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CLASSICISM. In general, classicism can be defined as a style in literature, visual art, music, or architecture that draws on the styles of ancient Greece and Rome, especially fifth- and fourth-century b.c.e. Athens and late Republican Augustan Rome. The term can be confusing, because it has taken on many other meanings. It can refer to a general aesthetic characterized by clarity, elegance, and symmetry, or to a style that is generally thought of as exemplifying greatness or perfection. For instance, most people would identify the Boston Pops as performers of "classical music" or John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath as a "classic" of American literature, even though they have little to do with antiquity. Variations on the term, like neoclassicism, can furthermore refer to a specific school or style in a particular time period. Despite this confusion, the term is still useful in describing particular styles and impulses in literature and the arts from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century.

The Middle Ages experienced two noteworthy revivals of the literature of antiquity that were inspired by and helped to promote classicism. The first is known as the Carolingian Renaissance, so called to recognize the flowering of learning under the reign of Charlemagne (ruled 768814). The most famous figure of this period was the monk Alcuin (c. 732804), who amassed a remarkable manuscript collection of classical works in the library of York. At the invitation of the emperor Alcuin developed an educational curriculum at the Palace School in Aachen that included readings of classical authors. He also developed the Carolingian miniscule, a clear script based on classical principles, and promoted the copying and distribution of classical texts. The achievements of the Carolingian age set the stage for the next classical revival, known as the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century, a term coined by Charles Homer Haskins (18701937) to describe the flowering of classical learning during this period. It was more far-reaching than the earlier revival and had implications beyond the field of literature, most importantly in architecture, the visual arts, and the revival of Roman law.

From the twelfth century on, classicism was the domain mainly of lawyers and churchmen, most notably in the papal curia (the circle of theologians and secretaries who carried on papal business), where learned men could come together to share their interests in classical letters and style. It was in this environment at Avignon that Petrarch (13041374), the father of Italian humanism, first learned about and promoted classical learning. But it was in Florence, particularly among the patrician class, that Petrarch's classicism was most strongly received, most notably through his friend and disciple Giovanni Boccaccio (13131375). Up to this point classicism had been mainly a literary pursuit that influenced the art of letter writing, poetry, and rhetoric. In the following generation, the Florentine chancellor Colucio Salutati (13311406) helped turn classicism from a literary movement into a powerful tool for shaping politics and society on the Italian peninsula. It was in the works of the humanist historian Leonardo Bruni (c. 13701444) that classicism laid the foundation for a republican ideology.

The study of ancient Greek was virtually unknown in western Europe from the fifth century c.e. onward. Greek had been a fundamental part of the Roman educational system; any educated Roman would have known it and been able to quote from its most famous authors and orators, such as Demosthenes, Aristophanes, or Lucian. As humanists in Petrarch's circle read more and more ancient authors they discovered that a full appreciation of their literature required a thorough background in the literature and culture of ancient Greece. Salutati invited the most celebrated Byzantine scholar of the times, Manuel Chrysoloras (c. 13531415), to teach in Florence. The revival of Greek learning was aided by growing contact between the Greek and Latin churches at the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 14381445 and also by the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, after which Greek émigrés fleeing the city took up residence in Italy and made a living by teaching Greek to Italian pupils. They also brought with them many Greek texts that had been virtually unknown and unread in western Europe since the fall of Rome. Cardinal Bessarion (14031472), a priest who converted from the Greek to the Latin church and was a tireless promoter of ancient Greek studies, bequeathed thousands of Greek manuscripts to the people of his adopted home of Venice, where they formed the nucleus of St. Mark's Library. The works of Plato were especially influential, and a circle of Neoplatonic scholars led by Marsilio Ficino (14331499) sought to fuse Christian thought with Platonic philosophy.

