“Why Do We Keep Going back to Ancient Greece?”

“why-do-we-keep-going-back-to-ancient-greece?”

A culture that never dies…

Ancient Greece never dies.

Every few hundred years, Western culture remembers its roots, and artists and architects find themselves harkening back to the civilization that started it all.

In many ways, there’s a continuous thread running back in time from the United States Capitol Building to Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Roman Pantheon.

Today, we take a look at three major periods in this cycle of history, showing how classical culture waxes and wanes over the centuries, and exploring the elements that make it so enduring — let’s dive in.

The Renaissance: Rediscovery and Renewal

The classical world vanished with the collapse of the Roman Empire. Monasteries kept the embers of classical learning alive, and as Europe emerged from a tumultuous jumble of events (including the Black Death and the invention of the printing press), those embers burst into flame once more.

The Italian Renaissance seized on the Greek passion for human potential and intellectualism. Inspired by this new humanism, artists undertook breathtakingly ambitious projects that celebrated human potential (such as the Sistine Chapel) and drew on classical tropes like gods, nymphs, and heroes.

At the same time, the printing press put texts about classical architecture into the hands of every builder in Europe. This allowed architects to incorporate Greek sacred geometry and mathematics into their designs, and inspired them to add columns, domes, and facades as adornments to Renaissance buildings.

Baroque: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

The printing press fuelled the Protestant Reformation. In response, the Catholic church sought to re-establish itself as a cultural power, leading to the Counter-Reformation of the 17th century — a cultural renewal that blossomed across Europe, eventually known as the Baroque period.

Baroque art takes the classical elements of the Renaissance and sharpens them into theatrical statues. It depicts exaggerated emotions with vivid colors and intense chiaroscuro, as in Caravaggio’s disturbing works.

Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi define Baroque music, but when it comes to Baroque architecture, no one can compete with Gian Lorenzo Bernini. His designs include St. Peter’s Square, The Ecstacy of St. Teresa, and the tomb of Pope Alexander VII.

Bernini’s designs elevate the clean lines of classical architecture with dramatic human figures. The drama and tension of the 17th century built on the Renaissance, standing on the shoulders of classical giants to create a powerful art movement that defined the Catholic Church’s place in cultural history.

Rococo: Straying into Silliness

The 18th century wandered away from the religious rigor of earlier decades. The upper classes of France enjoyed unprecedented wealth and, with the death of imperious King Louis XIV, new moral license to pursue frivolous and indecent pleasures.

Rococo architecture retains its neoclassical bones, but smothers the classical lines in fluttering curlicues, intricate ornaments, and gilded pastels. It’s almost impossible to look at a Rococo room and not think of an elaborately iced cake. Even Rococo churches, like the interior of Germany’s Rottenbuch Abbey, are so dripping with frothy decoration that some find them hard to take seriously.

Most Rococo artwork, though, strays away from serious subjects. Many key Rococo pieces depict illicit love affairs taking place in luscious gardens. The classical influence is still present, but it’s often reduced to marble statues gazing down on a pair of lovers with either shock or indulgence.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s painting The Swing captures the Rococo ethos. Depicted in the painting is a wealthy woman gliding through the air on her garden swing, and kicking up the hem of her candy-colored skirts to give her lover below a better view. Meanwhile, her husband, ignorant of her flirtation, hangs back among the garden’s shadows. The painting uses frilly Rococo decoration to wink at the improper behavior common among the upper class.

Elsewhere in Europe, frustration was brewing at the superficiality of Europe’s courts. Soon, the people would demand more serious leadership, and Napoleon would answer the call…

Neoclassicism: Back to Our Roots

Under the noses of Europe’s out-of-touch royalty, Puritanism, Calvinism, and other stern religious movements gained ground. The 18th and 19th centuries grew disgusted with the playful culture of former decades. Thinkers turned back to the seriousness of the classical world, and it was only a matter of time before artists followed.

Art from the Neoclassical period is clean, stern, and authoritative. As in Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps, it celebrates heroic figures as if they were modern-day Greek heroes, portraying them as noble, handsome, and furled in swathes of fabric that recall classical dress.

Napoleon turned to the imperial triumphalism of the Neoclassical style to build a monument to fallen French soldiers: the Arc de Triomphe.

Neoclassical architecture spread from Russia in the East to England in the West, notably inspiring Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate — which, when it became part of the Berlin Wall centuries later, became a link between ancient and modern times.

Keeping the Spark Alive

The greatness of the classical age doesn’t lie only in its beautiful architecture, much of which still stands today. Instead, it lies in an idea: the conviction that human potential, reason, and virtue can stave off darkness and give light to civilization.

That conviction was a spark that re-ignited the world during the Renaissance. Whenever the fire of great culture starts to fade, that spark seems to endure, ready to leap into life again in a future generation.

As you look at history through this lens, ask yourself:

Has modern culture once again lost touch with the classical truths that define us? Has the flame of Western culture died down once more?

And if so, what are you doing to keep the spark alive?

Art of the Week

In this iconic Neoclassical piece, David shows Socrates as he puts his philosophy to the ultimate test: accepting death courageously, and even using it as a lesson for his disciples.

The image is full of muscled forms and dramatic poses that recall Greek statuary. Likewise, the subject matter circles back to the same ideas championed by the Renaissance: the triumph of human reason over fear, superstition, and psychic enslavement.

Socrates has just been sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens” by teaching them to think for themselves. But he’s concerned more with delivering his final message than his fate:

“The unexamined life is not worth living”, he reminds the court.

He knew that the greatest thing humans have is the mind, and pursuing knowledge, virtue and human reason was the ultimate good.

David adds a meaningful detail by including his signature under the figure of Crito, the faithful disciple who gazes into Socrates’ face. It hints that David identifies with Crito, desperately grasping on to the great philosopher as he dies.

Perhaps the artist is asking: can we ever fully recapture the classical world? How does one respond when persecuted for telling the truth? And what can we learn from those who sacrifice all to preserve it?

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