What is Classicism ?

In ancient Rome, the citizens of the first rank were called classici. When Aulus Gellius (19.8.15) contrasted a scriptor classicus with a scriptor proletarius, the description carried an implication of quality which is still current: we speak of a work being a 'classic' in the sense that it is a model which deserves to be followed. The French were using classique in this manner in the sixteenth century but it was not until the eighteenth century in England and France that the term 'the classics' came to mean precisely the masterpieces of Greek and Latin literature. Since at that time a classical education was acknowledged as the only correct training for civilized life, such an extension of meaning is not surprising. In the history of art as in the history of literature, classicism is an approach to the medium founded on the imitation of Antiquity, and on the assumption of a set of values attributed to the ancients. The continuing importance of ancient culture in many disciplines, such as law and administration or epigraphy and poetry, is shown in the fusing of the two senses of the word 'classic' in the term classical tradition, which denotes the retention of and elaboration upon classical values in the art of succeeding generations. This is not a notion invented in the twentieth century to explain the history of art; there is an observable propensity in some artists and at certain times to work in a classical manner: their antecedents are proclaimed by the very characteristics of their work.

Classicism has certain basic features in art as in literature. Its concern is always with the ideal, in form as well as in content. Such is the case, it is true, with virtually all artists before Romanticism, but classical artists looked back to the ideal of Antiquity as well as to its varied styles. They were sure that art is governed by rules which are determined by reason. Beauty, which is one form of truth, must depend on some system of measurement and proportion, as Plato explained in the Timaeus; artists working from classical models made it their business to rediscover such a system in the works of art and buildings of Antiquity. Such an emphasis on measurement, allied to reason, is summarized in the Vitruvian figure of a man within a circle and a square, which expresses the concurrence between beauty, mathematics and Man. For the Renaissance artist, Man, within the circle of God, is the measure of all things, and he rules himself and his affairs by the application of reason. Antique art, centred on the depiction of a noble human mind in an ideal body, provides convincing models for imitation.

The depiction of the ideal entails certain formal as well as intellectual qualities. Clarity of subject-matter must be reinforced by clarity of style, for extraneous detail and secondary incident would detract from the precision and hence from the impact of the meaning. Simplicity is joined by understatement, 'expressing the most by saying the least', in portraying Man as he ought to be, 'raised above all that is local and accidental, purged of all that is abnormal and eccentric, so as to be in the highest sense representative', as Babbit writes in his New Laokoon of 1910.

Considered thus, art has a moral aim, like literature, and so surely deserves that place among the Liberal Arts which the ancients had denied it.5 Indeed, Renaissance theorists, basing their ideas upon Horace's famous aphorism (Ars Poetica, 361) ut pictura poesis, 'as is painting, so is poetry', created a long-lived theory of


the ideal which drew parallels between the two disciplines and also justified artistic practice.4 Visual art, they affirmed, is an intellectual pursuit, for the artist must know the stories both sacred and profane and appreciate their implications in order to be able to translate them convincingly into paint, stone or metal. The artist must therefore be intelligent enough to choose and plan a subject, to articulate his 'actors' in an expressive manner, and to point the moral of the story. Such conformity to the idea of painting as silent poetry implied conformity also to poetry's descending scale of genres in only slightly amended form: at the top of the scale, epic could be translated into historical painting, and then on down the scale to burlesque and bucolic at the bottom. The inherent worth of a painting therefore depended to some extent on the type of subject-matter treated, for theorists were quite clear that the mark of a fine painter (or sculptor) was his ability to portray the significant actions of men in climacteric situations. Taken together with Horace's affirmation that poetry should instruct as well as delight, the highest type of art therefore approximates almost to moral philosophy. (. . . it is not the eye, it is the mind, which the painter of genius desires to address; nor will he waste a moment upon those smaller objects, which only serve to catch the sense, to divide the attention, and to counteract his great design of speaking to the heart... - Sir Joshua Reynolds, Third Discourse, in which he defines the grand manner of classicism). It is pointless for us to protest that painting is by nature totally different from poetry, and should not borrow its aesthetics, for Renaissance humanistic theory confounded the two.

