The everlasting influence of classical Antiquity on European culture is a complex phenomenon, which questions the relation between imitation and originality. From the Quattrocento to the Eighteenth Century, artists and intellectuals of various description looked back at the Greek and Roman culture as a model, an inspiration to lead their own though onto a new, promising path. The dichotomy between old and new, indeed, is the key of this riddle.
Mars and Venus – Sandro Botticelli
In the Fifteenth Century, Italy witnessed a great flourishing of mythological subjects in the arts. As Malcolm Bull points out in The Mirror of the Gods, this is not the outcome of a neo-Pagan fashion. Myths and ancient texts were known ever since the Middle Ages, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, so represented in the arts, were nothing new. The novelty lies in the diffusion of mundane objects such as birthplates (typical Florentine gifts for the birth of a child), cassoni (marriage chests), marriage paintings. The old stories could be re-interpreted, moralised, and aptly adapted to any circumstance.
The Bacchanal of the Andrians – Titian
Artworks all’antica (“in the manner of the ancient masters”) were also an easy excuse to portray nude figures. It was a great occasion for the artist to train and show off his skills of drawing and modelling, and for the patron to obtain disguised erotic pieces. Giorgio Vasari claimed with pride that he usually fulfilled his pictures with nude figures, in order to show his ability and please the spectator’s eyes. On the other hand, Philip II, king of Spain and keen patron of Titian, kept a series of nude figures by the artist in a small cabinet, showing them only to a few friends. The voyeuristic enjoyment of such canvases betrays their real meaning.
What said so far does not completely solve the lasting influence of classical themes in art. If it was a mere stratagem they needed, they could have easily picked something else. On the other hand, mythology is a recurrent feature of Renaissance works of art, and the diffusion is such to let us believe there might be a deeper reason. John Summer, an architecture historian, provides an interesting insight in The Antithesis of the Quattrocento. To him, the architectural endeavour of the Fifteenth Century stems from two roots: the rational analysis of the past, and the nostalgic, quasi-Romantic longing for the past.
Ancient Mausoleum – Giovanni Battista Piranesi
Nostalgia implies a state of dissatisfaction with the present, hence the desire to implement it. Looking back at Antiquity is a fictional solution to the current matters. The Renaissance man did non intend to recreate Roman society, nor Greek statuary. His sight toward those times is rather fostered by an idealised perspective over what is gone, a whimsical and imaginary travel of the imagination towards the lost realms of time. A good example is the much later etching of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), showing an ancient mausoleum. The massive building overwhelms the viewer for its massive scale, and lavish decorations. Yet, it is a daydream, a vision starting from Antiquity, but reaching quite a different region.
Allegory with Venus and Cupid (detail) – Agnolo Bronzino
Piranesi and the Renaissance architects followed a similar trajectory. The myth of the Golden Age is a conscious utopia, that is to say, a non-place. It is supposed to inspire men, and move them toward great actions. The Roman ruins were definitely a fascinating starting point, since they clearly showed both the ravaging of time and their ancient glory. They stood as a sign rather than a clear visualisation, an inspiring perspective. In conclusion, the artists of the time crafted a modern style, fully new and original, while being deeply rooted in a fertile substratum of themes, images and symbols. Myth is by definition flexible, and open to different interpretations. The men of the Fifteenth Century imitated its spolia, and turned them again into a living being. As Aristotle said in his Poetics, imitation means creating something new through the insertion of an original fragment into the mighty body of tradition.