Greek and Roman Art

greek roman art
Photo by Ivan Bertona on Unsplash


Unlike other ancient peoples, the Greeks, through their magnificent art, glorified humanity. The Romans, despite the fact that they were less original, extended the Greek heritage, creating a tradition of sustainable combination of Greek-Roman arts of great historical importance.

Even before the arrival of the first Greeks in the area, the Cycladic Islands of the Aegean Sea produced remarkably well-balanced works of art, white statues, of marble. The semi-abstract sculpture of the 20th century is marked by the resemblance to the ancient one.

A long-term influence had the Minoan civilization in Crete. The bright, decorative frescoes of the Cretans, the potter and the metal ornaments were adopted and imitated by Greek-speaking populations, who settled on Greek soil in about the twentieth century BC. Nowadays this civilization is called Mycenaean, after a city in northern Greece, Mycene, where golden masks were discovered that covered the faces of the rulers or dead kings.

The Mycenaeans were warriors more than the Cretans and soon developed their own style with war and hunting scenes, which were drawn and printed on gold cups or bronze swords. The surviving buildings are large caves and large citadels such as those in Mycene and Tirynt, composed of massive, stone blocks that were placed side by side.


After the disintegration of the Mycenaean society that took place in the 12th century BC. followed by a long black era of agitation and mass emigration. They gave birth to a different society – of state fortress – and a type of intensely humanized art, which most of the people associate with the Greeks. Its distinctive feature is largely due to the Greek religion, which represents gods and goddesses as gifted human beings. As a result, it was normal for Greek art to focus on the human figure, whether they were a humanized god or a human being similar to the gods.

Of the artistic representations practiced by the Greeks, the sculpture is best represented, especially because their paintings have not survived over time. Large sculpture and large ambitions – monumental sculpture – developed only late, in the seventh century BC, probably inspired by contacts with Egypt. The first period of Greek sculpture, known as the archaic period, lasted until about 480 BC. Her characteristic types were the nude of a young man, upright, and a virgin dressed, both sculptures being represented with a broad smile (obviously a fixed convention) on the face that seems strange to us today, “an archaic smile”.


In a surprisingly short time, these characters became realistic and truthful, ceasing to become objects, like a pillar, with the intention of being admired only in front. The conventional rendering of the body has been replaced with a more detailed one and with great accuracy regarding the musculature, while the clothing worn has been increasingly sculpted.

The classical period, which lasted about 480 BC. Until 323 BC, it is often regarded as a culmination of Greek artistic achievements. The innovations in sculpture began to appear faster, the characters in upright position gave way to characters captured in a variety of natural positions, such as “The Pikeman” (Doriphorus) and Apollo with the outstretched arm of the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, of whose shapes seem to be dictated by their origin, from a marble slab, upright.


Similar innovations have also occurred in the sculpture of the bas-reliefs (sculptures made so that the characters come out of a background but are not separated from it) and in the bronze statuary ensembles.

Many masterpieces of classical sculpture have long since disappeared and are known today only by name. Among these are two more statues of Zeus and Athens created by Athenian master Phidias. Most of the surviving marble works were not created for individual contemplation but were intended to be part of the temple’s overall decoration – especially the bas-reliefs that surrounded it and the individual sculptures placed inside a triangular pediment. each end of the building.

Sculpture, painting and architecture were combined to create sumptuous temples full of color – much more colorful than we imagined, because the Greek statues, which today seem to be such a sober art, were actually fully painted and equipped. with all kinds of ornaments, such as applied eyes that probably gave them a shiny, slightly exotic appearance.


The most beautiful classical reliefs and sculptures in the gable were part of the Athenian temple Parthenos, better known as Parthenon. Most of the sculptures belong to the Elgin collection and can be found in the British Museum in London, but the Parthenon itself survives as a noble ruin.

Parthenon is the largest of a series of temples located on the Acropolis (citadel), in Athens. All these temples were erected in the second half of the 5th century BC. – peaks of the classical period – to replace the buildings destroyed during the medical wars. Besides Parthenon, on the Acropolis there is also the small temple of Athens Nike, Erecteum, with its distinctive caryatids (poles carved in the form of women) and a large entrance gate, called Propylea.

Pericle, the Athenian statesman, has implemented this ambitious program of building construction. The construction work was supervised by Phidias who also created the colossal statue of Athens, long lost, but which was formerly placed inside the Parthenon. The architects of the Parthenon itself were Callicratis and Ictimus; little is known about them, despite the fact that Ictimus has still designed a splendid temple that can still be found, even today, in Basse, in Arcadia.


The elements of a Greek temple were remarkably simple. Buildings, like the Parthenon, consist of a rectangular structure surrounded by columns and adorned with a high roof, on the slope. The differences of details on the columns and the areas above them defined the architectural style they came from – simplicity, massiveness for the Doric style, with the large capitals and the end of the column like a scroll, for the Ionic style, and the Corinthian one with the end of the columns a decorated acanthus that leaves. carved.

