The Arch and Pedestals of Constantine

the Great

El Arco de Constantino acuarela.jpg
The Arch of Costantino
8" x 9"
watercolor
2010

On the Censorship and banishment of Great Stories from the public realm. MORE THAN A CHANGE OF VISION.

Forget David slaying Goliath; Aeneas landing in Italy with his son Iulius by his side and his father Anchises on his shoulders; forget the Rape of Persephone.

The tradition of using sculptures to engage attention and tell ennobling stories in public urban space went out the windows designed by Courvoisier, Van der Rohe, and other modernist architects at the dawn of the XX Century. But for me the time spent in Rome sketching structures like Constantine the Great's Arch (4th century A.D.) marked an awakening and a strengthening of ideas I brought from St. John's College's Great Books Program, the University of Delaware master's studies in Spanish Literature, and from my teaching years at the SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE of the University of Miami.

Arco Cons plumilla relieve siglo 4 Batal
The Arch of  Costantino: Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312 A.D.)

detail of battle relief from west side
3.5"  x  12"
pen & ink

Near Rome's Colosseum stands the triumphal arch raised on that spot by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century A.D. to commemorate his victory over opponent Maxentius. One of the most exceptional details of this memorial is a short phrase that appears on the large inscription above the central archway. In latin, and in glorious Roman font, we can still read today that at that time the emperor conquered the tyrant and his faction,

quod instinctu divinitatis magnitudine cum exercitu suo.

The phrase means "by inspiration of the divinity and by the greatness of his own spirit."  (Of course, many of us may be familiar with the legend of Constantine's famous dream, wherein a vision of the Christian Cross and a "voiceover of Saints Peter and Paul" of how he would defeat Maxentius, a tyrant who had taken the city of Rome,  if the August Constantine would permit soldiers who wished to do so to carry the Christian symbol as their standard....)   Miraculously, says the tradition, Constantine won the battle the next day, Cross and all! But to go back to the phrase of the monument:  perhaps the epigraph's convolutedly  politically-correct way of silencing the Christian implication from the triumphal record  in the phrase "by inspiration of the divinity" may be viewed as a form of censorship. After all, in those days, Christian worship was forbidden in the Empire. However, what if ... the the ROMAN FONT inscription was revisited -- in a tour of this site or, better yet, in a drawing lesson in that urban monument -- might it not provide a rich exchange of ideas on a number of subjects, from that of divine inspiration in History to the "grammar" of urban design and to the importance of narrative heroes like Romulus in public spaces? 

Arco Constantino relieve oeste batalla A
The Arch of  Costantino
detail of battle relief from west side
8" x 9"
watercolor

The Arch of Constantine, in fact, is precisely more than a monument for us to pose next to in our photo records of travels to Rome.

 

Although nowhere on the six sides of the 3-arch Triumph does it say so, the same emperor was banning from the empire the use of gladiator slaves in circus performances such as those that made the Colosseum famous -- the same Colosseum that the marble Triumph defiantly stands next to in Rome! Nor does the Arch show us Constantino in essence calling the Council of Nicea, where Catholic Church "fathers" composed their own monument of memory: the Christian NICENE CREED, still recited by most churches, regardless of denomination, as a charter of unified beliefs and moral sense. I sometimes jokingly say that Emperor Constantine the Great, with his mother HELEN whispering the words in his ear, over his shoulder, during the Council.

 

Yes, this veritable collage of marble reliefs, columns, and statuary, collected and relocated here from previous Roman monuments, brings up a host of other subjects! Many art and architecture historians scoff at how the emperor, in his day, had to recycle older structures due to the scarcity of quality craftsmen and materials in the empire. But how about considering the albeit scarcity of such important factors and the truth of Constantine's essential making a collage of sorts both as his memorial and as his way of saying that the instinctu divinitatis that had won him his day was in itself as new and as old as Rome itself -- literally a building upon history, inspired by new Muses?

