September is here, and we all come back to our routines. Some of us will be back to work, some to University, or school…No more holidays folks, just our normal repetitive life. Nonetheless, here in W.U Hstry we have been thinking that if everything comes back, does history do it as well? There is this eternal debate in the historiographical area about history working in cycles, always working in the same place…History that happens and later on returns again. I am not talking here about an isolated thing that happened once and then it reappeared with no much glory. I am actually talking about a trend that has been carried out through time. Because of this reason, my topic for this post is the eternal revival of the classical art.
Let’s see. The Greeks were the first to create this magnificent artistic style. Even though there were some changes and improvements made through the different periods of Greek classical history, the basic characteristics remain pretty much the same, and could be summarised in the following. Both in architecture as in the pictorial arts geometry and proportion was a key factor. The Greeks developed their own ‘canon’ by which they judged the perfection of their master pieces. They worked with tough, long-lasting materials, such as stone or marble, so their structures would remain through the ages. They had integrated in their philosophy that idea of eternity, of history, and it was clearly reflected on their art work. Also, despite the perfection they tried to achieve, all their work seem to have certain degree of idealism: the figures seem apathetic, or if not in a state of eternal nirvana. In general, all is pure, magnificent and, very importantly, human-focussed. (this is just a brief sumary…of course they are other key points but these are the one I would like you to focus on)
So, when the Romans absorbed they Greek culture, so did they absorbed their art and culture. In fact, anyone with little knowledge of art could be easily fooled and mistake a Roman sculpture or building with a Greek one. However, and despite the mightyness of Roman art, once the empire collapsed all sort of Roman tradition seem to get lost in time (apart from in Byzantium, of course, it prevailed there, but still there were some changes in it with the arrival of orthodox christianity). The Gothic barbarians took over Europe and mix their own culture with the Roman based of the rest. The classical art appeared to be lost or mutated into something else, combined with slavic/germanic/celtic. The Western civilizations needed centuries to see the new revival of classical art. It took place in several places at different times, but I would say that the most significant would probably be the Carolingian Renaissance.
Even though Charlemagne and his heirs did not achieve a total renewal of the Roman culture and their artistic skills, they definitely try hard to approach to it. With the great influence of the Byzantines we can see the re-appearance of Roman-like basilicas, geometrical decoration and, most importantly, the treatment of human figures. The effort made by the Franks kept on expanding around Europe to finally reach its peak moment with the Romanesque of the High Middle Ages.
With the Romanesque, sculpture and fine painting came back to live, maybe for some in not such an impressive form than the classical style, but still good enough to be something succesful again. The treatment of the human body reappears with yes, the influence of Christianity, and in fact if would be a key element on their art work: Jesus in his whole grace would be the most depicted figure ever. Architectural wise, the buildings start to expand into new dimensions; they became bigger, built mainly from stone, again with the idea of eternity in their minds. These were mainly ecclesiastical buildings that obviously wanted to be preserved through out time…and so they did, and if you look around in your city you most certainly will find a Romanesque church, or at least the ancient settlement underneath whatever is there now.
As you may know, from the Romanesque we pass onto the Gothic style of the Late Middle Ages that most likely suited better the needs of that age. However, The Renaissance was just around the corner, and again together with the whole humanistic movement we have a new artistic revolution.
The people from the Renaissance interested in their history saw an extreme appeal in this classical style that had been building their nations since almost the beginning of history, and so they paid their own tribute to it. I am sure it is no difficult to see the themes already commented such as the proportion and harmony in master pieces such as Michelangelo’s David. It is Greek and Roman art all over the place again.
Then again the tendency died out and moved into more eccentric forms, but not for long. Some centuries later, and thank to the new scientific-intellectual-humanist movement know as the Enlightenment came along the Neoclassicism. As its own name explains the “New-classical” tendency took over the western nations. A great example of this would be the early years of Louis XIV court, and without doubt Versailles itself: all with the grandeur typical of a Roman emperor, symmetric and eternal. it is well-known that the Sun King was after “la gloire” and the recognition of his achievements through history, so this style suited him very much.
I know this is a lot of information in a brief and small explanation, but I am sure that if you have been reading and paying a bit of attention you have seen already what is my point. Humans tend to take back things from the past…Things that were succesful in the past…Things that are the clear remain of the days of glory and power, things that make oneself be proud of his heritage.Art is one of those things that keep on changing through time, but art works on an inspirational basis, as well as in the taste of the artist, and artists need to find their influences from somewhere… And it seems that classical art is one of their very favourites. So for this, I think classicism within the artistic world should be on the top ten (or something like that) of Things That Came Back, and that might possibly come back again.
I mean, who knows? Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next week. But perhaps in a couple of decades, with all these crises, catastrophes and changes our world is suffering or seems to be suffering, there may be a possibility of taking that splendour that once was ours and use it to keep people’s faith alive, or just to remind them who they are…