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

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School of Athens

Fresco in the Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican Rome

c. 1510-1511/

19 x 27”
The Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican Palace housed Pope Julius II’s personal library. (Pope Julius II associated himself with the humanists and with Roman emperors.)
Raphael’s cycle of frescoes on its walls and ceiling refer to the four branches of learning: theology, philosophy, law, and the arts.

The program is derived in part from the Francisan St. Bonaventure, who sought to reconcile reason and faith, and from St. Thomas Aquinas, the Dominican chiefly responsible for reviving Aristotelian philosophy.

The Stanza (room) represents a summation of High Italian Renaissance humanism, for it attempts to unify all understanding into one grand scheme.
Of all the frescoes in the Stanza della Segnatura, The School of Athens is the perfect embodiment of the classical spirit of the High Italian Renaissance.

Its subject is “the Athenian school of thought,” a group of famous Greek philosophers gathered around Plato and Aristotle, each in a characteristic pose or activity. Raphael depicted these luminaries—rediscovered by Renaissance thinkers—conversing and explaining their various theories and ideals.

Body and spirit, action and emotion, are now balanced harmoniously, and all members of this great assembly play their roles with magnificent, purposeful clarity.

Raphael makes each philosopher reveal “the intention of his soul.” He further distinguishes the relations among individuals and groups, and links them in a formal rhythm.

The composition is symmetrical in design, as well as the interdependence of the figures and their architectural setting.
Raphael’s building has a lofty dome, barrel, vault, and colossal statuary which is classical in spirit, yet Christian in meaning.
Many of the figures incorporate portraits of Raphael’s friends and patrons.

At center stage is Plato—whose face resembles Leonardo’s—is holding his book of cosmology and numerology. Timaeus, the book, provided the basis of much of the Neoplatonism that came to pervade Christianity.

To Plato’s left is his pupil Aristotle who grasps a volume of his Ethics, which like is science, is grounded in what is knowable in the material world. The books explain why one is pointing to the heavens, the other to the earth.

There stand reconciled the two most important Greek philosophers, whose seemingly opposite approaches were deemed complementary by many Renaissance humanists.

To Plato’s right is his mentor, Socrates, in a purple robe, who was already viewed as a precursor of Jesus because he died for his beliefs.

Seated on the far right of Plato in the foreground is the bearded Pythagoras, who believed in a rational universe based on harmonious proportions, the foundation for much of Greek philosophy.

Pythagoras has his sets of numbers and harmonic ratios arranged on a pair of inverted tables that each achieve a total of the divine number ten. They in turn refer to the two tablets with the Ten Commandments.

Seated to the left of Pythagoras is Michelangelo against a block of stone, as a brooding philosopher, Heraclitus.

Colossal statues of Apollo and Athena, patron god of the arts and goddess of wisdom oversee the interaction. Plato and Aristotle serve as the central figures around whom Raphael carefully arranged the others. Appropriately, ancient philosophers, men concerned with the ultimate mysteries that transcend this world, stand on Plato’s side. On Aristotle’s side are the philosophers and scientists concerned with nature and human affairs.



c. 1518

oil on canvas, 5’ 8 7/8” x 6’ 4”
Titian’s Bacchanal of about 1518 is frankly pagan, inspired by an ancient author’s description of such a revel.

A number of the figures in the Bacchanal reflect the influence of classical art.

Titian visualizes the realm of classical myths as part of the natural world, inhabited not by animated statues but by beings of flesh and blood.

The figures of the Bacchanal are idealized just enough to persuade us that they belong to a long-lost Golden Age.

They invite us to share their blissful state.


By the end of the18th century industrial manufacture was being developed—a new source of wealth. Social visionaries expected industry to expand the middle class but also to provide a better material existence for all classes, an interest that expanded beyond purely economic concerns. Keep in mind the middle class was very small at this time. Wealth and power were centered in an aristocratic elite who owned or controlled land worked by the largest and the poorest class—the farmers.