Antique art holds an important place in such a formulation. Renaissance artists, anxious to imitate human nature not as it was but as it should be, were forced to select features of the everyday world and elevate them to the ideal, just as the antique Zeuxis had selected elements from five maidens for his portrayal of Helen. Thus good artists, as G. P. Bellori wrote in 1672, imitating that first Maker, also form in their minds an example of superior beauty, and in beholding it they amend nature with faultless colour or line. This Idea, or truly the Goddess of Painting or Sculpture, when the sacred curtains of the lofty genius of a Daedalus or an Apelles are parted, is revealed to us and enters the marble and the canvases. Born from nature, it overcomes its origin and becomes the model of art; measured with the compass of the intellect it becomes the measure of the hand; and animated by fantasy it gives life to the image.

As Bellori implies, the great works of Antiquity contain that Idea of which he writes.6 Renaissance artists therefore regarded the study of the antique as a way of looking afresh at human nature, conveniently clothed as it was in imitable artistic forms.1'2 The imitation of the antique is therefore crucial to the classical tradition. A good artist would aim to build upon work of acknowledged quality, and thereby to rival Antiquity itself; such, indeed, was the highest praise a Renaissance critic could bestow upon a modern production. Today we find it difficult to accept that art might progress by looking backward, for we automatically believe that most things fifty years old are out of date and irrelevant to us. Imitation seems to be a poliite word for 'copying'. However, it is our perspective which is at fault. The richness of the classical tradition derives in part from the richness and variety of its antique sources, which are transformed, not copied, by artists as original as their forebears. Furthermore, when Vasari implied that art was progressing, he meant away from modern, namely Gothic, art and toward the standards and outlook of Antiquity. About two hundred years later, Winckelmann was to proclaim that the only way for an artist to become great was through the imitation of the ancients.

It is important to set the tenets of classicism—namely a concern with Antiquity, with the ideal, with the typical, and with morality in its widest sense—in the context of the civilization which gave it birth. From the fall of the Roman Empire, during the Middle Ages, Europe was permeated by the influence of the antique, as the first chapter of this book shows. From at least the fourteenth century, respect for the achievement of Graeco-Roman Antiquity was universal, and its example was seen as a means whereby civilization itself might be reborn after the night of the 'Dark Ages'. Not only art, but literature, law, philosophy, rhetoric, and other disciplines were to be transformed. For a Renaissance prince who collected antique coins and cameos, who dressed in armour modelled after the antique and led his troops under 'Roman' triumphal arches, who listened at his court to antique plays and collected manuscripts of the ancient authors, what more natural than that his artists should celebrate antique virtue in their work ? Why not depict the Christian holy figures as versions of right-thinking ancients? For the Renaissance, indeed, there was no unbridgeable gap between antique and Christian, for they regarded the one as a variation of the other, another stage which (at least in those texts that the Renaissance scholars chose not to ignore) had nothing but good to say about the intellectual and moral attainments of paganism.7

The stylistic implications of classicism's involvement with the art of Antiquity were extensive. Qualities of clarity, simplicity, harmony and understatement allied to imitation of the ancients produced a monumental grandeur more convincing than the other-worldly austerity of the Gothic or Byzantine manners. The example of the antique induced Renaissance artists with understanding of geometry to attempt in their art a reproduction of reality itself; in this they were encouraged by theorists like Alberti, who based himself upon Pliny. The view that art was 'the ape of nature' was to have a long life,3 but the aims of classicism were rather to elevate reality to a higher plane, while making full use of those advances in perspective and the portrayal of emotion which helped to render works more convincing and effective.

Classicism has a bad reputation in a century which favours a more emotional and personal approach to art. Many would agree with Mark Twain that 'a classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read'. Raphael is respected rather than loved, and Delacroix is more popular than David, but it is our century which is at fault when it construes classicism (in the words of one critic) as 'unexciting, formal and frigid'. The sensual exoticism of the Romantics and the bravura of the Baroque appear more acceptable than the intellectual control which classicism imposes. Why, indeed, did the classical tradition survive so long, and why did it end ? One reason is evidently the tenor of the culture on which it fed, but a general cause is to be found in its very nature. Because it eschewed the individual for the sake of the typical, and the intricate for the sake of the simple, its products could be universal in character and message, rather than tied to any particular period or country. Given the continuing involvement with Antiquity, Raphael's Stanza della Seg-natura meant much the same to the eighteenth century as it had to the sixteenth. It was more readily comprehensible than the convolutions of Mannerism or the ecstasy of Baroque, because it was founded on reason. The tradition began to decay with the political, social and artistic upheavals of the nineteenth century, when Antiquity, the imitation of which had hitherto been considered the life-blood of culture, began to look like a heap of outworn platitudes, preserved in artistic mortuaries (academies), and incapable of adaptation to the modern world. Well before Courbet the ideal lost ground in favour of the real—of the world as it was and Man in it—and the rationality and optimism of classicism ceded to a moral neutrality or pessimism, and to a desire that art involve itself with the particular and with everyday activity. Thus disregarded, classicism left the centre of the artistic stage.

