The Classical Idea in the Visual Arts: Greek, Roman, Italian Renaissance, and Neo-Classical Greek Classicism Greek Civilization

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The Classical Idea in the Visual Arts: Greek, Roman, Italian Renaissance, and Neo-Classical
Greek Classicism

Greek Civilization:

  • Greek sages concluded “Man is the measure of all things.”

  • Greeks supremely self-confident and self-aware

  • Greeks developed this concept of human supremacy and responsibility into a worldview that demanded a new visual expression in art.

  • Artists studied human beings intensely, than distilled their newfound knowledge to capture in their art works the essence of humanity—a term that, by the Greeks’ definition, applied only to those who spoke Greek; they considered those who could not speak Greek “barbarians.”

  • Greek cultural orbit included mainland Greece with the Peloponnese in the south and Macedonia in the north, the Aegean islands and the western coast of Asia Minor.

  • Greek colonies in Italy, Sicily and Asia Minor rapidly became powerful independent commercial and cultural centers themselves, but remained tied to the homeland by common language, traditions, religion, and history.

Greek Art

  • Greek artists sought a level of perfection that led them continually to improve upon their past accomplishments through changes in style and approach.

  • In the comparatively short time span from around 900 BCE to about 100 BCE, Greek artists explored a succession of new ideas to produce a body of work in every medium—from pottery and painting to sculpture and architecture—that exhibits a clear stylistic and technical direction toward representing the visual world as we see it.

The Classical Period in Greek Art

  • Framed by two major events: the defeat of the Persians in 479 BCE and the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE.

  • In this brief span, the Greeks would establish an ideal of beauty that has endured in the Western world to this day.

  • Characterized Greek classical art as being based on three general concepts:

    • Humanism

      • In embrace of humanism, the Greeks even imagined that their gods looked like perfect human beings.

        • Ex. Apollo: exemplified the Greek idea. His body and mind in balance, he was athlete and musician, healer and sun god, leader of the Muses.

    • Rationalism

      • In their judgment of humanity, and as reflected in their art, the Greeks valued reason over emotion.

      • Practiced the faith in rationality expressed by their philosophers Sophocles, Plato and Aristotle.

      • Convinced that logic and reason underlie natural processes.

      • Saw all aspects of human life, including the arts, as having meaning and pattern: nothing happens by accident.

      • Rationalism provided an intellectual structure for the arts as can be seen in

        • Creation of the orders in architecture

        • Canon of proportions in sculpture

      • Grounded their art in close observation of nature

      • Only after meticulous study of the particular, did they begin to generalize, searching within each from for its universal ideal

      • Rather than portray their models in their actual, individual detail, they sought to distill their essence.

        • In so generalizing, they developed a system of perfect mathematical proportions.

    • Idealism

      • Humanism and rationalism produced the idealism that characterizes Classical Greek art

      • Encompassed the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.

  • Maxims carved on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi:

    • Man is the measure of all things.” Seek an ideal based on the human form.

    • Know thyself.” Seek the inner significance of forms

    • Nothing in excess.” Reproduce only essential forms.

  • In embrace of humanism, the Greeks even imagined that their gods looked like perfect human beings.

    • Ex. Apollo: exemplified the Greek idea. His body and mind in balance, he was athlete and musician, healer and sun god, leader of the Muses.

  • Greek artists of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE established a benchmark for art against which succeeding generations of artists and patrons in the Western world have since measured quality.

Greek Classical Sculpture

One of the best ways to measure the search for the Classical Ideal in Classical Art is through the development of sculpture, particularly through the Kouros (Kouroi, pl.).

  • Nudity removes figure from a specific time, place, and social class

  • The majority of these free standing archaic (Archaic Period: 620-480 BCE) statues are an average 5 ft. (150 cm) to 11 ft. (335 cm) in height.

  • The archaic figures have an “archaic smile.”

  • Some are inscribed with the name of artist while several record legends or votive offerings in sanctuaries.

  • Others were funerary monuments and many were portraits of athletes or warriors.

  • More than 100 of these figures survive today.

  • They display a 'formalised' approach and a characteristic lack of differentiation.

  • These figures are idealized, neither gods or mortal, but something in between, at once both human and divine.