Classicism was also the foundation of the educational revolution of the Renaissance, which sought to revive the studia humanitatis, the educational system of ancient Rome as set out in the writings of classical authors like Cicero and Quintilian. The schoolmasters Gasparino da Barzizza (1360?1430) and Guarino da Verona (1370/13741460) attracted wealthy students to study ancient literature and culture in their schools, and along with Bruni they wrote educational treatises that outlined their pedagogical method. Their disciples carried on their teachingsboth in classrooms and in educational treatises and editions of classical worksand spread them throughout Italy and across the Alps into northern Europe. The introduction of printing in the latter part of the fifteenth century greatly propelled humanist learning, providing stable editions of classical texts to a far wider audience than could have been imagined in the earlier classical revivals of the Carolingian period or the twelfth century. The advent of printing is likely responsible for the permanent establishment of classicism as an integral part of Western civilization from the fourteenth century to the present day.

Classicism was embraced in many ways during the Renaissance in Italy, and it manifested itself in various pursuits. For example, Julius Pomponius Laetus (14281497) founded the Roman Academy, whose members took an active role in antiquarianism and the study of the ancient ruins of the city of Rome. They also embraced non-Christian ideas and revived ancient pagan ceremonies, which brought them under the scrutiny of church authorities. The collection and preservation of inscriptions, coins, and buildings by antiquarians were important in the historical reconstruction of the history of Rome, and these activities represented the early development of modern archaeology. Meanwhile, Lorenzo Valla (14071457) explored the linguistic aspects of ancient writers and gave the study of the Latin language a more scientific grounding. His most famous work, Elegances of the Latin Language (published 1471), was a practical style guide for writing and speaking the most elegant Latin, which he identified with the Latin of the "golden age" of Roman letters. By periodizing Latin style, Valla invented a philological method for the scientific study of texts that was further developed by Christian humanists like Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466?1536), who used it to challenge the authenticity of the Vulgate Bible. This philological method also laid the foundation for modern textual criticism.

While the classicism of the Renaissance started as a literary pursuit, its most striking and accessible flourishing occurred in the visual arts and architecture at the beginning of the fifteenth century. The sculptor Filippo Brunelleschi (13771446) turned his talents to architecture and designed (or redesigned) many churches and palaces in a style that reflected his study of ancient buildings. He was particularly interested in the mathematical proportions behind the design of ancient Roman buildings and in developing engineering processes to build them. His slightly younger contemporary Donatello (c. 13861466) used the same principles to create statues that imitated the style of classical sculpture. Along with the painter Masaccio (14011428), who included classical elements in the content of his paintings and used newly developed techniques of perspective, these visual artists reflected what is known as the early Renaissance style. Its techniques were recorded and explained in treatises written in the vernacular by Leon Battista Alberti (14041472), who made the principles of perspective drawing and painting accessible to a wide variety of artists who wanted to learn this fashionable approach. The new style of art was funded by wealthy patrons, including businessmen, aristocrats, and the popes. Classical styles and themes continued to dominate the period of the High Renaissance in the work of the early-sixteenth-century masters Leonardo da Vinci (14521519), Michelangelo Buonarroti (14751564), and Raphael Sanzio (14831520).

If Italians played the lead role in the revival of antiquity in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, in the sixteenth century that role was assumed by northern Europe, where classicism particularly flourished among scholars in France, Germany, Switzerland, and England. While classicism had played a small role in medieval universities like Oxford and Paris, its influence had not been widespread. With the new availability of relatively inexpensive printed books and Italian-trained native teachers, however, the study of classical literature became more accessible, and by the middle of the century it was the norm in most educational curricula.

