9. Romanticism and its Rhetorics

© 2022 William St Clair, CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0136.09

Romantic Aesthetics and the Place of the Parthenon

Could it be, some classically-educated men of eighteenth-century western Europe began to ask, that the Parthenon and the other buildings on the Acropolis of Athens and elsewhere preserved an essence of ancient Hellenism? One that was independent of their associations with the great historical figures and writers of that age?1 Had the designers, artists, and workmen of classical Athens, it now began to be asked, discovered and applied principles that were timeless and universal? And, if so, could these principles be recovered by study and then applied to the design of modern buildings in modern countries? Those who were of the opinion that the main appeal of the monuments to viewers lay in their design were, as only a few appreciated, setting themselves up in opposition to the thought offered by Cicero when he had visited Athens in 79 BCE: ‘whether it is a natural instinct or a mere illusion I cannot say but one’s emotions are more strongly aroused by seeing the places that tradition records to have been the favourite resort of men in former days than by hearing their deeds or reading their writings.’2

Although the dominant genres of looking at the building practised by the visiting western classicists during the long eighteenth century were the philosophical and the topographical, indications that a notion of an aesthetic value was emerging can be found from the first days of the encounter. As was noted by Sir George Wheler: [The Parthenon is] ‘not only still the chief Ornament of the Citadel; but absolutely, both for Matter and Art, the most beautiful piece of Antiquity remaining in the World.’3

The caption to a lithograph prepared in France in 1824 in the middle of the Greek Revolution, as shown as Figure 9.1, with its mention of ‘meditations’ captures the transition from the philosophy-of-history way of seeing, where the making of meaning is regarded as a transaction made by the active mind of the viewer as he or she engages with a material object, to a western romanticism that holds that meaning can inhere in the object itself.

Figure 9.1. ‘Un matin Lord Elgin interrompte ses méditations’ (‘One morning Lord Elgin interrupts his meditations’). Lithograph, 1824.4

Champions of this western genre of viewing, which, at least according to their own defence, finds nothing questionable in disassociating artworks from the contexts that gave them their meaning when they were made, were at first inclined to postulate that only men who were endowed with a rare sensibility, ‘taste’, could appreciate the visual productions of the ancients.5 At one level, since romanticism did not require viewers to do much prior work, it appeared to be democratizing, allowing viewers to mobilize their imaginations, which were usually assumed not to have been mediated; it could therefore claim to be open to anyone whatever his or her level of knowledge or education.

With its claim to be an autonomous cognitive domain that stood outside the contingencies of history, it also appeared to justify the digging up and removal of artefacts so that they could be displayed in new contexts; any informational value that could have been obtained from a study of the artefacts as documents that could help inquirers to recover a more secure knowledge of the ancient world was subordinated to an ‘aesthetic’ emotional experience allegedly felt by the modern viewer.

The word ‘aesthetic’ had been coined in Latin by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten in a book called Aesthetica published in Latin in 1750, and it was soon adopted into the modern European languages.6 In the eighteenth century, William Hogarth attempted to systematize the rules of universal aesthetics by reference to the ancient statues known in his time from examples found in Italy. He illustrated his conclusions on the best shapes and proportions in an engraving, as shown in Figure 9.2.

Figure 9.2. William Hogarth, ‘Analysis of Beauty’ (1753). Copper engraving.7

Hogarth and others were picking up on a tradition pursued over centuries in ancient Greece, notably by the sculptor Polycleitos, to develop a ‘kanon’ of ideal proportions, the word being taken from the long, thin measuring rods used by architects and sculptors in ancient and modern times.8 By the nineteenth century, the idea that the Parthenon and other Athenian monuments had achieved a timeless perfection had become so prevalent, so familiar, so uncontested, and so internalised, that few realised that it was as historically and as culturally contingent as the other ways of seeing already discussed. As the artist William Linton wrote: ‘Their excellences are not esteemed from their being definable by dates, or traceable to epochs; but because they are based upon those immutable principles which belong to all time; principles that are as new to-day as they were twenty centuries ago; and which, unless the world again relapses into barbarism, will never cease to be appreciated and revered.’9 ‘The fifth century is the first time in the world’s history when the art of sculpture was cultivated and enjoyed for the sake of its beauty alone, and not for the teaching or information it might convey’ wrote Albinia Wherry, one of the first women to have her views printed.10 And, for many, the Parthenon was not only the most perfect work of art ever achieved, but, as a continuation of the justification promoted by Lord Elgin, a school from which from artists would be able to learn for all time.11

