The Legacy of Ancient Greece

Greek Art


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In the Mycenaean period, as we have seen, the art of sculpture had little existence, except for the making of small images and the decoration of small objects. We have now to take up the story of the rise of this art to an independent and commanding position, of its perfection and its subsequent decline. The beginner must not expect to find this story told with as much fulness and certainty as is possible in dealing with the art of the Renaissance or any more modern period. The impossibility of equal fulness and certainty here will become apparent when we consider what our materials for constructing a history of Greek sculpture are.

First, we have a quantity of notices, more or less relevant, in ancient Greek and Roman authors, chiefly of the time of the Roman Empire. These notices are of the most miscellaneous description. They come from writers of the most unlike tastes and the most unequal degrees of trustworthiness. They are generally very vague, leaving most that we want to know unsaid. And they have such a haphazard character that, when taken all together, they do not begin to cover the field. Nothing like all the works of the greater sculptors, let alone the lesser ones, are so much as mentioned by name in extant ancient literature.

Secondly, we have several hundreds of original inscriptions belonging to Greek works of sculpture and containing the names of the artists who made them. It was a common practice, in the case especially of independent statues in the round, for the sculptor to attach his signature, generally to the pedestal. Unfortunately, while great numbers of these inscribed pedestals have been preserved for us, it is very rarely that we have the statues which once belonged on them. Moreover, the artists' names which we meet on the pedestals are in a large proportion of cases names not even mentioned by our literary sources. In fact, there is only one indisputable case where we possess both a statue and the pedestal belonging to it, the latter inscribed with the name of an artist known to us from literary tradition. (See pages 212-3.)

Thirdly, we have the actual remains of Greek sculpture, a constantly accumulating store, yet only an insignificant remnant of what once existed. These works have suffered sad disfigurement. Not one life-sized figure has reached us absolutely intact; but few have escaped serious mutilation. Most of those found before the beginning of this century, and some of those found since, have been subjected to a process known as "restoration." Missing parts have been supplied, often in the most arbitrary and tasteless manner, and injured surfaces, e. g., of faces, have been polished, with irreparable damage as the result.

Again, it is important to recognize that the creations of Greek sculpture which have been preserved to us are partly original Greek works, partly copies executed in Roman times from Greek originals. Originals, and especially important originals, are scarce. The statues of gold and ivory have left not a vestige behind. Those of bronze, once numbered by thousands, went long ago, with few exceptions, into the melting-pot. Even sculptures in marble, though the material was less valuable, have been thrown into the lime-kiln or used as building stone or wantonly mutilated or ruined by neglect. There does not exist to-day a single certified original work by any one of the six greatest sculptors of Greece, except the Hermes of Praxiteles (see page 221). Copies are more plentiful. As nowadays many museums and private houses have on their walls copies of paintings by the "old masters," so, and far more usually, the public and private buildings of imperial Rome and of many of the cities under her sway were adorned with copies of famous works by the sculptors of ancient Greece. Any piece of sculpture might thus be multiplied indefinitely; and so it happens that we often possess several copies, or even some dozens of copies, of one and the same original. Most of the masterpieces of Greek sculpture which are known to us at all are known only in this way.

The question therefore arises, How far are these copies to be trusted? It is impossible to answer in general terms. The instances are very few where we possess at once the original and a copy. The best case of the kind is afforded by Fig. 75, compared with Fig. 132. Here the head, fore-arms, and feet of the copy are modern and consequently do not enter into consideration. Limiting one's attention to the antique parts of the figure, one sees that it is a tolerably close, and yet a hard and lifeless, imitation of the original. This gives us some measure of the degree of fidelity we may expect in favorable cases. Generally speaking, we have to form our estimate of the faithfulness of a copy by the quality of its workmanship and by a comparison of it with other copies, where such exist. Often we find two or more copies agreeing with one another as closely as possible. This shows--and the conclusion is confirmed by other evidence--that means existed in Roman times of reproducing statues with the help of measurements mechanically taken. At the same time, a comparison of copies makes it apparent that copyists, even when aiming to be exact in the main, often treated details and accessories with a good deal of freedom. Of course, too, the skill and conscientiousness of the copyists varied enormously. Finally, besides copies, we have to reckon with variations and modernizations in every degree of earlier works. Under these circumstances it will easily be seen that the task of reconstructing a lost original from extant imitations is a very delicate and perilous one. Who could adequately appreciate the Sistine Madonna, if the inimitable touch of Raphael were known to us only at second-hand?