The study of theology in the sixteenth century was completely overhauled as humanist scholars like Erasmus insisted that a thorough grounding in the three biblical languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Latin) was necessary to understand the Bible. Scholasticism, the prevailing school of theology that had its origins in the twelfth-century Paris schools, did not have any particular animosity toward classicism; indeed, a number of Scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages, such as Jean de Gerson (13631429), displayed interest in the classics. But Scholastic theologians did object strongly to the application of the philological method to the text of the Bible and to language study as the foundation of theological training. Humanists like Erasmus and Protestant reformers like Philipp Melanchthon (14971560), himself a scholar of ancient Greek, argued that the theologians were hostile to their biblical studies because they disliked and were ignorant of classical literature, thus turning a debate over authority in theology into a debate over classical learning. By mid-century, classical literature was the foundation of the educational program both in Catholic countries, where the Jesuit order promoted classical learning, and in Protestant countries.

Another controversy that arose among classical scholars themselves was over the status and influence of the Roman orator Cicero. Most prominent in Rome, the Ciceronian faction promoted Cicero as the highest standard of Latin usage, and some, like the papal secretary Pietro Bembo (14701547), vowed never to use a word that did not appear in Cicero's writings. Erasmus wrote a famous dialogue mocking what he saw as the Ciceronians' slavish following of Cicero, and he argued for a broader-based standard for Latin usage. This debate continued into the seventeenth century as some scholars sought to dethrone Cicero. At the end of the sixteenth century the Dutch humanist and scholar Justus Lipsius (15471606) promoted the revival of the Stoic philosophy. Strongly influenced by the Roman philosopher Seneca, Lipsius promoted Stoicism as an alternative to Neoplatonism, which had been so influential in the earlier part of the century. A little later in France, the astronomer and mathematician Pierre Gassendi (15921655) championed the revival of Epicureanism, a more materialist ancient philosophy that was more in tune with the rationalism that was gaining ground at the time.

The dramatic growth of vernacular literature in the sixteenth century hastened the abandonment of classical form in literature, though many of its stylistic attributes were adopted as conventions of vernacular style and content. This is visible in works of the group of sixteenth-century French poets known as La Pléïade, and it continues right through to the plays of William Shakespeare (15641616) at the beginning of the seventeenth century. In art classical themes and motifs remained the norm throughout the sixteenth century, but they were challenged late in the century by the emergence of baroque and rococo styles in art, architecture, and music. This movement away from classicism corresponded to a general shift away from the authority of the ancients and toward a greater emphasis on human reason and sense perception, as articulated most strongly in the Discours de la méthode (1637; Discourse on method) by René Descartes (15961650). In the arts this shift was reflected by a tendency to focus on human emotions and movement, while retaining the grandiose style and form more characteristic of Renaissance art. The Italian painter, sculptor, and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini (15981680) exemplifies the baroque style by infusing classical style with intense emotion, as in his Ecstasy of St. Theresa (16451652). Likewise baroque music, exemplified by the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach (16851750), retained the classical notion of music expressing the order of the universe but was at the same time lively and tuneful. "Neoclassical" is the name given to the style of art and architecture that prevailed from the middle of the eighteenth century through the nineteenth. In music, Franz Joseph Haydn (17321809) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (17561791) represent the tenets of classicism, emphasizing balance and proportion. But for Mozart, and even more so for Ludwig van Beethoven (17701827), classical elements were mixed with Romantic ones.

Classicism created a standard of civilization against which contemporary society could be judged, a standard that was prevalent in the early modern period. What began as an elitist literary hobby bloomed from the time of Petrarch and was applied to all facets of lifefrom education and politics to music, visual art, and architecture. The classical ideal was something to strive for, and in striving for it adherents developed new methods to attain the ideal. Along the way they made advances in mathematics, engineering, linguistics, and design that in turn led to advances in other areas. Moreover, classicism was extremely flexible. It could temper the ascetic desires of a Carmelite monk like Baptista Spagnoli (Mantuanus; 14471516), known in his own time as the Christian Virgil, just as easily as it could feed the vanity of an artist like Benvenuto Cellini (15001571), who in his autobiography boasted of his own talents. The same style of architecture that the Americans used for their new capital in Washington, D.C., in order to present their sense of achievement in gaining independence from the British, had previously been used as a symbol of the opulence of the French nobility and crown at Versailles, and it also enshrined the gods of reason in the Pantheon in Paris. Because the classical world contained a spectrum of thought and style, classicism offered an almost endless variety of models and ideas. Though it continued to be strong in some quarters in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, classicism never again became as widespread as it had been in the previous five centuries. To a great extent, the discoveries of modern science began to show just how much the ancients had not known, as had been foreshadowed by the European discovery of the "New World" and by Galileo's telescope. As a standard, at least, the ancients were eventually surpassed.

