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The Greek classical ideal: 5th - 4th century BC

Greece in the classical period makes the innovations which underlie the mainstream western tradition in art. This is true of both painting and sculpture.

The essential characteristic of classical Greek art is a heroic realism. Painters and sculptors attempt to reveal the human body, in movement or repose, exactly as it appears to the eye. The emphasis will be on people of unusual beauty, or moments of high and noble drama. But the technical ability to capture the familiar appearance of things is an innovation which can later be adapted to any subject.

Ancient Greek authors consider the paintings on the walls of public buildings, particularly temples, to be works of art as magnificent and important as anything created by the sculptors. But the fragility of the medium means that hardly any painting of this kind has survived (the murals unearthed at Vergina in 1977 provide one sensational exception).

We can acquire obliquely some idea of what has been lost. One method is through the designs on Greek vases, which survive in great numbers from the classical period. They represent a skilful and cartoon-like style of Greek drawing, and give some idea of the subjects chosen by Greek painters. But in their own time they are considered the work of craftsmen rather than artists.

It is possible to have a glimpse of early Greek art through Greece's influence on the Etruscans, in central Italy. The style of the pre-classical period in Greece can be seen in the many murals which have survived in Etruscan tombs. These are extremely lively in a stylized manner, very different from the realism of classical Greek art.

A splendid example from the 6th century BC is the inebriated pair of dancers from the Tomb of the Lionesses, in Tarquinia.

The Greek style in Pompeii and Egypt

Another way of approaching Greek painting is through later copies. Many have been preserved by the volcanic ash at Pompeii, where one mosaic in particular is considered an accurate version of a large picture of the late 4th century BC - when the classical period in Greece is just giving way to the Hellenistic Age.

It shows, in dramatic detail, a moment in the battle at Issus between Alexander the Great and the Persian king Darius. Even in mosaic (inevitably more stilted than painting), the image suggests the painter's skill in conveying a realistic impression of a very complex scene.

Pompeii is in origin a Greek city, and many of the painters of the murals come from the eastern Mediterranean. But it is also part of the Roman empire. Throughout the Roman world artists strive for this degree of realism - particularly in portraits, the art form which most interests the Romans. Again a historical accident has delivered some striking examples.

The dry sand of Egypt has preserved many superb paintings, placed in coffins from the 1st century AD. They are known as Fayyum portraits, from the place where most of them have been discovered. Painted in encaustic, a medium using hot wax, they give an intimate and moving glimpse of some of the men and women of Roman Egypt.

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