Any history of Greek sculpture attempts to piece together the several classes of evidence above described. It classifies the actual remains, seeking to assign to each piece its place and date of production and to infer from direct examination and comparison the progress of artistic methods and ideas. And this it does with constant reference to what literature and inscriptions have to tell us. But in the fragmentary state of our materials, it is evident that the whole subject must be beset with doubt. Great and steady progress has indeed been made since Winckelmann, the founder of the science of classical archaeology, produced the first "History of Ancient Art" (published in 1763); but twilight still reigns over many an important question. This general warning should be borne in mind in reading this or any other hand-book of the subject.

We may next take up the materials and the technical processes of Greek sculpture. These may be classified as follows:

  1. Wood. Wood was often, if not exclusively, used for the earliest Greek temple-images, those rude xoana, of which many survived into the historical period, to be regarded with peculiar veneration. We even hear of wooden statues made in the developed period of Greek art. But this was certainly exceptional. Wood plays no part worth mentioning in the fully developed sculpture of Greece, except as it entered into the making of gold and ivory statues or of the cheaper substitutes for these.

  2. Stone and marble. Various uncrystallized limestones were frequently used in the archaic period and here and there even in the fifth century. But white marble, in which Greece abounds, came also early into use, and its immense superiority to limestone for statuary purposes led to the abandonment of the latter. The choicest varieties of marble were the Parian and Pentelic (cf. page 77). Both of these were exported to every part of the Greek world.

A Greek marble statue or group is often not made of a single piece. Thus the Aphrodite of Melos (page 249) was made of two principal pieces, the junction coming just above the drapery, while several smaller parts, including the left arm, were made separately and attached. The Laocoon group (page 265), which Pliny expressly alleges to have been made of a single block, is in reality made of six. Often the head was made separately from the body, sometimes of a finer quality of marble, and then inserted into a socket prepared for it in the neck of the figure. And very often, when the statue was mainly of a single block, small pieces were attached, sometimes in considerable numbers. Of course the joining was done with extreme nicety, and would have escaped ordinary observation.

In the production of a modern piece of marble sculpture, the artist first makes a clay model and then a mere workman produces from this a marble copy. In the best period of Greek art, on the other hand, there seems to have been no mechanical copying of finished models. Preliminary drawings or even clay models, perhaps small, there must often have been to guide the eye; but the sculptor, instead of copying with the help of exact measurements, struck out freely, as genius and training inspired him. If he made a mistake, the result was not fatal, for he could repair his error by attaching a fresh piece of marble. Yet even so, the ability to work in this way implies marvelous precision of eye and hand. To this ability and this method we may ascribe something of the freedom, the vitality, and the impulsiveness of Greek marble sculpture--qualities which the mechanical method of production tends to destroy. Observe too that, while pediment-groups, metopes, friezes, and reliefs upon pedestals would often be executed by subordinates following the design of the principal artist, any important single statue or group in marble was in all probability chiseled by the very hand of the master.

Another fact of importance, a fact which few are able to keep constantly enough in their thoughts, is that Greek marble sculpture was always more or less painted. This is proved both by statements in ancient authors and by the fuller and more explicit evidence of numberless actual remains. (See especially pages 148, 247.) From these sources we learn that eyes, eyebrows, hair, and perhaps lips were regularly painted, and that draperies and other accessories were often painted in whole or in part. As regards the treatment of flesh the evidence is conflicting. Some instances are reported where the flesh of men was colored a reddish brown, as in the sculpture of Egypt. But the evidence seems to me to warrant the inference that this was unusual in marble sculpture. On the "Alexander" sarcophagus the nude flesh has been by some process toned down to an ivory tint, and this treatment may have been the rule, although most sculptures which retain remains of color show no trace of this. Observe that wherever color was applied, it was laid on in "flat" tints, i.e., not graded or shaded.

This polychromatic character of Greek marble sculpture is at variance with what we moderns have been accustomed to since the Renaissance. By practice and theory we have been taught that sculpture and painting are entirely distinct arts. And in the austere renunciation by sculpture of all color there has even been seen a special distinction, a claim to precedence in the hierarchy of the arts. The Greeks had no such idea. The sculpture of the older nations about them was polychromatic; their own early sculpture in wood and coarse stone was almost necessarily so; their architecture, with which sculpture was often associated, was so likewise. The coloring of marble sculpture, then, was a natural result of the influences by which that sculpture was molded. And, of course, the Greek eye took pleasure in the combination of form and color, and presumably would have found pure white figures like ours dull and cold. We are better circumstanced for judging Greek taste in this matter than in the matter of colored architecture, for we possess Greek sculptures which have kept their coloring almost intact. A sight of the "Alexander" sarcophagus, if it does not revolutionize our own taste, will at least dispel any fear that a Greek artist was capable of outraging beautiful form by a vulgarizing addition.

