This is my second short article on a theme of history of ideas.
I have first of all to give a definition of what I mean with the word ‘classicism’.
In my opinion, classicism is an interpretation of the classical past as fairy tale. Components of the classicistic dream are a land inhabited by deities, populated by heroes forever young and beautiful, in gardens or meadows or groves, because the classicistic dream implies the Arkadian dream. The driving forces of this dimension are love and beauty. It is hardly casual that the most beautiful lady of the world, Helen, provokes a mythical world war. Finally another basic component of the classicism is a rarefied atmosphere, an eternal present, a suspension of the time. What happens in that dimension is outside time and space, lives in the ubique et semper.
The yearning for this dimension can be detected already in late classical times, but becomes booming from the middle Hellenistic times onwards, through all the Roman imperial time, shrinks in late antiquity and throughout the middle age, but without disappearing completely, and triumphs from around 1350 (the Bucolicum carmen by Petrarch) until around 1780.
From the late XVIIIth century we have the neoclassicism which also is linked to antiquity, but advertizes a completely different ideal of life: so often martial, war-like, austere, full of heroes who fight for their country or for the typical abstract ideals of the enlightenment.
In my opinion three factors are the driving forces which established the classicism as the most impressive cultural phenomenon in Europe and in part also of the Near East.
The first factor is the same Greek mythology. It conveys the notion that the gods live in the very land in which we live our lives, the persons in the myths are unburdened by all the problems of commoners: they do not need to work for living, they can move to distant places without any problem, they are free to satisfy their basic instincts. Moreover as in all archaic societies, their wishes are naïve and simple, since they are impressed first of all by outstanding beauty. The Greek myth already encapsulates its hedonistic drift. Finally these heroes who live with the gods are still part of physical nature: they were born from stones and trees, there are beings which are half human half animals, they can become animals and return humans: there is not a clear split between humanity and nature.
The myth expresses the early, blessed phase of humanity, before the decline from the golden age to the silver one, then to the bronze one, then to that of the heroes until the actual and very gloomy Iron Age.
The second driving force is constituted by the visual arts from late classical times onwards: they depict an Olympus of extremely beautiful deities and heroes who are eternally teenagers. They advertize the utopia of being blessed forever. This shining gallery of figures expressing absolute happiness must have had an enormous and psychagogic impact on the minds of their public for all the rest of antiquity and even after when several of them were rediscovered: it is probably superfluous to mention the Belvedere Apollo, the Kallipygos Venus Farnese, the Capitoline and Medici Aphrodites etc. They conveyed the notion of antiquity as the kingdom of beauty and of a superior humanity.
Finally the third background of the flourishing of the classicism is the success of hedonistic philosophies. The goal of life is pleasure but – attention!!! – absolute blessedness does not – or no longer – inhabit our world, it is imagined to exist in a superior world, defined by Lucretius intermundia.
This mythical past, when gods and humans lived together, feeds another component of the classicistic dream: the nostalgia for this lost paradise which can be felt throughout many centuries.