The Classical Ideal
The second half of the eighteenth century in Europe saw the increasing influence of classical antiquity on artistic style and the development of taste. The achievements of the Renaissance from the period of Raphael (1483–1520) to that of Nicolas Poussin (1594–1665) and Claude Lorrain (1604/5?–1682) served as a conduit for a renewed interest in harmony, simplicity, and proportion, an interest that gained momentum as the new science of archaeology brought forth spectacular remnants of a buried world of great beauty. Giovanni Paolo Panini’s Ancient Rome (1757; 52.63.1) is representative of the movement, a tour-de-force painting encompassing many of the monuments in and around Rome, including the Pantheon, the Colosseum, Trajan’s Column, the Medici Vase, the Farnese Hercules, and the Laocoön. In the midst of a grand gallery, students copy the great works of antiquity. The Neoclassical style arose from such first-hand observation and reproduction of antique works and came to dominate European architecture, painting, sculpture, and decorative arts.
It was not until the eighteenth century that a concerted effort to systematically retrieve the glories of lost civilizations began. Illustrations of freshly discovered archaeological ruins in Athens, Naples (Herculaneum and Pompeii), Paestum, Palmyra (Syria), Baalbek (Lebanon), and the Dalmatian coast were disseminated throughout Europe in treatises with detailed descriptions, picturesque landscape views, reproductions of frescoes, and measured drawings of temples, theaters, mausoleums, and sculptures. Reports of extensive travel expeditions such as those by Robert Wood, John Bouverie, Giovanni Battista Borra, and James Dawkins, with their Ruins of Palmyra (1753) and The Ruins of Balbec (1757), James “Athenian” Stuart and Nicholas Revett’s Antiquities of Athens (1762), and Robert Adam’s Ruins of the Palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia (1764) broadened the public’s historical perspective and stimulated a passion for all things savoring of the ancient past.
Travelers were also important students of Roman and Greek antiquity. In the early eighteenth century, painted visions of Greco-Roman monuments already could be found in continental palaces and English country homes. Soon, persons of culture and sensibility known to the Italians as cognoscenti were descending upon the peninsula to embark on the Grand Tour. In Rome, they were sometimes accompanied by a cicerone, a docent who guided them through the mazes of museums, churches, and marmoreal monuments. Famous artists such as Antonio Canova (1757–1822) and Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770–1844) opened their studios where they kept works on display permanently for potential clients. Tourists prized not only souvenir portraits of themselves by painters such as Pompeo Batoni (1708–1787; 03.37.1), hardstone cabinets, or Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture with which to furnish their libraries, but also the exquisite ancient objects they encountered. Faced with the threat of the catastrophic dispersal of this legacy, the popes intervened. Cardinal Alessandro Albani’s collection of antique marbles was acquired by Clement XII in 1733, despite lucrative offers from abroad. Whereas over the two previous centuries the reigning pope would have bought such treasures for himself and his family, they were purchased for the city of Rome itself and placed in one of the palaces on the Capitoline that Michelangelo had designed. Since excavations were continually disgorging more objects, Clement XIV inaugurated a great museum in the Vatican in 1769, energetically enriched by his successor Pius VI. The Museo Pio-Clementino represents the height of papal patronage of the arts in Rome.
Influential theoretical and historical writings contributed as strongly as the artifacts themselves to a change in taste. Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768; 48.141), German archaeologist and philosopher, emphasized the supremacy of Greek art. His major work, Gedanken über die Nachahmung der griechischen Werke in der Malerei und Bildhauerkunst (Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks, 1755), extolled the beauty of the Apollo Belvedere in particular. Rejecting the notion that art imitates life, Winckelmann taught that qualities superior to nature are found in Greek art, specifically, “ideal beauties, brain-born images.” Such transcendent works, he explained, went beyond mere verisimilitude to capture “a more beauteous and more perfect nature.” The concept of ideal forms descended from Platonic texts and had been the theme of commentators since the Renaissance, but Winckelmann’s proselytizing won new adherents. “The most eminent characteristic of Greek works,” he wrote, “is a noble simplicity and sedate grandeur in gesture and expression. As the bottom of the sea lies peaceful beneath a foaming surface, a great soul lies sedate beneath the strife of passions in Greek figures.”
Winckelmann’s writings sparked the Greco-Roman controversy in the 1760s, a debate as to the relative superiority of Greek and Roman architecture and ornament, thus drawing attention to an overlooked field. Italian printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s (1720–1778) vast oeuvre of engravings of ancient Roman sites (126.96.36.199) demonstrates his perception of Roman practicality as an improvement over Greek experiment. Other scholars, siding with Winckelmann, contended that Roman culture was a lesser imitation of Greek mastery of form.
In painting, Anton Raphael Mengs (1728–1779), a Winckelmann protégé and premier peintre to the Dresden court, freely employed classical themes. Notable is his Parnassus (1760–61), showing Apollo surrounded by Muses and commissioned for the Villa Albani (Rome). His Augustus and Cleopatra (1760–61), inspired by Plutarch’s Lives, was commissioned by Henry Hoare (1705–1785) for his country house in Wiltshire. British artist Gavin Hamilton (1723–1798) also had recourse to Greek mythology, completing Achilles Bewailing the Death of Patroclus (1760–63), a scene from Homer’s Iliad. These artists, together with Joseph Marie Vien, Benjamin West, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and Angelica Kauffmann, made up the first generation of Neoclassical painters. They defined the style with their emphasis on formal composition, historic subject matter, contemporary settings and costumes, rigidity, solidity, and monumentality in the spirit of classical revival. French painter Jacques Louis David (1748–1825) was a student of Vien, having won the Prix de Rome in 1774 to study at the French Academy. In sympathy with the French Revolution, his paintings such as The Death of Socrates (31.45) gave expression to a new cult of civic virtues: self-sacrifice, devotion to duty, honesty, and stoic austerity. In the early 1790s, painter and sculptor John Flaxman (1755–1826) published his spare illustrations for Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (1977.595.53). Using his knowledge of Greek vase painting, Flaxman dispensed with the illusion of space and reduced volumes to unshaded outlines, giving his figures an abstract sense of unreality and weightlessness that appealed to countless fellow artists.