BMCR 2005.04.26

The Rediscovery of Antiquity: The Role of the Artist. Acta Hyperborea 10

, , , The rediscovery of antiquity : the role of the artist. Acta Hyperborea, 10. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, University of Copenhagen, 2003. 551 pages : illustrations (some color), plans ; 25 cm.. ISBN 8772898291. DKK 450.00/$75.00.

This book presents twenty papers delivered at a conference of the same title held at the University of Copenhagen in 2001. A useful introduction by the editors (pp.11-19) explains that the topic was limited to the period from the Renaissance to the present (actually the 19th century). The papers are divided into four sections: 1) The artists’ use of ancient models; 2) Antiquity as a norm for shaping taste; 3) Patronage; 4) Artists as collectors. The content of the four sections is, however, not as distinct as the divisions suggest. In reality, all the articles except the first describe more or less in detail the use of ancient models by a variety of painters, architects, and sculptors and the social context which fostered this activity.

Although occasional references to ancient works and excavations will be of interest to the student of antiquity, the principal subject of the papers is directed at students of Renaissance to recent modern art. Since the papers treat rather specific aspects of the use of antiquity by various European artists, there is no presentation of the broad phenomenon and its intellectual or social underpinnings, for which the reader is directed right at the beginning (p. 11) to Alain Schnapp’s La conquête du passé: aux origines de l’archéologie (Paris 1993; English translation London 1996), to which one should add Nikolaus Himmelmann, Utopische Vergangenheit: Archäologie und moderne Kultur (Berlin 1976).

For this (and the general) reader, the most stimulating article is by M. Straede, “Between Scylla and Charybdis. Concerning the Artist’s Perception of Antiquity,” pp. 23-36. He lucidly points out that the artistic reason to study the works of antiquity was that they provided stimulating solutions to problems the artist faced. A corollary is that contemporary art had little use for antiquity except as a foil. A second point is that antiquity served primarily the interests of an essentially bourgeois society. This may appear erroneous at first sight, because it was, as all the other papers in this volume stress, principally the aristocracy that patronized the pursuit of the antique. But as S. Howard, “Michelangelo and Greek Sculpture,” pp. 37-62, points out, the real impetus to the study of antiquity came from a professional class of scholars and art dealers who formed and then pandered to the desires of the patrons. Indeed, a leitmotif throughout most of the essays is the primary role of literature in forming the taste for the antique.

The succeeding articles by B.P. Venetucci, “Pirro Ligorio and the Rediscovery of Antiquity,” pp. 63-88, M.G. Picozzi, “Orfeo Boselli and the Interpretation of the Antique,” pp. 89-122, and S. Pieper, ” The Artist’s Contribution to the Rediscovery of the Caesar Iconography,” pp. 123-45, treat that most distressing habit of artists to restore ancient statues in whimsical ways and to create difficult to detect forgeries.

A.-M. Leander Touati, “How to Choose Ancient Models: The Example of Johan Tobias Sergel (1740-1802),” pp. 147-79, actually deals with ancient sculptures and makes some important observations on the slightly altered near-copy in miniature by Sergel of the “Germanicus” in the Louvre (Ma 1207), observations which she judiciously applies to the controversy over the status of the Hermes and Dionysos in Olympia (p. 160). In passing, it appears likely that the idea of the copy produced with mechanical aid is a red herring in the study of ancient sculpture — sculptors appear to be able with minimal recording to produce a respectably precise duplicate.

Finally in Part I, M. Nielsen, “Between Art and Archaeology: Johannes Wiedewelt in Rome (1754-1758), pp. 181-208, reviews the career of the Danish sculptor with whom Winckelmann briefly roomed on his arrival in Rome. Her comment on p. 186 that Wiedewelt was more influenced by Winckelmann than the reverse underscores an important aspect of the nature of artists’ relationship to antiquity.

