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Why Do Artists Use Greco-Roman Ideals in Their Works of Art? Essay

The term “history repeats itself” usually implys a negative connotation, but that was not the case in European art during the Italian Renaissance and the French Revolution. These were times when Italy and France were attempting to reinvent themselves after numerous centuries of stagnant oppression. During the Renaissance, Italians strived to surpass the intellect of the Greek, while in the French Revolution, Revolutionaries revered and borrowed from the Roman’s strength and unity. Jacques-Louis David and Raffaello Sanzio, better known as Raphael, are prime examples of painters whose art was heavily influenced by Greco-Roman culture and society. This is most evident in Raphael’s The School of Athens(figure 1) and David’s The Oath of the Horatii(figure 2). Artists portrayed Greco-Roman ideals in their works of art to inspire the citizens of their time to be more like the Greeks and Romans in their paintings.

Raphael was an Italian exemplary artist during the High Renaissance of Europe. The High Renaissance was an era, beginning in Italy in the late 15th century until about 1527, that was the reintroduction of classical thought, art, literature and architecture to Medieval Italy. One key purpose of the Renaissance was to study Greek culture and it apply its philosophy to the theories of the time. In this fresco The School of Athens(figure 1) Raphael depicts a Roman architecture influenced hall containing the greatest thinkers of ancient Greece. In the hall the intellectuals are discussing “explaining their various theories and ideas” (Gardner 653). These thinkers include both philosophers, who are men who “concerned with the ultimate mysteries that transcend the this world”, and scientists who are “concerned with nature and human affairs”(Gardner 653-654). The hall holds philosophers of

every sort conversing their various beliefs. Raphael was attempting to inspire those who visited the public Stanza Della Signatura into studying the theories of these momentous men(and woman). The Greeks valued the quest
for knowledge and to answer all the the world’s questions, to even answer one was the ideal(Gardner 652). Attempting to reflect this in his art, Raphael created all the philosophers of Greece there simultaneously, even though they existed at different times. The artist, Raphael, did this to tell the viewer that all the knowledge of these geniuses was at there disposal as if they present ; through copies of their written works and records(some of which were in the library). Raphael used Greco- Roman ideals in his art to inspire the viewer to be more like those esteemed in his paintings.

Jacques-Louis David was a French Pro-Revolutionary propagandist during the late eighteenth century. He used the Greco-Roman virtue of loyalty to inspire civil and political devotion for the concurrent French Revolution. This is evident in his painting Oath of the Horatii(figure 2) which depicts three brothers promising to battle and “win or die for Rome” (Gardner 852). Their oath reflects the Greco-Roman virtue of “loyalty to commander and patria” (Kendrick). The Horatius brothers are paragons of steadfast loyalty because of their decision to place their country befpre their family and themselves. In David’s painting, three arches in the background divide the scene into sections (Zucker). The brothers stand on the very left, while the women are sitting on the far right. Near enough to be seen by the warrior, the women are forgotten as the men only look at their three swords held by their father. The swords are being held directly in the center of the painting , and therefore separating the wives from their husbands, representing Rome Itself (Chapman). The men ignore the lamenting women and the father, who is not going to fight, ignores the pain in his left hand as he holds the seemingly sharp blades. Rome is more important than these “trivial” grievances for what they believed was more important. David wanted the viewers of this painting to also see their country, France, as the most crucial thing in their lives. The sunlight in the painting, shining on them , illuminates the muscles in

their arms and legs as the brothers stand up vigorously and rigidly; clad in their armor, they are eager to fight. This emphasizes their masculinity and portrays them as powerful heroes (Zucker).Although this painting was
exhibited in 1785, four years prior to French Revolution, it already began to inspire allegiance to the imminent revolt, (Zucker). The commoners who came to view the painting grew stronger in their convictions and loyalty to the Revolution because it had kindled “patriotic zeal” (Gardner 852). This was David’s goal he successfully achieved, to inspire the French bourgeoisie and peasants to rise to action and support their country in its time of crisis and inevitable change.

Artists used Greco-Roman ideals in the art because indubitably the Greek and Roman civilizations flourished for certain reasons. They had many attributes that made them extremely prosperous and these two artists, Raphael and David, chose to portray some of those aspects in their artwork in order for the people viewing it would be influenced to follow in their metaphorical footsteps; to excite the viewer to action. The artists wanted to emanate the virtues they saw in Greco-Roman civilization and make them a apart of the respected socieies they were attempting to modify. The art was put into/made in places, in which the artists were certain they would be seen by the people. In both the library of Pope Julius II in the Vatican City and the Louvre in France, the artworks were allowed to be viewed by the public. Meaning that anyone could see these works, from Popes to peasants. They were their to enact change and to, overall, make people more classical, because that is what they needed at the time.


Raphael. The School of Athens.(figure 1): c. 1509. fresco. Stanza della Signatura, Palazzi Pontifici Vatican, 500 cm x 700 cm (200” x 300”)

Jacques Louis David. Oath of the Horatii ?(Figure 2). Rome, Italy. 1784. Oil on Canvas. 10′ 10″ x 13′ 11″”.?

Works Cited

Chapman, Hugo. Raphael: From Urbino to Rome. London: National Gallery
Company Ltd., 2004. Print. Gardner, Helen. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. 11th ed. Orland, Florida: Harcourt Inc., 2001. Print Stokstad. Marilyn. Arthistory 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey; Pearson Education Inc., 2003. print “Jacques-Louis David: The Oath of the Horatii.” Bc.edu. Boston, Massachusetts: Boston College, n.d.

Web. 2 May 2012.

Kendrick, M. Gregory. The Heroic Ideal: Western Archetypes from the Greeks to the Present. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010. Print.

Zucker, Steven, and Beth Harris. “David’s Oath of the Horatii.” Smarthistory.khanacademy.org. Khanacademy.org, n.d. Web. 6 May 2012.

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