Arco Constantino relieve este batalla Ad
The Arch of  Costantino
detail of battle relief from east side
8" x 9"
watercolor

The captives ... or Manifest Destiny

Arco Cons relieve suroeste Dacios trajan

​Dacian captives ( statues transferred here from Trajan's own triumphal monuments) pose on either side of marble reliefs  (transferred from Marcus Aurelius memorials)       9 " x  12 "

watercolor

 

The Dacian or Rumanian captives --- sporting "un-Roman" barbarian beards and wearing Phrygian hats -- are my own favorite pieces of "recycled" statuary on the Arch. These figures actually are references to Constantine's predecessor, Trajan, who in the early 100s A.D. waged war north of the Danube and extended the empire to what is now Rumania. Trajan's Dacian captives are emblematic of this other emperor's reign, and they appear in both his great Column near Piazza Venezia and in many other historical sites of Rome.   


One of the first days I began sketching the Arch of Constantine, during an evening walk near the monument with a dear Belgian friend, she remarked on the beauty of the prisoners and on the "fact" that they would have probably been put to death by Trajan himself the day after they posed for the artist who sculpted their forms for
all time. "They are simply too beautiful, Jose," she lamented. Anne's almost naive juxtaposition of sentiment and history, however, made me stop and look harder at these particular 'moments" of the Arch. Suddenly, something about the prisoners' broad shoulders struck me -- what a gesture of pride and humility ! Their scruffy beards and large, bound hands; their caps; and those pilgrim capes...! I realized how such figures were more than ornament to the architecture. Like the Roman font inscription about the emperor's own divine instinct, they make the architecture of the Arch speak .   

Notably, by the Constantinean period of this particular monument, such large, free-standing statues with what we would call "correct" human proportions of head to height, and even the gestures, had disappeared from sculpture and architecture, being replaced by flatter relief patterns and a representation of figures in such heroic scenes that was more symbolic and hieratic-- the faces with the large Byzantine eyes, the muscles unseen beneath the capes and headwear, etc.  The Arch of Constantine also registers its own "contemporary" relief architecture in places, as a matter of fact, so that as a whole the structure is a monumental display of the end of classical Greek/Roman art and the beginning of Gothic, Byzantine vocabulary --- all of this containing important messages about political and aesthetic philosophy.

ArcoCons relieves marcoaurelio noroeste

​Dacian captives (Trajan's

time period) and marble

reliefs  (time of Marcus Aurelius) 

9 " x  12 "

watercolor

 

ArcoCons relieves marcoaurelio noreste D

The four Dacian prisoners of the northern side of the triumphal arch somehow made me think of the fact that Constantine himself was born in that outlying region of the Roman Empire -- obviously two hundred years after Trajan had conquered those lands and named them "Rumania," etc. This interesting birthplace for Constantine makes me think that Constantine's placement of the Dacian captives on his arch had a deeper significance, and that the figures were more than cold historical "precendents" or boasting on his part. Consider, for example, the idea of inclusion of new populations in the official monuments of the Capital of the Empire: Trajan had done this when these Captives stood in his memorials, and Constantine was echoing this theme of inclusion (colonization!) in the urban space adjacent to the Forum of his time period, two hundred years after Trajan,

The two rectangular MarcusAurelian reliefs from the same northern side of the triumphal arch do hark back to that predecessor's military campaigns in the area of what is today Germany, etc. -- but again, Constantine may have seen some deeper significance to these four scenes showing the mugnificence of the government, distributing free grain to the populace and other like events. For example, I especially meditated on the figure of the winged victory hovering over the scene of the MarcusAurelius relief on the left side (above) .  And by the same token, I was struck by the seated figure on the bottom right hand side of the second of these reliefs, probably showing Marcus Aurelius in the act of showing clemency to one of the
conquered. Clemency!