Part II (Forming Ideas and Shaping Taste) consists of six articles that cover artists of the second half of the 18th century through the later 19th century, with emphasis on Nordic personalities. R. Halbertsma, “‘An Ornament of the Mind,’ — C.J.C Reuvens and his Ideas about the Benefits of Archaeology to Art and Society in the Netherlands,” pp. 211-27, points out (p. 220) that Reuvens influenced the architect Reyers in the aborted plans to build a museum of antiquities at Leiden. J. Fejfer, “Wiedewelt, Winckelmann and Antiquity,” pp. 229-33, observes (pp. 232-33) that Wiedewelt’s failure to persuade the Danish Academy to buy originals in the 18th century can be considered lucky for Denmark, because the collection, had it been undertaken, would have consisted of over-restored works (of dubious taste to us today).

On a different note K. Kryger, “Julianehøj and the Memorial Grove at Jaegerspris. An Introduction to the Interpretation of Julianehøj and the Nordic Monuments to Worthy Danes,” pp. 235-54, reveals a totally different side of Wiedewelt, an almost abstract and expressionistic temperament co-existing with an intense interest in ancient forms. The lack of a consistent image of the past comes out clearly in J.P. Munk, “Copy – Topos – Paraphrase. The Reception of Antiquity by Nineteenth-Century Danish Artists,” pp. 255-75. Munk raises the issue of both romanticism and materialism as co-incident with classicizing taste without any sense of conflict. Here for the first time it becomes apparent that there is not a single antiquity, which is the presupposition of most of the articles in this collection. The discovery of la Venus de Milo inspired Eckersberg’s painting “Woman in Front of a Mirror” of 1841 (fig. 12). Discovered in 1820, a cast of the statue came to Copenhagen in 1828 and was much appreciated at the time because of its teasing sexuality (p. 268). It is the sense of seamless integration of the classical in genres that might appear antagonistic that is also evident in the Neapolitan fisherman in C. Hansen’s romantic “Scene from the Molo in Naples,” of 1839 (fig. 14). The figure reappears in the classicizing study by Hansen, “Prometheus Creating Man in Clay,” of 1845 (fig. 15). Although Munk does not point this out, the figure is very likely derived from the “Sandalbinder” statue type believed to be of the fourth century B.C., of which there was a good example in Paris and another in Rome in the Capitoline Museum, the latter having been unearthed at Tivoli in 1740.

M.E. Micheli, ” Iudicium et Ordo : Antonio Canova and Antiquity,” pp. 277-97, presents the portraits of Ferdinand IV and Napoleon (figs. 3-5), which demonstrate in radically different ways the integration of classical forms and contemporary concerns, though the nude statue of Napoleon went a bit too far for the public of the period (and for Napoleon). The androgynous Ferdinand as Pallas Athena breaks with Antiquity more than the Napoleon but apparently caused no comment at the time. On pp. 290-94 the Three Graces are discussed, but curiously only details of the two statue groups made by Canova are illustrated (figs. 7-8). This choice is to be lamented particularly because the subject comes up twice again, once in the next article by J.R. Serra, “Laurent Guiard: Memory and the Antique,” pp. 299-319 (p. 314, figs. 7-8) and again in the succeeding article by B. Cohen (p. 339, fig. 11: Mantegna’s “Parnassus”).

Serra paraphrases (p. 309) a statement by Guiardon on the function of the antique: “…the proposed expression of art, going beyond fashion is the representation of natural reality purified by the choice of beauty in a performance of imagination granted to the one to whom the familiarity with the Antique gave the knowledge.” (The original text is given in note 4 on p. 317.) From this it appears that the antique had been elevated to an almost mystical level of aesthetic perfection that accords well with its seamless integration into a variety of contrasting styles. One can surmise that this was possible because the ancient models were almost exclusively individual statues or fragments of wall-paintings without extended context.

B. Cohen, “Mantua, Mantegna and Rome: The Grotte of Isabella d’Este Reconsidered,” pp. 323-69, proposes convincingly that the name Grotte for the rooms in which Isabella assembled her collections of antiquities was derived from the discovery and exploration of the subterranean rooms of the Golden House of Nero shortly before she assembled her collection in the 1490s. The collection itself is interesting because it consisted of a hodge-podge of real antiquities, copies and probable forgeries, all collected at first in a barrel-vaulted room that actually resembled the remains of the Golden House as known at the time, an important and very early example of placing antiquities in an apparently ancient context.

