From the birth of Venus to the riddle of the Sphinx, here are the tales behind some of the greatest works of Classicism.
The High Renaissance was marked by the rebirth of antiquity, partly through the rediscovery of ancient Latin and Greek texts. The resurgence of Greco-Roman culture led to Classicism, a movement characterised by an emphasis on the principles, styles, and aesthetics of classical antiquity. From the High Renaissance of the late 15th century to the Neoclassical movement of the early 19th century, classical themes and ideas came to be regarded as an integral part of European Enlightenment and intellectualism.
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This period also saw a pervasive presence of mythological elements and narratives in art. Artists like Botticelli and Ingres dedicated their talents to depicting famous events from Greek mythology and Roman legend, creating some of history's most celebrated paintings. Here are the tales behind some of these masterpieces:
Painted in 1484-86, Botticelli's The Birth of Venus portrays Venus, the goddess of love, standing nude in a giant scallop shell as she emerges from the sea. The composition draws its inspiration from classical mythology, according to which the goddess was born out of sea foam. The legend goes that the god Uranus had a son named Cronus, who, in a rebellious act, overthrew his father, castrating him and casting his severed genitals into the sea. This unusual event resulted in the fertilisation of the ocean, which ultimately led to the birth of Venus. Following her miraculous birth, Venus is carried to the shore on a shell by the wind gods Zephyrus and Aura. Botticelli's painting captures the moment Venus arrives at the shore, where she is welcomed by a nymph who drapes her with a cloak. The nymph is thought to be one of the Hours, the mythical attendants of Venus and goddesses associated with the seasons. Her flowery dress suggest that she is the goddess of Spring.
See also: Five Centuries of the Nude in Painting
The myth of Venus' birth is treated in many ancient texts, and as a result, there is no single text that can fully explain the precise imagery of the painting. This has led art historians to offer various interpretations. In general, it is believed that Botticelli portrays Venus as the embodiment of grace and love, and his treatment of the subject highlights his departure from Gothic art by employing classical mythology in an innovative way.
Painted as a fresco in 1511 within the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican, Raphael's School of Athens portrays a gathering of Ancient Greece's most important philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists. Raphael included various thinkers, such as Pythagoras, Euclid, Heraclitus, and Diogenes, each representing different schools of thought and intellectual traditions. The two central figures in the fresco are Plato, positioned on the left, and Aristotle, his student, positioned on the right. Both philosophers are depicted holding copies of their seminal works: Plato the Timaeus, and Aristotle the Nichomachean Ethics. In a symbolic gesture, Plato points upward, while Aristotle gestures downward. It is commonly thought that the positions of their hands symbolise the central disparities in their thought: Plato's focus on the metaphysical realm against Aristotle's focus on the physical world.
Classical culture and civilisation constituted one of the primary driving forces of the Italian Renaissance, and Raphael's School of Athens encapsulates this idea, serving as a vivid embodiment of humanism's emphasis on classical learning and the desire to connect antiquity to present culture.
As the Roman historian Livy recounts, in the early days of Rome, shortly after its founding around the mid-8th century BC, a group of Sabine women was abducted. When Rome was initially established, its population consisted mainly of Latins and Italic peoples, mostly men. Romulus, the first king of Rome, became concerned about ensuring the city's future growth. On the advice of the Senate, the Romans set out to neighbouring cities in search of potential wives. However, negotiations with other governments, including the Sabines, proved unsuccessful. Consequently, the Romans devised a plan to abduct the Sabine women during the festival of Neptune Equester. During the event, Romulus signalled his men, and the Romans seized the Sabine women.
Nicholas Poussin's painting The Abduction of the Sabine Women, completed around 1633–1634, captures the moment Romulus raises his cloak as a signal, and the warriors capture the women. Poussin's work is not the only painting about this event; in fact, the tale has been a recurring subject for painters and sculptors, especially from the Renaissance onwards.
Claude Lorrain's The Trojan Women Set Fire to Their Fleet, from 1643, depicts a well-known event in Virgil's Aeneid. Exhausted by years spent travelling at sea after the fall of Troy, the exiled Trojan women, prompted by the Greek goddess and saboteur Juno, deliberately set fire to the Trojan fleet, in order to prevent the men from embarking on further journeys and force them to settle in Sicily. The distant clouds and rain in the background of the painting foreshadow the storm that will eventually quench the flames, a storm sent by Jupiter at the request of Aeneas.
See also: William Turner: In the Heart of Light
This painting was commissioned by Cardinal Girolamo Farnese, a prelate who returned to Rome in 1643 after years of service abroad combating Protestantism on the Pope's behalf.
Jacques-Louis David's Oath of the Horatii, completed in 1785, stands as one of the most iconic examples of Neoclassicism. The painting depicts a scene from a Roman legend, chronicled by Livy, recounting the wars between Rome and Alba Longa in 669 BC. Rather than a large-scale battle between the two cities' armies, an agreement is reached: three men from each city will engage in combat. Rome selects three brothers from the Horatii family, while Alba Longa chooses three brothers from the Curiatii family.
In the painting, the three Horatii brothers, who have willingly chosen to sacrifice their lives for the greater good of Rome, stretch their hands toward their father as he presents them with swords. In the combat, only one of the brothers would emerge as the sole survivor, having defeated all the Curiatii brothers. The painting also portrays the Horatii sisters, on the right, visibly distraught. Notably, one of the sisters, Camilla, is betrothed to one of the Curiatii fighters. After the combat, her brother, upon witnessing Camilla grieving for the fallen enemy, proceeds to kill her as well.
Oedipus and the Sphinx, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, captures the dramatic encounter between Oedipus, the mythical Greek king of Thebes, and the Sphinx, recounted in a scene in Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex. In the tragedy, Oedipus fulfils a prophecy that he will end up accidentally killing his father and unknowingly marrying his mother, thereby bringing destruction upon his city and family. Along his journey, Oedipus encounters the Sphinx, a malevolent creature that torments the city by posing a riddle to passersby and devouring those who cannot solve it. The riddle goes: “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?”. Oedipus, the first to successfully solve the riddle, answers that it is man: "As an infant, he crawls on all fours; as an adult, he walks on two legs, and in old age, he uses a ‘walking’ stick.”
Ingres began painting this in 1806 in Rome while working in Villa dei Medici, but he did not complete it for several years. In 1825, he revisited the work, modifying the Sphinx's pose and adding the human remains on the lower left corner. He exhibited the finished work at the Salon in 1827.