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classicism, aesthetic attitude and art style based on or reiterating themes, techniques, and subjects of art from ancient Greece and Rome (spanning approximately from the formation of Greek city-states in the 8th century bce to the decline of the Roman Empire in the 5th century ce). The term is generally used when referring to art created after the decline of the Roman Empire that places significance on values associated with art from antiquity. These principles include harmony, idealism, proportion, restraint, and balance.
Inspiration for classicism
Although art from ancient Greece and Rome is often classified under the umbrella terms of “Greco-Roman art,” “classical art,” or the “art of antiquity,” in reality, art making visibly changed throughout the centuries. Art created by the ancient Greeks is vastly different from works later created by Roman artists.
Artists working after the fall of the Roman Empire, nonetheless, adopted elements from antiquity’s many periods, especially the artwork produced by the ancient Greeks during the Archaic period (c. 625–500 bce) and the Classical period (c. 500–323 bce). During the Archaic period, builders developed the Doric and Ionic orders of architecture, showing a concern with harmonious architectural proportions. Freestanding figurative sculptures, called kouroi (singular: kouros; depicting males) and korai (singular: kore; depicting females), became increasingly realistic throughout the period, with growing attention paid to human proportion and anatomy. Paintings on vases evolved from geometric designs to representations of human figures, often illustrating epic tales. Famed pottery painter Exekias depicted events from the Trojan War, for example, in spare and balanced compositions, heightening the psychological tension of the tragic scenes depicted.
As the Archaic period transitioned into the Classical period, temple-building was further refined, culminating with the construction of the Parthenon, an icon of restrained elegance. Sculptures became more dynamic with the invention of contrapposto (Italian: “opposite”), in which the standing human figure is poised such that the weight rests on one leg (called the engaged leg), freeing the other leg, which is bent at the knee. With the weight shifted, the hips, shoulders, and head tilt suggest relaxation with the subtle internal organic movement that denotes life. Sculptures also became more idealistic and frequently portrayed athletes, gods, and heroes. Surviving Greek paintings from the Classical period, whether murals or works on pottery, depict similar scenes, such as the painting of Persephone being abducted by Hades in a royal tomb at Aegae, Macedonia (now Vergina, Greece).
Artists interested in classicism also looked to ancient Rome for inspiration. Although the Romans embraced the traditions of Greek art, they also borrowed from the Etruscans, one of their predecessors on the Italian peninsula, and gradually developed their own voice. In architecture, Roman builders used the Greek orders (and added two new ones, Tuscan and Composite) not only as functional bearing elements but also as applied (engaged) decoration. The use of concrete also allowed Romans to construct buildings with arches, vaults, and domes, as in the Pantheon. Columns often supported arches as well as entablatures, permitting greater spatial freedom.
Roman sculptures were diverse. Portraits from the late republic (1st century bce) depict prominent figures, usually elderly men, with an honest realism that captures every wrinkle, line, and blemish. Sculptures from the empire (27 bce– 476 ce) show Greek influence in their use of contrapposto but are Roman in that they have heads with more individual characteristics than their Greek counterparts. The portrait bust also became very popular, portraying a variety of Romans, including youthful women. Large-scale murals painted in homes varied greatly in style but showed the hallmarks of illusionism, including modeling to create form as well as the use of linear perspective and aerial perspective to suggest depth.
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Classical aesthetics never entirely disappeared, even after the fall of the of Rome. Although illusionism, proportion, restraint, and balance became less of a priority, many elements from antiquity influenced the styles and motifs of art from the Middle Ages. For example, the subjects of illustrated manuscripts, tapestries, and sculptures often included Greco-Roman gods, scenes from Homer’s works, and the feats of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. However, it was during the Renaissance that classicism saw a true resurgence. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the rise of humanism, a system of education that examined human nature and fostered individualism over religious orthodoxy, renewed an appreciation for classical architecture, art, and literature.
Renaissance paintings and sculptures, with their calm compositions striving to create harmony and balance, were often compared to works from antiquity. Even religious artworks, seemingly separated from classical imagery, were touched by humanist ideals, creating a tendency to view and depict the world through a more “human” perspective. Sculptor Donatello, for example, showed a renewed interest in the human form with his bronze David, the first large-scale free-standing nude statue since antiquity. Well-proportioned and showing elegant contrapposto, it was the most classical of his works.
There was also a renewed interest in illusionism, as seen in Raphael’s School of Athens, which uses one-point linear perspective to give his architectural setting depth. The imaginary space reflects the renewed interest in classical architecture. Throughout Italy there was a revival of ancient Roman forms, including the column and round arch, the tunnel vault, and the dome. As during Antiquity, proportion was the most important factor of beauty; Renaissance architects found a harmony between human proportions and buildings. This concern for proportion resulted in clear, easily comprehended space and mass, which distinguishes the Renaissance style from the more complex Gothic. Subjects from antiquity also began to be incorporated into Renaissance art, as seen in paintings such as Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus (completed in 1485).
A pronounced classicism arose again in the late 18th century and first half of the 19th century with Neoclassicism. The movement was both reacting to the extravagance of the Rococo style and inspired by the archeological excavations of Herculaneum in 1738 and Pompeii in 1748. Neoclassical works often depict scenes and characters from classical antiquity while emphasizing symmetry, precision, and restraint. Historically accurate settings and clothing were often used, although they were occasionally disregarded in an attempt to illustrate a more universal ideal.
Neoclassicist artists would occasionally lift imagery from their own lived history, using techniques and approaches from antiquity to depict their present moment. In his 1793 painting, The Death of Marat, French artist Jacques-Louis David depicts the assassination of his friend the activist Jean-Paul Marat earlier that year. He used a limited colour palette, a spare and balanced composition, and an idealized version of Marat’s figure.
Classical culture and works continue to shape the Western world. Their effects are felt not only in the field of visual arts but also in law, language, politics, and more.