See also Academies, Learned ; Ancient World ; Ancients and Moderns ; Archaeology ; Architecture ; Aristotelianism ; Art: Art Theory, Criticism, and Historiography ; Baroque ; Bible ; Enlightenment ; Humanists and Humanism ; Music ; Neoclassicism ; Neoplatonism ; Reason ; Renaissance ; Republicanism ; Rococo ; Romanticism ; Stoicism ; Theology .


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Kristeller, Paul Oskar. Renaissance Thought: The Classic, Scholastic, and Humanist Strains. New York, 1961.

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Weiss, Roberto. The Renaissance Discovery of Classical Antiquity. 2nd ed. Oxford and New York, 1988.

Mark Crane

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Classicism has two dominant meanings in the West. The first concerns the Greeks of the sixth and fifth centuries b.c.e. and their influence, first on the Romans and then on Western cultures from the Renaissance on. The second meaning, evolved from the first, concerns the quality of a workits style, its structure, and to some extent its content, always with the quality of the Greek models in mind. The Oxford English Dictionary definition, "The principles of classic literature or art; adherence to a classical style," comprehends both meanings. The word classicism has become a common term since its first use in the nineteenth century. Classicism spread across Europe from Italy to Germany, to France, to Russia, to England, with the place and the time of its usage shading its meaning. It remains a useful term, with contextual clues indicating its intended meaning.

The intellectual and aesthetic outflow of the Greeks was prodigious and the extant aesthetic, philosophical, historical, and political writings have had a phenomenal impact on Western culture. Homer's epics (c. 800 b.c.e.), the poetry of Sappho (seventh century b.c.e.) and Pindar (sixth century b.c.e.); the dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripedes, and Aristophanes (fifth century b.c.e.); the sculptures of Phidias; the oratory of Pericles and the writings of Plato and Aristotle (fifth and fourth centuries b.c.e.) are but some of the most prominent Greek contributions to Western culture. In the works of these and other Greeks, future generations have found what has come to be understood as the features of classicism: beauty, balance, proportion, formal structure, intellectual vigor and depth, rational content supported by symmetrical form, often accompanied by a sense of humor and skillful satire. All of these characteristics are manifested in a humanist context. Unfortunately, much of our knowledge of this great outpouring comes to us secondhand because the originals no longer exist, although we have some fragments of the writingsa few poems of Sappho and some works of Aristotle, for exampleand some remains of aesthetic works, such as the Elgin Marbles, the sculpture of Hera, friezes of the battle of the centurians, and drawings on pottery. These remains have been studied for centuries.

Much of what we know of Greek contributions comes from two sources: writings about them and copies of them. Aristotle in his Poetics analyzed and commented on Greek drama, vastly amplifying the evidence from the few extant dramas. Longinus illuminated the style and purpose of art. Much of what we know of Greek sculpture comes from Roman copies, and much of what we know of Greek and Roman architecture comes from Vitruvius, the Roman architect who wrote about architecture in De re architectura (first century c.e.), the manuscript of which was found in the fifteenth century and translated into many languages.

The Romans and Medieval Europe

The Romans, conscious of Greek art and thought, intentionally copied the Greeks. The first neoclassical age was really the Roman one between about the first century c.e. and the fifth century c.e. A good deal of what we now call classicism is a Roman continuation and expansion of Greek thought and aesthetic ideas and values. Fortunately, most of the Roman works are extant, and the writings of the poets Horace, Ovid, and Virgil, as well as the orators and prose writers including Cicero, Cato, Pliny the Elder, and Quintilian, have greatly enriched the classical tradition. Latin had a vigorous life all through the medieval period. It was the lingua franca not only of the church but of the universities, which started in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as well as most serious writing.