Arco Cons relieve sureste Dacio y frisos

​Dacian captives (Trajan's

time period) and marble

reliefs  (time of Marcus Aurelius)     9 " x  12 "

watercolor

 

History is the mother of Truth

"... For historians ought to be precise, truthful, and quite unprejudiced, and neither interest nor fear, nor hatred nor
affection ...  should cause them to swerve from the path of
truth, whose mother is history, the rival of time, the depository of great actions .... "
----- Miguel de Cervantes: DON QUIXOTE de la Mancha

                                                                                     1605

FVNDATOR QVIETIS.jpg

Arch of Costantino: Relief of the emperor as peacemaker of the City

8" x 9"

watercolor  

FVNDATORI QVIETIS pencil.jpg

Arch of Costantino: Relief of the emperor as peacemaker of the City

8" x 9"

pencil study

The seminal phrase , "la Historia...madre de la verdad..."  from Cervantes' novel DON QUIXOTE, is often quoted  by Spanish-speakers to impress on their listeners that these "hispano-parlantes" have read the works of this author. As the actual quote reads inside its context in DON QUIXOTE,  as one may see in the bold-type citation above on this page, a sort of seminar walk or careful drawing exercise conducted in and around Rome's Constantinian Arch, its words could be used to reflect on The Arch of Constantine.

 

First of all, as suggested several paragraphs above, the arch is hung with historical references from other periods, it is a gallery of episodes in visual narrative, and in fact it is itself a concrete piece of History ... with a capital H !   In addition, it is interesting how the various angles I had to take to draw this section of the Arch are comparable to the various angles one must take when trying to read something that purportedly reveals history. How objective can one be, really, to grasp the "truth" of things? How can I be sure I read, from my "angles," what the author was trying to say? Moreover, is there one overarching History that should be made present in the cities where we live -- in the form of such monuments? In this age of cybernetics and digital record-keeping, but also of conceptual (non-figurative) art, these are questions one may ask specifically architecture or drawing students --- the great majority of whom see as useless the"reading" of texts while they are studying design or even building techniques. Students, and for that matter Professors of these disciplines now could not be bothered with literacy.  "It is all about space," they would argue. "At most, it is about the concept!"

 

Arco Cons acuarela tondos caza de jabali

The Arch of Costantino
...The boar hunt .... and votive thanks after the hunt

 8" x 9"                               

watercolor in MONOCHROME

The very rapid, "down and dirty" watercolor sketches (ABOVE) of two more of the tondos from the time of Hadrian on the Arch of Constantine speak for themselves. The calligraphic or shorthand nature of the color stains (the "manchas") speak a thousand words. The execution of these more impulsive but nonetheless focused and accurate drawings of the round reliefs demand from the draughtsman much concentration and commitment.  In fact, they also demand reading. Literacy. Below, my pen & ink diagram or "analytique" of one side of the Arch was the product of searches on the internet and of works in paper -- books, etc. -- on the Arch; but I also availed myself of binoculars to be able to come up with such a reference. Why, even the "divine inspiration" epigraph is spelled out in the center of the "attic" part of the monument, between the figures of the Captives!

 

Arco Cons plumilla LECTURA.jpg
The Arch of Costantino
8" x 9"
watercolor
2012

In essence, a study of Rome's Arch of Constantine, underlines the importance of freehand drawing historical monuments on-site in a city like Rome. They also convinced me more and more of the importance of history and precedent for the student of Rome or of art and architecture in Rome. It is lamentable that so many study-abroad-programs in Rome fail to ask students to read and analyze books like the Iliad and the Odyssey or the Aeneid
while the students study Rome on-site -- based on the specious argument that such assignments would fall outside the basic curriculum's goals, exclaiming "That is for another class!"


Moreover, even though the subject of HEROISM in the teaching and learning of art and architecture should, of course, be at the heart of the "building elements" of such structures -- much of modern pedagogy frowns upon, looks down on this dimension, arguing that heroism is literally -- and sadly -- a thing of the past.