  1. Bronze. This material (an alloy of copper with tin and sometimes lead), always more expensive than marble, was the favorite material of some of the most eminent sculptors (Myron, Polyclitus, Lysippus) and for certain purposes was always preferred. The art of casting small, solid bronze images goes far back into the prehistoric period in Greece. At an early date, too (we cannot say how early), large bronze statues could be made of a number of separate pieces, shaped by the hammer and riveted together. Such a work was seen at Sparta by the traveler Pausanias, and was regarded by him as the most ancient existing statue in bronze. A great impulse must have been given to bronze sculpture by the introduction of the process of hollow-casting. Pausanias repeatedly attributes the invention of this process to Rhoecus and Theodorus, two Samian artists, who flourished apparently early in the sixth century. This may be substantially correct, but the process is much more likely to have been borrowed from Egypt than invented independently.

In producing a bronze statue it is necessary first to make an exact clay model. This done, the usual Greek practice seems to have been to dismember the model and take a casting of each part separately. The several bronze pieces were then carefully united by rivets or solder, and small defects were repaired by the insertion of quadrangular patches of bronze. The eye-sockets were always left hollow in the casting, and eyeballs of glass, metal, or other materials, imitating cornea and iris, were inserted. [Footnote: Marble statues also sometimes had inserted eyes] Finally, the whole was gone over with appropriate tools, the hair, for example, being furrowed with a sharp graver and thus receiving a peculiar, metallic definiteness of texture.

A hollow bronze statue being much lighter than one in marble and much less brittle, a sculptor could be much bolder in posing a figure of the former material than one of the latter. Hence when a Greek bronze statue was copied in marble in Roman times, a disfiguring support, not present in the original, had often to be added (cf. Figs, 101, 104, etc.). The existence of such a support in a marble work is, then, one reason among others for assuming a bronze original. Other indications pointing the same way are afforded by a peculiar sharpness of edge, e.g., of the eyelids and the eyebrows, and by the metallic treatment of the hair. These points are well illustrated by Fig. 76. Notice especially the curls, which in the original would have been made of separate strips of bronze, twisted and attached after the casting of the figure.

Bronze reliefs were not cast, but produced by hammering. This is what is called repousse work. These bronze reliefs were of small size, and were used for ornamenting helmets, cuirasses, mirrors, and so on.

  1. Gold and ivory. Chryselephantine statues, i.e., statues of gold and ivory, must, from the costliness of the materials, have been always comparatively rare. Most of them, though not all, were temple-images, and the most famous ones were of colossal size. We are very imperfectly informed as to how these figures were made. The colossal ones contained a strong framework of timbers and metal bars, over which was built a figure of wood. To this the gold and ivory were attached, ivory being used for flesh and gold for all other parts. The gold on the Athena of the Parthenon (cf. page 186) weighed a good deal over a ton. But costly as these works were, the admiration felt for them seems to have been untainted by any thought of that fact.

  2. Terra-cotta. This was used at all periods for small figures, a few inches high, immense numbers of which have been preserved to us. But large terra-cotta figures, such as were common in Etruria, were probably quite exceptional in Greece.

Greek sculpture may be classified, according to the purposes which it served, under the following heads:

  1. Architectural sculpture. A temple could hardly be considered complete unless it was adorned with more or less of sculpture. The chief place for such sculpture was in the pediments and especially in the principal or eastern pediment. Relief-sculpture might be applied to Doric metopes or an Ionic frieze. And finally, single statues or groups might be placed, as acroteria, upon the apex and lower corners of a pediment. Other sacred buildings besides temples might be similarly adorned. But we hear very little of sculpture on secular buildings.

  2. Cult-images. As a rule, every temple or shrine contained at least one statue of the divinity, or of each divinity, worshiped there.

  3. Votive sculptures. It was the habit of the Greeks to present to their divinities all sorts of objects in recognition of past favors or in hope of favors to come. Among these votive objects or

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