The Renaissance

The next neoclassical period, which we call the Renaissance, exploded in Italy under the patronage of such personages as the Medicis and Pope Leo X. The Renaissance with its focus on secular life, fortified by the availability of the important literary works of the Romans and by translations of the Greeks into Latin, sometimes via Arabic, and then by the study of Greek, enabling educated people to read Greek originals, created the great flowering of classicism. Fortified by copious commentary on the ancients from such scholars as Pico della Mirandola and Ficino and stimulated by such scholars as the humanist Erasmus, educated people across Europe talked about classical language, art, architecture, and ideas. Petrarch wrote sonnets in the vernacular. Botticelli painted the beautiful Birth of Venus. Great works of poetry, painting, architecture, and sculpture appeared first in Italy in the mid-fourteenth century, and then surged across Europe, into France, Germany, the Netherlands, England, and elsewhere.

An excellent illustration of this sweep of classicism across Europe and into America is in architecture. Andrea Palladio (15081580), probably the most influential architect in Western history, rejected the medieval Gothic structures, turning instead to classical antiquity for models. He not only created beautiful classical buildings in northern Italy, but he published his ideas, complete with goals, models, dimensions, materials, and methods of construction. Designers such as the English architect Inigo Jones read Palladio's books and went to see his buildings, then went back home to construct Palladian architecture, the most famous being the classic Queen's House in Greenwich (1616). Its simple, clean, symmetrical elegance contrasted strongly with Tudor architecture. Over a century later, Alexander Pope wrote a 204-line poem on English architecture ("Moral Essays: Epistle IV, Of the Use of Riches,"1734), praising the good taste of Lord Burlington, who discriminately applied Palladian ideas, and satirizing noblemen who built expensive mansions lacking in harmony and proportion. Palladian architecture moved across Europe, into parts of Asia, and especially to the Americas, dominating colonial architecture in the United States. Buildings across the world illustrate Palladio's influence: symmetrical structures with balanced vertical and horizontal lines, grand staircases, Greek pillars and Roman arches, porticoes and frescoes, pediments and loggias, statues in the Greek style. In each building, every part contributes to a harmonious, unified whole.


As with architecture, almost all fields were affected by classicism, especially literature. The rich collection of Greek and Roman writings, the theories of Aristotle and Longinus, and the considerable body of accumulating Italian and French literary criticism inspired many to write in imitation (mimesis) of the ancients, observing the "rules" they thought inherent in the ancient writings. The flourishing literary criticism included, for example, long discussions of the unities of time, place, and action, of decorum, and of high moral quality. France for a time became the artistic center of this new neoclassicism. Although Racine, Corneille, Molière, Boileau, and others were successful in espousing and observing the rules of classicism, an individual genius elevated their writing. The rules were followed less successfully in Joseph Addison's correct and popular, though stiff Cato, but Dryden and Pope in England, and Goethe and Schiller in Germany wrote many inspired classical works.

In the twenty-first century we speak of many creators prior to the early nineteenth century as being classical or neoclassical. Classicism has a recognizable core of ideas that draws creators and critics to it again and again. Behind classicism is the innate desire to make accessible the civilizing influence of great art, music, literature, and architecture. The painters Jacques-Louis David in France (17481825) and Joshua Reynolds in Britain (17231792) were influential classicists who not only painted but also put their theories into print. Even music, which has no extant models from the ancients, produced classicists: The music of Haydn, Mozart, and the early Beethoven has a strong, clear structure. Their dominant sonata formorderly, complete, balancedgives shape and purpose to the chaos of sound.

