Antique Art and the Renaissance: a Gallery of Types

This chapter is a selection of photographs with running commentary which demonstrates the range of antique art that inspired Renaissance artists, and remained a feature of academic art training throughout the period covered by this book.

The following important points should be borne in mind. First it is not surprising to find artists (or lawyers or writers) looking to the antique past for models, particularly when the rich variety and great time-span of Graeco-Roman Antiquity is appreciated. Artists can therefore find sufficient antique examples to suit their own stylistic tendencies. This is as true of men like Botticelli and Ghirlandaio (neither of whom could be called classical) as it is of Masaccio or Raphael. In other words, the influence of the antique is all-pervasive, but only some antique works are used in a classicizing manner.116 At the lowest level, Antiquity was a store-house of motifs and ready-made objects which, suitably adapted, might be used in modern art, and quoted in Christian art where need be.110a

Second, in spite of censuses, we often experience great difficulty in knowing exactly which particular work had been seen by a Renaissance artist.100'108 The dilemma is only apparent, for antique statues and reliefs, like their modern equivalents, can be grouped into types, as sculptors from one shop, or town, or even country, took up ideas which might stretch back hundreds of years. Thus we have groups of a type of Meleager sarcophagus, or a type of Venus Pudica, of which all the members would have features in common. Even when we cannot pin down exact sources, we can therefore still study relationships between Renaissance art and Antiquity.99'113

Third, we must not underestimate the speed with which antique motifs could be passed from hand to hand and from town to town. As well as plaster casts and bronze reductions, sketch-books were probably constant re-ference tools in most Renaissance workshops, to be supplemented by the sixteenth century by prints which were sometimes accompanied by text. It was not strictly necessary for an artist to have had direct contact with an antique original in order for him to come under its influence.

Lastly, until the chapter on Neoclassicism I make no distinction in this book between Greek and Roman art. The ancient Romans were great admirers of Greek art and avid collectors and copiers of Greek work, and the Renaissance was therefore confronted with a mixture of styles from various periods of art. Artists, as I have said, gravitated to that antique style which pleased them most, and no one until the time of Winckelmann was sufficiently versed (or interested ?) in stylistics to be able to classify antiquities chronologically. As far as we know, there was little contact with pre-Hellenistic Greek art before the later eighteenth century,106 and the same applies to architecture. It is, indeed, one of the ironies of art history that the Elgin Marbles arrived on the European scene too late to affect radically the course of the classical tradition.

The Apollo Belvedere120

Discovered near Grottaferrata on land owned by Giuliario della Rovere. When he became Pope in 1503, as Julius II, the work was placed in the Vatican Belvedere, hence its name.



The Laocoon96121

Discovered in the Baths of Titus, Rome, in January 1506. Now in the Vatican, Rome.

The juxtaposition of these, the two most famous antiques of the Renaissance, is a convincing demonstration of the range of styles available. The supple imperiousness of the god contrasts with the strong torsion of the dying priest, and with the echoing gestures of terror from his two sons. The former will remain the epitome of bodily grace, the latter of physical power and of strong emotion.98'107'115

The Torso Belvedere117 Known throughout the fifteenth century and, like the Apollo and the Laocoon, housed in the Vatican Belvedere. It presents, as it were, the Laocoon in contraction, rather than in extension.

The River Nile A less extravagant anatomical form than the Laocoon, this work has been on the Capitol since the Renaissance. The pose is one of Michelangelo's sources for The Creation of Adam on the Sistine Ceiling.

The Death of Meleager (sarcophagus BELOW) Reliefs of this kind were perhaps the most useful group of antiques for the classicizing artist, for their arrangement of sculptured figures in a frieze, together with their mixture of both dignified and calm and more emotional figures,97 presented a series of solutions to problems of formal arrangement and of in-terpretation. The story of Meleager provided


Statue of the River Nile in front of the Palazzo dei Senatori. Rome, Capitol.

LEFT The atrium of the Museo Pio Clementina, in the Vatican, showing the Belvedere Torso. From P. Letarouilly, Le Vatican, Paris, vol IV, 1882.



Death of Meleager, detail, from an antique sarcophagus. Engraving hy Fnitmns Perrier, from his Icones . . ., Rome,


two useful scenes of the youth's limp body carried home by mourning companions (cf. Raphael's Deposition in the Borghese Gallery, Rome) and of the sober death-bed scene, with mourners arranged round the bed, called the condamatio. The latter episode has a parti-

cularly long life, from Giotto's Lamentation in the Arena Chapel in Padua to J.-L. David's Andromache mourning Hector in the Louvre, and beyond. As the following examples show, both type of subject-matter and emotional content could be varied.


Giotto: The Lamentation, c. 1306. Padua, Arena Chapel. Riccio: Conclamatio, c.

1515. Paris, Louvre.



The Death of the Children of Niobe

(sarcophagus relief) ABOVE: Niobe, the beau-ideal of grief (as Dr Brewer has it), stands at the right side of this sarcophagus protecting two of her children (cf. the group at the right of David's Brutus in the Louvre). The scene of destruction, with a melee of human beings and horses, was a veritable academy of drama for the Renaissance. Leonardo's Battle of Anghiari was drawn from this, while for the central scene of The Fight for the Standard, Leonardo must have studied battle scenes of Romans fighting barbarians on sarcophagi or on reliefs like those on Trajan's Column.