In effect, the classical tradition survived as long as admiration for Graeco-Roman civilization grew naturally out of the concepts of society. The horizons of the nineteenth century, both geographical and conceptual, were much wider than those of any previous age; artists were faced with a greater variety of different civilizations which all made claims upon their attention; Romanticism and then Realism assured the near destruction of the classical tradition founded upon what was



Raphael: School of Athens, detail, 1509-10. BELOW Plan of the Stanza della Segnatura.

- School of Athens



by this time but one civilization out of many. This book surveys the birth and growth of the classical tradition and its collapse in the nineteenth century, and attempts to discuss art as but one manifestation of the antique in a renaissance of many aspects of Antiquity. It would have been equally possible to have taken classicism as the opposite of romanticism, and both these as two concepts between which the human spirit continuously oscillates: order versus disorder, reason versus emotion, health versus sickness, generalization versus particularity, ideal versus reality. Such a thesis should be borne in mind; it is too general to be of practical value, but it does avoid the danger of seeing the history of art as a series of revolutions and counterrevolutions. Interest in Antiquity from the Renaissance to the nineteenth century was, after all, not the sole prerogative of artists working within the classical tradition, but a feature of nearly all art and architecture of those centuries. This survey takes as its point of reference the attitudes of the classicizing artists themselves towards the tradition of which they were a part, and it is therefore concerned with but one important aspect of the influence of Antiquity upon European culture.

Classicism in practice: the Stanza della Segnatura

What I have written so far makes it clear that classicism focuses on the Ideal Man who, as Aristotle has it, by his 'heroic and divine virtue' raises himself above the level of common beings and is an example to them. Such a concept, current from the Renaissance, derives from a mixture of ancient doctrines together with the attitudes of the hero as observed in antique literature. 8'9 The Stoics, for example, taught that only a man in full command of his senses can achieve an ordered life, and not be buffeted by Fortune; they averred that the means to that end was the power of reason. Neo-Platonism emphasized the dignity of Man and his superiority to common nature, and proclaimed a synoptic view of religion which led toward pantheism. A comparison of its ideas with those of Christianity demonstrated many points of agreement.

The Stanza della Segnatura, frescoed by Raphael between 1508/9 and 1512 in the Vatican, has been considered by successive generations as the acme of classicism, as much for its iconography as for its style. The stylistic characteristics, which will be examined in the section on Raphael, display that noble simplicity and calm grandeur which Winckelmann finds in the Segnatura as in the best works of the ancients. The iconography of some of Michelangelo's schemes is as complicated as the subject-matter is extensive; the Julius Monument and the Medici Chapel express a Neo-Platonist view of life and death, a view which also pervades the story of Man's Creation, Fall and Redemption in the Sistine Chapel. Yet Raphael, in the Stanza della Segnatura," attempts much more: no less than an encapsulation on vault and walls of all aspects of Man's life on earth.

The life of Man is pictured as a search for truth, and the walls of the room symbolize the four main ways of attaining it, namely through Theology (Disputa), Beauty and Art (Parnassus), Reason (The School of Athens), and Law both canon and civil. On the vault, directly above the apex of each lunette, are personifications of these ideals and, in between each of these, and hence each adjacent to two lunettes, are scenes of The Judgement of Solomon, Adam and Eve, Apollo and Marsyas and Astronomy which point out some of the ways in which the subjects of the large lunettes are related to one another. For example, between the Parnassus and the Disputa is the Apollo and Marsyas, to underline the dangers of challenging divine authority through art; again, between the two scenes of civil and canon law and The School of Athens is The Judgement of Solomon, indicating that a wise king must act as both philosopher and judge. The Stanza della Segnatura, therefore, by the very juxtaposition of its scenes, displays a scheme for living. Rational Truth does not confront Divine Truth in the sense of wishing to oppose it, nor is Artistic Truth opposed to Moral Truth as divined by Justice. Rather, all four elements echo each other, and indeed are shown to be


related by the placing of particular figures within each fresco. The main figures of The School of Athens, Plato and Aristotle, the one representing a mystical, the other a rational approach to philosophy, are placed one either side of the central axis. Beneath either figure are like-minded spirits. The left side of the scene, with Plato, is adjacent to the Parnassus, which itself shows most of the ancient poets on the side nearest The School of Athens. On the other side Aristotle, representing Reason, is adjacent to Justice, where Moral Truth is arrived at through the application of reason, and specifically to civil law; the other side of that fresco, with canon law, is adjacent to the Disputa.