This public justification offered by Elgin for his removals, namely that he was providing physical material models to be studied and copied by modern artists, was already a commonplace when he first deployed it in 1798 and again later when he and his allies persuaded the British Parliament to buy the collection. The subject set for the Oxford Prize Poem of 1806, for example, was ‘A Recommendation of the Study of the Remains of Ancient Grecian and Roman Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting’ which the winner turned into verse:

Rise, slumbering Genius, and with throbbing heart

Adore these trophies of unrivall’d art;

Till each fine grace that gifted Masters knew

In fairly vision floating o’er thy view,

Perfection crown once more the living stone,

And Britain claims a Phidias of her own.12

The artist Hugh William ‘Grecian’ Williams was one of those who wondered aloud in print whether the admiration that he felt was dependent on associations or was implicit in the physical nature of the objects themselves. Although he declined to engage with the neuropsychology (‘although unpracticed in untwisting the gossamer threads of thought and sentiment’), he favoured the latter view, providing an example of a still emerging romanticism.13

By the end of the nineteenth century, the high noon of romanticism, we find artists and others deliberately clearing their minds of any information about the ancient culture within which the Parthenon had been produced. Joseph Pennell, for example, an American artist, in preparing for his visit to Athens deliberately avoided reading any ancient author, ‘even in translation’, or any book about architecture or proportion.14 Colonel J.P. Barry, a medical doctor from India, visiting the Acropolis a few years earlier in 1905, who had also hoped to experience ‘impressions not derived from reading’, claimed that: ‘The most valuable impressions for the traveller are those he makes his own not those made for him.’15 But deliberately cultivating ignorance of the ancient world for fear that such knowledge might sully an ‘aesthetic’ experience, perceived as occurring beyond the contingencies of time and place, was hard to sustain in practice. And Pennell and the many others who looked at the Parthenon, and even more so those who looked at the detached pieces in London, soon understood that, whether they chose to submit, to resist, or to negotiate, and whether in the event they were confirmed in their expectations or ‘agreeably disappointed’, the recommended seeing agenda, including the romantic aesthetic which they attempted to practise, had been set by others.

Walter Pater and the Western Romantic Aesthetic

Was the essence of Athenian Hellenism visually exportable? And could it be applied in the landscapes and cityscapes into which modern buildings in modern countries were set? It was increasingly clear that much of what had hitherto been regarded by Spon and others as ‘ancient’ art was made during the period of the Roman imperial centuries and owed much to Hellenic models, as the ancient writers had not tried to conceal, but whose style had been altered, coarsened many thought, in the processes of translation and adaptation, or to use the modern term ‘reception’.16 With knowledge of ancient Hellenic architecture now being recovered, was it not time to go back to the purity of the source?

The quest for universal laws of beauty, for an aesthetic free of contingency, for a ‘taste’ that all educated viewers could recommend, arrived in Athens from the west as part of the encounter when Athens was under Ottoman control. Although universalizing was also attempted for sculpture, and for representations of an ideal human body in particular, the most promising set of candidates were the ancient buildings. The architect, William Wilkins, who was to design many buildings in a neo-Hellenic style in England, recommended viewers to divest their minds of the associations of the Parthenon sculptures ‘and endeavour to consider them abstractedly as works of art’.17

