1902 Encyclopedia > Archaeology > Classical Archaeology - First Period: Earliest Greek Remains, Architecture and Sculpture

(Part 9)


First Period: Earliest Greek Remains, Architecture and Sculpture

The oldest remains of workmanship in Greece, if we except the series of stone implements discovered within the last few years in various localities, are the ruined walls of Turynth and several other ancient citadels, the stupendous masonry of which, together with the primitive manner of construction by means of unhewn polygonal blocks of immense size, led the later Greeks to believe that they had been the work of a mythical race of giants, Cyclopes, and to designate such masonry as Ctclopean. It was further said that these Cyclopes had come from Lycia, between which and Argolis, where the most remarkable of these walls are, there existed (whatever may be the value of this belief) a very frequent intercourse in the heroic times. Pausanias (ii. 25, 8), speaking of the walls of Tirynth, which still, apparently, present the same aspect as when he saw then, remarks that the smallest of the blocks would be more than a load for a yoke of mules. Again (ix. 36, 5) he compares them with the pyramids of Egypt as regards the difficulty of the task of building and their colossal dimensions. Instead of the unsatisfactory Cyclopes, the Pelasgians, who preceded the Greeks in the occupation of the soil, are now accredited the authors of this primitive masonry, to which accordingly the much-abused term Pelasgic is applied. Pausanias (i. 28, 3) describes the oldest part of the walls of the Acropolis at Athens as the work of Pelasgic settlers there. In what relation of blood this race may have stood to the Greeks who succeeded them cannot be determined, but it is known that the Greeks adopted from them, among other religious beliefs and rites, those of Dodona; and since even this primitive style of masonry commended itself to them for a time, the Pelasgians must be regarded as having in some degree assigned in the artistic progress of their successors. The walls of Mycenae furnish an example of the fine skill with which the Greeks afterwards employed the Pelasgic construction, the blocks of stone being carefully and hewn on the outer surface, while the interior of the wall is filled up with mortar and small stones. Mycenae claimed to be one of the very oldest towns of Greece, and its walls may fairly be regarded as the oldest known monument of Greek workmanship. A considerable advance of skill is noticeable in the masonry of the treasure-houses (thesauri), or dome-shaped and partly subterraneous buildings, which occur in several districts of Greece, and of which the treasury of Atreus (so named by Pausanias) at Mycenae is a typical example. It is built of circular courses of evenly hewn and jointed stones, the courses narrowing towards the top, and there held together by a keystone. It is not, however, an instance of vaulting in the true sense. The most remarkable features in the building are - first, the pilasters and tablets of coloured marble, decorated with a peculiar style of ornament, the elements of which are spirals and zigzag; and secondly, the sheets of bronze with which the interior walls were plated. Of the latter little more than the nails have been found with which they were attached. Of the former a number of fragments, some of which are now in the British Museum, have come to light. The disposition, and especially the profusion of ornament which they display, differ strikingly from the simplicity of Greek work as we know it, and have given rise to a theory which is now accepted as proved, that the Greeks at this time must have been strongly influenced by the example of Oriental artists (Schnaase, Geschichte der bildenden Künsten, ii. fig. 28, Dusseldorf, 1866). Meantime, it is a fact of the first importance that this building, which Pausanias appears to have had good grounds for naming the treasury of Atreus, and this assigning it to the heroic age before the time of Homer, furnishes a remarkable illustration of the descriptions of princely palaces given by the poet, according to whom the walls were plated with dazzling bronze, and the cornices, pillars and door enriched with work in other metals. When, therefore, a building in the remains of which a complete absence of Greek simplicity and a powerful suggestion of Oriental influence have been unanimously recognized, was found to correspond accurately with the descriptions of Homer, it was both time to inquire whether the