Popular Science Monthly/Volume 78/June 1911/What Masterpieces of Greek Sculpture Were Known to the Men of the Renaissance?

Popular Science Monthly Volume 78 June 1911  (1911) 
What Masterpieces of Greek Sculpture Were Known to the Men of the Renaissance? by Edward Singleton Holden




SOME popular writers on the Renaissance give, and seek to give, the impression that the sculpture known to the Renaissance was pure, high Greek, and that these masterpieces set all Italy astir. Scholars know better, but most of us are not scholars.

All my life I have been bullied by statements of the sort, and at last the worm has turned and has consulted the scholars, as it should have done long ago. The following paragraphs will seem of very slight importance to the few students who know, but they may have some interest to others. If I—no scholar—knew where the data which I have here tabulated could be found collected, such paragraphs might well be quoted. But I do not know, and many others are probably as ignorant as I. It is for them and myself that I am writing, making every apology to the real scholars; and in partial excuse, asking them why I have not been able to find such tables as I here give in some handbook or manual.

Here follow a few quotations from writers on the fine arts of the Renaissance. All of them give the scholar's point of view. For brevity, I have sometimes ventured to summarize them.

Whatever may be the facts of to-day, the eye of Europe in the middle ages was not accustomed to Greco-Roman forms in art. In Spain, France, Germany or Britain, the Roman ruins were even then so rare... that any knowledge of them... was out of question. In Italy, Roman ruins were no rarity, and in Rome they were abundant, but the idea of copying them never suggested itself to an Italian of the middle age. That antiquarian and historic interest in relics of the past, which is so natural to us, is an interest which dates from the Renaissance. To the middle age the ruin was a quarry; nothing more.[1]

How the interest in the literature of the ancients brought about a revival in the arts—architecture, painting, sculpture—need not be recited here. The story has been told a thousand times. One point may be emphasized, perhaps. The share of science in the revival has not been sufficiently recognized by most writers on the period. The name of Copernicus, for instance, is not mentioned in the index of any standard work that I have seen excepting by Symonds.[2] Yet Copernicus came to Rome to study astronomy with a company of Roman doctors; the schools of Italy were then alive with inquiry. When he published his monumental book in 1543 he found a host of readers prepared to comprehend his theory of the world.

The interest in ancient art had its foundations in literature and archeology. Biondo's treatise on the monuments of ancient Italy was written before 1463. In 1462 Pius II. issued a bull protecting the remains of ancient Rome from further depredations. The Museum of the Vatican was founded by Julius II. (1503-13).

The appreciation of classical sculpture was quickened by the recovery of many ancient works. Many? Not many of high class. The Apollo Belvedere was set up by Pope Julius.

Michel Angelo saw the Laocoön disinterred from the ruined Baths of Titus. Leo X. (1513-21) acquired the reclining statues of the Nile and the Tiber, and the so-called Antinoüs. These and other specimens of classical art, though not representative of that art at its best, helped to educate Italian taste, already well disposed towards every form of classical culture. The Latin verse-writers of Leo 's age show the impression made by the newly found works of sculpture

It is more interesting to note the remark of an expert, the Florentine sculptor Ghiberti, who, in speaking of an ancient statue which he had seen at Rome, observes that its subtle perfection eludes the eye, and can be fully appreciated only by passing the hand over the surface of the marble.[3]

Ghiberti (died 1455?) made a collection of antique marbles, which was inherited by his grandson, and on the death of the latter «old and dispersed.[4]

Donatello (died 1466?) and Brunelleschi were known as "treasureseekers "and they exhumed many fragments of cornices, capitals and bas-reliefs, coins and the like. Of these Donatello made drawings and studies, while Brunelleschi journeyed from Florence to Cortona to see a sarcophagus in the Duomo, of which Donatello had given him a glowing description.[5]

Michelangelo's introduction to Lorenzo de' Medici came about through a copy which the lad had made from the antique (the head of a Faun, now in the Uffizi) about 1489, and for three happy years Michelangelo lived and studied in the studio-garden among the examples of ancient statuary which the duke had brought together.

The one antique fragment which seems to have roused his enthusiasm. . . was the Belvedere Torso. The Laocoön does not seem to have greatly moved him.[6]

Athens was in the possession of Italians from 1387 until it was captured by the Turks in 1458, and during that interval a few scholars visited the city. After 1450 all is darkness until 1674, when the Frenchman Jacques Carrey made his drawings of the Parthenon.

Its sculptures could hardly have been known to the men of the Renaissance. A few of the greatest statues were known to Michelangelo—the Torso of the Belvedere especially, and he declared himself its pupil. This figure was one of the chief promoters of the Renaissance in sculpture.[7]

The especial reverence for classical antiquity, which in former times so exclusively prevailed, invested every fragment of ancient sculpture, even the most trivial, with a sentimental importance. . . . The antique had comparatively little to do with the truly great Italian school of sculpture of the fifteenth century. . . . External nature, religious feeling, human character and expression, these were alike the school, and in a far greater measure than the antique, the inspiring motives, of (Ghiberti, della Querela, Donatello, Luca della Robbia, Verocchio and a long list of splendid names).[8]

Winckelmann's "History of Ancient Art" appeared in 1764, after long years of preparation. Pater says:

It is since his time that many of the most significant examples of Greek art have been submitted to criticism. He had seen little or nothing of what we ascribe to the age of Pheidias; and his conception of Greek art tends, therefore, to put the mere elegance of the imperial society of ancient Rome in place of the severe and chastened grace of the palæstra. For the most part he had to penetrate to Greek art through copies, imitations, and later Roman art itself . . . a turbid medium.[9]

The foregoing extracts give the true doctrine. Roman art, not Greek, furnished the inspiration of the Renaissance sculptor, speaking generally. The tables that immediately follow furnish a striking proof.

