The Story of the Classical Ideal

For six or eight hundred years the  Christian perspective of the human form had prevailed. Then for some reason or for many of them, men began to look back with nostalgia to classical times. Some say it was the rediscovery of Aristotle and the old Greek philosophers. Some say this discovery already showed dissatisfaction with the Church view of the times and that a new worldliness had been picking up momentum for two or three hundred years, since the Gothic revolution, and that the new Humanism was just the next step.
Whatever caused it, it gathered steam and couldn´t be stopped.

In Michelangelo´s time they began to dig in old Rome, looking for beautiful ruins. One of the most surprising discoveries was the Laocoön.

Michelangelo himself went to see it lifted out of the dirt that had covered it for a thousand years and more. It was a sculptural group from Hellenistic times showing the old priest and his sons being killed by snakes. Laocoön twists in agony and despair. Yet his body isn´t the miserable puppet  that the artisans of the Middle Ages might have made of him, but the proud encarnation of the old gods, with all its noble architecture and dignity. It was the greatest example Michelangelo had ever seen of the nude perceived as sublime, and it impressed him so much that there is a trace of this Laocoön in all the statues he carved after seeing it.

A modern specialist has even come up with the theory that the Laocoon was carved by Michelangelo himself.  See this article published in the Guardian:

Is the Laocoon a fake by Michelangelo?

Michelangelo gave his figures the old touch of divinity—terribilitá. That was their uniqueness, his stamp.  His David is a god; Bernini’s David is a guy struggling with a strap.

That look of godliness was exactly what he wanted, what he felt, what he himself wanted to show in his work. Man was that great, wasn´t he? He could do anything. The earth was his. Wasn´t he the supreme creation of God? Hadn´t God made man in His own image and likeness?

Greeks: gods are like men; Michelangelo: man is like a god:

Man was the most beautiful of God´s creations. He was divine, even theologically, since his soul would live forever.

>>>> Next:   The Classical Ideal of Beauty


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8 Responses to The Story of the Classical Ideal

  1. Pingback: A Biography of Beauty « The Best Artists

  2. Ken Januski says:

    In looking at these Swallows, the first word that hits me is ‘noble.’ Not quite godlike, but certainly man aspiring to be godlike.

    The second thing that hits me is that swipe at poor Bernini, ‘a guy struggling with a strap’. I had to chuckle.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Ken. You may have noticed that this is a re-post. I wrote the original at least two or three years ago and since then I have come to respect Bernini’s work much more. I should have removed that little gratuitous dig. As for “noble”, I pinch myself every time I see I’m about to use it. It is an old word moralists and critics of all kinds couldn’t do without. Ruskin uses it twice on every page. Everything is noble: proportions, thoughts, manner, subjects. I guess when you speak of the classical ideal it will necessarily come to mind because everyone who ever wrote on the subject thought it was the mot juste.

  3. Ken Januski says:

    I understand the misgivings about ‘noble’ Swallows. It can sound so much of another century.

    But I’m writing to speak about the ignoble. I was recently awarded a ‘Beautiful Blogger’ award. I had no expectation of it but there it was, complete with a request to award 4 other bloggers and write 10 random things about myself. I’m not sure if you’ll consider this a curse or a blessing so I can just say I gave it to you because I think your blog certainly deserves some sort of award.

    If you feel like it pass it on to 4 others. If you don’t want to I understand.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken, I have to decline your invitation to take part in this meme (is that what they are called?) but at the same time I want to say how much I appreciate your naming my blog and the kind things you say about it. I have turned down several of these “awards” and it has always been hard because they came from people whose blogs I liked and because by saying no I might have seemed snobbish or cranky. And to you I am particularly grateful for your frequent thoughts and fine comments on my blog, as well as the entertaining and original writing, drawing, painting, and photography of your own, which I read regularly and always enjoy. I wish there were more bloggers like you—I wish there were more humans. Be sure that if I wanted to start a meme of my own I would choose your blog right off for an award, a trophy, a laurel wreath, and the jackpot-winning number. But if I were God I’d give you a glorious day birding and sketching.

      • Ken Januski says:

        Hi Swallows,

        Thanks for posting this comment on my blog, where I also responded to it. But for anyone who reads it here I do just want to follow up. I readily understand why you might want to reject this and I think that all my nominees probably have. Perhaps I should have just rejected it myself. It was given to me in good faith and I didn’t want to reject it but it did bother me to put my nominees on the spot by forcing them to then make a decision about it. On the other hand there are some blogs that I really did want to celebrate and so yours came in at the top of the list.

        Best wishes,


  4. I think that the Laocoon was done by Michelangelo. I think he used 3 models to do this fake:

    1) Torso belvedere: same seated position
    2) Dancing Faun statue: upper gesture and Laocoon head
    3) Apollo Belvedere: snake and draperies

    There’s a 1501 Michelangelo’s drawing with studies of the Torso Belvedere and the Dancing Faun on it.

    The Laocoon is a modern statue, there’s a seach for a climax in the 3 poses involved, The energy in the Laocoon is similar to the Battle of the Centaurs and the battle of Cascina. The energy is nothing close to anything in the Antiquity or in the Sperlonga ruins.

    Also The Laocoon is made of 7 pieces of marble. No way that such statue could be found in one piece and in prestine condition after been buried for 1600 years.

    see document here done by myself, last year.

    JF David

    • 100swallows says:

      Jean-Francois David: Thanks. I found your arguments very interesting but I still don’t believe Michelangelo made the Laocoön. Stylistic similarities alone are really not enough proof. My biggest objections to Catterson’s theory are these:
      One, in Michelangelo’s lifetime, when details of the recovery of the statue were known to many, the idea of this fraud didn’t occur to any of his watchful enemies nor, apparently, to his friends either. Vasari could have said “Some even thought the Laocoön was by our hero, imagine!”
      Two, the statue wasn’t dug up until six or seven years after he allegedly carved it. If that was according to his plan, the Laocoön was a very long-range scheme for a starving artist. A potboiler is never such an ambitious work.
      Three, he would have had to cook up the plan with several other crooks, who would have had to keep their mouths shut for years, or rather, forever.
      Four, Michelangelo himself would have been unable to brag about such an admired work. That would have been hard on him–very hard. When he heard some admirers of the Pietà ascribing it to another artist, he burned inside until he had written his name all across the Virgin in giant letters.

      Though Vasari makes a lot of Michelangelo’s ability to fool people with his imitations of ancient work, and even has him laughing about a near-cheat, Michelangelo in his own letters comes through as a very decent man: one with a prodigious conscience and sense of duty. I can’t believe he was crooked. One thing might have been able to make him leave the straight and narrow path: his yearning for fame. But here there was no chance of that, right?

      By the way, Vasari says Michelangelo could imitate other artists’ styles to perfection. Why doesn’t that detective Ms. Catterson investigate the circumstances of the unearthing of the Torso itself and the Cleopatra and the Belvedere? I wonder if those are by the same crook…

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