Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The Rediscovery of Classical Antiquity

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The remains of Greco-Roman antiquity—coins, gems, sculpture, buildings, and the classics of Greek and Latin literature—fascinated the thinking men and women of the Italian Renaissance. The arts and the humanities, they reasoned, had declined during the "middle ages" that stretched between the end of antiquity and their own time, but by emulating the exemplary works of the ancients, even striving to surpass them, contemporary artists and writers might restore the arts and letters to their former grandeur. In Renaissance Italy, the desire to know and to match the excellence of the ancients often engendered passionate endeavor. The Florentine author Niccolò Machiavelli, for example, described his nightly retreats into his library in these memorable words: "At the door I take off my muddy everyday clothes. I dress myself as though I were about to appear before a royal court as a Florentine envoy. Then decently attired I enter the antique courts of the great men of antiquity. They receive me with friendship; from them I derive the nourishment which alone is mine and for which I was born. Without false shame I talk with them and ask them the causes of the actions; and their humanity is so great they answer me. For four long and happy hours I lose myself in them. I forget all my troubles; I am not afraid of poverty or death. I transform myself entirely in their likeness." Artists likewise worked to transform their art by studying, measuring, drawing, and imitating admired examples of classical sculpture and architecture, and this is reflected in many of the greatest works in The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


In Renaissance Italy, the desire to know and to match the excellence of the ancients often engendered passionate endeavor.

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Fra Carnevale's Birth of the Virgin (35.121), part of an altarpiece completed in 1467 for the Church of Santa Maria della Bella in Urbino, places the narrative in a loggia accessed through classical arches, while the upper story of the building is decorated with reliefs that allude to Roman sculpture and gems and cameos. Similar attention to antiquity is revealed in the monumental Adam of ca. 1490–95 by the Venetian sculptor Tullio Lombardo (36.163). Originally part of the tomb of the Doge Andrea Vendramin (d. 1478) now in the Venetian Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, the Adam was one of eighteen classically inspired marbles decorating the monument. Giovanni Bologna's Triton (14.40.689), a bronze statuette of ca. 1560–70, illustrates the Flemish sculptor's attraction to the serpentine forms of later Hellenistic art, examples of which he saw and copied during his 1550 trip to Rome.

In the sixteenth century, antique sculpture and architecture became popular subject matter for prints that eventually helped generate interest in classical art far beyond the reaches of the former Roman empire. An early example is Andrea Mantegna's Bacchanal with a Wine Vat (1986.1159), an engraving produced shortly after the artist's 1488–90 sojourn in Rome. The frieze-like composition and figural types derive from antique Bacchic sarcophagi Mantegna saw in Roman churches and private collections. His pendant engraving Bacchanal with Silenus attracted the interest of artist Albrecht Dürer, who copied it during his visit to Venice in 1494–95, the first of two trips the German master would make to Italy to study Italian Renaissance and classical art. The fruits of this study are seen in Dürer's 1504 engraving Adam and Eve (19.73.1), in which the pose of Adam is derived from the famous Apollo Belvedere, excavated near Rome in the late fifteenth century. The statue was immediately recognized as a masterpiece, and Dürer may have known it from a drawing. By 1509, Pope Julius II had placed the marble in the Vatican collection, and its fame was spread through drawings and prints, including an engraving of ca. 1530–34 by Marcantonio Raimondi (49.97.114). The artist has taken care to draw the statue from an angle that shows the head in strict profile, an allusion to antique portrait medals.

Prints served the important function of allowing interested parties to study a work of art when financial considerations or the location of the object precluded firsthand inspection. Additionally, prints were popular collector's items, relatively affordable and easy to transport. The antique marble known as the Farnese Hercules was excavated from the Baths of Caracalla in 1546 and placed in the palace of Alessandro Farnese (later Pope Paul III), an avid collector of antique art. In 1562, Jacob Bos, a Flemish engraver active in Rome, recorded the statue's appearance in an engraving (41.72[2.63]) available for inclusion in the Speculum Romanae magnificentiae (Mirror of Rome's Magnificence), a kind of open-ended collector's album comprised of prints featuring views and maps of Rome. By publishing a title page with this name in 1575, the print publisher Antonio Lafréri encouraged collectors and antiquarians to purchase prints from the selection of 107 different views offered by his Roman shop. Architecture figured prominently in the Speculum; a print depicting a composite capital (41.72[2.24]) shows various components of the architectural element being measured by plumb lines ending in lead weights, confirming the Renaissance interest in proportions of classical architecture. Views of Roman buildings showed them either reconstructed or in a ruinous state, the latter exemplified by Lafréri's print of the Colosseum (41.72[1.59]), the grandeur of the venerable old theater undiminished by its crumbling and weed-strewn appearance.


Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art