frequent notices of work of art in his pages also point in the same direction, and reasonable to assume that this testimony elsewhere in matters of art was equally reliable. From the poet's evidence on the condition of art in his time we gather that the various processes of working in gold, silver, iron, tin, and bronze were known, with the exception of casting and soldering in the last-mentioned material and of welding iron. Wood and ivory were carved and jointed, the art of pottery was known, and weaving and embroidery, the foundation of pictorial art, were practiced. We hear of richly-ornamented articles furniture, armour, and dresses. We read of the tekton [Gk.], chalkeus [Gk.] and skutotomos [Gk.]. Occasionally the names of particular artists are mentioned, as of Tychius, who made the shield of Ajax (Iliad, vii. 222), and of Icmnalius, who made Penelope's chair (Odyssey, xix. 60). On the other hand, the work of amateurs is often praised, as the couch made by Odysseus (Odyssey, xxiii 189), and the figured garments worked by Andromache and Helena (Iliad iii. 125, and xxii 441). When the worekmanship of an object is of surpassing beauty and the artist unknown, as in the case of the Sidonian crater (Odyssey, iv. 617), it is ascribed to the artist god Hephaestus, to whom also the same honour is done when the work, as in the case of the shield of Achilles, was a poetic creation. That Homer should in the same breath speak of an object as Sidonian and the work of a Greek god, is a singular mistake, which would hardly have been committed had the articles imported from the Phoenicians differed in style from articles of the same class produced by native workmen. So far, artistic feeling seems to have been directed exclusively to the decoration of objects of daily use. It had not yet aspired to the production of one object which could rest on its merits as a mere work of art, - as, for example, a statue. We have, indeed (Iliad, vi. 301), mention of a statue of Pallas at Troy; but the fact women are described as placing drapery on its knees is sufficient proof of its having been a mere rude Xoanon, such as we find frequently represented on the painted vases. The same phenomenon occurs in the remains of Assyrian art, among which, with all the wealth of sculpture in relief and of the highest excellence, there are only three or four statues, and those of such exceeding rudeness that we are compelled to suppose that they were intended to be draped like the figure of Pallas just mentioned. We have seen that the ornaments of the treasury of Atreus at Mycenae pointed clearly to an Oriental origin. It is agreed that the relief of two rampant lions from above the gateway to the citadel of Mycenae (Müller's Denkmäler der alten Kunst), which is the solitary existing instance of Greek sculpture from about Homeric times, is of an Oriental character in the composition, in the flatness of the relief, and in the design of the pillar which stands between the lions. We find further, as was pointed out by Layard (Nineveh, Appendix), among the many remains of the inferior arts from Nineveh, illustrations of the references to such matters in Homer, which are admirable in themselves, and are found nowhere else, except occasionally in the oldest Etruscan tombs. Now, as Assyrian art reached its culmination by about the 9th century B.C., we may assume that, contemporary with Homer, it was being practised with great activity. On the testimony of Herodotus we know that Assyrian wares were imported into Greece by the Phoenicians and sold in the heroic times; and, on the testimony of Homer, these same Phoenicians were in the habit of selling costly articles of furniture and dress to the Greeks of his time. Of early Phoenician art, however, we have no authentic remains, nor indeed any proof of its having had an independent existence at any time. We know the Phoenicians mainly as traders, and it is highly probable that in matters of art their trade lay chiefly between the Assyrians on the one hand and the Greeks on the other. "It was the Phoenicians," says Brunn (Die Kunst bei Homer, Munchen, 1868), "who brought from the east to the Greeks an alphabet which they modified and employed for a language peculiar to themselves; and it was the Phoenicians who brought to them from the same quarter an alphabet, so to speak, of art, which they also modified and employed for a language of art equally their own." He proceeds to define this alphabet of art as consisting of a knowledge of the processes of weaving and