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Tony Grist

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Architectural Conservatism [Feb. 4th, 2008|10:00 am]
Tony Grist
Every Roman villa is like every other Roman villa. I was thinking this yesterday when the Romanists were clambering over the latest Time Team excavation and going , "Oh yes, that's a thingummywhatsit. In fact it's the best thingummywhatsit I've ever seen."

And this is how it always is. The archaeologists never find anything weird or unique. All the things that come out of the earth- floor-plans, mosaics, decorative schemes, doodads- always conform to recognisable type.

The way they're put together may vary- but the elements remain the same. Roman art and design didn't come off a production line- it wasn't mass-produced- but it might as well have been for all the variety on show.

In theory the Roman landowner could have sat down with his architect and said, "Look, I want to think outside the box here- how about something in the Egyptian taste?"- but he never did.

It wasn't that other styles weren't available, it was just that it never occured to anyone to risk the charge of eccentricity.

I was going to opine that the Romans were a peculiarly conservative people- but, then I thought about it and realised  they weren't.   Our own age is no different.  We have a much wider range of architectural styles to draw on than the Romans did but we mainly don't employ them. We could be building gothic churches and classical law courts but we don't because that would be old-fashioned. And we could be building ultra modern, eco-friendly town houses but we don't because they're weird-looking. 

And we don't care to be laughed at.

Every culture is pretty much like this when it comes to architecture- and the arts in general- but architecture in particular because buildings are so public and represent such a huge investment of time and money.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-02-04 03:40 pm (UTC)
Thanks. I was hoping you'd have something to add.

Is it the case that innovation is more likely to be seen near the centre of the Empire than in its far-flung provinces?

Innovation is associated with anxiety- yes, I like that.
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[User Picture]From: strange_complex
2008-02-04 04:22 pm (UTC)
Self-conscious innovation, yes - there is usually a sense that people in and near Rome are the leaders of fashion, while everyone else is trying to keep up with them.

But that said, plenty of architecture in the provinces looked different from that in the centre of the empire. There, it wasn't so much that the provincials were trying to innovate in the sense that they thought others elsewhere in the empire (and even in Rome) might then imitate their sexy new ideas. Rather, it was more to do with creating their own localised interpretations of things they'd picked up from Rome.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2008-02-04 10:06 pm (UTC)
I always wonder- looking at reconstructions of Roman buildings- just how much is guesswork. Here in Britain we have the groundplans and fragments of the building materials- and we can supplement this with our knowledge of a extant buildings or pictures of buildings from other parts of the Empire- but that's not a lot to go on.

Palaeontologists are continually revising their ideas of what the dinosaurs looked like- is it the same with Roman architecture?
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[User Picture]From: strange_complex
2008-02-05 01:00 pm (UTC)
Yes, there are often areas of doubt - particularly once you get up above the first storey. In many cases, the only guide to whether there were upper floors or not is the thickness of the walls at ground level, with the principle being that you needed to build thicker walls to support the weight of extra storeys.

But there's a lot more Roman-period architecture about the place than I think is usually the case for fossilised skeletons. So there are usually plenty of similar sites to reconstruct a fragmentary one from. Also, it helps a lot that the Romans were very fond of symmetry. So if you've got one half of a building, you can usually make a pretty good guess at what the other half would have looked like!
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