BMCR 2012.02.35

The Art of the Body: Antiquity and Its Legacy. Ancients and Moderns

, The Art of the Body: Antiquity and Its Legacy. Ancients and Moderns. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xv, 240. ISBN 9780195380811. $24.95 (pb).


The Art of the Body is Michael Squire’s contribution to the series Ancients and Moderns, edited by Phiroze Vasunia. This new series aims to show not only the influence of the ancient world on the modern, but also how the modern world illuminates the ancient. Squire’s work both stirs up debate on and “complicates the standard narratives about the ‘legacy’ of Greece and Rome,” objectives that Vasunia states are the intention of the series (ix).

Squire, in his Preface, explicitly states that The Art of the Body is not “a history of ancient art. Nor is it a chronicle of its modern reception” (xi). Instead, his aim is to “think about the ancient and modern alongside each other” (xiv); he wants to reveal not only the influence of representations of the body in antiquity on modernity, but also to show how the influence of modern reception, from the rise of Christianity through the Renaissance and Reformation to modern times, sheds light on ancient art (xi-xii). Due to this process of “mutual illumination” (xii) or “two-way enlightenment” (3), the book proceeds thematically rather than chronologically. The author focuses his attention primarily on the Graeco-Roman legacy of “naturalistic representation” (xiii) arguing that the idea that representations of the human body in art are recognizable as bodies (“naturalism”) dates back to antiquity. But another important theme of his book is religion, which the author argues is an aspect that tends to be ignored by modern art historians (96). Not only does Squire address the images of gods and goddesses in their ancient religious context, but he also argues that “the various attempts to square the Classical with the Christian…have directed the entire course of western art ever since” (31). The Art of the Body covers a large expanse of time and information in a small amount of space, but Squire is quick to point out the areas of this book that could be open to criticism, such as its selectivity in material and subjects (there is a concentration on free-standing sculpture). Indeed, Squire himself notes that the book asks more questions than it can answer (31). It is precisely this self-awareness and candour, along with Squire’s accessible writing, that make this book one that will appeal to classicists and art historians alike.

Chapter I lays the foundation for the subsequent chapters. The author uses Antonio Canova’s Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker (1802-1806) to raise questions about antiquity’s influence on Western art, especially with respect to nudity. Here is where Squire’s concern with naturalism begins. Not only is the medium of the statue (marble) familiar in western art, but the nudity, pose ( contrapposto), and imitation of a real-life figure are all recognizable aspects (1-3). Squire argues that these elements are so embedded in the collective western consciousness of viewing that they are taken for granted (3). He asks where these visual conventions come from, what they mean, and how they have influenced modern western visual culture. He also brings the reader’s attention to Polycleitus’ and Vitruvius’ discussions of proportion and symmetry and their lasting influence, especially on the likes of Leonardo da Vinci (14). Not only does Squire discuss the intentional use of classical art and naturalism in modern art, such as during the German Enlightenment, but he also discusses the rejection of these influences by modern artistic movements, such as Surrealism and Expressionism. Squire concludes that the “ancient art of the body remains with us – whether as an ideal, antitype, or point of departure” (27).

Chapter II addresses explicitly the issues of what modern art historians call “naturalism” in ancient and modern art. In discussing how the modern world influences how we look at ancient art, Squire notes that we view ancient bodies in modern muscular terms, a result of our knowledge of the body from human dissection (58-59). He criticizes the assumption that “naturalism” has always been “an objective and empirical standard” (53) – this point is at the heart of the argument of The Art of the Body. For example, early Greek images of the body appear different from those we associate with the “Classical” period. The more accurately a statue imitates the human body – the more accurately it approximates naturalism – the later the date it is given (55). The author uses the Riace bronzes (c. 470- 430 BCE) to discredit this line of argument. These works, rare examples of large-scale bronze statues from the 5 th century, Squire argues, are impossible in their physical symmetry. No body is this symmetrical, and therefore these “natural” bodies also are idealized in their own sense (60-62). This chapter attempts to explain where, when, and why it became an objective to make images believable and life-like. Squire answers this question by arguing that naturalism was not an invention or part of what modern art historians call the “Greek Revolution” (62); changes in the presentation of art are bound to “changing cultural, intellectual, and theological ideas about figuration on the one hand, and about the individual viewing subject on the other” (68). For Squire “the art of the body can only be understood in cultic terms” (68, his italics); the “naturalism” involved in portraying the body concerned religion because of the challenge of depicting Graeco-Roman gods.

