Rome Don’t Cost A Thing: A Great Architecture Course From Yale

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.

Nero

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.

Jones

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.

Bank

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.

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Coffee With Caligula: Ancient Roman Artifact Rediscovered In New York Apartment

An interesting story that has been making the rounds in the art and archaeology press of late has been the rediscovery, inside a Park Avenue apartment, of a mosaic from one of the ships built for the Roman Emperor Caligula in the 1st century AD. Caligula had luxurious pleasure craft for the use of himself and his entourage when he visited the imperial villa located on Lake Nemi a small resort town about 20 miles south of Rome, which were covered in statuary, mosaics, and other fine materials. It turns out that this particular floor section went missing sometime around World War II, and ended up in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where it had been converted into the top for a coffee table. The owner of the piece has – understandably reluctantly – returned it to Italian authorities, and you can read more about the unusual circumstances involved in this story here.

mosaic

Caligula was a bit of a nut, as you probably remember from your World History class, who succeeded his Great-Uncle Tiberius to the Imperial Roman throne. Among other bizarre acts best not shared here, he infamously made his horse a Inciatus a priest, and was considering making him a Roman Consul, as well. Following his assassination by the Praetorian Guard, he was succeeded by his uncle Claudius, whose fictionalized two-volume autobiography by Robert Graves – “I, Claudius” and “Claudius the God” – is not only an absolute page-turner, but also the basis for one of the most engrossing TV miniseries ever produced. If you’ve not seen it, you definitely need to make that a priority at some point.

At Lake Nemi, Caligula had more to do than simply float about all day, soaking up the sun. The imperial family owned at least one villa by the lake shore, and could take excursions to interesting sites around the perimeter. I’ve always been particularly fascinated by one of these locations, the Temple of Diana Nemorensis, which is located on the north end of the lake. Although it no longer exists, it was a very ancient site of pagan worship, dating back at least to at least the 4th century BC, and had a rather bizarre ritual associated with it, which will call to mind a scene from “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade” involving Indy and the ancient crusader.

The presiding priest at the Temple of Diana Nemorensis was known as the Rex (“King”) Nemorensis, and held that position against all comers only for so long as he could best those who would seek to supplant him in physical combat. If a sitting occupant was killed, then the man who bested him would become the new Rex Nemorensis. By long-standing tradition, only runaway slaves were eligible to compete for the position.

Rex

Not only did Caligula allow this practice to continue during his reign, but there are stories that he enjoyed watching the ritual take place. In fact, so much did he enjoy this rather gruesome day trip whenever he was in town, that according to the Roman historian Suetonius the emperor once sent one of his own slaves to fight the sitting Rex Nemorensis, since Caligula felt that the current priest-king had held his position for too long. There’s no word on who won, but no doubt both men, in their way, were going to lose, whatever the outcome.

You can see some of the remains of Caligula’s ships at a museum located near Lake Nemi today. There are many interesting objects that were once part of these vessels, but my personal favorites are the bronze animal heads – including lions, wild boar, and panthers – with rings in their mouths, which were used to help tow the boats around the lake (they could float but were too heavy to properly row or sail.) Presumably, the coffee table fit for an emperor will soon be rejoining them.

lions

Thought-Pourri: Art News Roundup

I’m continuing with this weekly roundup of interesting news items about art, architecture, and design, because so far it seems readers are reacting positively. I’ve not settled on a permanent title for this feature, so if anyone cares to make suggestions on a more clever moniker, please share your thoughts in the comments! And now, on to the roundup.

Event: “Beauty and the Restoration of the Sacred”

This looks to be quite an event, if you are going to be in the Chicago area on October 29th – but you need to act now.