embroidery, of working in wood, ivory, and the various metals, with the exception of casting in bronze-with which and with sculpture in marble, which he also excludes, commenced the art of statuary, and commenced, therefore, the independence of true Greek art. Besides these processes of working, the Greeks derived from the same source at least some of the decorative patterns which we find in use in later times, though greatly modified. But, above all, they obtained from the Assyrians that manner of sculpture in low flat relief, and in parallel horizontal bands, which they appear to have practiced almost exclusively down to the 7th century B.C., - that is, down to the collapse of the Assyrian empire, - and after that to have retained as one of the charms of their architecture. If, then. An intercourse such as assumed actually took place in Homer's time between the Greeks and the Assyrians, who were then artistically in a very advanced condition, it will be necessary, before lightly calling the shield of Achilles a poetic dream, as has frequently been done, to see whether the poet may not have had before his mind some manner of a counterpart for it in Assyrian art. We need not suppose that such a shield ever existed. But a poet cannot create out of nothing; and it clear from his division of the shield into five concentric bands, resembling the large bronze shields found at Caere some years ago in a tomb of very high antiquity, that he had before his mind the customary arrangement or ornaments in works of this kind. Now, on an Assyrian bronze bowl in the British Museum (Layard, plate 61), which exactly resembles is shape and is of about the same size as a boss of a shield, we have a representation of the earth and heavens which very strikingly recalls the decoration of the boss on the shield of Achilles; while in the comparatively few remains of Assyrian sculpture we have cities at war, cities at peace, and many scenes from daily life, which vividly illustrate the Homeric description of the shield (see Brunn, Die Kunst bei Homer, who deals with the various subjects in detail). It should be observed, however, that though the evidence of the Homeric poems and the remains of Greek art from the Homeric age both point to an Assyrian influence, the Greeks of later times looked rather to Egypt, as the land whence their ancestors had experienced their first impulse both in religion and in art. They believed that Daedalus, the first Greek sculptor who knew how to give movement to his figures, and was regarded as the father of Greek sculpture, had learned his art in Egypt. Diodorus of Sicily asserted that Telecles and Theororus of Samus had visited Egypt, and on their return executed a statue of Apollo in the Egyptian style for a temple in Samus, each having made a half of it, and that apart from the other. Strabo (p. 806) compares the old Greek sculpture with the Egyptian; while Pausanias in several places (ii. 19, 3; iv. 32,1) speaks of Egyptian statues in Greek temples, or (i. 42, 3; vii.5,5) of statues resembling the Egyptian in style. According to another theory, the influence of Egypt on Greek art, though admitted, is relegated to the time of Psammtichus , in whose service it is know many Greek mercenaries were employed, and through whose inclination towards the Greeks an active intercourse sprang up between the two countries. Among the Greeks who visited Egypt at that time were Thales, Cleobulus, Solon, and Pythagoras.

Of the connection which is assumed to have existed between the earliest monuments of Greek art and the contemporary art of Assyria, evidence is cited remains of undoubtedly early workmanship in the countries of Asia Minor, Lycia, Lydia, and Phrygia, of which the two latter were intimately associated with the oldest traditions and religious beliefs of Greece. The peculiar feature of Lycian art is its tombs cut in the rock, of which the oldest class are direct imitations of woolen structures such as we may conceive the primitive temples of an Oriental race to have been. In Phrygia we have another class of rock-cut tombs of very remote antiquity, of which that of Midas (Semper, Der Stil, i. p. 429) is the best preserved example. Here the style of decoration is obviously derived from Assyrian tapestry. In Lydia we have tombs again, but they are in the form of immense tumuli,-as, for instance, that of Alyattes near Sardis, which astonished Herodotus by its size, being 1300 feet in diameter at the base, and over 250 feet high. Similar tumuli occur among the old Chaldeans.

