Research Point: Local Roman Occupation

About 8 miles from where I live is a site of importance both nationally and locally. It was known as Venta Icenorum and was the major town for the northern part of East Anglia, between Colchester, Leicester and Lincoln.

Venta Icenorum translates as ‘market place of the Iceni’. According to Davies (DAVIES, 2001) the name of Venta Icenorum is known from the Antonine Itinerary which is a list of places on the major roads across the Roman Empire. The Iceni relates to the tribal group of people living in the area, best known for their queen, Boudica, and the battles fought against the Romans in AD 61.

Artefacts discovered on the site include such items as harness and tunic fittings, indicating an early Roman military presence.

Davies states “The street layout was the only major development at Venta before 100AD. There were no substantial buildings constructed during those early years. ………. Instead the first buildings were more simple timber structures, while open spaces were left for the later addition of a forum and public baths, at the appropriate locations.”

Aerial photography has revealed the layout of the town and the walls around Venta were probably built during the early 270s.

Davies (2001) gives details of everyday life in the town and how it was a focus of trading activity with workshops behind shopfronts. “A row of shops can be seen on aerial photos, along the east-west street outside the south wall. A rich variety of wares for sale would have lined the streets, including baking, clothing, carpentry, leather goods and jewellery. Livestock, too, were brought to the town for sale.”

Aerial photography has also identified an amphitheatre to the south of the town and the locations of the forum, basilica and baths is also know.

Venta Icenorum is one of very few major Roman towns that were not re-occupied and therefore the remains of the town won’t have been affected by later development.

Visit a Classical Building

I researched a number of classical buildings locally for this project. Unfortunately the best examples e.g. Holkham Hall, were closed for the winter and not due to reopen until after Easter. Another possibility was the Norwich Union building in Surrey Street, Norwich. However the course notes state that ideally students should choose a building where the interior is fully accessible to the public, so this ruled the Norwich Union building out as the interior is still used as offices by Aviva and is not fully accessible.

I had planned a trip to London to study some Greek vase paintings and Roman and Greek sculptures so I decided to combine this with the visit to a classical building – the British Museum.

The original design for the museum was a quadrangle with 4 (North, East, South and West) wings. According to the website of the British Museum the building was designed in 1823 by the architect Sir Robert Smirke and was completed in 1852. The design included galleries for classical sculpture as well as staff residences.

According to Oxford Art Online Smirke “was a classicist and he was strongly influenced by the rationalist spirit of neo-classicism” The British Museum website states “Smirke designed the building in the Greek Revival style, which emulated classical Greek architecture.” Describing the South Entrance and Museum forecourt the website continues “The external architecture of the museum was designed to reflect the purpose of the building. The monumental South entrance, with its stairs’ colonnade and pediment, was intended to reflect the wondrous objects housed inside.” Oxford Art Online describes the South entrance “Here a massive Ionic peristyle is combined with a central portico produce an effect of great gravity and power.



Certainly gravity and power were two of the descriptions I would have used to describe the main entrance to the museum. Massive ionic columns support a pediment above the main entrance which is adorned by a number of classical style sculptures.


The sense of gravity and power continues inside within the galleries where sculptures and many other exhibits are displayed in large galleries with very high ceiling heights in many parts. According to Oxford Art Online Smirke was probably the first British architect to use cast iron girders and stanchions “enabling him to roof wide spaces economically and soundly and without internal supports.”

The way in which the design of the building was influenced by the Greek style is shown by one of the exhibits within the museum. In one of the galleries is the Nereid Monument which is a tomb in the form of a Greek temple.


I was struck by the similarities between the main South entrance to the museum and that of the Nereid monument inside. There can be few examples where the major influence on the design of a building can be seen from an exhibit within it.

A number of additions have been made to the building since its original construction including the Reading Room, built within the quadrangle and completed in 1857; the White Wing constructed in 1882-85 and the Duveen Gallery completed in 1939. In 2000 the Great Court, designed by Foster and Partners opened.

The Greek theme continues on the inside of the building, particularly the ceiling of the Weston Hall (designed by Smirke’s brother Sydney) where “The patterns and colours on the ceiling of the Weston Hall were borrowed from classical Greek buildings, which would have been brightly decorated.” (British Museum website).

Sir Robert Smirke was responsible for a number of other private and public buildings including the Theatre Royal in London where Smirke was one of the first architects in Europe to employ the Greek Doric order in public buildings. “It appeared first in his portico for the Theatre Royal, a very impressive building with a Greek facade.” (Oxford Art Online)

Oxford Art Online concludes that Smirke’s architecture “displayed many impressive qualities; grandeur, intelligibility, sound construction and monumental power; and in the British Museum he created one of the great cultural monuments of 19th century Europe.”

Annotate a Greek sculpture or vase painting

Click link below for annotation

Greek vase

The original photo has been removed for copyright purposes but can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Canon

The canon refers to a body of work – in this case works of art – that have traditionally been accepted as ‘great’ art and therefore of particular value.

What is the main problem with the idea of a body of great works that other artists try to emulate?

  1. Who decides? The first problem with the concept of the canon is who decides which works of art are included and which are not? Is this a formal process or an ad hoc one that simply evolves over time.
  2. On what basis? are such decisions made, what criteria are used to determine whether or not a particular work of art is not sufficient value.
  3. How do the selectors deal with their own prejudices? We all have our likes and dislikes, can anyone say that a work of art is of great value if they don’t personally like it.
  4. How do you deal with changing times and circumstances? Can a work of art be immediately classified as of great value or does it need to stand the test of time.
  5. Can decisions be challenged and how? What if a substantial number of people disagree that a particular work of art is of great value, does that of itself mean that it is not part of the canon?

How relevant is it today?

The concept is as relevant today as it has always been – the works of art recognised as canonical may change over time but the notion of a body of works of great art is still pertinent. Our major art galleries and museums display what they think are their most valuable works of art – the decisions Curators make on what or what not to acquire, what or what not to display are value judgements and must be based on some criteria – the same as the concept of a canon. Even if we did not have the word canon in the language, the concept of a body of the most valuable body of work is still relevant.If you accept that some works of art are better, or more valuable than others then you must be accepting the existence of a canon of works – as this is simply an extension of the idea of comparing works of art – making value judgements – just to an ultimate degree.

Idealisation of the human form?

Over the years artists have searched for the perfect portrayal of the human body and this insidiously conditioned the attitudes of Europeans to themselves and others.

This conditioning continues to the present day – witness the debate about size 0 models in fashion shows and the increasing resort to plastic surgery in  pursuit of the perfect body. You can now use software on photographic portraits that automatically removes skin blemishes from the final image.

Not everyone has wanted to follow this path, Oliver Cromwell is reported to have demanded that he be painted ‘warts and all’ i.e. without being unduly flattered by the artist. Some contemporary artists have decided against trying to portray human affection e.g. the photographer Diane Arbus.

Nevertheless the idealisation of the perfect human form does seem to continue, perhaps in some instances driven by commercial interests. But is it in any way dangerous?I believe that it can be dangerousin that it may lead to a view that portrayals of people with a disability ,m with certain skin tones should not be undetaken or would somehow be of lesser value. The human body should be celebrated and portrayed in all its forms and diversity, anything other is, to my mind, discriminatory.