Yesterday afternoon, after many weeks, I finished a course at Yale University on the history and development of Ancient Roman architecture.
Well okay, not *really*.
I didn’t have to sit any exams, write any papers, or matriculate at Yale in order to take this class. Instead, I was able to watch a series of videos and read accompanying course materials from Yale art historian Diana E.E. Kleiner, Ph.D., covering the development of Roman architecture both in Rome itself and throughout the Roman imperial world. The lectures are a wonderful online resource, but they’re just one example of how you can use technology during your free time to educate yourself about subjects such as art, architecture, and design, without having to go back to school for it.
Dr. Kleiner is the Founding Director of Open Yale Courses, which provides a host of free, online courses to the general public. The closest analogy here is that it’s somewhat like auditing a class, when you don’t receive any credits or submit any work, but you’re very interested in the professor or the subject matter and want to gain greater knowledge for yourself. For me, that’s always been the most enjoyable sort of class: you’re there because you really want to be.
In this particular course, Dr. Kleiner gives an overview of the history and development of Roman architecture, from the misty legends of Rome’s founding by Romulus, all the way through the reign of the Emperor Constantine and the subsequent transfer of the imperial capital to Constantinople. There are 23 lectures in total, and each is well over an hour long. I’ve been watching them in half-hour installments during my lunch breaks for the last couple of months, although you could certainly binge-watch if you wanted to.
From the 200-series course number, my guess is that this class was designed for college sophomores, so don’t presume that the material is so specialist in nature as to be over your head. Dr. Kleiner does assume that you’ve at least heard of people and places such as Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, the city of Pompeii, and so on. But that being said, she does take the time to not only explain political and social history, but also to reinforce what she teaches. She makes a point of regularly recalling terminology, characteristics, and individuals who are important in Roman history, particularly with respect to the design and function of buildings.
Even if you are reasonably well-versed in art, architecture, and design, there is a great deal to learn here, and much to take away. For example, one strand of the course examines the evolution of Roman wall painting through four distinct, identifiable styles. After presenting the material, it’s not left by the wayside never to be referred to again. Rather, we come to see how sometimes, what at first only existed in an artist’s image painted on a wall, fuelled the imagination of later architects who executed these two-dimensional fantasies in three dimensions. Thus by the time the course examines the famous Nabataean cliff tombs in present-day Jordan – one of which is the site of the climactic conclusion of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” – we can understand how the architects combined local architectural methods and materials, as well as Greco-Roman classical design, under the influence of Roman wall painting.
Another area of knowledge which the student comes away with is an appreciation for the differences between Greek and Roman temple design, and how to recognize some of these differences more readily when encountered in everyday life. Many structures which we see on a daily basis such as government buildings, churches, and transportation centers, particularly in this country, are adaptations of Roman designs, but we regularly pass by them without thinking about what ancient buildings their architects were referencing. Dr. Kleiner’s course fundamentally alters the way that you look at such buildings, so that over time you gradually begin to appreciate the subtle differences between what might otherwise just appear to be one pseudo-temple versus another.
The First Bank of the United States in Philadelphia for example, which was built in 1795, incorporates the most important elements of Ancient Roman temple design: elements which we come to recognize as a result of Dr. Kleiner taking the time to point them and reinforce in our minds throughout the course. We can see the placement of this building on a high podium, with a façade orientation, and a deep porch with columns, all of which are characteristic of Roman temple architecture. At the same time however, thanks to the course, we come to appreciate the ways in which this building deviates from a standard Roman temple. For example, although it has the single staircase one expects on a Roman temple, rather than the wrap-around stairs of a Greek structure, this particular staircase is three-sided, which deviates from the usual Roman plan.
While I strongly urge you to consider “taking” Dr. Kleiner’s course, whether you enjoy studying architecture as much as I do or are just curious to have a better understanding of the buildings that stand around you, the most important thing for you is to take some action. There is a great wealth of material just like this available to you for free, online, 24 hours a day, from some of the best academics, experts, and commentators on the arts. All you have to do is Google it.
An often-repeated refrain on this blog over the years has been that you have a responsibility, as an educated adult, to continue to educate yourself long after you leave formal schooling behind. The onus is on you to make the effort. If you want to better understand the history and development of architecture in the Western world, this is a very fine place to start.