Read an Excerpt
In Pursuit of Ancient PastsA History of Classical Archaeology in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
By Stephen L. Dyson
YALE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2006 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Protohistory of Classical Archaeology
European artists and intellectuals have engaged in continuous dialogue with the classical past since the Renaissance. In the seventeenth century that dialogue was enriched by the growth of a strong antiquarian tradition but also complicated by the cultural and political wars of religion that pitted Protestant against Catholic. The Continent was often unsafe for travel, and the international scholarly community that had flourished during the Renaissance was often riven by bitter religious and ideological divisions. By the eighteenth century peace had largely returned to Europe. New demands were placed on the classical past in part as a result of the triumph of the values of the Enlightenment, which involved a more direct communication with the world of Greece and Rome, unmediated by the debates of the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation. A new stress was placed on the physical recovery of the past, and this stimulated the emerging field of classical archaeology.
During the 1760s two developments arose in the states and smaller political entities of whatbecame Germany that would profoundly shape the development of classical archaeology. One flowered on German soil; the other was the work of a German expatriate who spent his most productive years in Rome. The first involved the foundation of a "scientific" study of classics at the University of Göttingen. Its aim was to take classical studies out of the hands of the humanists and savants and center it in an academic environment with well-trained scholars, specialized teaching programs, and extensive scholarly resources, especially libraries. This new classical scholarship focused on philology, but its vision of antiquity was broad and included material culture as well as books. By 1767 Göttingen had the first collection of casts in Europe. Significantly, it was housed in the library rather than a separate museum. An unbroken, if at times tenuous, tradition stretched from Göttingen to the great German scholarly "factories" of the later nineteenth century.
No history of classical archaeology can bypass Johann Winckelmann (1717-68), for his legacy continues to shape and influence the field down to the present. This learned North German worked himself up from relatively humble circumstances and, after an excellent classical education in Germany, made his way to Rome. He ultimately attained the position of librarian to Cardinal Alessandro Albani (1692-1779), one of the most powerful humanistic clerics of the day. As such Winckelmann had at his disposal one of the best private collections of antiquities in Rome and was the resident savant at one of the most brilliant cultural gathering places in the city. His violent death in Trieste in 1768 cut short his life but added another romantic aspect to an archaeological figure whose image belongs as much to the early nineteenth century as the eighteenth.
In 1763 Winckelmann was appointed papal antiquary, the chief archaeological arbiter in Rome. He spent his remaining years establishing his preeminence on the Roman archaeological scene and mastering the great classical collections of that city. But his goals were more than antiquarian. He sought to synthesize and theorize, creating new paradigms for understanding ancient art. His prime contribution was to make the study of classical art both historical and evolutionary, examining ancient written sources in conjunction with the classical art in the Roman collections. He established the centrality of the Hellenic aesthetic and sought to reconstruct the historical development of ancient art. Much of what classical archaeologists still do follows in the path established by Winckelmann.
Winckelmann was interested in more than historical reconstruction. As one would expect from an Enlightenment figure, he sought truth in abstraction, paradigms of absolute beauty that were embodied in ancient works like the Apollo Belvedere. Winckelmann profoundly influenced the last great era of neoclassicism in the visual arts, and the Italian Antonio Canova, the Englishman John Flaxman, the Swiss Angelica Kauffmann, and the Dane Bertel Thorvaldsen-artists with an interest in classical archaeology who played important roles in the classical revival-were all shaped by his aesthetic values. Winckelmann's effort to find ideal beauty in high classical art provided one of the ideological underpinnings of classical archaeology throughout its history.
Winckelmann also began to shift the focus of classical archaeological research from Rome, where it had been positioned since the Renaissance, to Greece. Winckelmann never visited Greece and actually saw little in the way of genuine Greek art. He based his reconstruction of the history of Greek art almost totally on the ancient written sources and on Roman statues that purported to be copies of Greek originals. However, the high point of his evolutionary art history was placed in classical Greece and its years of decline in the Hellenistic and Roman eras. This was both a historical and a value judgment, and it was to have a profound impact on the course of classical archaeology.
