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

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Ex. of Ionic Temple

  • Temple of Athena Nike, Acropolis, Athens, c. 427-424 BCE.

  • Slenderer proportions than Doric

  • Scroll capitals

  • Continuous sculpted frieze

  • Amphiprostyle plan—that is, porch at each end

  • Surrounded by parapet, or low wall, faced with sculpted panels depicting Athena presiding over her winged attendants, called Nikes (Victories), as they prepared for a celebration.

    • Ex. Nike Adjusting Her Sandal

      • Bends forward gracefully, causes ample chiton to slip off one shoulder.

      • Large wings, one open and one closed, effectively balance this unstable pose

      • Unlike decorative swirls of heavy fabric covering the Parthenon’s Three Goddesses or the weighty pleats of the robes of the Erechtheion’s (another example of an Ionic Temple) caryatids, the textile covering this Nike appears delicate and light, clinging to the body like wet silk, one the most discreetly erotic images in ancient art

Corinthian order

  • Originally developed by the Greeks for use in interiors, but came to be used on temple exteriors as well.

  • Elaborate capitals are sheathed with stylized acanthus leaves

  • Romans appropriated the Corinthian order and elaborated it

Roman Classicism

The Romans admired Greek art. They imported Greek originals by the thousands and had them copied in even greater numbers. Also some of their own works were based on Greek sources, and many of their artists, from Republican times (510- 31 BCE) to the end of the empire (31 BCE-410 CE), were of Greek origin.

Roman authors tell us a good deal about the development of Greek art as it was described in Greek writings on the subject. They also discuss Roman art during the early days of the Republic, of which almost no trace survived today. However, they show little concern with the art of their own time. And, except for Vitruvius, whose treatise on architecture is of great importance for later eras, the Romans never developed a rich literature on the history and theory of their art such as the Greeks had. Indeed, some prominent Romans even viewed their own art as degenerate compared with the extraordinary achievements of the Greeks.
Roman portraiture
From literary accounts, we know that the Senate honored Rome’s great political and military leaders by putting their portraits on a public display. This custom began in Republican times and was to continue until the end of the empire many hundred years later. It probably arose from the Greek practice of placing votive statues of athletes and other important individuals in sanctuaries such as the Acropolis, Delphi, and Olympia—a practice that was gradually secularized during the Classical and Hellenistic periods.
Our first indication of a clearly Roman portrait style occurs around 100 BCE. It parallels an ancient custom. When the male head of the family died, he was honored with a wax portrait, which was then preserved in a special shrine or family altar. At funerals, these ancestral images were carried in the procession, and masks were even made from them for chosen participants to wear, in order to create a living parade of the family’s illustrious ancestors. Such mimicry may have fostered a desire among the Roman elite for similarly true-to-life portraits in bronze and marble.


Ex. Head of a Roman Patrician (Head of an Old Roman)

c. 75-50 BCE

marble, approximately 1’ 2”
Somber face, grave demeanor.

Project patriarchal dignity.

Detailed record of the face’s topography, in which the sitter’s character appears only incidentally.

This style is verism, a documentary realism.

The features are true to life, but the sculptor has emphasized them selectively to bring out a specifically Roman personality: stern, rugged, devoted to duty.

It is a father image of daunting authority.

The facial details are like individual biographical data that distinguish it from others.


Ex. Augustus from Primaporta

Early 1st century CE (perhaps a copy of a bronze statue of c. 20 BCE)

Marble, originally colored, 6’ 8” high
New trend in Roman portraiture, which reaches a climax in the images of Augustus himself.
Sophisticated combination of Greek idealism and Roman individuality—in effect, a new Augustan ideal.
This was the most popular image of the emperor.
Heroic, idealized body which is derived from the Doryphoros of Polykleitos.
Augustus, the emperor, reaches out toward us as if to address us in person.

His clothing, including the rich allegorical program on the breastplate, has a concreteness of surface texture that conveys the actual touch of cloth, metal, and leather.

The breastplate illustrates Augustus’s diplomatic triumph over the Parthians in 20 BCE, when he recovered the legionary standards lost in Roman defeats in 53 and 36 BCE.

His head is idealized.

Small details are omitted, and the focus on the eyes gives it something of an inspired look.

Even so, the face is a definite, individual likeness, as we know from many other portraits of Augustus.

All Romans would have recognized it immediately, for they knew it from coins and countless other representations.

Augustus of Primaporta

  • Focus on the individual

  • Greek pose, roman clothes

  • Emperor Augustus

  • The imperator and creator of Pax Romana stands in a contrapposto that echoes the one of classical Greek athletes, such as the Doryphoros of Polykleitos.

  • The cupid on the dolphin at his feet hints at the origin of the gens Julia, namely Venus or Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The dolphin itself refers to the naval victory at Actium.

  • This support strongly suggests that the statue is a copy of a lost bronze original.

  • The exact location for this original has been a question of speculation; the sanctuary of Athena at Pergamum is one of many suggestions.

  • Reconstructions differ on the lost objects once held by the emperor (the right hand was never found).

  • Perhaps he is just making an address, or perhaps he once held a wreath of the imperial laurel, for which the Villa of Livia was famous.

  • What has attracted most scholars, however, is the elaborate breast plate, whose throng of figures and symbols lend themselves to a rich spectrum of interpretations of Augustan art and propaganda.

  • The central group depicts a Parthian giving back the lost eagle from Carrhae to a Roman general.

  • If historically correct, this latter would be Tiberius, but a symbolic reading permits him to be Romulus (with the wolf at his feet), Aeneas, Mars or some other important figure.

  • Apart from some female seated figures, representing conquered peoples such as the Gauls and the Hispanians, the rest form a cosmic setting: the sky god Caelus, Sol in his chariot, Aurora, Apollo on a winged griffin, Diana on a stag; all flying around above Tellus who is cradling two babies.

  • These identifications may vary according to the aims of different scholars, but taken as a whole, the scene conveys the god-given peace, order and fertility accomplished by the new ruler of the world.

  • The idealized and smooth face of the emperor, together with the comma-shaped locks over his forehead, constitutes the most common type of Augustus-portraits, to date found in some 170 replicas.

Augustus still conformed to Roman republican customs by being clean-shaven. Some later emperors, in contrast, adopted the Greek fashion of wearing beards as an outward sign of culture and refinement.

It is not surprising to find a strongly classicizing trend, often of a peculiarly cool, formal sort in the sculpture of the second century CE. especially during the reign of Hadrian (c. 117-138 CE) and Marcus Aurelius (c. 161-180 CE), both of them private men deeply immersed in Greek culture.
See this quality in equestrian bronze sculpture of Marcus Aurelius.
Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius

c. 176 CE

bronze, originally gilded; 11’ 6” high
Shown as ever victorious.

The powerful and spirited horse expresses this martial spirit, but the emperor himself is a model of stoic calm.

Addressing us like Augustus, but without weapons or armor, Marcus Aurelius appears as a bringer of peace rather than military hero, for this is how he saw himself and his reign.

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