 

I began to paint the watercolor studies on this page  (above) by first composing the pencil sketch (see below) of this very large high-relief sculpture on one of the inner walls of the central arch of the Arch of Constantine.  Since a high fence surround keeps observers away from the Arch, it was a challenge for me to draw this subject accurately! Not only does one see it at a slant from outside the fence ( the inner wall of the arch is perpendicular to the viewer) but the light of the sun may cast deep shadows on the sculpture, depending on the time of day, enlarging some parts, obscuring others, etc. Also, since the sculpture is high relief, one must view the work from both ends and comprehend the figure in question as best one can, before one DRAWS what it is doing, what it says, as if viewed frontally. It was very important for me to work in pencil on a separate piece of paper first, figuring out what was where and why. And then, based on my findings, I had to "tweak" that same pencil drawing to make it look as the relief would if viewed frontally, etc., with more even illumination (supplied by one's intellect!). This was not only one of the most challenging moments of the Arch so far, "plasticamente" or visually, but it also invited me to reflect on the importance of history in the City -- in terms of its buildings -- a topic that was once quite dear to professors of architectural history at the University of Miami and other institutions.

Raising "truths" on pedestals

Pedestal.jpg
Pedestal uno.jpg

A pedestal is defined, in classical architecture, as the base of a column, statue, base, or obelisk. There are strict proportional rules and geometries for classical pedestals, of course, and these two watercolor depictions of pedestals of the Arch of Constantine do not reflect precise canonical ratios, etc.  My point here is to bring up how in Rome, for example, the visitor often overlooks the beauty and importance of these seemingly secondary architectural or sculptural elements, and how much their form depends on the correct proportions or geometries of their component parts--- the plinth (base), dado (central area, usually plain), and cornice (top trim). Michaelangelo's pedestal for the statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Campidoglio is one of the most handsome of these forms. But consider for a moment what would happen to one's sense of Rome if absolutely all pedestals were to be removed, wiped out of the urban space.

My own interest in the pedestals of Rome's Arch of Constantine goes back to the fact that they are significant members of the arch as a composite, since they hold up or serve as base to the four great columns with Dacian prisoner figures on each side of the triumphal form. In the course of my drawing the Constantinian pedestals, I first noticed how the dado area contained reliefs with allegorical figures such as prisoners, soldiers, etc., and also remarked how the style of these relief figures is less than classical. But I also thought about the meaning contained in pedestals -- a meaning that (through habit and wear) may have become lost to us and that I think we need to remember. I realized, from "reading" and subsequently painting the watercolors of these areas of the Arch, that pedestals are as important to the composition as the events depicted themselves.


I thought, in fact, of a good way to explain the meaning of a pedestal, after I visited Rome's new museum for contemporary art -- Zaha Hadid's MAXXI -- the National Museum of Art of the XXI Century -- a spacious exhibition complex made of steel, cement, and glass, not far from the City center. A museum where I did not see one single classical pedestal, in fact.

 

The tradition of the pedestal as an integral part of monumental, museum, or even outdoor urban architecture has to do with what I would call aristocratic or heroic art, where the spectator of the art is invited to admire and reflect on great deeds of the past (historical or mythological, poetic).  In some ways, when we put objects or figures on "pedestals" we in effect raise them for all people to see or notice -- mainly due to respect and to invite imitation of what those figures represent. By contrast, the kind of exhibition spaces we enter when we visit museums like Rome's MAXXI seem to be devoted to a more so-called CONCEPTUAL art, or to experiments dealing with the nature of space itself or with the materials or mediums of expression.  It strikes me that by contrast to Rome's other
well-known museums, like Villa Borghese, Gallery Doria Pamphilj, or the Vatican Collections, to name a few, there is at present not a single element or theme put on the "pedestals" of the MAXXI -- for the visitor to admire or ponder --and this may have something to do with the fact that these other, more traditional museums exhibit artistic
representations of figures like David slaying Goliath, Aeneas, or Julius Caesar, whose stories concern themes of friendship, sacrifice, or courage. 