What became know was the Industrial Revolution was complemented by a revolution in politics, spurred by a new philosophy that conceived of all white men (some thinkers included women and minorities) as deserving equal rights and opportunities. The American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 were the seismic results of this dramatically new concept.
Developments in politics and economics were themselves manifestations of a broader philosophical revolution: the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a radically new synthesis of ideas about humanity, reason, nature, and God that had arisen during the Renaissance and during classical Greek and Roman times.
What distinguished the Enlightenment proper from its antecedents was the late 17th- and early 18th-century thinkers generally optimistic view that humanity and its institutions could be reformed, if not perfected.
Bernard de Fontenelle, a French popularizer of 17th-century scientific discoveries , writing in 1702, anticipated “a century which will become more enlightened day by day, so that all previous centuries will be lost in darkness by comparison.” At the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century, such hopes were expressed by a handful of thinkers. After 1740, the number and power of such voices grew, so that their views increasingly dominated every sphere of intellectual life, including that of the European courts.
They did not agree on all matters. Perhaps the matter that most unified these thinkers was the question of the purpose of humanity.

They rejected the conventional notions that men and women were here to serve God or the ruling class. They insisted that humans were born to serve themselves, pursue their own happiness and fulfillment. The purpose of the State was to facilitate this pursuit. Generally Enlightenment thinkers were optimistic that men and women, when set free from their political and religious bonds, could be expected to act both rationally and morally. Thus, in pursuing their own happiness, they would promote the happiness of others.

Three artistic styles prevailed during the Enlightenment, but the most characteristic was Neoclassicism.
The Enlightenment’s emphasis on rationality in part fueled the classical focus. The geometric harmony of classical art and architecture seemed to embody Enlightenment ideals.
In addition, classical cultures represented the height of civilized society, and Greece and Rome served as models of enlightened political organization.
These cultures with their traditions of liberty, civic virtue, morality, and sacrifice served as ideal models during a period of great political upheaval. Given such traditional associations, it is not coincidental that Neoclassicism was particularly appealing during the French and American Revolutions.

In essence, Neoclassicism presents classical subject matter—mythological or historical—in a style derived from classical Greek and Roman sources.
Some Neoclassical art was conceived to please the senses, some to teach moral lessons. In its didactic manifestations, usually history paintings, Neoclassicism was one of the chief vehicles for conveying Enlightenment values.
The Neoclassical style arose in part in reaction to the dominant style of the early 18th century, known as Rococo—refined, fanciful and often playful style.
Other sources stimulated interest in the Neoclassical:

Discoveries made at Herculaneum and Pompeii, prosperous Roman towns near Naples that had been buried in 79 CE by the sudden eruption of Mount Vesuvius. In 1738, archaeologists began to uncover evidence of the catastrophe at Herculaneum, and 10 years later unearthed the remains of Pompeii. The extraordinary archaeological discoveries made at the two sites, published in numerous illustrated books, excited interest in classical art and artifacts and encouraged the development of Neoclassicism.

German archaeologist and historian (first modern art historian) Johann Joachim Winckelmann was the leading theoretician of Neoclassicism. He was an advocate of the classical style. In 1755, Winckelmann published a pamphlet, Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture, in which he attacked the Rococo as decadent and argued that only by imitating Greek art could modern artists become great again. He designated Greek art as the most perfect to come from human hands. He characterized Greek sculpture as manifesting a “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur.”
In 1764, Winckelmann published the second of his widely influential treatises, The History of Ancient Art, which many consider the beginning of modern art history.
The enthusiasm for classical antiquity permeated much of the scholarship of the time.
Values: Order, solemnity
Tone: Calm, rational
Subjects: Greek and Roman history, mythology
Technique: Stressed drawing with lines, not color, no trace of brushstrokes
Role of art: Morally uplifting, inspirational

The leading French Neoclassical painter of the era was Jacques-Louis David, who dominated French art during the Revolution and subsequent reign of Napoleon. In 1774, David won the Prix de Rome. He remained in Rome until 1780, assimilating the principles of Neoclassicism. After his return to Paris, David produced a series of severely undecorated, anti-Rococo paintings that extolled the antique virtues of stoicism, masculinity, and patriotism.

The first and most influential of these was the Oath of the Horatii, a stark but heroic canvas, which was a royal commission. To set the model for neoclassical academic painters of the 19th Century.

Jacques-Louis David

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