The writer who can be regarded as high priest of the nineteenth-century cult of the western romantic aesthetic at its apogee as it was applied to ancient Athens was Walter Pater. He had intended to write an evidence-based historical book to supersede the speculative, psychological, and near-metaphysical ideas of Winckelmann, who never saw Greece and whose history of ancient art was compiled mainly from his experience of engravings and of white plaster casts, but as he drafted his chronological narrative of development, Pater was constantly being overtaken by events: ancient sites, including the Acropolis of Athens, were being excavated and new materials from other epochs of antiquity, both before and after, were found and described. Unlike some of his contemporaries, who thought that meaning inhered in the stones, Pater did occasionally give an active role to the viewer, as when he wrote: ‘the fire of the reasonable soul will kindle, little by little, up to the Theseus of the Parthenon and the Venus of Melos.’18 By using the word ‘reasonable’, Pater protected himself from the charge that he was universalizing a way of seeing that was specific to himself, to his social class, and to his historical situation. But, for all his qualifications, discursively he remained entrapped in the tradition of seeing the past as a parade of producers, with little interest in the experience of the ancient consumer. He was also a direct descendant of those who shivered and gushed at the first sight of the Acropolis in the long eighteenth century.19 In the name of ‘art’, always distinguished from non-art, he sacralized objects and then projected his own, largely predetermined, emotional reactions on to them, as if they offered an independent source of knowledge and moral education.

Venerating Pheidias: Attitudes Towards the Ancient Sculptor

It was a short hop from admiring the works to admiring the ‘artist’ who allegedly designed and made them. Rennell Rodd, later Sir Rennell, a British diplomat to Greece in the late nineteenth century, caught the romantic way of envisioning the role of Pheidias in a series of verses in a much-reprinted book, of which the following is an extract:

Here wrought the strong creator, and he laid

The marble on the limestone, in the crag

Morticed and sure foundations, line to line

And arc to arc repeating, as it grew;

Veiling the secret of its strength in grace,

Till like a marble flower in blue Greek air

Perfect it rose, an afterworld’s despair.

And here man made his most divine appeal

To the eternal in the heart of man,

The mute appeal of beauty, crying still

Dimly across the ages that are dumb.20

Rodd’s invocation acknowledges skill, experience, and training. But later in his book, he puts into the mouth of Pheidias, the ‘creator’, many of the sentiments associated with what came to be called ‘romantic agony’; those caught up in the rhetorics of romanticism preferred to think that Pheidias went up to Mount Olympus and learned truths direct from the gods, rather than that he was a successful member of the guild of visual-image makers, with long apprenticeships, traditions, trade secrets, managerial skills, and business practices.21

The ‘rapture’, a feeling allegedly experienced by the viewer, was soon being imputed to the artist of the rapture-inducing work, with Pheidias, who was both the maker of the cult statue and other works, and for a time the overseeing manager of the whole project, constructed as a unique genius, divinely inspired, as, for example, in a poem written by one of the visitors to the Parthenon when it became accessible after independence. ‘[Pheidias] touched the marble — willed — and it was done, /On godlike image stamped the godlike mind; His soul has past into the riven stone.’22 Pheidias was imagined as suffering from what were later to be called romantic agonies. As an extreme example, I offer an extract from a poem composed by an American who saw the Parthenon in 1839, six years after the Acropolis was vacated by the Ottoman army:

In olden time, when Art was young,

In Grecia’s ancient years of glory,

When Phidias wrought, and Homer sung

Lamented Troy’s too tragic story,

An artist, his creative will

To one sublime conception turning,

Dwelt on the loved idea, till

His brain with phrenzy’s heat was burning.

Then, from his genius-guided hand,

Came forth the spirit’s beau-ideal

Of human grace, so true that, fanned

To life, the mortal had been real.

‘Twas done—the artist’s work of pride!

He gazed awhile, in mute devotion,

Rushed to its arms, kissed, fell and died;

Yes, died, of over-wrought emotion.23

A substantial volume of fictional compositions, both verbal and visual, that celebrated the unique and unsurpassable genius of Pheidias could be compiled: pictures, works in verse, novels, imaginary conversations, and plays.24 Occasionally too, in addition to the many images of the Parthenon restored to its perfect state at the moment of completion, pictured usually as sterile as a hospital and as emptied of people as a papier-mâché model, we find attempts to imagine the construction work in progress as a social enterprise involving the whole city and real people. An example, composed by an unknown artist in Germany in the later nineteenth century, is reproduced as Figure 9.3.

