Roman fresco from the Villa Boscoreale, 43–30 BC
Courtesy: Metropolitan Museum of Art
Written by Shantel Susan, Art Consultant & Founder of Shantel’s Art & Design Inc.
The question of how the merging of various cultures at end of the Roman Empire influenced future interior design; the following will endeavor to address. The cultures that were merged included the Romans, Christians and to a lesser extent, the persons of Germanic heritage (Visigoths, Huns, Anglo-Saxons, etc).
By AD 410, Rome was no longer the capital city of the Western Roman Empire, as the Germanic persons (who dominated the army) had overtaken the West. Thereafter, the Roman Empire was in serious decline in the West, but in the East the capital City of Constantinople, remained under Roman rule. During this time the East had readily embraced the virtues of Christianity to a greater majority than in the West.
When the great Emperor Constantine, convinced that the God of Christians had guided him to victory over Maxentius, he decided to create an atmosphere of religious tolerance and this began a fairly rapid infusion of this new religion into Roman society. Until that time, Christians were forced to worship in their private homes as the Romans were pagan in belief and had no tolerance for this perceived cult. The already existing architecture and design in the Roman basilicas with their rectangular halls with aisles (mainly used as courtrooms) were physically suited to the requirements of church gatherings. This design would be repeated in the public churches that had already been constructed in the East and would be an influence for future Christian buildings in the West.
It is worth noting the most profound influences on architecture and design was the impact of Christianity on the historically pagan Romans; this convergence of a new culture into an ancient and established one, gave rise to an interesting array of new buildings. Given Roman architecture made its most significant contribution in the creation of the columns and arches, predominantly using concrete material, it is not surprising the effect this had on subsequent architectural designs. An example is the Porta Nigra, located in Trier, West Germany (ancient Augusta Trevirorum) although unfinished it was constructed with an interior rectangular hall with a wooden, coffered ceiling. The arch and apse were decorated with marble incrustation and mosaics with the arched windows were brightly lit. Lead-framed panes were used for window glass to decorate the large, blank walls. The building was created as a structure that could defend itself if under attack however, its design was still intended to behold the image that was reminiscent of the glory days of ancient Rome. It had the Roman architectural features of Colosseum-arch order but with a rather indelicate, roughness that reveals a more provincial influence. It is worth noting that The Porta Nigra was vast and built in such a way that it could essentially be converted to a church.
Another creation was the villa at Piazza Armerina in Sicily that has many of the porticoes, basilica, aqueducts and other architectural attributes of the typical Roman building. The interior boasts an impressive 7,000 square feet of floor mosaic showing a variety of Roman themes that include wildlife, vegetation and scenes from mythology. Friezes are also presented using distinct pagan themes of mythology, imagery and everyday life scenes. The significance of these designs is they were created during the Christian period, although clearly in reverence to the earlier Roman influences of architecture and design.
In general, it is interesting how the Churches were rather void of decoration on the exterior and quite resplendent in the interior. The design of the mosaics, were intended to exhibit Christian beliefs that were shown in the use of larger stones, allowing the view of the tesserae’s uneven edges left to maximize reflected light and the in keeping the designs uncomplicated in order for them to be seen clearly at a distance. Colour use was bold and bright, not blended as was the norm in authentic Roman designs. Although, the extensive use of marble was used in this design that indicates the choice of interior material was decidedly Roman. Classical and anti-Classical forms and images co-exist throughout this time with “richly decorated interiors with colors of gold, blue and delicate green . . .”1
Wall painting and mosaics provided picturesque presentations with the emphasis placed on large, expansive windows that magnified the natural light.
In Rome, prior to departing to the East, Constantine erected the Basilica of Constantine in AD 310-320. The Roman style architecture was again shown in coffered vaults, brick-faced concrete material and was on a grand, spacious scale. The interior was richly marbled and stuccoed and had a vast amount of light that emitted through the space. These were all typical Roman designs that were again evident.
Another example of the merging of cultures included Old St. Peter’s church. This and other Christian churches were constructed to incorporate design features of the Romans. Highly visible in the Old St. Peter’s church, these designs included catacomb chapels, basilicas and imperial audience halls. With regard to the interior it was “one of the most spacious, most imposing, and most harmonious . . . ever built.”2 The splendor of the interior marble designs and mosaics even rivaled the most pagan assembled halls of the Roman era. Previously, Roman exteriors were more decorative, but now the emphasis was placed on creating more brilliant interiors.
Other evidence that the Roman Empire retained its greatness, particularly with respect to the Byzantine Empire in the East, was found in Constantinople, a city that Constantine built on the site of ancient Byzantium, was the building of churches for the public. The construction of the Hagia Sophia church was a profound example of the richness in interior design that exemplified the desire to present the new-found prominence of the church and exhibited rich interior lining of mosaics in geometric patterns and carved choir screens. The Greco-Roman past was inevitable even in this new-found Christian capital city of the Roman Empire.
It is important to note that while Constantine wanted to promote the Christian faith, he also was considerate of those citizens that preferred to remain with their pagan beliefs. Therefore, it would appear the real “merging” of cultures was in Constantine’s attempt to simultaneously accommodate both of these views. The Germanic influences on the West, though not directly apparent, were seen in the retaining of Roman design influences in the West while in the East the creation of Byzantine, Christian structures were directly inspired by Roman design.
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Miller, E., 16th-century Italian ornament prints in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 1999, p. 255 (cat. 70b).
Reissue of an earlier print by Agostino Veneziano from the early 1530s.
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Pile, John, Color in Interior Design, ISBN 0070501653 / 9780070501652, 1997, Page 189
Kenneth Conant, Early Medieval Church Architecture (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1942), p. 6.