Winckelmann's interest was primarily in the visual arts, especially sculpture. He became not just a model for future classical archaeologists but almost a tutelary deity, especially in Germany, where the new, scientific classical scholarship was developing by the late eighteenth century and where the classical in art retained a strong hold. His devotion to the "classical" combined with the romantic qualities of his solitary intellectual quests and violent death only enhanced his appeal. (His birthday, December 10, has long been celebrated in a variety of German archaeological forums.) Winckelmann's "historical" approach to Greek sculpture inspired a scholarship that combined the typological study of Roman copies of Greek originals with the careful analysis of Greek and Latin texts on ancient art in an empirical history of classical archaeology.
Along with other key figures like Gotthold Efraim Lessing and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Winckelmann helped lay the foundations for the long tradition of passionate German involvement with the classical Mediterranean. At the same time other developments were more closely linking the increasingly rich and powerful kingdom of Great Britain with the classical remains of Greece and Rome. Key to this was the phenomenon of the Grand Tour, which started in earnest following the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 and the relative peace and security that Europe enjoyed after the Battle of Blenheim (1704) and the Peace of Utrecht (1713) concluded the War of Spanish Succession and put a temporary halt to French imperialist expansion. Although not all "Grand Tourists" were British, the majority came from England. Almost all were members of the aristocracy, but they included a large and diverse segment of that group, a representation unmatched by that of any other European nobility.
The phenomenon of the Grand Tour has been well studied and need only be summarized here. It began in the early years of the eighteenth century. Thomas Coke, an early Grand Tourist who laid the foundation of the great collection of Holkham Hall, was in Rome at various times from 1712 to 1718. Generations of young Britishers followed in the years leading up to the outbreak of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. The tour could take several years, and the young nobleman was accompanied by an entourage that often included some hapless Oxbridge tutor known as his "bear leader." While a variety of countries were visited, the focus was on Italy, especially Rome. The elite youth were expected to visit famous architectural monuments, galleries, and archaeological sites, have their portraits painted in a Roman setting by an artist like Pompeo Batoni, and collect antiquities. Most of these young Grand Tourists never returned to the Mediterranean, but the memories and souvenirs of those journeys left their impress and shaped the young men's cultural outlook for the rest of their lives. Many joined the Society of Dilettanti, founded in 1734, of which Horace Walpole remarked that "the nominal qualification [for membership] is having been in Italy and the real one [is] being drunk." It was true that bibulous festivities were associated with the Dilettanti, but they also made important contributions in this formative period to classical archaeology. For both architecture and the visual arts the Grand Tour phenomenon, including later manifestations like the Dilettanti, had important archaeological implications.
European architects had followed classical models since the Renaissance, and the classical text by the Augustan architect Vitruvius had been their handbook. Such influences had come more slowly and cautiously to England, but the two great English architects of the seventeenth century, Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren, employed the forms and traditions of classical architecture in complex, creative ways. Now the Grand Tour brought the English elite into immediate contact not only with classical ruins but also with the architecture, especially the villa architecture, of that great neoclassicist Andrea Palladio. Styles and values associated both with the "new" Venetian rural elite of the Terra Firma and with the villa aristocracy of ancient Rome well suited the emerging ideology of the increasingly rich and powerful British country-house elite, who sought to express their rural hegemony through dominating buildings.
Early in the eighteenth century Lord Burlington, a wealthy veteran of the Grand Tour, reasserted the primacy of the Palladian in English architecture. During the middle and later years of the eighteenth century the English countryside became populated by a splendid array of country houses built by architects like Colin Campbell, author of Vitruvius Britannicus, whose designs reflected strong classical influence. Even more than the late Renaissance and Roman-baroque styles that had shaped English architecture previously, this new classicism called for a rigorous adherence to "true" classical forms and thus required more extensive archaeological scholarship. Handbooks, as well as studies of Palladio, Vitruvius, and Greek and Roman remains in Italy and the Mediterranean, appeared in increasing numbers. Classical exteriors were matched by classical interiors as designers like the Adam brothers created living spaces that echoed and reinterpreted the taste of Greece and Rome in the same way that entrance porticoes and columned facades did.
