Classical Antiquity

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Classical Antiquity

Scholars and artists of the Renaissance were fascinated by the great cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. They believed that studying the achievements of the past was the key to creating a glorious future. They pored over ancient texts and sifted through ruins to unearth objects such as monuments, coins, and statues. Growing awareness of this era known as classical antiquity influenced Renaissance architecture, art, and city planning. It also transformed the study of history and formed the basis of the cultural movement called humanism*.


The study of ancient cultures began in Italy, particularly in Rome, where citizens lived among the crumbling remains of a long-dead civilization. Scholars of the ancient world, known as antiquarians, searched these ruins for clues to life in lost civilizations. Meanwhile, historians in Britain and other parts of Europe worked to uncover their own countries' distant past.

Greece and Rome. At the beginning of the Renaissance, the ruins of ancient theaters, temples, columns, and arches dotted the landscape of Italy and other Mediterranean regions. However, maps and city guides from the Middle Ages reveal that citizens no longer understood the significance of these ancient monuments. Even in Rome, the ruins had become little more than landmarks in a Christian city. Although residents knew the names of such grand structures as the Pantheon and the Colosseum, they often knew little of their original functions. Nor did the Romans of 1400 have any idea of the full size and spread of the ancient city.

The works of scholars and historians of ancient Greece and Rome suffered much the same fate. The writings had survived, but no one truly understood their meaning. Knowledge of the great poets of the classical* world was even murkier. Medieval* legends had mislabeled the Roman poet Virgil as either a sorcerer or a prophet of Christianity. The Greek poet Homer had become little more than a name, his epics* unread. The dust and debris of centuries lay not only on the ancient cities but on nearly all that their cultures had produced.

Renaissance scholars devoted themselves to finding, unearthing, and collecting relics of the distant past. The ancient world lay closest to the surface in Rome. Residents of the city turned up many long-buried marvels simply by digging in their suburban vineyards or excavating the foundations for new buildings. An immense statue discovered in 1506, for example, proved to be a piece of art mentioned in the works of the ancient Roman writer Pliny.

From these fragments, scholars tried to piece together the societies that had created them. As antiquarians learned more about the values and practices of the ancient world, they began to adopt them as part of their own culture. For example, Renaissance architects such as Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti examined, measured, and sketched the spectacular ruins of ancient buildings, seeking to understand how they had been built and used. They then adapted these classical forms in the designs of their own buildings, linking their own world with the great cultures of the past.

At first, students of the ancient world focused on gathering as many relics and texts as possible. During the 1400s, however, historians developed a concern for the quality of evidence. They began comparing sources, trying to determine which were original and which drew on older works. They also developed standards for judging the value and authenticity of material. This newfound concern with the usefulness of sources formed the basis of the modern approach to history.

Ancient Britain. While scholars in Italy sought to uncover the ancient glories of Rome, researchers in England were busy delving into their own country's past. They pursued knowledge both for its own sake and to serve practical goals. Henry VIII hired the antiquarian John Leland to examine English relics for evidence that would support the king's claims to be the legitimate head of the English church.

An entire field of English antiquarianism focused on King Arthur and other legendary monarchs. Geoffrey of Monmouth had chronicled the reigns of several such rulers in the 1100s in History of the Kings of Britain. Throughout the 1500s scholars and poets debated the accuracy of Geoffrey's history. English patriots saw Geoffrey's accounts of King Arthur and the Round Table as proof of an ancient British history as glorious as that of Rome. Legal historians used them to support their view that English law was even older than Roman law. In the 1600s, however, a younger generation of antiquarians began disproving this legal myth, showing that English law had its origins in European feudal* law.

Some English antiquarians focused on specific regions of Britain. Richard Carew, for example, published a Survey of Cornwall in the 1580s. Others turned their attention to genealogy*, church history, and heraldry*. Explorers of the past shared their findings through groups such as the Society of Antiquaries, formed around 1586 in London. Its leading figure, William Camden, published a detailed survey of British geography and history in Latin. Another member, Robert Cotton, assembled a mass of books and manuscripts dealing with ancient Britain. This assortment later became the core collection of the modern British Library.


Many Renaissance artists portrayed the ancient world in their paintings and sculptures. However, they viewed antiquity through the lens of Christianity and often blended images of antiquity with Christian themes. Artists gathered ideas about the ancient world from their Bibles as well as from the writings of classical authors. Italian artists could also seek inspiration in the ruins that surrounded them and in other relics of the ancient world.

Renaissance artists often portrayed the Virgin Mary, Christ, and other Christian figures wearing Roman clothing, set among crumbling Roman ruins. This choice not only indicated that Christ had appeared on earth in Roman times but also suggested Christianity's triumph over pagan* Rome. Creating backgrounds for these paintings presented a challenge for artists, as no European landscape resembled the ancient Near East where Christianity had been born. When Sandro Botticelli painted Scenes from the Life of Moses on the walls on Rome's Sistine Chapel in the 1480s, he used the lush countryside of north-central Italy to represent Egypt.

Greek culture played a significant role in the ideas of Renaissance artists and thinkers. This role increased in the mid-1400s, when the fall of Constantinople drove many Greek scholars to Italy. Renaissance artists and scholars tended to view Greek art in terms of the Byzantine Empire* rather than that of ancient Greece. Raphael was one of the first artists to seek out drawings of ancient Greek monuments, according to Renaissance historian Giorgio Vasari, in an effort to gain a sense of their special qualities.

Scenes of ancient Egypt posed a particular problem for Renaissance artists. Controlled at the time by Turks, Egypt was almost impossible for Europeans to visit. They could gain glimpses of Egyptian antiquity from artifacts such as sphinxes and obelisks (pillars inscribed with Egyptian letters) collected by ancient Romans. But many Renaissance images of ancient Egypt—including the frescoes* of Egyptian gods painted for Pope Alexander vi—drew almost entirely on imagination.

Some ambitious Renaissance artists did more than use classical antiquity as a background for their own creations. They tried to re-create long-lost works of art from descriptions left by ancient authors. For example, the painting Venus Rising from the Sea was Titian's version of a painting by the ancient artist Apelles.

Antiquity supplied the subject matter for history painting, one of the most highly regarded types of Renaissance art. Artists used their knowledge of the ancient world to make their works more realistic. In The Triumph of Caesar, artist Andrea Mantegna drew on his careful studies of ancient Roman carvings, especially those on the Roman monument known as Trajan's Column. Paintings in the Vatican, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, also repeat designs from Trajan's Column and other Roman relics. Through such works, artists transformed the Roman Empire into a backdrop for the Christian story, creating a link between their own time and the classical world.

(See alsoArchitecture; Art; Chivalry; Classical Scholarship; Greek Émigrés; Heraldry; History, Writing of; Humanism. )

* humanism

Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* epic

long poem about the adventures of a hero

* feudal

referring to an economic and political system in which individuals gave services to a lord in return for protection and use of the land

* genealogy

study of family origins and relationships

* heraldry

design and use of coats of arms for military purposes and as family symbols

* pagan

referring to ancient religions that worshiped many gods, or more generally, to any non-Christian religion

* Byzantine Empire

Eastern Christian Empire based in Constantinople (a.d. 476–1453)

Links to Rome

Renaissance historians developed a great interest in the origins of cities. They traced the beginnings of many European cities back to ancient Rome, placing local histories within the grand framework of the Roman Empire. They carefully studied local ruins, seeking hints of Roman influence. The people of Florence proudly pointed to the baptistery of their cathedral as a Roman monument—though later scholars showed that this claim had no basis in fact.

* fresco

mural painted on a plaster wall

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Classical Antiquity

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