The words “classic” and “classical” have many uses in everyday speech. We call some music that has
retained its staying power “classic rock”; however “classical music” does not refer to the Rolling Stones, but
rather to Beethoven and Mozart. To complicate things more Mozart and Beethoven lived in the
19th centuries, not during the time art historians think of as the “classical period” which began more than
2,000 years earlier. Classical elements that originated in ancient Greece and Rome were revived but varied
in the Renaissance (15th-16th centuries). You won’t see real classical buildings in America, but neoclassical
buildings from the 19th century are plentiful. So what is classicism?
When we refer to classical art in its broadest sense, we are referring to both Greek and Roman art from
about the sixth century
through the fourth century CE. In that long span of time, there were many
developments and variations, but generally speaking, the classical style is idealized, calm, orderly, and
balanced. These characteristics are seen particularly in architecture, in which regular systems of proportion
and decoration became consolidated into the classical orders: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. The classical
orders are found in both Greek and Roman architecture, although each culture developed particular types
of buildings to suit specific purposes.
Like most of the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean, Greek and Roman religion was polytheistic—that
is, the people worshipped many gods who represented the forces of nature. Unlike the gods of other
cultures, however, Greek and Roman gods were extremely human in their actions and emotions. We know
a great deal about religion in the classical world because many literary works have survived from the period.
The same careful observation of human beings that marks the visual arts of the classical world is found in
the writings of Homer, Ovid, and many others. Even though the Greek and Roman cultures were different
from ours in many ways, their interest in humanity makes the study of them still relevant today.
Originally, Greek temples were probably constructed from wood, using a simple post-and-lintel system in
which columns supported heavy beams. When the constructions were given more permanent form in
stone, the simplicity of the structure remained. The general lines of Greek temples are straight, and the
proportions are harmonious. Although a Greek temple usually has an interior space in which the statue of
the god was housed (the cella), access to the space was restricted to priests and their attendants. Worship,
usually in the form of animal sacrifices, took place outside the temple. As a result, the Greek temple served
as a backdrop to religious ceremonies rather than an interior space where a congregation might gather.
The most famous example of a Greek temple is the Parthenon in Athens, Greece. This temple, dedicated
to Athena Parthenos (or Athena as she was born from the head of Zeus), is the most important building on
the Acropolis, a sacred precinct on an outcropping of stone above Athens. Temples existed on the Acropolis
since as early as the
century BCE, but these were destroyed by the Persians in 480 BCE. Around 450 BCE,
the statesman, Pericles, decided to rebuild the Acropolis using tribute money collected from neighboring
city-states. The money had been paid to support defensive actions against the Persians; Pericles’s use the
funds to glorify his own city was a clear misuse of power. Pericles’s power also meant that he could hire
the best architects, sculptors, and craftsmen to create this masterpiece.
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