By the late eighteenth century the neoclassical movement began to burn itself out as artists turned elsewhere for inspiration. In a sense, classicism is an ideal not a reality, since humans almost compulsively veer into irregularities or even rebel against ideals. Classicism tried to give answers, but multitudinous questions remained. Hence countermovements arose, which critics have termed Romantic, with its concern for self-expression, and baroque, with its intentional rejection of balance and harmony. Classicism's closed form, with its completeness, balanced proportion, solid repose, and clean structure, often became a more open form, with restless parts and unstressed edges. The classical The Ambassadors (1533) of Hans Holbein (14971543), for example, has a symmetrical structure with clear, distinct figures. In contrast, in the baroque Christ Washing the Feet of His Disciples (1556) of Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti, 15181594), Christ at the center right of the picture is smaller than the figures on the left, and the colors and shapes blend into one another.

Though theoretically classicism aspires to produce the best art, in reality much of the best art veers from the classical or outright rebels against it. The classical critic Samuel Johnson has pointed out the many deviations from classicism of William Shakespeare's plays but still recognized their greatness. Much art has elements of classicism. Mary Cassatt's (18441926) many paintings, for example, have classical beauty, balance, and repose, but contiguous mothers and daughters blend. The much-admired works of Paul Klee (18791940) or Jackson Pollock (19121956) demonstrate rejection of classicism. Note the restless parts and unstressed edges of Klee's Remembrance of a Garden or Pollock's Moon Woman.


Still, during the many centuries of admiring and imitating the Greeks, the term classicism has evolved to describe an ideal, a set of aspirations that humans keep returning to. The style of classicism tends to be clear, elegant, precise, rational; the structure, to be formal, balanced, cohesive, closed; the content, to be uplifting, idealized, humanist. Classicism does not have as strong a pull as it used to, in part because it can be pushed into absolutism, and humans are increasingly seeing the world in relative terms. Classical artists from the pastPhidias, Virgil, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titianwill always be with us. But there are also modern exponents of classicism ranging from poets such as T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden to literary critics including Irving Babbitt and Jacques Barzun, from artists such as Paul Cézanne and William Bailey to musicians like Sergey Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, and Béla Bartók. So ingrained is the term classicism that many critics use it to describe contemporary forms of art, such as jazz, or even cuisine. It implies a standard of excellence only rarely achieved. Postmodernism saw an almost total rejection of classicism in the late twentieth century, but reaction might well lead to a revival of classicism in some form or another.

See also Aesthetics ; Arts ; Periodization of the Arts .


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Gwen W. Brewer

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Classicism. The principles of Greek and Roman art and architecture, so Classical architecture is derived from Antique precedents that were respected as having some kind of authoritative excellence. Later revivals of Classicism were associated not only with a desire to emulate the magnificence of Antique architecture, but to establish laws, order, and rules in artistic matters. The first Classical revival is associated with the Carolingian period (not unconnected with ambitions to re-establish Imperial power), and the next with the Tuscan proto-Renaissance of C11, which influenced the early Renaissance, notably the architect Brunelleschi. From C16 Renaissance architecture and publications had even more of an impact on design than Antique models, for new theoretical writings appeared prompted by the work of Vitruvius, and there was much published on the canonical nature of the Roman Orders of architecture. In the late C17 a tendency towards a more severe Classicism was apparent in the works of Mansart and Perrault, and in the early C18 a revival of Vitruvian, Antique, and Italian Renaissance architecture took place, under the aegis of Burlington, prompted by the works of Campbell, although the chief models were the works of Palladio and Inigo Jones. Burlington and his circle (including Flitcroft and Kent) established a veritable tyranny of Taste, with very precise rules about proportions, details, and precedents, called Palladianism, which was the predominant movement in British architecture for most of C18 from 1714. It was a revolution against the Baroque of Wren, Vanbrugh, and Hawksmoor. It was no accident that Palladianism (or, more accurately, the second Palladian Revival) coincided with the arrival of the Hanoverian dynasty and the ascendancy of the Whig Oligarchy from 1714, and indeed Burlington's championship of Palladianism may have created a form of architectural continuity from the first Palladian Revival in the reign of King James I and VI (1603–25) after the Baroque interlude of c.1660–1714. Some writers have viewed Palladianism as a stylistic cleansing after ‘excessive’ Baroque exuberance, a notion that was particularly held some 60 years ago, but it should not be forgotten that Baroque architecture was based on Classical precedents, and there were also examples of Antique Roman architecture that displayed similar tendencies to Baroque, especially in C2.

