One of the rarely acknowledged benefits of the erosion of the monuments of ancient sites is the revelation of the sculptural substructures that support the ornamented surfaces. As the incredibly articulated and often quite delicate leaves, flowers, wings, etc. are worn away by the abrasions of time, we get to see what was hidden in the finished work: the work that went into sculpting the undercut parts.
A plaster cast of a large section of the entablature of the Temple of Vespasian, seen in the Tabularium, (part of the Capitoline Museums, beneath the Palazzo Senatorio), was the first piece that really drew my attention to this. The multiple moldings of this florid Corinthian ornament seem almost to be assembled from separate bits of stone rather than sculpted from a single massive block. The eggs of the egg and dart molding can be seen to be smoothly rounded as deeply as one can see, with no visible marks from the stone drills and chisels. This despite the fact that, apart from about thirty percent of the front face of the egg, the largest portion would have been hidden behind the surrounding molding. This not only makes that area invisible, it also makes it extremely difficult to carve and smooth. Yet there it is, clearly seen in the photo below. While this is a plaster cast piece in the museum, it is accurate to what is there, and the same type of carving can be seen elsewhere on similar original pieces.
|Section of the entablature of the Temple of Vespasian in the Roman Forum, built in the first century AD. This temple was relatively small (for the forum), so there would only have been around 250 feet of this! It was also carved on its inner aspect.|
The lower egg and leaf molding is equally stunning, with almost free standing leaves surrounding each egg, and tiny flowers and vines carved on the face of each one (Click on the photo for a closer view.) Incredible when you consider the overall number of these on the exterior of the temple, and that (to my knowledge) they had no glue for fixing a broken bit, again quite incredible considering the delicacy of many of the parts. These obviously were carved in place, as it would have been quite impossible to get them into place without some damage to the ornament.
With the overall amount of ornament on the building, there must have been hundreds of craftsmen who were capable of this technical work banging away up on the scaffold every day; the sound must have been deafening! While it is almost certain that a good portion of these sculptors would have been slaves, skilled work was often paid for, and in some cases, might have bought the slave's freedom. The flip side being that mistakes were most likely paid for in some not so pleasant ways.
|Detail of a Corinthian capital on the Temple of Mars Ultor, built by Caesar Augustus around 20 BC. You can see here the level of detail on the wings, which would have been virtually invisible at their height.|
|Rosette from the soffit of Temple of Mars Ultor. Each layer of the flowers is almost entirely distinct from the other. The egg and dart molding is similarly separated|
|Capital and entablature from a modern pre-cast company shows that the depth of shadows in the Roman originals is much more dramatic.|
The Roman examples I have shown are from the early Imperial age (27 BC to 50 AD) corresponding to the 2nd and 3rd styles of painted decoration, which were the most painstaking and detailed, so partly it may have just been a cultural zeitgeist that briefly valued highly the attention to detail shown here, and had the resources in both the funds and the highly skilled artists available to make it happen. Other pieces from around the empire are certainly impressive, but rarely quite as detailed as what was found in the capitol city at this time.
There may also be some credence to the idea that because these ornaments were going on major new temples, that they had better be pleasing to both the clients and the gods they honored, with no shortcuts. It would be equivalent to the work done for St Peter's Basilica, or the Pyramids and monuments of Egypt, where they looked at the work as something sacred.
It will be interesting to see if new methods of creating moldings, such as the 3D printers that are increasingly being used industrially, will be used to create deeper versions of these patterns. It would seem to make sense, as this complex undercutting does not add time to the printing, and in fact it lessens the materials used, a benefit to both the cost of production and the weight of building. Artist Michael Hansmeyer has already created full size highly perforated columns using computer aided cutting, though his design module is uses mathematically generated modules rather than traditional structures. It will be up to a new generation that is familiar with computational modeling AND values the traditional design process to take the next step.