V. Coltman, “‘Providence send us a Lord’: Joseph Nollekens and Bartolomeo Cavaceppi at Shugborough,” pp. 371-96, begins with the contribution of James (Athenian) Stuart to the occasional buildings of the great park at Shugborough (an adapted Tower of the Winds), and then presents a somewhat depressing review of how fragmentary ancient marbles were variously restored and copied for not very well informed English patrons (Thomas Anson, but also Henry Blundell [p.383]), all of which reminds this reader of Jane Fejfer’s observation (pp. 232-33) on collections of the 18th century cited above. However, T. Mikocki, “Polish Artists and the Emergence of Archaeology in Eighteenth-Century Rome,” pp. 397-422, reveals that the great aristocratic patrons in Poland had similar interests in the development of great parks recalling both Italy and the antique. In both England and Poland the parks reveal the influence of actual archaeological investigations and a mix of Roman and Greek styles consistent with the image of a seamless antiquity, which was only to be replaced in the course of the nineteenth century by increasingly detailed studies of the monuments and chronology.

Somewhat out of place is S. Macioce’s article, “Caravaggio and the Role of Classical Models,” 423-45. This paper really belongs in the first section. Macioce stresses again the role of literature in the inspiration of the artist but also shows how Caravaggio sometimes appropriated rather subtly antique models in paintings hardly in a mainstream neo-classical tradition. She suggests on p. 437 that the use of classical models by artists made “their work attractive to collectors,” a remark that could apply generally.

The three contributions to Part IV (Creating Collections) are very diverse and full of interesting observations: G. Bartoloni and P.B. Pacini, “The Importance of Etruscan Antiquity in the Tuscan Renaissance,” pp. 449-79; C. Lyons, “Antiquities and Art Theory in the Collections of Vicente Victoria,” pp. 481-507; H. Ragn Jensen, “On Danish Painters Collecting Antiquities for the Royal Academy in Copenhagen,” 509-536. Bartolini and Pacini argue convincingly that Etruscan antiquities were recognized in the 15th and 16th centuries as such and were used particularly by Cosimo I de’ Medici to link himself to Lars Porsenna to bolster his claim to rule (pp. 465, 470). Claire Lyons’ paper reconstructs through documents in the Getty Archive and elsewhere the antiquarian collection of the Spaniard Vicente Victoria, a man of modest wealth, and emphasizes the cultural interests of the collector, who collected and organized objects not for their aesthetic appeal, but to elucidate “religion, mythology, and daily life” (p. 487). When he died in the early 18th century, his collection was disolved; quite typically some cinerary urns went to England (British Museum and Castle Howard), where they served as elements of neo-classical taste instead of the cultural significance they had in Victoria’s collection.

The final essay, by Hannemarie Ragn Jensen, presents the grand frescoes of the vestibule of the University of Copenhagen painted in 1844-53 by Constantin Hansen and Georg Hilker. Ornate ornamental friezes frame the dry 19th-century paintings of various Greek myths pertinent to the mission of the university and a good reflection of the triumph of classical scholarship. The paintings are at least in part a response to the unwillingness of the Danish authorities to purchase original antiquities, so that the painters were trained to produce copies of famous works in Rome, and their erudition certainly comes through clearly in the vestibule of Copenhagen University. It is a pity that the founding of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek at the end of the 19th century is not included in this collection of essays, since its existence is implicit is several and its founding answered so grandly the frustrated wishes of Danes for about 150 years.

The articles in this book cover a very broad range of artists and topics and will be a useful source book for those working on the artists and subjects presented. Only occasionally, however, are the broader implications of the focused studies considered. The illustrations, many in excellent color, made much of the material accessible to this non-specialist reader, and the extensive bibliographies accompanying each article are particularly useful. The inclusion of the addresses and e-mail addresses of the contributors is an excellent feature that should be followed by all such conference papers.

There are a greater number of typographical errors than usual, though none important except for the reversal of the sequence of illustrations 10 and 11 on pp. 522-23 (the captions are in the correct sequence but the illustrations are exchanged). Finally, figure 14b on p. 529 is slightly marred by an overlaid pattern of white crosses along its bottom margin.

At the end of the volume there are two book reviews unrelated to the topic of the conference (pp. 537-51).