Dates at which Seventy-six of the most Celebrated Statues were Found—Unearthed

A selection was made of seventy-six of the most famous statues of Greece, and from Mr. Edward Robinson's scholarly catalogue of the casts of the Boston Museum the dates at which these statues became known to the world were set down. The little table follows:

Fifteenth Century and Earlier
Statue Now in Unearthed in
Apollo Belvedere Rome fifteenth century?
Boy with thorn Rome before 1471
Venus—Medicean Florence (?) (Müntz)
Sixteenth Century
Aphrodite (Knidian) Rome before 1700
"Dying Gladiator " Rome sixteenth century
Fighting Persian Rome 1514
Laocoön Rome 1506
Belvedere Torso Rome sixteenth century
Idolino Florence 1530
Sleeping Ariadne Rome sixteenth century
Artemis—Versailles Louvre sixteenth century
"Germanicus" Louvre sixteenth century?
Arringatore Florence sixteenth century?
Wrestlers Florence 1583
Hermes Belvedere Rome about 1542
Silenos and Dionysos Louvre sixteenth century
Niobe Florence 1583
llioneus Munich 1556-63
Niobid Rome sixteenth century
Seventeenth Century
Fighter of Agasias Louvre 1605-21
Venus Genetrix Louvre about 1650
Faun—Barberini Munich 1623-44
Ares resting Rome before 1633
Venus of Aries Louvre 1651
Eighteenth Century
Discobolus of Myron Rome 1791?
Pericles (?)—bust Museum 1781
Spear-bearer of Polykleitus Naples 1797
Faun—Capitol Rome 1701
Mercury resting Naples 1758
Antinotis Rome eighteenth century
Venus—Capitol Rome 1752
Venus—Capua Naples 1756
Venus—crouching Rome 1760
Aktaion—attacked British Museum 1774
Apollo with the lizard Rome 1777
Zeus—Otricoli Rome end of century
Apollo with the lyre Rome 1774
Clio Rome 1774
Thalia Rome 1774
Standing Discobolus Rome 1792
Discobolus British Museum 1791
Nineteenth Century
Harpy Tomb British Museum 1838
Ludovisi Throne Rome 1886
Herakles shooting Munich 1811
Herakles and the apples of the Hesperides Olympia 1876
Charioteer Delphi 1896
Eleusinian Deities Athens 1859
Amazon Berlin 1868
Monument of Dexileos Athens 1863
Hermes of Praxiteles Olympia 1877
Hermes of Andros Athens 1833
Charioteer (Mausoleum) British Museum 1857
Mausolus British Museum 1857
Demeter (Knidus) British Museum 1858
Column-Drum (Ephesus) British Museum 1871
Hypnos British Museum 1855
Apoxyomenos Rome 1849
Sophocres Rome about 1839
Winged Victory Louvre 1863
Eubuleus (?) Athens 1885
Venus of Melos Louvre 1820
Battle of the gods and giants (Pergamon) Berlin 1879-80
Diadumenos (Delos) Athens 1894
"Athena thinking" Athens 1888
Dancing Faun Naples 1830
Warrior (Delos) Athens 1882
Silenos Athens 1862
Boxer resting Rome 1885
Augustus Cæsar Rome 1863
Young Apollo Berlin about 1880
Young Dionysos Rome 1881
Nereids British Museum 1838
Nike of Paionios Olympia 1875
Apollo and the Omphalos Athens 1862
Marsyas (after Myron) Rome 1823
Venus — Esquilene Rome 1874

It appears that of the seventy-six most famous monuments there were found:

In the fifteenth century or earlier 3 statues
In the sixteenth century 16 statues
In the seventeenth century 5 statues
In the eighteenth century 17 statues
In the nineteenth century 35 statues
Total 76 statues

The statistics of a list of all statues would not Serve our purpose as well as this enumeration, which relates only to the most celebrated works. The men of the Renaissance knew barely a score of the great statues. Roman copies of Greek originals were known to them, and a few of the great originals themselves. But how few they were

  1. Goodyear, "Renaissance in Modern Art," p. 49.
  2. See "The Renaissance of Science," The Popular Science Monthly, November, 1903.
  3. Sir Richard Jebb in "Camb. Mod. Hist.," Vol. I.
  4. Perkins, "Tuscan Sculptors," I., p. 136,
  5. Ibid., p. 139.
  6. Ibid., Vol. II., p. 7.
  7. Robinson, Boston Museum Catalogue, p. 324.
  8. "Italian Sculpture of the Middle Ages," introduction by J. C. Robinson, superintendent of the art collections of the South Kensington Museum, London (1862).
  9. W. Pater, "Renaissance," p. 205.