Figure 9.3.’The building of the Parthenon’ by an unnamed artist in Germany, c.1880. Engraving of a composition by an unnamed artist in Germany, c.1880.25

Looking back, we can see that this image of Pheidias directing the building of the Parthenon is set within the ways of seeing and assumptions of its own time. Materially it claims, for example, the realism and truthfulness of the photograph, a technology then still new. Rhetorically, while at one level reminding its viewers that the Parthenon had to be designed and built with the participation of many agents besides Pheidias, and that there were not only material plans (‘paradeigmata’) but processes of approval and acceptance to be negotiated, it also presents the sculptors as copying direct from living models, from ‘life’, from ‘nature’ in accordance with romantic aesthetics retrospectively applied. The bodies of the living classical Athenians who are shown building the Parthenon are presented as looking much the same as the idealized bodies shown on the Parthenon frieze. Historically and factually this was an error, as was known to the producers of the book and the image, but rhetorically the youthful German viewers of the image were being encouraged to think of themselves as neo-Hellenes, with implications for their understanding of their imagined past as Aryans with a pedigree that they genealogically shared with the classical Greeks.26

And if the ancient Athenians allegedly resembled the cleansed marble-white Athenians pictured on the Parthenon, might the resemblance still be present in the contemporary population? So deeply internalised were the then modern constructions of the nature of ‘art’, and of the external markers of continuities of biological ‘race’ and nationality, that many saw what they expected to see, anecdotal observation appearing to confirm ideology. As was noticed by an American journalist around the same time: ‘Near old Ereso [in Lesbos] the women preserve the type of that indestructible beauty, and in the large brown eyes, voluptuous busts, and elastic gait one may deem that he sees the originals of the antique statues.’27 As an unnamed visitor to Aegina in 1879 wrote of the boys he saw there, perhaps revealing a greater affinity with the customs of ancient Athens than he realised: ‘we noticed more heads and faces of the type familiar to us in old Greek sculpture than we had met hitherto or were destined afterwards to meet in the Greece of today. Three or four of these young fellows, with their large eyes, low foreheads, finely-cut profiles, and luxuriant heads of hair, might have sat as models for the Pan-Athenaic procession with which Phidias adorned the frieze of the Parthenon.’28

For the opening of the First International Congress of Archaeology held at Athens in April 1905, the French School laid on a short verse play written by a famous writer of the time.29 Chez Pheidias, set on the ancient Acropolis, in front of the Parthenon follows the conventions of an ancient drama. The play opens with the ‘modern visitor’ conjuring up the ghost of Pheidias, who is addressed as a divine thinker in the reverential terms that romanticism had adopted from the language of religious prostration. Pheidias is at first irritated at being disturbed by an impious barbarian, but when he is introduced to the honest men from all quarters of the world, whose fervent desire is to save the remains of the Parthenon, the greatest masterpiece, he relents. Speaking in the third person, as befits a god-like genius, he reveals that ‘I Phidias of Athens, son of Charmides have had intimations of “the golden key of the infinite, the great second Law, the beginning and the end of the world.”’ To some listeners, his words may have been taken as a claim that he was almost a Christian avant la lettre, an idea that had long been applied to Socrates, and was being promoted by the many visitors to Athens at the same time as the Congress.30 Others may have heard the other late-nineteenth-century trope that Pheidias had shaped into marble the metaphysical ideas of Plato.31

Romanticism versus Reality

Romanticism’s discourses of individual genius, creativity, and of the autonomous artist as a seer standing outside society, a set of ideas that was always at odds with the empirical record, are still often deployed. Much modern writing silently accepts a distinction between ‘art’ and non-art, adopting a top-down socially divisive discourse in which one group of privileged talks with another, and tries to separate ‘art’, regarded as good partly because it disowns any overt wish to be regarded as a rhetoric, from ‘propaganda’ regarded as bad partly because its rhetorical purpose is less well concealed. As far as the ancient world is concerned, however, the main decisions on what should be made and displayed, as the plentiful record confirms, were taken not by ‘artists’ but by what in modern terms can be called the clients, the citizen officials appointed by the institutions of the city as part of its democracy. This can be acknowledged while also affirming that artists (among whom we may include architects, sculptors, painters, metal workers and others, in so far as such trades were differentiated) were important agents in the design as well as in the execution of the iconography of the Parthenon, and that some were far more skilled, more innovative, and more successful than others.

