Artworks and Artists of Classical Greek and Roman Art and Architecture
Progression of Art
Roman copy 120-50 BCE of original by Polycleitus, Doryphoros (Spear-Bearer) c. 440 BCE
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
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
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
The Dying Gaul, Roman marble copy of Greek bronze by Epigonus
This Roman copy of a Greek Hellenistic work depicts a nude and dying man, identified as a Gaul or more specifically a Galatian, a member of a Celtic tribe in Pergamon, a Greek city in Turkey. Sitting on the ground, his left hand grasping his left knee, and his right hand resting upon a broken sword as he holds himself up, he looks down as if contemplating his end. His extended legs and the twist of his torso suggest pain and immanent collapse. The work is realistic and emotionally expressive, as the tension between tensed and relaxed muscles conveys his struggle to fight off death. A pensive and somber feeling dominates the work, making it an intense reflection on defeat and mortality, while the idealization of his physical beauty suggests a heroic death.
The statue was discovered sometime in the early 1600s at the Villa Ludovisi, the country residence of a wealthy and powerful Italian family, and was originally believed to depict a Roman gladiator. The work was popular and viewing it became a necessary part of the Grand Tour undertaken by young aristocrats in the 18th and 19th centuries. The British Romantic poet, Lord Byron whose famous poem Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812) was written following his Grand Tour, wrote, "I see before me the gladiator lie/ He leans upon his hand - his manly brow/ Consents to death, but conquers agony." Its popularity led to a proliferation of marble and plaster copies across Europe.
In the 19th century, scholars identified the subject as a Gaul, due to his hairstyle and the torque he wears on his neck, and Epigonus, a court appointed sculptor of Pergamon, as the original artist. The original was part of a complex sculpture group to celebrate Pergamon's victory over the Gauls and exemplifies what was called the "Pergamene Style," which as contemporary art critic Jerry Saltz noted, "emphasized emotional appeal and almost Baroque volatility. Nothing defines that style quite as clearly as the Dying Gaul, who is both tragic and sensual, firing both our desire and our sense of compassion."
Marble - Capitoline Museums, Rome, Italy
Winged Victory of Samothrace
This monumental work, depicting Nike, the goddess of victory, and created in honor of a naval victory, emphasizes dynamic movement, as the goddess surges forward, swept by the wind, her wings unfurled behind her. As art historian H.W. Jansen wrote, "This invisible force of on-rushing air here becomes a tangible reality; it not only balances the forward movement of the figure but also shapes every fold of the wonderfully animated drapery. As a result, there is an active relationship - indeed, and interdependence - between the statue and the space that envelops it, such as we have never seen before."
Over 18 feet tall, the Hellenistic statue stands on a pedestal, placed upon a base that resembles the prow of a ship. Most scholars believe the work was originally placed at the Sanctuary of the Greek Gods, a temple complex overlooking the harbor on the island of Samothrace. Charles Champoiseau, a French envoy, discovered the fragmented statue in 1863 and sent it to Paris where it was reassembled and placed in the Louvre, famously dominating the view up the grand staircase.
The work influenced a number of modern artists and movements, as Umberto Boccioni's Futuristic work Unique Forms of Continuity in Space (1913) references the statue, and Filippo Tommaso Marinetti also referenced it in his Futurist Manifesto (1903). The American sculptors Samuel Murray and Augustus Saint-Gaudens created Nike-like figures, as seen in Saint Gauden's Sherman Memorial (1903) and the statue was a favorite work of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who included reproductions of it in a number of his residential designs. Yves Klein painted a number of plaster copies, painted in his International Klein Blue and using a resin he named Victoire de Samatrace, and more recently, Banksy's CCTV Angel (2006) repurposed the figure.
Parian Marble - Louvre Museum, Paris
Venus de Milo
Believed to portray Venus, the goddess of love, this six-and-a-half-foot statue creates dynamic visual movement with its accentuated s-curve, emphasizing the curve of the torso and hip, as the lower part of her body is draped in the realistic folds of her falling robe. The dramatic contrapposto, her left knee raised as if lifting her foot off the ground, further emphasizes her movement, as she turns toward the viewer.
The work was originally attributed to Praxiteles but is now generally credited to Alexandros of Antioch. Scholarly dispute continues about the identity of its subject; traditionally identified as Venus, some scholars believe the work actually portrays Amphitrite, a sea goddess, worshipped on the island of Milo where the sculpture was found in 1820, and some contemporary scholars have suggested the figure may in fact portray a prostitute.
