Arts of Greek Antiquity - better than nature

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Greek Antiquity | Roman Antiquity

The culture that today is known as 'Greek Antiquity' lasted from about 1000 BC to the year 0. In fact there was no common state of 'Greece' at that time, but a cluster of small seperate states. Still a common style in arts could develop in the eastern Mediterranean area.

The art of Greek antiquity can be seen today as sculptures, on pottery but also in Roman replications as well as written evidence from writers of that time. Most statues served not purely as decorations but were given to temples as offerings or were put on tombs. The most important topic in arts was always the representation of the beauty of the ideal male body.

Contraty to people's beliefs today (which is mostly influenced by historians of the 19th Century) Greeks lived in a very colorful world. Temples and public buildings were often painted in vivd colors, there were large murals and even every day objects were decorated.

At the end of the Bronze Age (the Helladic period) the first advanced civilistation in Europe emerged in Greece.This so-called Mycenean period is named after the archeological site Mycene in the north-eastern Peloponnese and lasted from about 1700 to 1100 BC. The Myceneans created the first written records of Greek language. The reasons for the downfall of this culture is still not completely known, but its end resulted in the Greek Dark Ages. Population rapidly decreased and innovations like script were lost. Findings from this period mostly consist of vases decorated with naturalistic patterns.

Protogeometric and geometric period

From about 1000 BC a new culture emerged from the ruins of Mycenean Greece.

In the 8th Century BC Homer, the first great European poet, wrote his Ilias and the story of the Odyssey. It is also the beginning of the historic period of the classical antiquity. The first olympic games were held in 776 BC and were a recurring event until 393 AD. There was not yet any monumental architecture, sculptures or paintings. Most findings from this time are ceramics used for offerings and in funerary rites and small metal figurines. The ceramics were decorated mostly with simple geometric patterns which got more and more complex over the time. Later also abstract figures were painted on pottery.

At about 750 BC a simple form of writing developed and Greeks colonized the whole mediterranean area, which of course led to confrontations with other cultures.

Archaic period

The archaic period – lasting from about 725 to 500 BC - was the first zenith of Greek culture, bringing developments in architecture, painting and scultpure. In this period the first laws were written down and the Greek polis (independant city-states) developed. The men in power often supported the arts.

During this time the building type of the Greek temple was developed. The temples were first built in wood and then later transformed into stone. With the stone buildings also stone decorations like reliefs became possible. These reliefs could show whole battle scenes with many different persons and animals and were painted in many colors.

Paintings are still mainly found on vases and other pottery but instead of geometric patterns they were now decorated with pictures of plants and mythological figures. The motif was painted in black glossy clay on a background of lighter clay, which gave this technique the name 'Black Figure Painting'. Details were incised into the black clay. During the archaic period the first known murals were also created, probably influenced by traditions of the Greeks' neighbours in Anatolia. Smaller, portable pictures were used as offerings or in funerary rites. In some cases pictures even show the artist's signature already.

Sculptures got more and more naturalistic, monumental sculptures developed from about 650 BC. Mainly made for tombs were the Kouroi (Greek 'kuoros' = boy, young man), large marble statues of naked young men of up to 3,5 meters high. They are standing up, left foot before right, arms hang down, and have smiling faces without any individual features. In their appearance they remind of aegyptian paintings.

Classic period

The time from 500-336 BC was the climax of Greek antiquity in all aspects of politics, culture and arts. The 40 year war against the Persians was won, which resulted in a consolidation of the democratic polis and rise of Athens to being the political and cultural center of Greece. Many new buildings were erected during this time in Athens and the Acropolis was completely re-designed. This resulted in a temple building boom all over Greece. The city was reigned under the reign of Pericles from 443 to 429 BC, his death brought riots and Sparta defeated Athens in a struggle for surpremacy in the area.

This was the time of the philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Hippocrates founded his school of medicine, Herodotus became the world's first historian. Aeschylos and Sophocles wrote their great tragedies.

The democratic polis continued to support the arts. More and more sculptures and pictures now also showed female figures instead of only focussing on the male body. Public and private houses were decorated with elaborate mosaic floors. Greek arts was in high demad all over the mediteranean and therefore much of it was exported.

During the classic period emerged the first artist personalities who influenced a whole style. Polygnotos created large murals in important buildings in Delphi and Athens, showing for instance the Trojan war. Iktinos and Kallikrates built the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens.The sculptors Phidias created the 12 meter high Zeus statue in Olympia, Polyklet created bronce statues as well as a script about perfect male proportions and Praxiteles created numerous marble statues of gods.

Vases were now painted by covering the whole vase in black while leaving out silhouettes of figures, which then appear in the color of the clay. Details were again painted in black, which allowed more detailed pictures in the so-called 'Red Figure Paintings'. Very realistic pictures were also painted on wooden panels. There was even already a representation of linear persepctive, realistic light and shadows and many other things that made paitings more realistic. Even cloth and tapestries were decorated with all kinds of pictures.

The building type of the temple was standardized and further building types like the theatre and the gymnasium were developed.

Sculptors turned away from idialistic shapes and unnatural poses and let their work show more individual features of people as well as more natural body features. They discovered how to show movement and natural postures of the human body. They developed the 'counterpoise', figures standing with most of their weight on one leg, which has been used in many sculptures ever since1. The first profane statues appeared during this era: hollow bronce sculptures given to olympic athlets as a price. Soon there were also statues and portrait heads of important persons to be found in many cities which should serve as examples for all to see.

Hellenistic period

The Hellenistic period started with Alexander the Great becoming king of Macedon in 336 BC and lasted until the year 0. During his reign, Alexander the Great created a large empire, influenced by Greek culture. It was a time of great scientists and mathimaticians like Archimedes and Euclid.

Arts and architecture became monumental and painters drew the first pictures of landscapes. Arts did not only show pure realism anymore but tried to create something better than that. Many Greek paintings of this time are known through copies found in Roman houses as well as written sources. Rich people of that time often supported the arts and liked to decorate their own homes with sculptures.

Styles in the hellenistic period were no longer encompassing all of Greece, but there were many different styles for different genres. In this period the first text about older forms of arts (of the classic period) were written and their detailed study began, it was therefore the beginning of arts history. Historians tried to show the development to a more realistic style (or even better than realistic) as well as write down biographies of important artists.

The Greeks inspire all

Greek antiquity ended with the conquest of Athens by the Romans in 86 BC. From then on Rome took over the role of the political and cultural center in Europe.

Most of Greek sculptures have been destroyed in later Centuries, either because of religious believes or simply because the materials were needed for other things. Bronze statues were melted down and made to weapons, marble was grinded to mortar and so on. Other statues were taken away by the Romans, who decorated their own homes with them.

The Greek antiquity should inspire many later periods. For the first time in the western world arts was founded in theoretic principles of proportion, composition and the try to be as close to re-creating reality as possible – or even more than that. The Greek antiquity even layed the foundation of research in arts history and by that even still influenced historians of the 20th Century.

1One of the most famous examples being Michelangelo's David staute

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