Trajan's Column (detail) BELOW

Columns such as this provided a strip-cartoon of narrative scenes. The detail illustrated shows, from top to bottom: a sacrifice and battle scene; a military parade; tree-felling for siege warfare; and leaders in council. For obvious reasons, the lower scenes on such columns were studied much more than the upper ones!

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The Indian Triumph of Bacchus

(sarcophagus relief) ABOVE: The idea of triumph is frequently encountered in Renaissance art. Scenes such as this, with richly flowing movements, would have influenced Annibale Carracci's representation of the theme on the ceiling of the Farnese Gallery. A watery equivalent to it is that of the Sea Thiasos, as in the Nereid Sarcophagus illustrated below (from Perrier's Icones . . .), which provided a series of studies of the naked human form.

The Triumphal Arch of Constantine, Rome BELOW

Arches were a rich source for the Renaissance artist and architect. The Arch of Constantine lacks the richly coffered barrel vaults found elsewhere, but displays a noble inscription, single standing figures in various attitudes (including captives at attic level), and scenes of many kinds in both roundels and rectangular frames. The architecture of such monuments was crucial not only for one type of church facade (cf. the works of Alberti), and for





The Arch ofConstantine, Rome. The Meta Sudans, demolished in 1935, is just visible on th> right.

chateau facades in France, but also for the design of the Renaissance tomb, such as Andrea Sansovino's Tomb of Cardinal Girolamo Basso delta Rovere in S. Maria del Popolo, Rome.

Christian sarcophagus of the Traditio Legis type BELOW

The Christians took over the forms and much of the iconography of Roman art, and adapted them. This scene of the Foundation of the Church, and another group called City Gate sarcophagi, as well as the conclamatio scenes, are rich sources for architectural motifs as well as for figures in noble togas.111'112

'Lisimachus, King of Thrace'. Naples, National Museum.

Roman portrait bust110

Not all Romans looked like the Apollo Belvedere. Many of their portraits, which usually served commemorative or funerary purposes, were intensely realistic, as this one shows. Donatello's prophets for Florence Cathedral must owe much of their powerfully conceived psychology to study of such work.

Fresco: The Aldobrandini Wedding

This famous example was found only in the early .seventeenth century, and is illustrated here to evoke those examples of antique art

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The Aldobrandini wedding. Rome, Vatican.

which must have been known to Renaissance artists and which have subsequently vanished. As well as the Domus Aurea,103 from which some of the decoration survives, many Roman tombs as well as villas like that of Hadrian near Tivoli must have been painted or stuccoed.

Statuettes, coins, medals and gems

Few large bronzes survived from Antiquity, for the metal was valuable. Smaller objects, more easily hidden or mislaid, did survive. Avidly collected, such items were quickly recognized as of vital importance to historical research, apart from their intrinsic worth or


'La Volta Dorata' Rome, Domus Aurea. Engraving.


Sixteenth-century studies after classical cameos. Antonio Lafreri after G. B. Franco.





Lid of an Etruscan funerary urn. Volterra, Museo Guarnacci. Part of a collection originating in 1732, and extended in 1744 - an early example of Tuscan 'nationalism'.

Michelangelo: Bacchus. Florence, Bargello. Detail showing the Etruscan cup.

their use to artists. Sometimes, minute images were reminiscences of full-size works of art, long since lost. Because of their lightness and compactness, such miniature antiquities were easily transported and just as easily cast in plaster. They were also popular subjects for the forgers, who stepped in to bridge the gap between demand and supply. Padua, for example, was well known in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries for such antiquarianism. Sometimes, Renaissance medals are made after the manner of the antique, without intent to deceive.

Greek and Etruscan antiquities

No gallery of types would be complete without an indication of the range of Renaissance knowledge of the antique. What did Florentine artists know of Etruscan art?105'109 Do their reclining funerary figures derive from Etruscan sources?114 Michelangelo's Bacchus shown above holds an Etruscan bowl in his hand: are other Etruscan motifs apparent in his work and that of his predecessors?101'118 It is quite possible. Although early Greek sculpture made no impact on Europe until the importation of the Elgin Marbles, we known that Greek marbles were on display in Venice during the Renaissance. One scholar has seen the friezes of the Palazzo Spada, Rome (c. 1540) as inspired


ABOVE Monument to Heges. Athens, National Museum. Could stelai such as this have been known to Donatella and Michelangelo ?


directly by the Monument of Lysicrates in Athens.106 Certainly, scholars and merchants did visit Greece, and drawings were taken back to Italy.

A page from a Renaissance sketch-book

by Amico Aspertini

Artists who could afford it collected real antiques; those who could not would rely on the collections of patrons, and particularly on sketch-books, which might themselves be made up of works copied from other sketch-

books.102'104 The idea of a complete census of antique architecture in Rome was projected by Raphael, but it was only in the early seventeenth century that Cassiano dal Pozzo made a 'paper museum' of the antiquities of the City, a scheme on which Poussin worked while new to Rome, gaining therefrom his vast and scholarly knowledge of ancient art.119 There is no adequate history of museums, nor of collecting; both were vital to the training of artists in the academic and classical tradition (see pp. 53-5).


Amico Aspertini. Opening from a sketchbook of 1535. British Museum.