  • Their universal characteristics, and noncommittal names of Youth and Maiden, are demonstrative of their generic nature

  • In ancient Greece the male body was the default body.

  • In the Kouros figure, emphasis is placed on breadth of shoulder and athletic development.

  • There is also a characteristic narrowness of waist and the roundness of the thigh and buttock, as well as the hardness of the deeply carved joints.

  • The weight is evenly distributed on both legs, although one is placed in front of the other.

  • He is the perfect example of what a man would ideally want to be, young, of another world, a perfect and enduring model.

  • He is depicted nude as an expression of perfection, displaying dignity and brilliance of spirit 

Ex. New York Kouros (Standing Youth) c. 580 BCE/Archaic Period; Kroisos (?) c. 530 BCE/Archaic Period; Kritios Boy (Kritian Boy) c. 480 BCE/Early Classical Period

Polykleitos, Doryphoros (Spear Bearer), 450-440 BCE.

  • Established a canon, or accepted criterion, of consummate male beauty achieved with a system of mathematical proportions.

  • The most famous and authoritative description of Polykleitos' canon comes from a 2nd Century A.D. physician named Galen who described it as follows,

    • " does not consist in the elements but in the symmetry of the parts, the proportion of one finger to another, of all the fingers to the hand, of the hand to the forearm, of the forearm to the upper arm, of all the parts to all others as it is written in the canon of Polykleitos."

  • Obsession with balance and harmony is expressed by each weight-bearing limb being placed in diagonal opposition to a relaxed one.

  • This underscores the principle of contrapposto:

    • Disposition of body parts to show movement; one part turned in opposition to the other; weight shift; one side tense and the other relaxed.

  • The right side of the body has the solidity of an Ionic column, bringing stability to the energetic expression of the left.

  • Doryphorus displays the transformation of body position which precedes movement, and it marks the point where the evolution of depicting motion in sculpture originates.

  • He is a warrior and originally carried a spear in his left hand.

  • In ancient Greece, battle was the supreme test of masculinity, yet he is not dressed in armor, for the naked body was a symbol for military might.

  • His muscular, heavy body displays an internal firmness. 

  • In general the Greeks de-emphasized penis size in their sculpture because of its imperviousness to mental and physical control, so the hardness of his body may be read as phallic.

  • His involuntary air of nonchalance the result of an elaborate and astute composition, which balances sensual scrutiny of detail with abstract spiritual contemplation.

Compare the Doryphoros with Warrior A (Riace Warrior) c. 460-450 BCE, an original Greek bronze.

Myron, Diskobolos (Discus Thrower), Roman copy after the original bronze of c. 450 BCE.

  • A new peak in the development of gesture and movement.

  • Its intense, yet credible, motion is expressed in static terms.

  • Movement is the physical expression of action, and should be vivid and immediate, but not so fleeting that it defies rational analysis.

  • Patterns isolated within continual movement convey the whole nature of transition.

  • This brings rhythmos, or rational order to motion.

  • Myron achieves this through the composition of the Diskobolus.

  • The limbs balance one another in a complex pattern of forms, with bisecting curves creating the feeling of a taut bow ready to explode.

  • The pose suggests a winding and unwinding tension of the body emphasizing the probable trajectory of the discus.

  • With the Diskobolus we see the physical expression of mutability, and a new significance attached to human action.

Another example of a classical figure in motion: Zeus c. 460 BCE.

Late Classical male sculpture

  • Throughout the fifth century BCE, sculptors carefully maintained the equilibrium between simplicity and ornament that is fundamental to Greek Classical art.

  • Standards established by Pheidias and Polykeitos in the mid-fifth century BCE for the ideal proportions and idealized forms had generally been accepted by the next generation of artists

  • Fourth-century BCE artists, however, challenged and modified those standards.

    • Developed a new canon of proportions for male figures

      • 8 or more “heads” tall rather than the 6 1/2- or 7-head height of earlier works.

    • The calm, noble detachment characteristic of earlier figures gave way to more sensitively rendered images of men and women

    • Expressions of wistful introspection, dreaminess, or even fleeting anxiety.

Ex. Praxiteles’ Hermes and the Infant Dionysos a Hellenistic copy after a Late Classical 4th-century BCE original; Lysippos’ Apoxyomenos (The Scraper) Roman copy after the bronze original of c. 330 BCE.

