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Classicism - The Romans And Medieval Europe, The Renaissance, Neoclassicism, Conclusion, Bibliography

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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 work—its 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 writings—a few poems of Sappho and some works of Aristotle, for example—and 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.

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