My insistence in drawing PEDESTALS, one might argue, is totally unrelated to contemporary art or its more notorious museum spaces. But it is precisely because Constantine's pedestals are more than pedestals -- because they consist of heroic figures and narrative in addition to trim and plinth -- that I find them engaging. The heroic figures on the dado area, as a matter of fact,  seem to be emerging from inside the form, they seem
to be alive inside the pedestals, reminding us of an inner narrative component to pedestal design and perhaps of the importance of the heroic, aristocratic element in our cities !

 

ArcoCons tondos y relieve constantio nor

From Classical Roman to Romanesque

Arco Cons acuarela tondos caza de jabali

The Arch of Costantino
...The boar hunt .... and votive thanks after the hunt...
and below the  tondos, in gold tones

... The Council of ...Milan? ...of NICEA ? from the 4th century A.D.--when the Arch itself was erected

 8" x 9"                               

watercolor

There's . . .  "blood" all over the watercolor figure on the left, and it is not only from the colors of the porphyry marble that frames the medallions. The blood is from the LION HUNT, which I feel Emperor Constantine read much into when he beheld the Hadrianic tondos and decided to transpose them to his own triumphal arch. Grundman's Architecture of Rome, for example, explains that Constantine's own head was grafted onto the tondos, to replace and make contemporary the Hadrianic reliefs.

In fact the figures of the second rounded image are making a thanksgiving offering to Hercules, says Filippo Coarelli in his archaeological tome of Roma, and I take this to mean that Constantine himself acknowledged the utmost importance of the hunting instinct and the act of votive thanks as essential qualities of himself as a ruler. This idea juxtaposed or underlying that of the Emperor's sanctioning of Christianity in his realm and his measures to edit circus shows like those of the Colosseum -- brings up a host of exciting subtexts for the understanding or drawing of the Arch of Constantine.

Below the medallions, in the long horizontal marble relief we see sculptural work of Constantine's era:  the proportions of the figures speak of Constantine's contemporary artists, no longer classical. In this PROCESSIONAL image I especially enjoyed seeing the consuls and advisors of the emperor's court as hybrids of the new times he was ushering in by legalizing, indeed, promoting the Christian religion in Rome. The figures in this horizontal seem to be morphing into high priests, cardinals, monsegniors -- even in their togas!

Could this be in fact a patriotic -- marble -- representation like all the others "hung" or placed on this triumphal arch, but actually about the Christian Council of NICEA, whose Creed's assertion -- "I believe in one holy, Roman, Catholic and Apostolic church" ... as being proclaimed all over the realm! ?

Arco Constantino acuarela color.jpg
The Arch of Costantino
8" x 9"
watercolor
2013
Arco Constantino acuarela lado nordeste
The Arch of Costantino: northwest small arch and sculptural elements
8" x 9"
watercolor
2013

On the Censorship and banishment of Great Stories from the public realm. MORE THAN A CHANGE OF VISION.

Forget David slaying Goliath; Aeneas landing in Italy with his son Iulius by his side and his father Anchises on his shoulders; forget the Rape of Persephone.

The tradition of using sculptures to engage attention and tell ennobling stories in public urban space went out the windows designed by Courvoisier, Van der Rohe, and other modernist architects at the dawn of the XX Century. But for me the time spent in Rome sketching structures like Constantine the Great's Arch (4th century A.D.) marked an awakening and a strengthening of ideas I brought from St. John's College's Great Books Program, the University of Delaware master's studies in Spanish Literature, and from my teaching years at the SCHOOL OF ARCHITECTURE of the University of Miami.

(Below: watercolor renderings of the main epigraph inscription of the Arch, between the two freestanding Trajan age "Dacian Captives" --- and classical tondos of the cart of the sun at Dawn and at Dusk from Hadrian's time also in the II century A.D., above in the two images, places on top of Constantine Age Triumphal Group reliefs showing the flatter space and the abrupt shift to non-classical proportions of the human figures)

Arco%20Cons%20arco%20grande%20con%20Epig
Arco Cons acuarela Venus de la Aurora y
Arco Cons acuarela Venus vespertina clas
Arco Cons Epigrafe principal.jpeg