With the immigration of the Dorian race commenced the development of an independent style of architecture in Greece, the first step apparently being the invention of a house supported by columns as the design for a temple. From the description given by Pausanias (v. 16) of one of these early Doric temples-that of Hera at Olympia, erected Shortly after the Dorian immigration-we gather that it had the form of a temple in antis, surrounded by columns, and with not only a pronaos led into by two columns, but also a similar chamber at the back. One of the two columns of this latter chamber was of wood, apparently a reminiscence of a former style of construction in that material. About the same time originated also, it is supposed, the Ionic order, which though presenting a certain Asiatic richness of ornament strongly opposed to the sever simplicity of the Doric, was still a pure Greek invention. The fact of it having first appeared among the Greeks of Asia Minor is enough to account for its admission of a greater softness and flow of lines than was admitted in the Doric. With the new movement in architecture a fresh impetus was given to art of sculpture. At first the reports sound somewhat fabulous, - as, for example, that in which Butades the Corinthian potter is described as having hit on the idea of modeling a face in clay and baking it along with his vases. Butades himself, however, is an historical person, and Corinth is known to have been a flourishing seat of potters and other artists as early as the time of the tyrant Cypselus (650 B.C.), through whose oppression it is said the artists, (Eucheir, Diopus, and Rugrammus emigrated to Etruria, which afterwards became celebrated for it sculptures in terra-cotta. At the commission of Cypselus, or of his successor Periander, a colossal statue of Jupiter was executed at Corinth, and dedicated at Olympia. But the most remarkable specimen of early sculpture, presumably Corinthian, was the chest in which the infant Cypselus was concealed, and of which a detailed description is given by Pausanias (v. 17, 5, fol.). The chest, itself of cedar, was ornamented with a wealth of figures in gold and ivory, arranged in parallel horizontal bands, and representing heroic legends and scenes from daily life, the names of the individual figures being inscribed boustrophedon, that is, in the manner characteristic of early times, and in what Pausanias calls very ancient letters. The Francois vase in Florence (Monumenti dell' Instituto di Correspondenza Archeologica, vol. iv. pls. 54-58) gives a tolerable notion of what the composition must have been. Artistic activity was not then confined to Corinth. A school of sculpture in marble existed in Chius as early as 660 B.C., and there also Glaucus is said to have discovred the art of welding iron (692 B.C.), the substitute for which had previously been bails. At this period we have frequent mention of splendid metal utensils, as, for instance, the enormous cauldron (Herodotus, iv. 152), with projecting gryphons' heads and a support formed of kneeling figures, seven ells in height. As the oldest example of sculpture in bronze which he had seen, Pausanias (iii. 17, 6) describes a statue of Jupiter at Sparta, the work of Clearchus or Thegium, whom some called a pupil of Daedalus. It was made of plates of bronze, beaten out to express t he whole figure, and then fastened together with fine nails, the arts of soldering and of casting being still unknown. Of s sculpture in this manner we possess only one example, the bronze bust found at Polledrata, near Vulci, and now in the British Museum. Throughout this early period the statues or images of deities seem to have retained their helpless primitive form, feelings of piety and gratitude being apparently expressed rather in gifts of metal utensils to the temples than in statues of the gods as in later times. No such statues exist now, but we have sufficient evidence of their want of artistic merit in the numerous representations of them which occur on the painted vases of a later period, when the sanctity of a spot is frequently indicated by such a figure. Apparently to this early and as yet barely historical period belongs a class of painted vases decorated with figures of animals and flowers arranged in parallel horizontal bands, and therefore both in the choice and disposition of the decorations presenting a marked instance of Assyrian influence. From their shape it appears that many of these vases were made to hold precious liquids, such as perfumes; and it is very probable that they were imported from the East with those perfumes, the names of which in the Greek language have an obvious Oriental origin. A considerable advance is noticeable in a second class of these vases, in which the human figure is introduced as the principal subject in the decoration, the designs being in general chosen from the heroic legends of Greece. These vases still retain the shape of the former class, then method of disposition in parallel bands, and the choice of subordinate ornaments. The names of the heroes are frequently written beside them, and sometimes the artist adds his own name. The alphabet in which these names are written is the old Corinthian, and hence the vases in question are also styled Corinthian. As to their date, it is agreed that they cannot be later than 620 B.C. With the introduction of the human figure as the subject most worthy of artistic rendering, commenced in vase painting also the independence of the potter's art in Greece (Brunn, Probleme in der Geschichte der Vasenmalerei).

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