The Catholic Art Guild will be holding a day-long conference titled “Beauty and the Restoration of the Sacred” at The Drake Hotel (my favorite watering hole in the Windy City), featuring some of today’s most prominent voices advocating for the creation, preservation, and greater appreciation of beautiful art. The speakers will be writer and philosopher Sir Roger Scruton, architect Duncan Stroik, art/architecture professor Dr. Denis McNamara, and artist Anthony Visco. If you’re a fellow conservative interested in the arts, these are all individuals with whom you are already very, very familiar. The opportunity of getting to hear and meet all of them at the same event is an opportunity not to be missed.

The day will begin with Latin High Mass at the magnificent Baroque Revival church of St. John Cantius, which is without question the most beautiful church in Chicago, and then proceed to The Drake for presentations, dinner, and a concluding panel discussion. Frankly, if I could manage it with my schedule, I’d be there myself. So you’ll have to attend for me, and share your reactions with the rest of us in the Comments section.

PLEASE NOTE: Tickets must be purchased in advance, as they will not be available at the door, and you *must* book by Monday, October 23rd.

Conference

New Exhibit: Norwegian Nonsense

By way of complete contrast to the preceding, but demonstrating why such conferences are critical in this day and age, the four finalists for this year’s Lorck Schive Kunstpris – the most “prestigious” art prize in that country – are now on display at the Trondheim Kunstmuseum. Among these, perhaps the silliest is Mattias Härenstam’s “Limitation”, which features a dead birch tree attached to pulleys that drag the dessicated specimen around the gallery. I’m sure this is all very profound if you’re a Norwegian atheist with more bad taste than brains, but not falling into any of those categories myself, my recommendation would be to just ignore this show entirely, and instead go explore Trondheim’s superb Nidaros Cathedral, built between about 1000-1300 A.D.

Trondheim

Follow Up: Dalí, Disinterred

Regular readers will recall from these pages my reports on the long-standing efforts of psychic Pilar Abel to prove that she was the illegitimate offspring of the great Catalan Surrealist Salvador Dalí (1904-1989), as the result of a (ahem) dalliance which she claimed took place between her mother and the artist back in the 1950’s. After many years of wasting everyone’s time and resources in several unsuccessful attempts to establish her paternity claim, it appears that the courts have finally had enough. A judge in Madrid has now dismissed the suit, and ordered Ms. Abel to pay associated costs, including those incurred during the disinterment of the artist’s remains back in July.

Dali

New Exhibit: Dalí, Designer

Speaking of Salvador Dalí, one genuine, platonic partnership which the artist actively engaged in during his lifetime was with Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli (1890-1973). To mark their many years of collaboration, the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida has just opened a new exhibition examining the work of the artist and the couturier, running through January 14th. Although today Schiaparelli is far less known than her contemporary and rival, Coco Chanel, for several decades until her retirement in the early ‘50’s, Schiaparelli was a force to be reckoned with in the design world, creating haute couture for women who wanted something more edgy than the more sensible, minimalist designs presented by Chanel. Schiaparelli collaborated with Dalí on a number of designs which blurred the line between art and clothing, including the famous “Lobster Dress”, worn here by the infamous Duchess of Windsor.

Windsor

New Exhibit: French King, Dutch Art

Another exhibition worth taking in, should you be so fortunate as to find yourself in Paris in the coming months, is “François I and Dutch Art”, which has just opened at The Louvre and runs until January 15th. King François I of France – sometimes jokingly referred to as, “Le Roi Nez” due to his prominent beak – was a major art collector and patron at the dawn of the French Renaissance. He famously managed to coax an elderly Leonardo Da Vinci to leave Italy, and go into semi-retirement at a country house located near the king’s principal residence in the Loire Valley. As this new exhibition points out however, François’ substantial art collection included much more than just the “Mona Lisa”, as he was particularly keen on acquiring or commissioning altarpieces, portraits, and scenes of everyday life from contemporary Dutch artists. Among the most interesting works is this very early genre scene by Bartholomeus Pons (active 1518-1541), depicting workers taking barrels down into a wine cellar. The picture has the crystalline precision one expects of Dutch painting from this period, combined with keen observations of everyday life, and a superb understanding of the complexities involved in rendering believable architectural perspective.

Pons