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Christopher Allen

The history of art history in the West over the past five hundred years is rich and complex and yet rests on clear historiographical foundations, themselves grounded in inescapable historical realities. Authors and artists in the Renaissance looked back to the civilisation of Greco-Roman antiquity, all but lost in the catastrophe of the fall of the Roman Empire and succeeded by centuries of dramatic cultural regression. They sought to regain the greatness of antiquity, and the bolder even hoped to surpass it.

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Giotto’s frescoes invite us to ponder the nature of what we instinctively, conveniently, but not very satisfactorily call realism. Compared to the work of his predecessors, these images have a new kind of material presence. Bodies become solid, take on mass and volume, and occupy space ...

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There are cases in which it seems, on the face of it, unambiguously right to restore stolen or misappropriated cultural objects to their original setting or at least to their last known address: we can think of the lamentable looting of museums and archaeological sites during the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and the riots of ...

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Palmyra: An irreplaceable treasure by Paul Veyne, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan

March 2018, no. 399

France’s higher education system can seem arcane to outsiders, especially those from the English-speaking world. Although the Sorbonne is coeval with Oxford and Cambridge, there is far greater prestige in attending one of the Grandes Écoles such as Polytechnique or the École Normale Supérieure, only accessible by notoriously ...

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Mary Beard’s new history of Rome, reviewed here in March 2016, ended at the point where Edward Gibbon began his great Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in what he called the happy age of the Antonines. That is also where Michael Kulikowski takes up the story in this book, the first of two intended volumes, although, as he admits, he will not follow Gi ...

Empires of a thousand years’ duration are not common in the history of the world. Adolf Hitler’s dream of a thousand-year Reich evaporated after little more than a decade, and Napoleon’s conquests were not much more lasting. Even the Roman Empire, depending on the dates we set for its beginning and ending, succumbed to internal decline and barbarian invasion a ...

At the very bottom of Hell, Dante represents Satan with three mouths, each of which endlessly devours a figure personifying treachery and rebellion against God. One of these, predictably enough, is Judas. What may be surprising to the modern reader is that the other two are Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar. In the medieval vision of the universe an ...

Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong

February 2014, no. 358

Art, in all its diverse manifestations, from storytelling to picture-making, from singing and dancing to poetry, is as distinctive and universal an activity of the human mind as language. It is, in essence, a way of thinking about the world, of shaping experience as it is felt to be and reshaping it as it could be, that long predates the development of rational reflection. Stories have been told for thousands of years, perhaps tens of thousands; philosophical and scientific thought begins, for practical purposes, around 2500 years ago.

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When the intellectuals, writers, and artists of the Renaissance sought a theoretical basis for the new styles they were developing – at a time when the new meant all’antica and the term modern was still coloured by associations with the Middle Ages – they found that ancient sources were relatively abundant in some areas and scarce or non-existent in others. Poets could find inspiration in Horace’s Ars Poetica, and later in Aristotle’s Poetics. And there was a wealth of material on rhetoric – Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian, Tacitus – in fact an abundance out of all proportion to the practice of the art in an age when public speaking was represented by sermons and university lectures rather than by the deliberative and forensic oratory that were the lifeblood of Greece and Rome.

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When Confucius was asked by his disciples how they should become wise, he would enjoin them to study the classics; over two millennia later and much closer to home, Winckelmann declared that it was only by imitating the supreme masterpieces of the Greeks that we too might one day become inimitable – putting his finger on the paradox that the greatest originality always has deep roots in the past.

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