Hellenic and Italic Civilizations



The Art of the Greeks



Greek art, the foundation and inspiration of Western artistic culture, was
responsible for the invention of forms that embody the ideal of beauty.
The vast output, emanating from centres located throughout the Greek
empire, comprised works of fundamental importance
created by artists of extraordinary talent.



Cup of Nestor
Museum of Ischia, Italy
Below: detail of the inscription from the Iliad, which appears on the cup


For a period of more than a thousand years, the Hellenic peoples of mainland Greece, Sicily, Magna Graecia (the Greek colonies in southern Italy), as well as those of the islands of the Aegean and Ionian seas, created a wealth of sculpture, painting, and architecture whose types, forms, and values lie at the very heart of Western aesthetics. Recently, new archaeological discoveries, combined with new studies and cultural concepts, have brought a historical reality to the personalities of artists who were previously shrouded in legend. As a result, the artistic culture of the ancient Greeks is appreciated for its breadth and influence, from the earliest days through to its absorption into the heart of Roman imperial art. and from there into the mainstream of European culture, Greek art can be seen in the art of the Byzantine period, as well as pre-Romanesque and Romanesque art, and in the modem and artistic cultures of Europe and further afield. The thinkers of ancient Greece are still regarded as the source of modem aesthetic philosophy.

Early Geometric period
National Archaeological Museum, Athens



In Greek building techniques, walls were traditionally erected by applying clay directly to a wooden Framework and the building design was dominated by an apselike curve at the ends. However, the use of sun-dried bricks was introduced during the Geometric era and it then became easier to create right angles. Houses took on a square shape and an elongated rectangular space was used as a place of worship. With the introduction of terracotta tiles in 675bc, it became easier to make a roof waterproof. However, this also increased its weight, leading to a complete reorganization of the network of beams and roof trusses. It was at this time that the word architekton ("chief carpenter") acquired its modem meaning, referring to the person responsible for the plans of a building.
As stone gradually replaced wood, the Doric style of classical Greek architecture evolved. This, the oldest and simplest of architectural styles, consisted of heavy, fluted columns, plain, saucer-shaped capitals, a bold, simple cornice, architraves, and friezes. A perspective modification of the horizontals and verticals in buildings was first introduced in the Temple of Apollo at Corinth (c.540bc), built at a time when painters were first aware of foreshortening. Optical corrections remained a unique feature of Doric architecture, which in mainland and colonial Greece retained the concept of buildings as geometric solids (except in the Ionic temples of Asia Minor, where it would have been incompatible with the double row of pillars around the cella, or inner room of the temple). As an anti-earthquake device, monolithic columns - such as those at Corinth - were replaced by columns of super-imposed blocks of stone held together by flexible lengths of wood, or pegs.

Temple of Apollo
Corinth, Greece, c.540bc




Crete in the seventh century BC saw the beginnings of large-scale sculpture in stone. The style was named "Daedalic" after the legendary founder of sculpture at the court of King Minos at Knossos. Sculptures from Prinias, Eleutherna, Gortyn, Palaikastro, and Dreros in the museum at Heraklion pay homage to his works, and differ from earlier works in that they appear more animated, dynamic, and naturalistic. The bodies have natural proportions, the roundness of the heads tempered by a certain slant to the cheeks and the foreheads enclosed in low, horizontal hairstyles. At this time, ancient artists were breaking down the confines of regional tradition in order to affirm the maturity and ultimate superiority of Hellenic sculpture over its Eastern counterpart.

Torso of female figure
Eleutherna, Crete
Archaeological Museum of Heraklion



The Geometric Period

The appearance of pottery that was decorated with regular, circular motifs drawn with a pair of compasses, marked the start of a new era of artistic creativity in Greek art. Liberated from the direct influence of natural shapes, this style gave expression to intellectually based compositions. The addition of graphic designs - zigzags, triangles, and meandering lines -established the so-called Geometric style, which visualized and was able to express force, opposition, tension, and balance. It reached its peak during the eighth century BC (Late Geometric), coinciding with the transformation of the complex system of tribes into the organism of the city-state (polis). In the same way that citizens took control of their own community, public craftsmen, called demiourgoi, became responsible for the way in which objects were shaped and decorated. A strong sense of public spirit guided craftsmen and politicians alike towards the ideals of order, restraint, and harmony.
The Greek colonial system meant that designs spread quickly to the provinces. The earliest known signature of a potter appears on a krater, or two-handled bowl, from Pithecusae, on the Italian island of Ischia, dating from about 720bc. A skyphos (cup) from the same site bears the first lines known to come from the Iliad. In narrative scenes on pottery — the laying-out of the dead, processions, shipwrecks -the "shadow" of the human figure gives the impression of movement in the limbs and head in relation to the torso. The shape of ail vessels was significant, representing the physical unity of the human body into a powerful allegory; thus the krater became a "sign" of maie burials, while slender amphorae became a mark of female ones. Even today, the different parts of a vase are described in human terms. such as foot, shoulder, neck, mouth, and lip.


