I was always interested in history. As a kid in the sixties, I remember at about the age of seven asking for a ‘really good history book’ for Christmas, and my parents did me proud. I got the complete R J Unstead’s ‘History Of Britain’, which was so good it scarcely left my side for the next five years. I still have it now though its so basic its scarcely any use except as a picture source..
For me, an interest in art and history go hand in hand. Every work of art has its own history, and throws up questions about why it was painted, what reasons the artist had for painting it. Then there are the questions about the times they lived in. What were the conditions that surrounded the artist as they began work? When they took up that paintbrush or chisel, what exactly was outside the door?
The detail can be extreme; what was the world like that was driving this work of art? What kind of clothing was the artist wearing, what was the street outside like, how did they make their brushes and paints? How did Michelangelo actually sculpt the David?
|Looking At History. This edition about 1966.|
It has photographs of the tombstones, with translations of the inscriptions and a little about the situation of the deceased soldier, what legion he served with, what rank he had, and a potted history of where the stone was discovered and what period it belonged to. And I began to look at the sculpture on these stones critically. It has to be said mostly they weren’t very good. Except one.
Step forward Marcus Favonius Facilis. The tombstone of this Roman centurion is the best of the bunch. Found in England at Colchester in 1868 it’s a fine depiction of a centurion of the mid first century AD. It’s so good that it has subsequently been used by almost every Roman legionary re-enactment society as the basis for their own reconstructions of a centurion's costume. And it’s because of the clarity of the sculpture that it’s been so useful on this account.
|The grave stele of Marcus Favonius Facilis. The author.|
For one, the Facilis sculptor understood about ‘foreshortening’ an important concept for any artist if they wish to represent anything realistically. He knows that if you depict the hand on the hilt of the sword, then the elbow of that arm will be thrust backwards, and will not be visible. Another sculptor depicting a standard bearer, named Gnaeus Musius, can only show this by having the entire right arm visible, awkwardly holding the standard out at the soldier’s side.
Again, the Facilis sculptor understands that when you stand facing someone and look down at the ground, you see the floor seemingly sloping away behind the person. This gives his work a sense of three dimensions. The sculptor of the Musius stone doesn’t understand this or thinks it unimportant, and depicts the ground as a single line under the soldier’s feet.
|The Gnaeus Musius stele. Wikipedia commons.|
The Musius sculptor is unable to depict the standard bearer in a realistic and convincing posture, he stands stiffly and completely upright as if he really were made of stone, the limbs clumsily realised and the only thing the sculptor is interested in doing is depicting the soldiers armour and decorations in close detail.
There is of course a school of thought that states that the Facilis stele is copied from a statue of the emperor Claudius. If you study the slightly eroded head of Facilis' figure you see easily that it has quite large sticky out ears. This was a feature of all portrait busts of Claudius because - well, he had sticky out ears. So its possible that the sculptor knew a statue of the emperor (now lost) that he used as a model.
The Facilis grave stele is not one of the great sculptures of the world but it probably is one of the finest military sculptures from the ancient Roman world and it’s odd that its sculptor will only ever be known by this one modest sized work. I can only admire this man, possibly a soldier, or a freelance artisan who followed the legion, for his ability to gain such knowledge in such difficult circumstances and to use it to honour brave men.
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