Greek Female Statue Types

  • Kore (korai, pl.)

  • More varied than the kouros

  • Always clothed, poses different problem: how to relate body and drapery

  • More likely to reflect changing habits and or local differences of dress

    • Peplos: a draped rectangle of cloth, usually wool, folded over at the top, pinned at the shoulders, and belted to give a bloused effect

    • Chiton: like the peplos, but fuller; relatively lightweight rectangle of cloth pinned along the shoulders

    • Himation: cloak, draped diagonally and fastend on one shoulder; worn over chiton

  • Erect, immobile, vertical pose

  • Ex. Berlin Kore 570-560 BCE; Peplos Kore c. 530 BCE; Kore, from Chios (?) c. 520 BCE. All Archaic Period.

  • Sitting and reclining poses

  • Three Goddesses from east pediment of the Parthenon, 438-432 BCE

    • Ease of movement

    • No violence or pathos

    • No specific action of any kind, only a deep felt poetry of being

    • Soft fullness, enveloped in thin drapery

    • “wet-drapery”

    • “slip-strap”

    • body both lusciously revealed and tantalizing veiled by clinging folds

  • Standing figures

    • Contrapposto

      • Vertical fall of drapery on engaged leg resembles fluting of a column shaft: provides sense of stability

      • Bent leg gives an impression of relaxed grace and effortless support

    • Additional Classical examples: Pheidias’ Athena in cella of Parthenon; Marshalls and Young Women from the frieze of Parthenon; Caryatid from the Porch of the Maidens; Nike Adjusting Her Sandal

  • Earliest depictions of fully nude women in major works of art.

    • Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos c. 350 BCE

      • In ancient world considered female perfecton

      • Graceful S-curve which counters contrapposto of pose---and thus distances it somewhat from everyday reality


  • Temple type

  • Post and lintel construction

  • Based on three orders which dictate a basic plan

    • Doric, Ionic and Corinthian (a variant of the Ionic order)

      • Three main divisions

        • Stepped platform (stereobate and stylobate)

        • Column

          • Doric consists of the shaft, marked by 20 shallow vertical grooves known as flutes. The capital is made up of the flaring, cushion-like echinus and a square element called the abacus.

            • All these bear strict ratio to each other, although columns become slimmer and capitals smaller and more compact over time.

          • Ionic rests on an ornate rounded base that is sometimes set on a square plinth. Shaft is more slender and there is less tapering and little or no apparent swelling of the columns (entasis)

            • Capital includes a large double scroll, or volute, below the abacus, which projects strongly beyond the width of the shaft.

            • Lighter and more graceful

            • Evokes a growing plant, something like a formalized palm tree.

            • Flutes are deeper and closer together and separated by flat surfaces called fillets.

          • With rare exceptions composed of sections called drums, each secured with iron dowels to the one below it.

        • Entablature

          • Includes all the horizontal elements that rest on the columns.

          • Most complex of 3 major units

          • Subdivided:

            • Architrave: a stone lintel resting directly on the capitals. In Ionic order has three panels.

              • Supports the triangular pediment and the roof elements

            • Frieze: in Doric order is made up of grooved triglyphs and flat or sculpted metopes and a projecting horizontal cornice. In Ionic order, frieze is continuous, often sculpted.

  • Vitruvius, Roman architect, most likely basing himself on Greek sources:

    • “Without symmetry and proportion there can be no principles in the design of any temple; that is, if there is no precise relation between its members, as in the case of a well-shaped man. [Like the face] the other bodily members have also their measured ratios, such as the great painters and master sculptors employed for attainment of great and boundless fame.”

  • In the Classical period, expressions of force and counterforce in both Doric and Ionic Temples were proportioned so exactly that their opposition produced the effect of a perfect balance of forces and a harmony of sizes and shapes.

Ex. of Doric Temple
The Parthenon, Acropolis, Athens, 448-432 BCE

  • Built by the Greeks after the Persians sacked Athens in 480 BCE and destroyed the existing temple and its sculpture.

  • Dedicated to the virgin goddess Athena, the patron deity in whose honor Athens was named

  • Made of gleaming white marble

  • Plan:

    • Peripteral temple - columns surround the inner cella

    • Ratio of 1:2+1; x= 2y + 1, where x is the larger number and y is the smaller number. For ex., the temple’s short ends have 8 columns and the long sides have 17:

17 = (2 x 8) = 1.