The Greeks had a word to indicate the origins of painting: skiagraphia ( "shadow drawing"). Saurias of Samos is said to have been the first man to trace the outline of a horse from its shadow cast on a wall, although the same process is attributed to the anonymous pioneers of painting at Sicyon and Corinth. In pottery designs from the Geometric era, the dark silhouettes of people and animals gradually become elongated, with bodies and heads growing smaller and legs and hooves extended. The last of the Geometric wares made use of a technique that the writer Plinv (AD23-79) attributed to Aridices of Corinth and Telephanes of Sicyon, who filled in the outlines of the silhouetted figures. Pliny's knowledge of monumental painting during that remote age led to him to attribute a painting of a battle scene by Boularchus, active in Ionia, to the "time of Romulus". In the sanctuary at Isthmia, near the Corinth Canal, fragments of wall decoration have been discovered that belong to the Temple of Poseidon (c.700bc). It was during this period that the technique of black-figure painting, the final successor to skiagraphia, was introduced in Corinth. The names of the characters depicted on the vases were added, a union of symbols and images echoed during the modem era in Braque's Cubist collages.

Geometric-style pottery
Necropolis of Dipylon. Athens.
National Archaeological Museum, Athens
The central strip of such pottery often showed funeral rites: here, it is the laying-out and chariot procession.


Ekphantos Painter, Chigi Vase, Veio
Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia, Rome



The Chigi Vase, a masterpiece of the Corinthian polychrome style (c.635bc), has a decoration of banded friezes (in keeping with Oriental style) depicting carefully alternated subject matter. The one mythological scene, The Judgment of Paris, has been placed below the handle. The rest of the decoration relates to life and nature: the hunting of hares and foxes, a procession of warriors with a chariot, a lion hunt, hounds chasing wild animals, and a battle scene. To display the devices on the shields, the painter has depicted fewer warriors on the right, but densely overlapped the hoplites, or infantrymen, to the left - only the backs of their shields are visible. In so doing, he provided space for the flautist, shown vigorously blowing on his flute. The music is to accompany the soldiers who advance in a rhythmic fashion, and the change from fast steps to a steady march can be seen in the figures of the last men joining the fray. The portrayal of movement blends with a sophisticated representation of space; the ranks converge at the centre, where the shields are already colliding and the spears are clashing in mortal combat. The artist was clearly not content merely to decorate the surface for the casual delight of the observer, but wanted to create an elaborate interplay of figures and ornamentation that demanded detailed study.


Ekphantos Painter, Warrios
Detail of the Chigi Vase, Veio
Museo Nazionale di Villa Giulia, Rome


Orientalizing Period

In the Cyclades during the seventh century bc, the so-called Orientalizing period, human figures were sculpted from marble found on the islands, a practice dating from the Bronze Age. Egyptian influence increased following the founding of the trading port of Naucratis on the Nile Delta, and visits by Greek mercenaries to the Nile valley. Through the late seventh century bc, stone sculpture on the island of Crete, during the highly inventive Daedalic period was a form in which craftsmen attempted to encapsulate the essence of life. Areas of uniform colour were used in painting, as a result of Eastern influences that arrived via Corinth. The Corinthians traded with the Phoenicians, Khalcideans and Rhodians, and with peoples of the East via the port of Al Mina on the River Orontes (730-640bc). The work of the innovative Corinthian Ekphantos Painter, to whom the Chigi Vase is credited, inspired the technique devised by Athenian potters of black figures on a red clay ground. Most black-figure wares are decorated with beasts or mythological scenes, arranged with a greater feeling of space than in Corinthian pottery.

Fragment of an Attic black-figure bowl, 580bc
National Archaeological Museum, Athens
This illustrates funeral games given in honour of Patroclos


Francois Vase, Chiusi, c.570bc
Archaeological Museum, Florence


Kleitias owes his fame to the decoration of the largest and most impressive vase known from the Archaic period, modelled by Ergotimos in about 570bc. The piece was found at Chiusi by Alessandro Francois in 1844. The base, body, and neck are decorated with bands of differing widths, a device that creates a great sense of movement. Although most of the vase is decorated with solemn or dramatic episodes, its base bears a comic fight scene. Above this is a band of decorative animals, a band portraying Achilles' ambush of Troilus beneath the walls of Troy, and, finally, the return of Hephaestos to Olympos. On the broadest part of the vase is a procession of the gods at the wedding of Peleos and Thetis. The lower neck shows the chariot race in memory of Patroclos and the fight between the Lapiths and Centaurs, while the upper section depicts the hunt for the Kalydonian boar and the dance of the young people rescued by Theseos from the Minotaur.
The principal narrative of the decoration is drawn from the life of Achilles, from the mythical marriage of his parents to his killing of Priam's son on hallowed ground and the loss of his beloved companion. The vase handles portray the removal of the corpse. The painting uses ail the techniques that Pliny attributes to various ancient masters: the accurate distinction between male and female figures, which turn without stiffness, and the use of superimposition and foreshortening. The wild animal at the centre of the hunting scene dominates the wounded dog and man, while at the sides, heroes grouped in pairs at an angle to the background create the illusion that the action takes place within a defined space.