In classical Athens when the Parthenon was first designed and built, there was evidently little sense of romanticism in its modern eighteenth-and nineteenth-century sense, of ‘great art’ that offers timeless truths irrespective of context. The ancient Greek words commonly used for categorizing material objects that are today perceived of and presented as ‘works of art’ often contain the implied viewer and the implied purpose within the actual words and their cognates, as for example theoremata, agalmata, mnemeia ‘things to be viewed’, ‘things to be wondered at’, ‘things to be remembered—or perhaps even ‘things that cause you, the viewer, to look carefully, to feel awe, to remember’. The Greek words, which contain their associated dynamic verbs within them, and that are therefore, to an extent, consumer genres, are unlike the words used in modern languages such as ‘picture’, ‘statue’, or ‘monument’, which imply a static, bounded physicality and tend to exclude the human viewer as the co-maker of meanings. Indeed the notion of ‘art’ as a category that is applied to some objects and not to others, let alone of the ‘fine arts’ or the ‘plastic arts’, is probably more of a hindrance than a help if we wish to recover an understanding of the purpose and role of the Parthenon in classical Athens.32

Many of the systems of ancient production, which required the cooperation of agents with specialist skills including the making of visual images and the writing of poems and songs, appear to have been arranged in accordance with pre-modern guild systems. In such systems, as in later market-based systems, the client or patron who commissions the work and who is able to arrange the financing, whether a private individual or a collectivity such as the city of Athens, was always supreme, as was never likely to have been doubted by the ancient viewer who encountered the many inscriptions on the bases of ancient statues.33 In considering how the classical Parthenon came to be designed and constructed in form it took, it is therefore necessary to decolonize our minds and explanations from western romanticism and its rhetorics of explanation that are based on the individual genius of the ‘artist’.34 Emancipating ourselves from the chains of modern romanticism does not, it hardly need be emphasized, detract from the astonishing artistic achievement represented by the Parthenon. It does, however, require us to recall that this was a huge building for which the client was the Athenian city-state, and if we are to avoid the circularities of argumentation to which romanticism is liable, we must pay particular attention to recovering a historicized understanding of the aims of the collectivity that was the client, and to take account of how proposals to build the Parthenon were justified to the decision-takers, including those who authorized and commissioned the financing.35

1 The question was asked explicitly by Aberdeen, Earl of, An Inquiry into the Principles of Beauty in Grecian Architecture (London: Murray, 1822), 3. Aberdeen, already mentioned as a collector of antiquities in Chapter 6, was later, as British Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister, to play a role in the political settlement at the end of the Greek Revolution, as will be discussed in Chapter 18.

2 Cicero, de Finibus, 5.1.2.

3 Wheler, Journey, 360.

4 Frontispiece to volume 1 of du Heaume, Hippolyte, Voyage d’un Jeune Grec à Paris (Paris: Fr. Louis, 1824). Lith. De Cahier Pl[ac]e du [?] No. 30. Image slightly sharpened.

5 What I will call the perils of presentism are discussed in The Classical Parthenon, https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0279 and pursued in the subsequent chapters.

6 Aesthetica scripsit Alexand.Gottlieb Bavmgarten (Tubingen: Kleyb, 1750). He is not the Baumgarten who edited the universal history of 1745 that included images of the Acropolis buildings derived from Spon and Wheler, noted in the Bibliography.

8 An image of a real measuring rod is shown as Figure 26.8, with a discussion of the metaphorical use of the instruments and tools used in the building industry in ancient times for the acts of seeing and cognition themselves, as they were then misunderstood. The implications are explored in The Classical Parthenon, https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0279.

9 Linton, William, Scenery of Greece and its Islands (London: published privately by the artist, 1856), 5.

10 Wherry, Albinia, Greek Sculpture with Story and Song (London: Dent, 1898), 111.

11 For example: ‘l’école éternelle des architectes et des sculpteurs de tous les pays et de tous les temps.’ Breton, Ernest, de la Société Royale des Antiquaires de France, etc., etc., Monuments de tous les peuples, décrits et dessinés d’après les documents les plus modernes (Brussels: Librairie historique-artistique, 1843), ii, 424.