In Chapter III the author turns his attention to the “modern fiction” of the “female nude” (69), a phrase that not only refers to women without clothing, but implies “the assumption of ‘artistic’ merit rather than mere ‘pornographical’ arousal” (71). Squire, using Praxiteles’ statue of Aphrodite of Knidos (ca. 360 BCE), discusses the use of the term “female nude” to describe the ancient images of ancient divinities. This chapter picks up the discussion of naturalism from Chapter II. Zeuxis, when he painted the three goddesses in his Judgement of Paris, chose the best parts of five different models to portray the female body.1 The message is clear, even in antiquity: no real, natural woman can match a man’s ideal (82). The disappointment of “real” women is found not only in antiquity (as exemplified by the legend of Pygmalion, Ovid, Met. 10.243-297), but also is echoed in the story of the Victorian art critic John Ruskin’s shock at the reality of his naked wife (84). The discussion about the representation of the female body makes the intertwined relationship between ancient and modern art history clear. After establishing this mode of “seeing women” or more accurately idealizing women, Squire turns his attention to the male gaze and the appropriateness of portraying Aphrodite naked. He highlights the mythological fates of those who saw goddesses naked, such as Actaeon and Teiresias, and explores the fate of the viewer of images of a naked Aphrodite. While Squire does not have answers for how to view the “female nude” and admits that even in antiquity there would have been no straightforward answers (106), the religious aspect of these images is important to highlight. Aphrodite, while female, was more importantly a goddess.

The question of nudity in a Roman context introduces another issue. In his next chapter, Squire asks questions about the inheritance of Greek motifs, not only by the Romans, but by modern artists (117). Through various modern portraits, such as those of George Washington and Mussolini, Squire reveals how modern artists have used elements from ancient art and, more importantly, how viewers have received those elements (120-123). He traces this inheritance of classical features to the Romans, and calls them the first “neoclassicists” (117) – rightly so, given Roman attempts to incorporate, adapt, and reject Greek artistic conventions for their own agendas, such as verism in portraits, and the use of the toga to clothe a nude body (127-131). The author devotes much attention to the influence of the Prima Porta Augustus on subsequent imperial representations, not only in terms of its combination of Greek and Roman elements, but also in its message of immortality for the emperor (135-142). Squire also discusses the way that the Romans separated their treatment of the heads and bodies in their portraits. The reception of Roman art is notoriously negative, and in large part can be attributed to J.J. Winckelmann’s claim that Roman art was “not only ‘derivative’ (i.e., parasitic on the Greek), but also in bad taste” (149). Scholars like P. Zanker, argue that it took Augustus to set the Romans on the right path to artistic expression.2 Squire notes, however, that “there is no evidence that Roman viewers found ‘hybrid-bodies’ ‘confused’, ‘incongruous’, or ‘monstrous’ in the way that modern critics have done. Nor . . . can we dismiss the trait as some ‘mongrelisation’ of art (Greek with Roman, or Roman patrician with Roman plebian), or indeed as something eradicated by Augustus” (149). It is the modern scholar’s preoccupation with “naturalism” that finds these “hybrid” sculptures offensive (152) and Squire is right to bring the conversation back to how the Romans viewed these pieces.

It is in Chapter V that Squire confronts the influence of Christianity and modern religious thought on our interpretation of ancient art, and he admits that the transition from pagan to Christian imagery was not a straightforward process (156). Christian art was fashioned out of and also against ancient traditions of depicting gods in human form. He notes that the reception of Graeco-Roman art involved “an entangled process of cultural- cum-theological negotiation,” and this has influenced western visual culture up to the present day (156). Debates about what the divine body looks like and the appropriateness of visually portraying it exist today, and this is not peculiar to Christianity. The author discusses the difficulty in portraying Jesus’ divinity and humanity as well as the differing opinions about how to do so. Squire’s overall point here is that “Graeco-Roman images helped determine not only what Christian images looked like, but also how they were understood” (191, his italics). He continues to argue that the conventions of Byzantine and Mediaeval art were a reaction to those ancient traditions. The revival of classical forms in the Renaissance also had a religious component; it is during this time that the crucified Jesus is first shown naked (192-193). The questions about Christ and his body continued to be discussed during the Reformation. According to Squire, it is this time that has paved the way for art and art history as we know it (195). Squire draws on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s ideas about the history of art noting that Hegel was the first to discuss these subjects and to link them to religion (198-199).

Squire concludes that the Reformation represents a theological reaction against the ancient art of the body and that this movement directly influences our mode of viewing art (198), through its mistrust of what can be seen. It is this post-Reformation/ post-Enlightenment ‘art for art’s sake’ that has influenced the western way of viewing art (201). The author presents his reader with interesting questions. His approach to the history of the body and naturalism in art brings to the forefront the importance of religion, both in antiquity and today. Squire ends his book with an extensive section on “Further Reading” (202-228), which he admits focuses on English sources. The Art of the Body is an excellent addition to the Ancients and Moderns series, and will be a welcome resource for an advanced level course on art history.


1. Cicero, On Invention, 2.1; Pliny, Natural History, 35.64.

2. P. Zanker (1988). The Power of Images in the Age of Augustus. trans. A. Shapiro. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.