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Classical Greek and Roman Art and Architecture

Started: 8th Century BCE

Ended: 393 CE

Classical Greek and Roman Art and Architecture Timeline

"I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble."

Emperor Augustus

Summary of Classical Greek and Roman Art and Architecture

Classical Art encompasses the cultures of Greece and Rome and endures as the cornerstone of Western civilization. Including innovations in painting, sculpture, decorative arts, and architecture, Classical Art pursued ideals of beauty, harmony, and proportion, even as those ideals shifted and changed over the centuries. While often employed in propagandistic ways, the human figure and the human experience of space and their relationship with the gods were central to Classical Art.

Over the span of almost 1200 years, ideals of human beauty and proportion occupied art's subject. Variations of those ideals were later adopted during the Renaissance in Italy and again during the 18th and 19th century Neoclassical trend throughout Europe. Connotations of moral virtue and stability clung to Classical Art, making it attractive to new nations and republics trying to find an aesthetic vocabulary to convey their power, while, later, in the 20th century it came under attack by modern artists who sought to disrupt and overturn power and traditional ideals.

Key Ideas

The idealized human form soon became the noblest subject of art in Greece and was the foundation for a standard of beauty that dominated many centuries of Western art. The Greek ideal of beauty was grounded in a canon of proportions, based on the golden ratio and the ratio of lengths of body parts to each other, which governed the depictions of male and female figures.
While ideal proportions were paramount, Classical Art strove for ever greater realism in anatomical depictions. This realism also came to encompass emotional and psychological realism that created dramatic tensions and drew in the viewer.
Greek temple designs started simply and evolved into more complex and ornate structures, but later architects translated the symmetrical design and columned exterior into a host of governmental, educational, and religious buildings over the centuries to convey a sense of order and stability.
Perhaps a coincidence, but just as increased archaeological digs turned up numerous examples of Greek and Roman art, the field of art history was being developed as a scientific course of study by the likes of Johann Winkelmann. Winkelmann, often considered the father of art history, based his theories of the progression of art on the development of Greek art, which he largely knew only from Roman copies. Since the middle of the 18th century, art historical and classical tradition have been intimately entwined.
While Greek and Roman sculpture and ruins are linked with the purity of white marble in the Western mind, most of the works were originally polychrome, painted in multiple, lifelike colors. 18th century excavations unearthed a number of sculptures with traces of color, but noted art historians dismissed the findings as anomalies. It was only in the late 20th century that scholars accepted that life-size statues and entire temple friezes were, in fact, brightly painted with numerous colors and decorations, raising many new questions about the assumptions of Western art history and revealing that centuries of classical imitations were not in fact imitations but rather based on nostalgic ideals of the past.
Classical Greek and Roman Art and Architecture Image

Beginnings:

Considered the first Greeks, the Mycenaeans had a lasting influence on later Greek art, architecture, and literature. A bronze age civilization that extended through modern day southern Greece as well as coastal regions of modern day Turkey, Italy, and Syria, Mycenaea was an elite warrior society dominated by palace states. Divided into three classes - the king's attendants, the common people, and slaves - each palace state was ruled by a king with military, political, and religious authority. The society valorized heroic warriors and made offerings to a pantheon of gods. In later Greek literature, including Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey, the exploits of these warriors and gods engaged in the Trojan War had become legendary and, in fact, appropriated by later Greeks as their founding myths.

Important Art and Artists of Classical Greek and Roman Art and Architecture Important Art and Analysis

The below artworks are the most important in Classical Greek and Roman Art and Architecture - that both overview the major ideas of the movement, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist in Classical Greek and Roman Art and Architecture. Don't forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.

Roman copy 120-50 BCE of original by Polycleitus, Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer) c. 440 BCE (120-50 BCE)
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Roman copy 120-50 BCE of original by Polycleitus, Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer) c. 440 BCE (120-50 BCE)

Artwork description & Analysis: This work depicts a nude muscular warrior, as he steps forward, his head turns slightly to his right, and his left hand would have readied a spear that originally rested upon his left shoulder. The figure's anatomical realism conveys potential movement through a complex interaction of tensed and relaxed muscles. Almost seven feet tall, the monumental work conveys an imposing sense of male heroic beauty that could face whatever may come with dispassionate calm, as shown in the serious but expressionless face.