This increasingly sophisticated architectural scholarship created a growing consciousness of the importance of Greek contributions to Roman aesthetic achievements. In turn, this led scholars to recognize that a true understanding of classical architecture required a knowledge of the Hellenic originals, especially the works of mainland Greece. To provide that knowledge the Society of Dilettanti sponsored an expedition to Greece in the 1750s led by two young architects, James Stuart and Nicholas Revett. Their program was to study, measure, and draw the best examples of Greek architecture from life so that through later publications they could provide architects and patrons in Britain with the best examples of pure Greek architecture. Stuart and Revett executed their commission admirably, and their publications, especially the early volumes, played a major role in promoting neoclassical taste in both Britain and America. Their picturesque sketches of the ruins in contemporary context enhanced viewers' romantic desire to experience Greece directly while their measured drawings, intended for architectural professionals, provided the templates for a more pure and true classical architecture.
Not all the new travelers went to Turkish-controlled Greece, however. Greek ruins could be found closer to home. South Italy and Sicily possessed some of the best-preserved classical ruins in the world. While not as distant or exotic as Greece, the world of Magna Graecia posed its own problems for any but the most intrepid tourist. The temples of Paestum were close to Naples but located in a bandit- and malarial-infested coastal marsh. The great temples of Segesta, Selinus, and Agrigento were in more inaccessible parts of Sicily. Nonetheless, Grand Tour classicists gradually began to extend their pilgrimages south. The discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum made Naples a favorite stopping point, and from there Paestum was accessible. In 1768 Thomas Major published his Ruins of Paestum, providing the British public with detailed studies of those monuments. By the 1770s Englishmen like Richard Payne Knight and John Soane were visiting the temples of Sicily.
This greater familiarity with these Doric masterpieces produced an increased respect for the order. The architect James Adam on his visit to Paestum had dismissed these temples as "of an early, inelegant, and unenriched Doric that afford[s] no details." The simplicity that Adam found unappealing now was seen as an expression of a simple, pure Greek primitive strength that had been lost with the dominance of the ornamental, flaccid Ionic and Corinthian orders. The last creative phase of neoclassical architecture that emerged in the early nineteenth century was strongly shaped by this respect for the Doric, and concern for its history and aesthetic principles influenced architectural archaeology long after Greek aesthetics had been marginalized in creative architecture. Significantly, when the Americans in the late nineteenth century launched their first excavations at Assos, they were financed in part by conservative Boston architects who wished to learn more about the origins of the Doric order.
These neoclassical townhouses and villas built throughout the British Isles often became the setting for the display of the archaeological treasures, especially classical sculpture, brought back from the Grand Tour. It is not possible to quantify the number of pieces from the Mediterranean that made their way to Britain, but they certainly represented the largest transfer of classical art since the Roman looting of Greece. In addition to originals, often heavily restored, British tourists also acquired large numbers of casts of famous works that could not be exported. They intermingled the casts with the originals in displays that enhanced their overall presentation and heralded the taste and antiquarian knowledge of their owners. British scholars began publishing catalogues of these private collections, and England became the object of its own "Grand Tour" as classicists from the Continent began showing up at these stately homes to view the antiquities. In 1809 Richard Payne Knight published his Specimens of Ancient Sculpture Selected from Different Collections in Great Britain while in 1833 the count de Clarac, curator of the Antiquities Department at the Louvre, visited Holkham Hall.
We can obtain a good understanding of the extent and diversity of the British private collections from Adolf Michaelis's pathbreaking 1882 study of classical marbles in British collections, produced after the end of the Grand Tour era but before many of the collections had been dispersed either to museums or to a new generation of collectors in America. A professor of archaeology at Strasbourg, Michaelis made several trips to England and came to know and love the collections. However, for Michaelis, a product of the new, scientific German classical archaeology, this scattering of so much important classical art in often inaccessible private collections violated the spirit of the new museum mentality, with its emphasis on the massing of material for scientific study.
The presence of the classical in those stately homes varied tremendously, from a handful of mediocre pieces of marble that were soon relegated to the attic to major assemblages of important works set in beautiful gallery spaces designed by artists like Robert Adam. But the ubiquity of classical marbles in town- and country houses imbued the landed elite with an appreciation of Greek and Roman art in the same way the new art museums with their mixture of casts and originals were to do for the expanding bourgeoisie and new rich of the nineteenth century.
Excerpted from In Pursuit of Ancient Pasts by Stephen L. Dyson Copyright © 2006 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.