September 17, 2013

HSAR 252: Roman Architecture

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Available on iTunesU with a course website.

Having visited a number of ancient Roman towns and tried to determine how and why particular buildings were constructed, this series on Roman architecture was a must watch. It is a complete set of lecture recordings from the Spring 2009 Roman Architecture course at Yale. Similar to Yale’s Ancient Greek History course, this has been released as part of the OYC program, which has gone sadly quiet the last couple of years (perhaps overtaken by the larger MOOCs).

There are 24 lectures presented by Professor Diana Kleiner, each around 75 minutes in length (available as high & low quality videos, audio-only files and transcripts). I strongly recommend watching the high-quality videos in preference to any other format. Professor Kleiner makes extensive use of photos (apparently many of her own) and diagrams while lecturing. Production quality is very high throughout and Professor Kleiner is a clear and interesting speaker.

Most of the lectures form a chronological survey of Roman buildings from the late Republic through to Constantine. Lectures often involve a particular theme in Roman buildings of the time, which is illustrated by few representative examples. Most of the buildings studied are in Rome, with a few Pompeiian, Ostian and other Italian structures thrown in. There are also a couple of lectures on the provinces. Surprisingly, Vitruvius is barely mentioned. I didn’t notice much in the way of architectural theory, the course seems more based in art and history. There is the occasional mention of “the language of buildings” and “dematerialising the form”, but in general it is possible to enjoy the lectures without a technical background. Required information like the archetypal layout of a Roman town, villa, temple or baths is explained in the lectures. After a only few lectures a student should be able to spot a bathhouse in ruins or differentiate between Greek and Roman temples.

The course also includes a few lectures on Roman art styles – focusing on mosaics and wall art. At first this seemed a digression. However, as time progressed it became clear that the Romans imagined new building styles in art and then later built them in reality after working out the appropriate techniques and technology. Over time buildings became larger and more baroque as the benefits of concrete (often clad in brick) became clearer – domes, octagons, arches and broken pediments appeared. Apart from examining buildings to see how they were used, built and fit into architectural trends there are also many interesting historical tidbits. The Colosseum is named after a nearby “colossal” statue (now gone). Buildings completed during the reign of Claudius often have an intentionally rough-hewn appearance. Professor Kleiner also provides a travelogue of areas she clearly knows very well – next time I’m in Rome I will definitely try out one of her 4 favourite gelato places.

This is a great course on Roman buildings and well worth the time. It makes me wish I could have studied something like this at university. Even the major assignment looked interesting – design a Roman town!

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