Because marble copies needed additional support, the tree stump was an addition to the bronze original. What is known of the original is based upon the exceptional quality of later copies, including this one. Polycleitus thought this work was synonymous with his Canon, a treatise of sculptural principles, based upon mathematical proportions. Though his treatise has been lost, references to it survived in later accounts, including Galen's, a 2nd century Greek writer, who wrote that its "Beauty consists in the proportions, not of the elements, but of the parts, that is to say, of finger to finger, and of all the fingers to the palm and the wrist, and of these to the forearm, and of the forearm to the upper arm, and of all the other parts to each other."

At the time it was made, the work was widely acclaimed, as Warren G. Moon and Barbara Hughes Fowler write, the Doryphorus ushered in "a new definition of true human greatness...an artistic moral exemplar...tied to no particular place or action, he represents the universal male ideal." This marble copy, found in a gymnasium at Pompeii, became the most admired work of the Roman Republic, as Roman aristocrats commissioned copies.

Marble copy of bronze original - Naples National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy

Ictinus and Callicrates: The Parthenon (447 - 432 BCE)
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The Parthenon (447 - 432 BCE)

Artist: Ictinus and Callicrates

Artwork description & Analysis: This iconic temple, dedicated to Athena, goddess of wisdom and patron of Athens, stands majestically on top of the Acropolis, a sacred complex overlooking the city. The 17 Doric columns on either side and the eight at each end create both a sense of harmonious proportion and a dynamic visual and horizontal movement. The building exemplifies the Doric order and the rectangular plan of Greek temples, which emphasized a flow of movement and light between the temple's interior and the surrounding space, while the movement of the columns, rising out of the earth, to the entablature that rings the building, draws the eye heavenward to the carved reliefs and statues that, originally, brightly painted, crowned the temple.

Ictinus and Callicrates were identified as the architects of the building in ancient sources, while the sculptor Phidias and the statesman Pericles supervised the project. Dedicated in 438 BCE, the Parthenon replaced the earlier temple on the city's holy site that also included a shrine to Erechtheus, the city's mythical founder, a smaller temple of the goddess Athena, and the olive tree that she gave to Athens, all of which were destroyed by the invading Persian Army in 480 BCE. The Persians also killed the priests, priestesses, and citizens who had taken refuge at the site, and, when the new Parthenon was dedicated, following that experience of trauma and desecration, it was a monument to the restoration and continuation of Athenian values and became, as art critic Daniel Mendelsohn wrote, a "dramatization of the political and moral differences between the victims and the perpetrators."

As Mendelsohn noted, the Parthenon while taken "as the epitome of Greek architecture...was typical of nothing at all, an anomaly in terms of material, size, and design." It was both the largest temple in Greece and the first built of only marble. While Doric temples commonly had thirteen columns on each side and six in the front, the Parthenon pioneered the octastyle, with eight columns, thus extending the space for sculptural reliefs. Originally the Parthenon Marbles decorated the entablature, as 92 metopes, or rectangular stone panels, depicted mythological battle scenes - of gods fighting giants, Greek warriors fighting Trojans or Amazons, and men battling centaurs - while the pediments contained statues depicting the stories of Athena's life, so that as Mendelsohn wrote, "Merely to walk around the temple was to get a lesson in Greek and Athenian civic history."

The temple's interior was equally meant to inspire, as Phidias's colossal statue of Athena Parthenos, or the virgin Athena, dominated the space. Forty feet tall, the statue held a six foot tall gold statue of Victory in her hand. A frieze, carved in relief, lined the surrounding walls, innovatively introducing a decorative feature of Ionic architecture into the Doric order. The 525 foot long frieze has been described by art historian Joan Breton Connelly as "showing 378 human and 245 animal figures... the largest and most detailed revelation of Athenian consciousness we have ... this moving portrayal of noble faces from the distant past, ... the largest, most elaborate narrative tableau the Athenians have left us."

