Neoclassicism

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What are the basic similarities and differences between classicism and neoclassicism?

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Neoclassicism is a modern revival of the aesthetics and ideas of classical Greece and Rome, which are known as classicism. Because neoclassicism is purposefully meant to evoke classicism, there is not very much outward difference between the two. Neoclassicists were imitators of the notions that the ancients had developed centuries earlier.

Let's look at literature to compare the two. Both genres put a heavy emphasis on the role of the individual within a highly functioning society. Classical Athenian writers of philosophy, comedy, and tragedy wrote extensively on this topic. We can see this in the plays of Aristophanes and Sophocles and particularly in the writings of Plato. Neoclassicists continued this tradition, as seen in the writings of such nineteenth-century writers as Costache Aristia and Ion Luca Caragiale. These neoclassical writers, as well as many others, often strove to embody the classical unities, as laid out by Aristotle in Poetics.

Differences can be seen between these two eras in the role of fate and reason in their writings. For classical writers, fate was determined by the gods, and humans were merely subjects of a higher divine will. The gods were active players in these stories and controlled the will of the human characters. Neoclassicists, by contrasts, were much more focused on human reason and practical notions. Divine will is rare in neoclassical writings. This change largely grew out of the humanist philosophies that emerged during the Renaissance. As such, characters in neoclassical literature are much more in control of their fate than those in the writings of classical authors.

Classicism and neoclassicism embody many other fields of art as well. From fashion and architecture to music and sculpture, neoclassicists imitated much of the work of their Greek and Roman predecessors. Much of this was inspired by nineteenth-century excavation of the well-preserved Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and was implemented as a response to the baroque and rococo aesthetic of the eighteenth century. What we can see in neoclassicism is an attempt to take classical truths and update them to fit the modern world.

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The differences between these terms relate largely to time periods but also to some conceptual differences.

From the late Middle Ages, and especially in Renaissance Italy, renewed interest in and reverence for ancient Rome and Greece took hold. Imitations and adaptations of ancient buildings and architecture detail were prominent. In art, the influence of Bernini became well established. The principles that Europeans identified in ancient ideas, including literature and law, were also admired.

Neoclassicism gained hold of Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. One important influence on the rise of neoclassicism was Napoleon Bonaparte's fascination with the Roman Empire, but its earlier roots were well established in Enlightenment ideas, such as interest in republican political structure.

Neoclassical developments extended beyond Europe and influenced all aspects of American society and culture in the late colonial to early independence eras.

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This is, to a degree, a problem of terminology. The term "classical" refers to Graeco-Roman antiquity, a period of slightly over a thousand years, beginning in archaic Athens and ending with the fall of the Roman Empire. Of course, artists in antiquity didn't think of what they were doing as "classicism"; they were simply creating what was, for them, contemporary art.

The term "classicism" began to gain traction on the Renaissance, reflecting a return to the ideals of classical antiquity and rejection of medieval style and values. The term "Renaissance" itself is simply a French word meaning "rebirth"; what was being reborn was classical antiquity.

The movement generally termed "neoclassicism" developed in the eighteenth century. The prefix "neo-" means "new." In other words, this was a "new" form of classicism, differing from the earlier classicism of the Renaissance.

The main characteristic of Augustan classicism was the value placed on reason and restraint. It especially valued Horace and the poets of Augustan Rome. It believed in symmetry, harmony, and imitation of nature in art and saw this as compatible with imitation of the great masters of antiquity; Pope famously said:

But when t' examine ev'ry part he came,.

Nature and Homer were, he found, the same.

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Claissicalism represents aesthetic attitudes and principles based on the cultural contributions of ancient Greece and Rome. Classicalism is strongly concerned with society, specifically with a reasoned, civilized, modern society that draws definite distinctions between good and bad. This idea of strict ordering is dependant upon notions of individual objectivity and formal correctness. The details of works were often rather convoluted, much to the self-aggrandizement of the artist.

Neoclassicalism was a movement in the arts which was largely concerned with the "art of the ideal." Details of works were often forcibly constrained to simplistic renderings, and largely geometric composition came into favor. Many neoclassical artists sought inspiration from Greek artists, specifically their portrayal of emotional content, and a concept of naturalism was tightly woven throughout many of their works.

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