12 Wilson, John, ‘A Recommendation of the Study of the Remains of Ancient Grecian and Roman Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting’ in Oxford Prize Poems, being a collection of such English poems as have at various times obtained prizes in the University of Oxford, sixth edition (Oxford: Parker, 1819), 91.

13 Williams, Travels, ii, 314.

14 Catalogue of an Exhibition of Lithographs and Etchings of Grecian Temples by Joseph Pennell (New York: Frederick Keppell, 1913). Although, in some respects, Pennell remained indebted to the traditions of the picturesque, he described in words, as an ecphrasis to his own pictures, how he was bowled over by the geographical situation and its changing light.

15 Barry, Lieut-Col J.P., A.B. M.B., At the Gates of the East: A Book of Travel among Historic Wonderlands (London: Longman, 1906), 17.

16 For the limitations of ‘reception’ as a way of trying to understand the ancient past, see The Classical Parthenon, https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0279.

17 Wilkins, William, Atheniensia, or, Remarks on the Topography and Buildings of Athens (London: Murray, 1816), 117.

18 Pater, Walter, Greek Studies, A Series of Essays (London: Macmillan, 1895 and later editions), 230.

19 As discussed in Chapter 6.

20 Rodd, Rennell, The Violet Crown, and Songs of England (London: D. Scott, 1891), 12. The ‘violet crown’ as a quotation from Pindar, and the importance of the phrase for recovering an understanding of the Parthenon in classical Athens are discussed in The Classical Parthenon, https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0279.

21 Quoted from the Anthologia Planuda, epigram 81 by Davison, Claire Cullen, with the collaboration of Brite Lundgreen, edited by Geoffrey B. Waywell, Pheidias The Sculptures and Ancient Sources (London: Institute of Classical Studies, three volumes, 2009), ii, 916. Noted by a compiler of mainstream attitudes, Adams, W.H. Davenport, Temples, tombs, and monuments of ancient Greece and Rome. A description and a history of some of the most remarkable memorials of classical architecture (London: Nelson, 1871), 23.

22 Cochrane, Alexander Baillie, The Morea: with some Remarks on the Present State of Greece (London: Sauders and Ottley, 1840), 20.

23 Earle, Pliny, Marathon, and Other Poems (Philadelphia: Henry Perkins, 1841), 15. As another example: ‘He touched the marble—willed—and it was done, /On godlike image stamped the godlike mind; /His soul has past into the riven stone;— /Tis there, but like the lightning and the wind, We know not whence that innate power is won.’ Cochrane, Alexander Baillie, The Morea: with some Remarks on the Present State of Greece (London: Sauders and Ottley, 1840), 20.

24 For example, Beulé.

25 Frontispiece to volume 2 of Wägner, Wilhelm, Hellas (Leipzig and Berlin: Verlag von Otto Spamer, 5th revised edition by A. Dittmar, 1882).

26 The appropriation of the Parthenon and of other ancient Greek artifacts in support of nineteenth- and twentieth-century theories of essential racism is discussed in Chapter 23.

27 Warner, Charles Dudley, author of In the Levant (London: Samson Low 5th edition, after 1876), 270.

28 Anonymous, ‘A week in Athens’ in Blackwood’s Magazine, cxxviii, September 1880, 329. Instances of a lack of awareness of ‘Socratic love’ are noted in Chapter 22.

29 Blémont, Émile, Chez Pheidias, Poème Dramatique, Représenté à l’École française d’Athènes le 9 avril 1905 Premier Congrès internationale d’Archéologie (Paris: Lemerre, 1905).

30 As will be discussed in Chapter 22.

31 As described by, for example, Ellen Jane Harrison.

32 Discussed in The Classical Parthenon, https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0279.

33 Discussed with quantification, for free-standing dedicatory marble images found in Attica by Hochscheid, Helle, Networks of Stone: Sculpture and Society in Archaic and Classical Athens (Bern: Peter Lang AG, 2015).

34 Discussed with my suggestions of how we do that, and with what results, in The Classical Parthenon, https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0279.

35 Discussed in The Classical Parthenon.

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