as the famous byzantine art and caroligian one…but this is another story.

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