The Parthenon's design employed precise mathematical proportions, based upon the golden ratio, but as Mendelsohn noted, "There are almost no straight lines in the building." The columns employ entasis, a swelling at the center of each column, and tilt inward, while the foundation also rises toward the façade, correcting for the optical illusion of sagging and tilting that would have resulted in perfectly straight lines. Aesthetically, though, as Mendelsohn explains, "[T]he slight swelling also conveys the subliminal impression of muscular effort...Arching, leaning, straining, swelling, breathing: the over-all effect...is to give the building a special and slightly unsettling quality of being somehow alive." The building has been highly praised since ancient times as the 1st century Roman historian Plutarch called it "no less stately in size than exquisite in form," and in the modern era, Le Corbusier called it "the basis for all measurement in art."

Marble - Athens, Greece

Apollo Belvedere, Roman copy, c. 120 - 140 CE of Leochares bronze original c. 350-325 BCE (c. 120 - 140 CE)
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Apollo Belvedere, Roman copy, c. 120 - 140 CE of Leochares bronze original c. 350-325 BCE (c. 120 - 140 CE)

Artwork description & Analysis: This nude statue, a little over seven feet tall, depicts Apollo, the Greek god of art and music, as he strides forward, having just shot an arrow from a bow which his extended left hand originally held. Realistic in its anatomical modeling, the work conveys a sense of gravity, both in his form as seen in the musculature of his weight-bearing right leg and in the folds of his chlamys, or robe, falling across his left arm. Contrapposto is employed innovatively to create a sense of complex movement, presenting the statue both frontally and in profile as the god strides forward majestically. While the statue is identified as the god by the headband he wears, reserved for gods or rulers, and his bow and the quiver across his left shoulder, he is also equally a symbol of youthful masculine beauty.

The work has also been called the Pythian Apollo, as it was believed to depict Apollo's slaying of the Python, a mythical serpent at Delphi, marking the moment when the site became sacred to the god and home of the famous Delphic Oracle. The marble statue is believed to be a Roman copy of an original bronze from the 4th century by the Greek sculptor Leochares. The work was discovered in 1489 and became part of the collection of Cardinal Giulano della Rovere who, subsequently, became Pope Julius II, the leading patron of the Italian High Renaissance. He put the work on public display in 1511, and Michelangelo's student, the sculptor Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli, restored the missing parts of the left hand and right arm.

Much acclaimed, the work was sketched by Michelangelo, Bandinelli, Goltzius, and Albrecht Dürer who modeled Adam upon Apollo in his engraving Adam and Eve (1504). Marcantonio Raimondi made a copy of the Apollo, and his engraving in the 1530s was widely disseminated throughout Europe; however, the work became most influential in the 1700s as Winckelmann, the pioneering German art historian, wrote, "Of all the works of antiquity that have escaped destruction, the statue of Apollo represents the highest ideal of art." The work became fundamental to the development of Neoclassicism as seen in Antonio Canova's Perseus (1804-1806) modeled after the work. As art critic Jonathan Jones noted, "The work was admired two hundred years ago as an image of the absolute rational clarity of Greek civilisation and the perfect harmony of divine beauty," but in the Romantic era it fell into disfavor as the leading critics, John Ruskin, William Hazlitt, and Walter Pater critiqued it. Still, it has remained popular and frequently reproduced, lending it a cultural currency, as seen in the official seal of the 1972 Apollo XVII moon landing mission.

Marble - Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Italy

More Classical Greek and Roman Art and Architecture Artwork and Analysis:

The Dying Gaul, Roman marble copy of Greek bronze by Epigonus (c. 230 - 220 BCE) Winged Victory of Samothrace (c 200 -190 BCE) Alexandros of Antioch: Venus de Milo (130 -100 BCE) Agesandro, Athendoros, and Polydoros: Laocoön and His Sons (27 BCE - 68 CE) Augustus of Prima Porta (1st Century CE) Pantheon (113 -125 CE)
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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols

" Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 11 Oct 2018. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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