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The term “antiquity” derives from Latin “antiquus” – ancient. It was introduced by humanists of Italian Renaissance to identify early Greco-Roman culture, but became wide-spread in French neoclassical treaties of the XVII century. Although antique art doesn’t have a unified periodization (there’re separate ones for Ancient Greece and Rome), it’s generally considered in the bounds of XII century B.C., when the beginning of Homeric Greece is dated, and 476 A.D., when the last Roman emperor Romulus Augustulus was dethroned.
Undoubtedly, the history of art is routed by union of geographical, economic and political factors. If one needed to be marked out, the lack of natural resources for Greek society would be picked out: Hellenes were reluctant to settled on new territories and engage into commercial relations with other nations. This way their culture was preserved of becoming stiff. For Rome cultural heterogeneity was the important issue in shaping of intense artistic environment. At its historical pick, Roman Empire occupied near 2 750 000 square kilometers. With over 55 millions of population, it turned into truly multiethnic foundry that fused variegated traditions, artistic forms and materials. Nevertheless, it were Greeks, who caused the prominent influence.
For deeper understanding of visual arts of these two ancient communities, some theoretical information on their aesthetical views is required.
We know that antiquity was the period of pantheism with its perception of world as total integrity, sacred wholeness. And all those numerous gods and goddess were just mythological personifications of certain parts of it mechanism. Philosopher Plato claimed that Cosmos (from Greek “order”) consists of two categories: Ideas, created by Demiurges and insensible for us, and Matter. Sensual things are just rough incarnations of Ideas. Therefore, art for him was just mimesis (imitation, expression) of reality, making copying of copies.
Plato’s successor, Aristotle, saw mimesis as the process of reality’s cognition through sensual things, which were not “replicas of replicas”, but shaped substance. Their contemplation, according to him, could bring us joy. So, for Aristotle, the aim of art wasn’t in mechanical reflection of objects, but in their creative perception. He was the first one to articulate principles of artistic likelihood that was combined with the image’s idealization. Greek art, especially sculpture, conforms to these theses, as it realistically reflects not a particular person or thing, but its Idea. As long as human’s body was seen as junction of spiritual and physical, Greeks made it representation of Universal harmony. That’s the reason why you almost never find the ugliness in the characters of their monumentss and why Olympic gods were usually depicted anthropomorphic and really human-like emotions.
Roman aesthetics is only partly connected with Greek one – it’s more epicurean. Poet and thinker Titus Lucretius Carus investigates art through prism of materialism. In his poem “De rerum natura” (“On the Nature of the Universe”) expounds thoughts about imperishability of nature’s laws, everlasting character of matter etc. He stated that art was caused by human “needs” of delight, pleasure. That, as we will see, mirrored the utilitarian evaluation of artist’s mission in the Empire.
If you look through the list of Nine Muses – goddesses of literature, science and arts in Greek mythology – you won’t find there any muse, connected with visual arts. The art in its widest meaning was described in Greek language as “Techne” – craft. So, painters, sculptors were considered to be simply artisans. Many of them were slaves, since manual work was regarded as low: remember that Plato believed that the essence of art was only in producing “replicas of replicas”. But one of the peculiarities of Hellenistic culture was the concept of Agon – contest. The idea of struggle ran through all fields of their life – from sport to theater. So, by creating a masterpiece that really impressed his contemporaries, an artist could hope for been immortalized in texts and memories. The idea of authorship was rather actual: even Greek potters and vase-painters often used to sign their production.
The situation was quite different with Romans, corresponding to the already stated specifics of their attitude towards art. Hellenistic sculptures were highly praised, so aristocrats spent lots of money, ordering their copies – that was conceived as an investment into their own prestige and authority. Artists, slaves or libertines in the majority, aimed to satisfy such needs of customers rather than realize their own intentions. Architects were more privileged then sculptors and painters, as their occupation was more practical and required more education. As it was subtly noticed by Roman satiric Lucian that “Even if you were Phideas or Polikletos and made many marvelous creations, everyone would admire your art, but nobody, looking at those works, would desire to be like you, if only he’s in his right mind. Because you’d be treated like who you really are – a craftsmen, able to work and use his hands for living”.
Antiquity has largely effected arts, philosophy and political culture of the whole world. European territories of former Roman Empire assimilated roman traditions; meanwhile Byzantine Empire orientated on Greek heritage and passed its traces to Eastern Europe, Transcaucasia and Middle East. It became the basis of the western civilization, inspiring brightest minds of the New Age: from already mentioned renaissance humanists to the enlighteners. For them it was kind of Golden Age, a reference point for development of painting, architecture sculpture etc. That forced artists to classicize, adopt and interpret some antique achievements: for instance, Greek order and roman semicircular arch were the fundamental elements of European architecture up to the late XIX cent. Some periods, like classicism and neoclassicism, orientated on the serenity and nobility of classical Greek antiquity or roman imperial style, others, like baroque, were attracted by emotionality and drama of Hellenistic art. The wealth of this epoch created a fruitful field for expression various (and sometimes contradictory) esthetic attitudes on different stages of the world’s history of art.
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