Francois Vase, Chiusi, c.570bc
Archaeological Museum, Florence


Kouros, Volomandra, 565bc
National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Archaic Period

The Archaic period of Greek history (600-480nc) began in Athens when the statesman Solon codified the privileged position of the wealthy, while at the same time giving jurisdiction to the people (594-591BC). The aristocracy gloried in colossal kouroi (statues of nude youths), erected at Cape Sounion (590-580bc). Emerging from the isolation of the Daedalic Vision. these figures appeared as a perikalles agalma, "an image of great beauty" (for the pleasure of the gods and the contemplation of mortals). In Corinth, one of the Seven Sages, Periander, succeeded Cypselus ( his father) and maintained a court of poets, musicians, and artists. Between 600 and 560bc, he encouraged the production of the middle Corinthian wares, which dominated Western markets. In Athens, the first known master of the black-figure technique was Sophilos. He signed a vivid. epic scene of the games held in honour of Patroclos before Achilles and a crowd of Achaeans in about 580bc. The François Vase, made slightly later by Ergotimos and Kleitias, was commissioned in about 570bc by an Etruscan lord. A second generation of kouroi can be seen in the statue from Volamandra from about 565bc. The way in which the triangular stomach joins with the legs creates an effective sense of harmony. The skin is stretched tautly over the muscles, and the figure's mouth turns up in a smile. During the late Corinthian period (from 560bc), Corinth lost its monopoly on exports to Athens, where, from 561 to 555bc and from 546 to 528bc, the tyrant Pisistratos fostered a policy of economic expansion. Here, the representations of myths began to include the relationship between man, heroes, and gods. Later kouroi showed a more athletic musculature, as in the statue of the youth buried at Anavysos (c.540bc). He stands on a large, stepped plinth inscribed: "Stop and grieve at the tomb of the dead Kroisos, slain by wild Ares in the front rank of battle." The arms, linked to the pectoral muscles, no longer touch the body, while the face reveals a realistically modelled lower jaw and slightly parted lips. From 528 to 510bc, Endoios remained the favourite artist of the sons of Pisistratos. He is credited with having created the pediment on the Acropolis that shows Athena defeating the giants. This was probably a dedication by Hippias to make up for a conspiracy by Aristogeiton and Harmodios that resulted in the death of Hipparchos (514bc). For a century, the kouros was skilfully used by sculptors as a way of investigating the reality of different social and religious circumstances. The subject was portrayed as a bringer of offerings, a dead man. a hero, and even a god, as in the advancing bronze figure of Apollo from Piraeus (c.525bc). The canrving of the female figures (korai) on the Acropolis, employs the use of circular bases to dictate the form of the whole figure. The sun plays on the curved surfaces of the marble, penetrating its crystals, and the light seems to suggest an extra dimension to the stone. During the same period, the exiled Alkmaeonid clan employed the sculptor Antenor to work on the pediment of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. A statue of a goddess there has the same structure as the kore on the Acropolis, which was completed by the artist on his return to Athens after the expulsion of Hippias. Circular bases were soon replaced by rectangular plinths to accommodate the increasingly extroverted gestures of the figures. When Kleisthenes, an Athenian statesman of the Alkmaeonid clan, introduced his democratic reforms between 509 and 507bc, Antenor created a bronze monument in memory of the unsuccessful tyrannicides Harmodios and Aristogeiton.

National Archaeological Museum, Athens

Antenor, kore,
Acropolis Museum, Athens

The technique of black-figure painting on pottery was superseded by a reversal of the process, in which the figures were outlined in red clay and the background was filled in in black. One of the first red-figure artists was Andokides, working in about 520bc. It was no longer necessary to incise details, as these were now painted using light strokes of diluted black or pale brown, a technique that allowed for softer modelling, in keeping with advances in other forms of painting. After the expulsion of Hippias and the birth of the democratic order (510-507BC), much pottery art depicted beautiful youths - often described with the word kalos - and athletes in training or bearing arms. Military service, which was compulsory for ail citizens, is shown in scenes of divination and departure or return from war.
From about 490bc, painting lost its static quality and began to show an awareness by the artists of their surroundings. Athenian vase painters depicted increasingly fluid scenes on their cups, jugs, amphorae, and other vessels commonly used by ail contemporary citizens at banquets, for display in homes, and for burials. These objects were carefully decorated with scenes that included hunting, athletic contests, weddings, ritual Dionysiac drinking, sacrifices, feasts, and funerals, Every aspect of the city's life is revealed on such pieces, just as it was in the theatre and literature of the day. The export of such products brought the culture they depicted both to the Greek colonies of southern Italy and Sicily, as well as the Etruscans, Italic tribes, and other Western peoples. Attic pottery (from Athens) frequently formed part of grave goods.