The statue was made from several pieces of marble, two blocks used for the body, while other parts, including the legs and left arm, were sculpted individually and then attached. When excavated in 1820, part of an arm and a fragmented hand holding a round orb were discovered with the statue, which stood upon a stone plinth. At the time, the fragments were discarded, due to their 'rougher' finish, and later so was the plinth. It's believed that, originally, the statue was brightly painted and adorned with expensive jewelry.
During his Italian campaign Napoleon Bonaparte took the Medici Venus (1st century BCE), then the most renowned classical female nude, to France and installed it in the Louvre. But in 1815 the French returned the Medici Venus and bought the Venus de Milo, which they promoted both as the finest classical work and a model of feminine grace and beauty.
More than any other classical sculpture, this iconic nude has greatly influenced both modern art and culture, due to its compelling ideal of feminine beauty and its beguiling mystery. As art critic Jonathan Jones writes, "The Venus de Milo is an accidental surrealist masterpiece. Her lack of arms makes her strange and dreamlike. She is perfect but imperfect, beautiful but broken - the body as a ruin. That sense of enigmatic incompleteness has transformed an ancient work of art into a modern one." Salvador Dalí's Venus de Milo with Drawers (1936) copied the work but inserted pull drawers with pink pompom handles into the torso. As Jones noted, the Venus de Milo has retained its contemporary artistic relevance because it "entered European culture in the 19th century just as artists and writers were rejecting the perfect and timeless." As a result, the work haunts the modern imagination, referenced in literature, films, and television episodes and used in any number of advertisements, while its impact on cultural concepts of feminine beauty can be seen in the American Society of Plastic Surgeons' use of the figure on its seal in 1930.
Marble - Louvre Museum, Paris
Laocoön and His Sons
This famous work depicts the doomed struggle of Laocoön, and his two sons Antiphantes and Thymbraeus caught in the coils of two giant poisonous sea serpents, one of them biting Laocoön's hip. His hand grasps the snake's neck as he tries to fend it off. On the left, the youngest boy, dying from the poison, has collapsed, his legs caught in the coils that lift him off the ground. The central figure is the father, whose powerful muscular form twists upward and backward, his despairing and contorted gaze turned heavenward, as his son on the right turns to look pleadingly at him. Drawing upon the story of the Trojan war, the work is thought to dramatically depict the moment when Laocoön, a priest of Troy who warned the Trojans against taking the Greek wooden horse into the city, was attacked, along with his two sons, by the serpents sent by the gods to silence him. As a result the frightened Trojans, fearing the gods' punishment, took in the wooden horse containing the Greek soldiers, who, hidden within it, came out at night to open the gates for the Greek army, leading to the fall of Troy. Art historian Nigel Spivey has called the work "the prototypical icon of human agony," and its dynamic sense of drama and its use of slightly unrealistic scale to emphasize paradoxically the father's power and helplessness made it innovative and a masterwork of the Hellenistic style.
In 1506 the work was discovered during excavations of Rome and immediately drew the attention of Pope Julius II who sent Michelangelo to oversee the excavation. Its identification drew upon the ancient accounts of Pliny the Elder, a Roman writer, who described the work as located in the emperor Titus's palace and attributed it to the Rhodes sculptors Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus.
The work greatly influenced Michelangelo, including some of his figures in the Sistine Chapel ceiling and his later sculpture. Raphael depicted Homer with Laocoon's face in his Parnassus, and Titian drew upon the work for his Averoldi Altarpiece (1520-24), as did Rubens for his Descent from the Cross. (1612-14). William Blake also referenced the sculpture, though within his own belief that imitations of Classical Art destroyed the creative imagination. The work informed a number of ongoing debates, as to whether sculpture or painting were more primary, and has played a role in modern discourses, as seen in Irving Babbit's (1910) The New Laokoon: An Essay on the Confusion of the Arts (1910) and Clement Greenberg's Towards a Newer Laocoön (1940), where he argued for abstract art as the new, equivalent, ideal. The Henry Moore Institute held a 2007 exhibition with this title while showing modern works influenced by the statue, and contemporary artist Sanford Biggers has referenced the work within his contemporary installation pieces.