The great achievements of Greek architecture were not only due to the technical knowledge, but they resulted from a special sense of proportions and an acute, visual awareness; a characteristic example was the Greek custom of decorating its columns so that they were slightly bent in the middle, which compensates for the illusion of concavity (curvature inwards) given by a perfectly vertical column when viewed from a distance.


Greek painting has been preserved to this day only on vessels that were manufactured in huge quantities, with the purpose of preserving wine and oil for domestic or export purposes. The scenes on the vessels represent the Greek way of life. These appeared for the first time (about 600 BC) in the style of black illustration, in which the objects were painted with black silhouettes on the red, natural background of the vessel. The internal details (for example the eyes on a completely black face) had to be cleared up to the basic red material.

About 530 BC. the painters began to work in the so-called red illustration technique, that is the opposite of the previous one, coloring the background black, leaving the characters in the natural color of the vessel and painting their internal details. Both methods had advantages but none resembled the freely painted paintings, on the white background of “lekythos”, an elegant, relatively rare, urn, which was most often used for funeral purposes.


It was not until the fourth century BC. feminine nudes – often considered typical for classical Greek art – appeared by artists such as Praxiteles and others. Shortly thereafter, other changes occurred. As can be seen in the sculptures of the Panthenon, classical art, despite the fact that it was full of realism, nevertheless idealized and generalized bypassing true, powerful and extreme emanations of any kind. In the fourth century BC, sculptors like Scapas and Lysippus popularized a truly individualized portrait, full of emotional intensity.

Another sign of the new spirit represented the colossal staircase with which Mausolus, a Greek ruler from Asia Minor (modern Turkey) built his own crypt, known as Mausoleum, giving his name to all these types of constructions.


From the year 334 BC, the conquests of Alexander the Great spread the culture throughout the Middle East, from Egypt to western India. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC Its empire has broken down and this year marks the end of the classical period and the beginning of the Hellenistic period, dominated by big states such as Egypt and the Seleucid Empire, founded on the Syrian one.

These big states became even more important centers of Greek art than the cities – the Greek states that were in decline. In any case, the spirit of Greek art was quite different from that of the predecessor of classical art. Many aspects of reality that Classicism ignored were portrayed – ugliness, grotesque, sentimentalism and extremes of reality, pain and fear. Hellenic art was, in general, illustrative, with patrons ordering immense works to artists who made them, demonstrating their mastery: drapery, in “Victory from Samothrace” and a true complexity in the Laocoon group, where a snake engulfs three characters that flutter.


The Romans also admired and imitated Greek art, bringing its influence to the west and north to distant Britain. Many of the Greek masterpieces are known to us today thanks to the Roman buyers who owned copies which, unlike the original ones, have survived over time.

As creators, the Romans were inferior to the Greeks, but they had an independent tradition in the field of sculpture – that of deeply realistic portraiture. This tradition is probably due to the Roman custom of keeping the ancestors’ busts in their homes, not as works of art, but as proof of the way their predecessors looked.

The common but undeniable quality of Roman portraits makes them very attractive. Most of the other Roman sculptures, including the idealized portraits of the Bades and the Emperors, were Hellenistic in style. In any case, the specific Roman features of the sculpture included triumphal arches and columns, adorned with thrilling scenes, to commemorate the victories and conquests of the Roman empire.


Even in the architecture, the Romans have not managed to rise to the level of the Greeks, as a sense of beauty and good taste. But they had more technical skill in using arches, vaults and domes and built on a large scale, to endow their provinces with imposing public buildings, such as the Pantheon and the Colosseum in Rome or the Maison Carree in Nimes, in France. But more daring were their engineering capabilities, which made them build roads, bridges, aqueducts, arches, canals and forts. Some of them are purely functional structures but some, for example Pont du Gard in Nimes, are of a beautiful beauty.


Many Romans paintings have survived, although none of them represent any masterpiece mentioned by them. The most impressive group of paintings was made on the walls of the houses in Pompeii, a city that was preserved due to its cover with volcanic ash after an eruption of Vesuvius. These paintings demonstrate the artist’s mastery of perspective art, the use of a rich color palette, the joy that nature brings and the skillful use of the “trompe l’oeil” effect, such as landscapes seen among the columns. The Romans also excelled in another technique – that of the mosaic, a painting composed of countless small colored stones stuck with mortar.

After the decay of the last western Roman empire, the basic Greek-Roman tradition was unsurpassed and adapted again and again, sequentially throughout the history of Western art. It was the basis of artistic trends, from romanticism to neo-classicism of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, exerting a strong influence, which continues to this day.

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