The term ‘‘neoclassicism’’ can refer to any of several historical movements in which an admiration for the art and
literature of ancient Greece and Rome spurred on attempts at imitation or emulation. Usually, however, the expression refers to the wave of renewed interest in classical antiquity that coincided with the diffusion of volumes containing engravings of art found at the excavations at Herculaneum (begun in 1738) and Pompeii (begun in 1748). This movement, enduring well into the following century, gave rise to an aesthetic of idealized beauty that was expressed most eloquently in two works of the theorist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768): On the Imitation of the Art of the Greeks (1755) and the History of Ancient Art (1764). The concept and tenets of neoclassicism were originally applied to the figurative arts, but later broadened to cover certain stylistic and thematic features of the literary output of authors such as Giuseppe Parini (1729–1799), Vittorio Alfieri* (1749–1803), Vincenzo Monti (1758–1828), and Ugo Foscolo* (1778– 1827)—the writer most profoundly influenced by the work of neoclassical artists and aestheticians.
The neoclassical artist’s principal modus operandi is called abstraction, which Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) defines in his Discourses on Art (1769–1791; a major influence on the development of Foscolo’s aesthetics) as the process of experience, selection, and combination of nature’s beauties. The fundamental role of reason in this process is consonant with the sublimation of the corporeal, and often results in an aesthetic ideal that is gender-blind. The androgynous charge of abstraction can be seen in the famous passage in the History of Ancient Art in which Winckelmann describes the masculine and feminine charms of the Apollo Belvedere: his forehead may resemble Jove’s, but his eyes are like Juno’s. It has also been noted that Antonio Canova (1757–1822) modeled the nose of Paolina Borghese as Venus Victrix (1807) after that of Apollo in Bernini’s Apollo and Dafne (1624).
A further manifestation of sublimation can be found in the widespread habit of deifying the female subject: in the figurative arts, Canova’s Paolina Borghese is transformed into Venus; the depiction of Teresa in Foscolo’s Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis (1802–1817) initially suggests the Muse of painting, and later a Sappho-like figure.
This is not to say that conventional gender politics play no part in the work of some neoclassical theorists; for example, Edmund Burke, in his influential Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), establishes a simple equation of masculinity with the sublime and femininity with the beautiful. And both Burke and Winckelmann put sex and power at the center of their respective aesthetic universes. But whereas Burke seeks a categorical separation between the power of the sublime and the erotic allure of the beautiful, Winckelmann envisions them as ineluctably intertwined in any powerfully affective image of the human body.
Indeed, although neoclassicism had some pretensions of being a moralistic reaction to the often carnal charms of rococo art (Anton Raphael Mengs’s painting Parnassus  is usually cited as the manifesto of neoclassicism in this regard), repressed sexuality is seldom far from the surface. One finds ready proof of this phenomenon in Canova’s Paolina Borghese, as well as in the works of Foscolo: for example, Jacopo’s guilt in the Ortis over his sexual craving for Teresa, or the use of the translucent veil in the Grazie (1812–1822)—a work inspired by the homonymous sculpture (1812–1816) by Canova—which ‘‘protects’’ the Graces even as it commands the attention of the viewers and permits them to penetrate it with their gaze.
See also: Lyric Poetry: Eighteenth Century; Lyric Poetry: Nineteenth Century.
Bibliography: Praz, Mario. On Neoclassicism. London: Thames and Hudson, 1969; Rosenblum, Robert. Transformations in Late Eighteenth-Century Art. Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1969; DeJean, Joan. Fictions of Sappho, 1546–1937. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989; Ferrara, Paul Albert. ‘‘Empiricism, Neoclassicism, and the Sublimation of the Erotic Instinct: Jacopo Ortis and Isabella.’’ In
Essays in Honor of Nicolas J. Perella. Ed. Victoria J. R. DeMara and Anthony Julian Tamburri. Special issue of Italiana 6 (1994): 103–16; Potts, Alex. Flesh and the Ideal: Winckelmann and the Origins of Art History. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994.
PAUL ALBERT FERRARA
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26 May 2014. Author: Criticism