Ancient World

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ANCIENT WORLD. During the Renaissance, many Europeans were intensely fascinated with the ancient world, that is, the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome. This fascination is quite understandable. The physical remains of these civilizationsamphitheaters, theaters, triumphal columns and arches, as well as the ruins of many other structures that had been visible since the fall of the Roman Empiredotted the entire Mediterranean landscape. An awareness of these civilizations, of course, had persisted throughout the Middle Ages because of these physical remains, popular memory, and the surviving writings of the ancient authors. It was not until the Renaissance, however, that the ancient world was studied with renewed vigor. Spearheaded primarily by humanists, artists, and antiquarians, a broad cultural movement emerged that came to regard the ancient world as the peak of civilization and the medieval world as barbarous. It was these groups that sought to restore much of the splendor of the ancient world.

In the Middle Ages, the ancient world was appreciated mainly because it had provided the stage for the birth of Christ and the early development and spread of Christianity. Much of the ancient world remained a mystery, and the glory of ancient Rome was all but forgotten. The famous Forum in Rome, the economic and political hub of the ancient city, had been reduced to a cow pasture. Some of Rome's grandest buildings had been confused and misidentified in medieval imaginations. The fate of the surviving writings of the ancient authors was little different. Many texts were lost or incomplete. The relationship between the buildings and monuments mentioned in these writings and their ruins was largely a mystery. Moreover, since there was virtually no knowledge of Greek, most of the Greek authors, both pagan and Christian, were unknown, including Homer, the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The renewed interest in the ancient world originated in the Italian peninsula during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Italy was the first region in Europe to recover economically and culturally from the devastation wrought by the disintegration of the Roman Empire in the fifth century c.e. Humanists, artists, and architects began to look back upon the ancient world for inspiration in order to give expression to the pride of the thriving and burgeoning Italian city-states and principalities. Civic pride fueled the race to link the individual regions with the glory of the ancient world, both Christian and pagan. In the Middle Ages, the cities were proud of their saints and of the bones and relics in their churches. In the Renaissance, the Italian cities began again to remember their ancient pagan citizens and inhabitants. Naples, perhaps, had never forgotten its tomb of Virgil (7019 b.c.e.), since a kind of mythical halo had become attached to the name. When in 1274 the skeleton of a warrior inside a lead coffin was brought to light during excavations in Padua, the remains were thought to be those of Antenor, the Trojan soldier believed to have been the mythical founder of the city, as attested by Virgil in the Aeneid (1.242249). The Paduans claimed to have the remains not only of Antenor but also of the historian Livy. Como claimed both the Plinys for its own, and at the end of the fifteenth century erected statues in their honor upon the facade of the cathedral. In this way the evolving social and political history of the various Italian city-states became anchored within the grand framework of the ongoing mystique of the Roman Empire.

Renaissance humanists played a significant role in the attempt to recover, restore, and revive the culture of classical antiquity. Their most significant contribution was in the field of classical scholarship, that is, the intensive study of the literary and material remains of Greek and Roman civilization. Some of the major scholars in this field were Petrarch, Poggio Bracciolini, Coluccio Salutati, Nicholas of Cusa, and Desiderius Erasmus. Lost works of Latin literature, including Cicero's speeches and letters to Atticus, Quintilian's treatise on rhetoric, twelve new play by Plautus, and the works of the Roman historian Tacitus, were discovered in monasteries throughout Europe. Unfortunately many of the texts that had survived were filled with scribal errors. The humanists produced critical editions of these texts by comparing the readings found in different manuscripts or by making educated guesses as to what the original text must have been. With the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century, these texts could be made available to a much wider audience than beforea far cry from the time-consuming process of copying out a manuscript by hand, as practiced throughout the Middle Ages. By the middle of the sixteenth century, most of the surviving literature of classical Greece and Rome, both pagan and Christian, was available in a variety of printed editions at prices, moreover, that most scholars could afford. By means of these texts, the humanists gained a fuller understanding of the classical world and could identify many of the ruins and their abbreviated inscriptions. Classical authors continued to exert an influence on the chief literary figures of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, who peppered their works with numerous allusions to classical literature. Many of the important genres of history, drama, biography, the essay, and the novel bear a classical imprint.

The ancient world also inspired artists and architects. Artists drew their inspiration from the Bible, from the literary works of ancient Greek and Roman authors, from the landscape, and from the material remains of the ancient world. Unlike painting, of which few classical examples had survived, many types of sculpture and architecture filled the Mediterranean world. As in literature, lost works of art and sculpture were discovered, such as the famous Laocoön found in Rome in 1506. Sculptors and architects did more than just imitate classical models; they produced a new architectural style to serve the needs of Renaissance society. Renaissance art, sculpture, and architecture served multiple purposes: it provided a public expression of civic pride, it was instructive since it often depicted biblical or classical scenes, and it served to enhance the reputation of the patron.

The fascination with the ancient world declined with the discoveries of the New World and of the scientific revolution. After all, the Roman Empire was relatively small compared with the global empires of the Spanish, French, and English. Furthermore, in terms of science and technology, Europeans had surpassed the ancients. Nevertheless, the presence of the ancient world continued to shape the imaginations of Europeans.

See also Archaeology ; City-State ; Erasmus, Desiderius ; Humanists and Humanism ; Italy ; Renaissance ; Rome, Architecture in ; Rome, Art in.


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Milton Kooistra