Marble - Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Italy
Augustus of Prima Porta
This statue depicts Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome, in military uniform, his right arm raised in a gesture of leadership, addressing the military and populace of Rome. His contrapposto pose, the muscular modeling of his breastplate, and his dispassionate expression are informed by Polycleitus's Doryphorus, as the emperor is presented as the new model of the universal male ideal. His breastplate is intricately carved with scenes and figures - including the sun, sky, and earth gods, a diplomatic victory over the Parthians, and female figures representing conquered countries - that establish him as a military leader, founder of the Pax Romana, and heir of Rome's mythological and historical traditions. Tugging at his right, a small cupid rides a dolphin that symbolizes Augustus's victory at the 31 BCE Battle of Actium over Mark Antony and Cleopatra, which made him sole ruler. At the same time, the cupid, representing Eros, a son of the goddess Venus, refers to Julius Caesar's claim that he was descended from the goddess. As Augustus was Caesar's grand-nephew and adopted heir, he establishes his divine patrimony and connects it to the legendary founding of Rome by Aeneas, the only mortal son of Venus and the only surviving Trojan prince. The statue is barefoot, a trope associated with portrayals of divinity, and as art critic Alastair Sooke noted, the work, "is not simply a portrait of Rome's first emperor...it is also a vision of a god."
Emerging victorious from a civil war that followed the assassination of Julius Caesar, Augustus launched a notable building campaign, saying later, "I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble." His image became a powerful propaganda tool, as art critic Roderick Conway Morris wrote, "He projected his image through art and architecture and...this gave birth to a new classical Roman style, which would long outlive the first emperor and influence imperial and dynastic art over the next two millennia." As a result, more images of Augustus in statues, busts, coins, and cameos, all depicting him as this ever youthful and virile leader, survive than of any other Roman emperor. While Romans were known for their exacting portraiture, Augustus insisted on the idealized, youthful image throughout his reign to distance himself from any unrest in the empire.
The work was rediscovered following its excavations in 1863 at Prima Porta, a villa which belonged to Augustus's wife, and as Sooke wrote, "Since its rediscovery, this charismatic work of art has become a symbol of ancient Rome's peculiar blend of refinement and ruthless military might." As a result, it has had a somewhat notorious afterlife, as when the Italian dictator Mussolini held an art exhibition in 1937 dedicated to Augustus and included this work in order to identify Fascist Italy with a new Roman Empire.
Marble - Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Italy
The circular temple faces the street with a monumental portico, employing eight Corinthian columns at the front with double rows of four columns behind, to create an imposing entrance. The façade, evoking the octastyle of the Athenian Parthenon, also emphasized that Rome was the heir of the classical tradition. The large granite columns rise to an entablature with an inscription reading "Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this] when consul for the third time." Though Agrippa's temple, built during the reign of the Emperor Augustus (27 BCE-14 CE), burned down, the Emperor Hadrian retained the inscription when he rebuilt the temple. The building's innovative and distinctive feature was its concrete dome; with a height and diameter of 142 feet, still, the world's largest dome made of unreinforced concrete. The interior was equally innovative, as the dome rose above a circular interior chamber, illuminated by an oculus opening to the sky in the center of the coffered dome, creating a sense of both an imperial and divine space.
"Pantheon" means "relating to the gods," and scholars continue to debate whether this meant the temple was dedicated to all the gods or followed tradition in being dedicated to a specific god. Specific dedications to single gods were considered more provident since, if any mishap struck, the people would know which god had been offended and could offer sacrifices. When Agrippa first built the temple, it was part of the Agrippa complex (29-19 BCE) that also included the Baths of Agrippa and the Basilica of Neptune, and it is thought that the façade is what remains of his original structure. The building is one of the best preserved from the Imperial Roman era, as it was turned into a Christian church in the 7th century, though it has also been altered, and many of the relief sculptures of gilded bronze were melted down.
The work influenced Filippo Brunelleschi's dome of Florence Cathedral in 1436, a radical design that transformed architecture and informed the development of the Italian Renaissance. The Pantheon also informed the Baroque movement, as seen in Bernini's Santa Maria Assunta (1664), and the Neoclassical movement, as seen in Thomas Jefferson's Rotunda (1817-26) on the grounds of the University of Virginia.
Marble, concrete, bronze, stone - Rome, Italy