At the end of Pisistratid rule, shortly before an edict was issued in 510& curbing lavish burials, the funerary monument of Aristodikos was erected near Athens. In contrast to the powerful athleticism of the preceding generation of kouroi, this figure is slender, with a strong sense of inner tension and smooth. expressively modelled skin. The long legs barely betray their underlying structure as shin. knee, and thighs flow into each other in a single sweep. The forward movement of the left leg is reflected in the asymmetry of the pelvis and in the musculature of the abdomen, which is modelled in sections and bounded by chest muscles. The hollow at the base of the neck below the collarbone is clearly visible, and the head inclines to the left, in keeping with early studies into the way weight is distributed on the legs. The mouth has a strong lateral quality and the skin stretches tightly over the chin and full cheeks. The broad curving forehead holds back the short hair that replaces the heavy wig of earlier figures. A later kore (statue of draped female figure) by the same hand also forms part of the monument.

Aristodikos Master, kore,
Acropolis Museum, Athens

Aristodikos Master, kouros,
National Archaeological Museum, Athens







The school of Paros, which made use of the island's ancient marble quarries, achieved its finest expression between 550 and 540bo in the work of Aristion. His statue Phrasikleia, found at Merenda (ancient Mirrhynos) on the east coast of Attica, bears the bitter lament: "For ever I shall be called tore. In place of marriage I have received this name as my lot from the gods."
The monumental quality of this virginal figure flows from the embroidered band that closes her dress at the front and is clear in the stately fall of the overlapping folds, which hint at the shape of her leg beneath. The drapery of her floor-length woollen chiton falls in Ionic waves at the sides. Aristion's influence and style spread to Attica, Boeotia, and Delos, and can be seen in a kore from Cyrene.


Aristion, Phrasikleia,
Merenda (Mirrhynos)
Nathional Archaeological
Museum, Athens

Archaeological Museum, Delphi

In ancient times, to demonstrate their power, major cities erected richly decorated thesauroi inside their shrines. These buildings housed the finest and costliest offerings of private individuals, and, as a result, the original meaning of the word "storehouse" gradually changed to "treasury". A frieze of the marble thesauros, built in Ionic style in about 525bc by the inhabitants of the island of Siphnos (in the Cyclades) with proceeds from their silver and gold mines, can still be seen at Delphi. The entrance was in the western facade, adorned with two karyatids (supporting columns crafted in the form of women). The west frieze showed Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite arriving in their chariots for the judgment of Paris. The southern relief depicted the capture of Helen by Theseos and Pirithoos, and a procession of horsemen. Carved in strong outline, the design followed the grain of the marble.
The eastern and northern friezes are by a different hand. The former shows the fight between Achilles and Memnon under the watchful eye of the gods, as they weighed the contestants' souls to decide the winner, while the latter depicts a gigantomachia (a war between giants and gods). The artist's signature was originally incised on the shield of one of the giants, but the stone has since disintegrated. He was a member of the Parian school, and belonged to the generation following Aristion.

Detail of frieze.
Archaeological Museum, Delphi




Surviving statues of the entire front of the Temple of Zeus, Olympia.
Archaeological Museum, Olympia

Agelades dominated the decorative programme of the Temple of Zeus at Olympia (47l-456bc), and it is his statues that adorned the east front of the temple. Under the eye of the gods, Oenomaos prepares for sacrifice in the presence of his wife Sterope and his daughter Hippodamia, at whose side stands Pelops, destined for victory and kingship. An old man seated on the ground surveys the scene with the eye of a seer. Samples of clay used in casting taken from the statue of Tycleos (Bronze A) reveal that it was created in Agelades' workshop at Argos. Resembling the Olympian statue of Zeus in its structural style, the bronze is still archaic with a strong sense of directness. The left foot advances aggressively, the body twists threateningly, and the muscles convey pent-up strength. Agelades' marvellous statues were an inspiration for his pupils: Myron learnt to portray "breath enclosed in bronze", Phidias how to instil a feeling of life, and Polycleitos how to create the illusion of energy and movement.

Sterope, Oenomaos, Zeus, Pelops, and Hippodamia, from the east front of the Temple of Zeus, Olympia.
Archaeological Museum, Olympia

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