That such a highly concentrated arrangement was possible within a private papal apartment has much to tell us about early sixteenth-century views of Man. First, the scheme can explode erroneous myths about the Renaissance's being pagan and not Christian, for it clearly equates and balances Rational Truth with Divine Truth and does not oppose 'old pagan' to 'new Christian' Truth. For the iconographer of the Stanza, who might have been Pietro Bembo, or Raphael himself, what was an educated man ? Presumably one whose knowledge and interests were balanced between the fields of art, theology, philosophy and law, with none taking precedence over the others. Truly, that man who could gain broad knowledge in the different spheres of intellectual, social and spiritual existence would attain an ideal of human conduct. We are reminded of Freedberg's characterization of the room as having 'an atmosphere of high clear thought pervaded by the energies of a powerful intelligence'.

Furthermore, the example of the Segnatura has much to tell us about the nature of classicism in architecture. For just as the Renaissance epic, or Renaissance Latin, imitate their antique prototypes not simply because of the aesthetic 'beauties' of their style but because they wish to create a similar system of life and values, so it is with architecture, which can display the spirit of Antiquity more obviously than any other medium. In The School of Athens, Freedberg's 'high clear thought' is considerably heightened by the architecture, which provides a dignity and monumentality to equal that of the figures. Indeed, architecture can convey meaning both through its abstract formal qualities, in this case the style of an ancient Roman basilica, and, more important, through that flood of associations which an architectural form such as a Roman barrel vault might conjure up in the mind of an educated man. At the same time a building, like a painting or sculpture, can proclaim the intellectual and social posture of the patron; Alberti wrote in his treatise on architecture, 'let us erect grand buildings, so that we may appear magnanimous and powerful to pos-.terity'. And Lorenzo de' Medici wrote of the 'pomp and other honours, and public magnificence such as, piazzas, temples and other public buildings which denote ambitious men, and those who with great care seek honour'.8

The poetic associations encountered in the doctrine of ut pictura poesis are evidently not applicable to architecture because, strictly speaking, it has no subject-matter. Viewed more widely, as we shall see, architecture in the classical tradition takes on the significance of that Roman Antiquity from which its forms derive. These forms can be described using the same general epithets of simplicity, harmony, clarity, regularity and so forth that are applied to painting and sculpture. In addition, we shall see that architectural theory was well served by the treatise of Vitruvius, a survival from Antiquity, which codified rules for constructing various types of building in the classical manner. As in the sister arts, the example of Antiquity was to prove a stimulus towards the production of creative works of architecture at once indisputably original and yet given added authority by the classical tradition in which they stood. As Sir Joshua Reynolds remarked in his Thirteenth Discourse, 'Architecture does not . . . acquire the name of a polite and liberal art, from its usefulness... . . but from some higher principle; we are sure that in the hands of a man of genius it is capable of inspiring sentiment, and of filling the mind with great and sublime ideas.'

Let us conclude with Sir Joshua Reynolds's summary, in his Third Discourse, of the essen-


tials of the classical style. He emphasizes the importance of the Idea, and of an intimate knowledge of Antiquity through which the student might apprehend that 'Ideal Beauty', and continues :

. . . if we now should suppose that the artist has formed the true idea of beauty, which enables him to give to his works a correct and perfect design; if we should suppose also, that he has acquired a knowledge of the unadulterated habits of nature, which gives him simplicity. ... It must not, indeed, be forgotten, that there is a nobleness of conception, which goes beyond any thing in the mere exhibition even of perfect form; there is an art of animating and dignifying the figures with intellectual grandeur, of impressing the appearance of philosophick wisdom, or heroick virtue. This can only be acquired by him that enlarges the sphere of his understanding by a variety of knowledge, and warms his imagination with the best productions of antient and modern poetry.