  • The stylobate’s ratio of length to width is 9:4, that is,

(9 = [2 x 4] +1).

  • This ratio also characterizes the cella’s proportion of length to width, the distance between the centers of two adjacent column drums (the interaxial) in proportion to the column’s diameter, and so on.

    • Balance is achieved through symmetry

    • Refinements = Ideal

      • Depart from regular geometry

      • Slight outward curve of the horizontal elements

      • Each column swells about 7 inches to compensate for vertical lines appearing to curve inward.

        • Spaces between the corner ones and their neighbors are smaller than the standard interval used for the colonnade as a whole

  • Inside temple was a colossal cult statue of Athena by Pheidias.

  • Many elements weight over five tons and the capitals and architraves almost ten tons

More on the Parthenon:

Kallikrates and Iktinos


Acropolis, Athens

447-438 BCE/Classical Period
Greeks recognized that our visual perception is not flawless and that it is influenced by our mental assumptions.
Iktinos and Kallikrates used an astonishing series of “optical refinements” in the proportions of the Parthenon to make it appear perfectly regular and rectangular to the human eye.
Exact measurement of the Parthenon has revealed many apparently intentional deviations from regularity and rectangularity.
The Greeks realized that we perceive vertical lines as sloping and horizontal lines as sagging in the center. They corrected for these human errors in perception.
The platform and stairs curve upward, as does the entablature (but to a lesser degree, presumably because it was farther from the viewer’s eye).
The columns and entablature also slope inward slightly to prevent their appearing to slope outward.
At the corners, the columns are thickened slightly to counteract the optical thinning effect of their being silhouetted against the sky.
The diameter of the columns bulges out by two-thirds of an inch part-way up to accommodate the human assumption that the columns will be slightly compressed by the weight they appear to bear (entasis), and the illusion of regular spacing among the columns is created by spacing that is actually irregular. The result is what many perceive as the most perfectly proportioned building ever created.
Just as the contemporary Doryphoros by Polykleitos may be seen as the culmination of nearly two centuries searching for the ideal proportions of the various human bodily parts, so, too, the Parthenon may be viewed as the ideal solution to the Greek architect’s quest for perfect proportions in Doric temple design. It’s well-spaced columns, with their slender shafts, and the capitals, with their straight-sided conical echinuses, are the ultimate refinement of the bulging and squat Doric columns and compressed capitals of the Archaic Temple of Hera at Paestum, Italy, c. 540 BCE.
The Parthenon architects and Polykleitos, the Doryphoros sculptor were kindred spirits in their belief that beautiful proportions resulted from strict adherence to harmonious numerical ratios, whether they were designing a temple more than 200 feet long or a life-size statue of a nude man.
The Parthenon’s harmonious design and mathematical precision of the sizes of its constituent elements tend to obscure the fact this temple, as actually constructed, is quite irregular in shape.

Throughout the building are pronounced deviations from the strictly horizontal and vertical lines assumed to be the basis of all Greek post-and-lintel structures.

For ex., the stylobate curves upward at the center on both the sides and the façade, forming a kind of shallow dome, and this curvature is carried up into the entablature.

Moreover, the peristyle columns lean inward slightly. Those at the corners have a diagonal inclination and are also about 2 inches thicker than the rest. If their lines are continued, they would meet about one and one-half miles above the temple. These deviations from the norm meant that virtually every Parthenon block and drum had to be carved according to the special set of specifications its unique place in the structure dictated.

This was obviously a daunting task, and a reason must have existed for these so-called refinements in the Parthenon. Some modern observers note, how the curving of horizontal lines and the tilting of vertical ones create a dynamic balance in the building—a kind of architectural contrapposto—and give it a sense of life.
The oldest recorded explanation, however, may be the correct one. Vitruvius, a Roman architect of the late first century BCE who claims to have had access to the treatise on the Parthenon Iktinos wrote—again note the kinship with the Canon of Polykleitos—maintains that these adjustments were made to compensate for optical illusions. Vitruvius states that if the stylobate is laid out on a level surface, it will appear to sag at the center and that the corner columns of a building should be thicker since they are surrounded by light and would otherwise appear thinner than their neighbors.

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