Palladianism has been seen as an early type of Neo-Classicism, but the latter properly started in the mid-C18 when architects and artists began to study original Antique buildings anew rather than derive their Classicism from Renaissance exemplars (as Burlington and Campbell had done). Piranesi's engravings revealed and exaggerated the grandeur of Roman architecture, while the excavations at Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabia revealed many aspects of Roman architecture and design that quickly entered into the repertoire of architects. Scholarly archaeology became a primary source for design. Inspired by J. J. Winckelmann, Greek architecture began to be appreciated, and the tough, rugged, masculine qualities of the powerful Doric of the temples at Paestum touched chords in those who thought that architecture, like Mankind, was superior when it was at a stage of primitive simplicity. The search for archaeologically correct motifs from Roman architecture was extended to include Greek exemplars, and so surveys were made of Greek buildings, notably by Stuart and Revett, whose Antiquities of Athens, one of the prime source-books for the Greek Revival, began to come out from 1762. Influenced by the writings of Cordemoy, Laugier, and Lodoli, architects sought a cleansed and purified architecture that looked to Antiquity and even to primitive forms for appropriate precedents, and this led not just to Greece, but to stereometrically pure forms such as the cone, cube, pyramid, and sphere, exploited initially by architects such as Boullée, Gilly, and Ledoux. Simple geometries, clearly expressed, encouraged some extraordinary syntheses of Antique themes, drawing Ancient Egyptian elements into architecture, while decoration became sparse and was sometimes completely avoided. The Orders, if used, were structural, supporting entablatures or primitive lintels, and not engaged. Neo-Classicism was severe, even chilly, the antithesis of the Baroque.

By the early C19 Neo-Classicism mellowed in favour of a greater opulence, while compositions became more free, drew on the Picturesque, and had powerful archaeological, emotional, and allusory aspects. Imperial Rome, Greece, and Egypt provided a rich vocabulary for the inventive Empire style of Napoleonic France and Regency England. The reaction from 1815 led to a widespread Greek Revival in Europe and America, producing many distinguished buildings, while in Prussia Schinkel created an architecture that combined refinement, scholarship, and richness of effect using the simplest of means, though strongly based on Neo-Classical principles, including clarity of expression, logic in structural development, truthfulness in the use of materials, and expression of volumes both outside and inside.

In the middle of the century taste again moved towards Renaissance show, expressed in the Paris of the Second Empire (1852–70) and in the Vienna of Kaiser Franz Joseph (1848–1916), followed by a Baroque Revival. In England this was associated with the Wrenaissance, but in France and the USA with the Beaux-Arts style, which once more led to a reaction in a C20 Neo-Classical Revival in which an architectural language, stripped down to its elements, and free of excess, evolved. This stark Neo-Classicism was widespread in the 1920s and 1930s, notably in Scandinavia, France, and the USA, but it was also found in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union, which gained it opprobrium in spite of the fact that it had many distinguished practitioners in the democracies. In recent times elements of Classicism have reappeared, notably in the work of Adam, Bofill, Botta, Krier, Outram, Rossi, Stern, Terry, and others, and in the disparate architecture that has been categorized as anything from New Classicism to Post-Modernism.


