Treasures of Ancient Rome is an excellent new BBC4 series examining the changing styles of Roman art and its uses. Roman art is an understudied area, and presenter Alastair Sooke is seeking to debunk the myth that the Romans’ art was unoriginal and uninspiring and to raise the profile of art of this period. The art included in this broad category is varied, with widespread influences and geographical locations.
Sooke’s documentary groups the art into 3 programmes; how the Romans pioneered warts ‘n’ all realism, the artistic legacy of Rome’s emperors, and art during the fall of the Roman Empire. The realistic style of early Roman art gives us a unique insight into how these Romans looked and how they wanted to be perceived – as wise and experienced, including wrinkles and receding hairlines. It was not until the Emperor Augustus that Roman art sought to portray people as charismatic, youthful and handsome.
The second episode focuses on the patronage of emperors and their use of art as a status symbol and as a means of propaganda. We see the wide geographical spread of Roman art and the variety of locations where it was found; Sooke explores the remains of the pleasure palace of Emperor Claudius (now submerged underwater), the cave where Tiberius held wild parties and the Pantheon in Rome. Next week, we will see the art that flourished throughout the Empire in places such as Libya and Egypt. The series really gives a sense of the scale of the Roman Empire and the extent of its influence on the ancient world.
Throughout the series Sooke also watches modern artists recreate art using Roman techniques, giving us a clear idea of the way that this art was made. It is fascinating to see how these ancient pieces of art were formed from marble, bronze, or even egg yolk and pigment. Both the ancient and modern art provide for a visually dynamic and interesting series.
Sooke’s has an obvious passion for the subject and he is always engaging; he’s a natural communicator. As in his 2010 series Modern Masters he has the ability to make everything interesting through his enthusiasm and intelligent presentation. Sooke’s excellent presentation, and a wide and interesting subject matter, make this series thoroughly engaging.