J. Curl (2001);
P&W (1990);
Paavilainen (ed.) (1982);
Wiebenson (1969)

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"Classicism." A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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classicism, a term that, when applied generally, means clearness, elegance, symmetry, and repose produced by attention to traditional forms. It is sometimes synonymous with excellence or artistic quality of high distinction. More precisely, the term refers to the admiration and imitation of Greek and Roman literature, art, and architecture. Because the principles of classicism were derived from the rules and practices of the ancients, the term came to mean the adherence to specific academic canons.

The Renaissance and Thereafter

The first major revival of classicism occurred during the Renaissance (c.1400–1600). As a result of the intensified interest in Greek and Roman culture, especially the works of Plato and Cicero, classical standards were reinstated as the ideal norm in literature. In Florence, the early center of Renaissance learning, Cosimo de' Medici gathered a circle of humanists (see humanism) who collected, studied, expounded, and imitated the classics. Outside Italy writers affected by the revival of classical conventions included Francis Bacon and Ben Jonson in England and Pierre Corneille and Jean Racine in France.

Renaissance painters and sculptors whose works reflect the classical influence include Andrea Mantegna, Raphael, and Michelangelo. The Greek and Roman orders of architecture were also revived during the Renaissance and applied to ecclesiastical designs. Leone Battista Alberti wrote the first of several Renaissance treatises on architecture (1485), based on his reading of Vitruvius. The writers and artists of the baroque and rococo periods (c.1600–1750) that followed the Renaissance elaborated on many of the same classical themes, although their work is often characterized by a new exuberance of form and complexity of subject matter.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Following the archaeological rediscovery of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the 18th cent. there was a renewed interest in the culture of ancient Rome and, subsequently, ancient Greece. This period is generally designated as neoclassicism, and it is considered to be the first phase in the larger romantic movement. The revival of antiquity in the 18th cent. was closely tied to such political events as the American and French revolutions, in which parallels were drawn between ancient and modern forms of government.

In German literature the classical stream was deflected in the last quarter of the 18th cent. by the romantic period of Sturm und Drang, but it was revived later in the century when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich von Schiller wrote classical drama. Classicism is also applied to the music of this period, especially the works of Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven. In art and architecture classicism remained fashionable throughout the 19th cent. and into the early 20th cent. largely through the influence of the École des Beaux-Arts in France, whose curriculum was imitated in many countries.

The Twentieth Century

In early 20th-century Europe and the United States there was a renewed interest in Greek literature, and classical models were somewhat revived, as in the work of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Abstracted classical elements can be found in the paintings of Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso, and in the architecture of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. A more overt classicism has found renewed acceptance among many postmodern architects in recent years. Spearheading the 20th-century neoclassical revival in music were Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev, Igor Stravinsky, and Béla Bartók.


See T. S. Eliot, What Is a Classic? (1946); G. Highet, The Classical Tradition (1949, repr. 1957); P. O. Kristeller, Renaissance Thought (1961); W. J. Bate, From Classic to Romantic (1961); G. Murray, The Classical Tradition in Poetry (1927, repr. 1968); C. Rosen, The Classical Style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven (1971); R. R. Bolgar, ed., Classical Influences on E. Culture (1971); J. Summerson, The Classical Language of Architecture (1980).

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"classicism." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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classicism Art history term used to describe both an aesthetic attitude and an artistic tradition. The artistic tradition refers to the classical antiquity of Greece and Rome, its art, literature and criticism, and the subsequent periods that looked back to Greece and Rome for their prototypes, such as the Carolingian renaissance, Renaissance, and neo-classicism. Its aesthetic use suggests the classical characteristics of clarity, order, balance, unity, symmetry, and dignity.

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"classicism." World Encyclopedia. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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clas·si·cism / ˈklasəˌsizəm/ • n. the following of ancient Greek or Roman principles and style in art and literature, esp. from the Renaissance to the 18th century. Often contrasted with romanticism. ∎  the following of traditional and long-established theories or styles.

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"classicism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 13 Dec. 2017 <>.

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"classicism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved December 13, 2017 from