The Classical Revolution Treasures of Ancient Greece


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The Classical Revolution

Alastair Sooke unpicks the reasons behind the dazzling revolution that gave birth to classical Greek art, asking how the Greeks got so good so quickly.


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In August 1972, a holiday-maker from Rome

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was snorkelling off the southern coast of Italy.

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At a depth of about seven metres,

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he saw what he believed was a human hand sticking out of the seabed.

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When he touched it, he realised it was the hand of a statue.

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There was another buried nearby.

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When the statues were hauled up to dry land,

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it was plain that he'd discovered something amazing -

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two perfect, life-sized Ancient Greek bronze warriors.

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These two magnificent bronze warriors are unmistakably Greek.

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Naked, athletic, sensuous male bodies,

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with an aura of heroism and grandeur.

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Staggering workmanship, total mastery of technique.

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And they were made nearly 500 years before Christ,

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when our ancestors in Britain were still living in wooden huts.

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Yet what is even more astonishing is that just one generation earlier

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sculptures like these simply weren't possible.

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Greek artists weren't capable of producing such top-quality,

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closely observed works of art.

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And then, suddenly, they were.

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So how did the Ancient Greeks get so good so fast?

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In the 5th century BC,

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something extraordinary occurred in Greece

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that would change the course of Western culture.

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This was the golden age of Classical art.

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A time of dazzling advances in technique,

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from casting in bronze...

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..to carving in marble.

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From painting to pottery.

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At its heart was a passion for the human figure

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and a new sense of what art could do.

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We're still feeling the effects of what happened here

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2,500 years later.

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The art of Classical Greece coming, it seems, out of nowhere

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is more dazzling, more realistic and more beautiful than ever before.

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It's been called the Greek Revolution.

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But how and why did that revolution happen?

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The answer is more surprising, much stranger

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and more exciting than we imagine.

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These are the remains

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of some of the finest temples in the Ancient Greek world.

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But they're not in Greece, they're in Sicily, at Agrigento,

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in the so-called Valley of the Temples.

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Once, they formed part of one of the most powerful cities

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in the Greek world.

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A world that extended further and further beyond the shores of Greece.

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The Greek philosopher Plato

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once compared the independent communities of Greeks

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scattered along the shores of the Mediterranean

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to "frogs around a pond".

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By the 5th century BC,

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Greece was not so much a country in the modern sense

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as an extensive network of hundreds of rival colonies

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and powerful city-states,

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all of them trading, bickering,

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but also sharing vital customs, attitudes and religious beliefs

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as well as language.

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The Greeks at Agrigento were proud of their city.

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They built no fewer than seven monumental temples,

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dedicated to different gods, overlooking the sea.

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Around the sides of temples like these,

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Greek craftsmen carved scenes from the lives of the gods.

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But in the 5th century BC they began to do things very differently.

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A visit to the archaeological museum in Palermo

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gives you a sense of how radical that change was.

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Here's the old way of doing things.

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This relief from a temple nearby shows Zeus, the king of the gods,

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in the shape of a bull, carrying off the beautiful Europa

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with whom he has fallen in love.

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It was carved in the 6th century BC, around the year 550.

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Like a lot of Greek art at this time,

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the scene is presented in a strong yet simple fashion.

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The figures occupy the same plane

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as the surface of the original block of stone

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and almost everything is presented in profile.

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Except for the bull's head, which is turned impossibly to the front.

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To modern eyes, art like this can look naive, even primitive.

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The shapes are blocky and crude

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and though poor old Europa's being dragged away by force,

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there's precious little emotion on her face.

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Then just 100 years later and the stone leaps into life.

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In this temple relief, something really remarkable is happening.

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It depicts a moment from a very grisly myth,

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when the hunter Aktaion is torn apart by his own hounds

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after offending the goddess Artemis.

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Aktaion is bowing his head, succumbing to this brutal fate,

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as one animal already crunches its jaws into his side.

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And on the right, semi-throttled by Aktaion,

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while still clawing at his shoulder and his flank,

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is this bravura piece of carving,

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a frenzied, sharp-fanged hound,

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imagined at the maximum moment of bloodlust,

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one aerodynamic ear flattened by the speed of his attack.

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What we're witnessing

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is a sharp contrast with the art of 100 years before -

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movement, psychological tension, expression, and a sense of drama.

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Just what caused this shift

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is a question that has challenged art historians for centuries.

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One motivating factor was undoubtedly competition,

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the fierce desire of the Greeks in places like Sicily

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to outshine rival city-states in the wider Greek world

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in art, in building, at athletic competitions.

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One activity brought out this competitive streak like no other.

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This little silver coin gives us a clue.

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It dates from around 470BC and it's from this part of the world -

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the western colonial frontier of Ancient Greece.

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It shows a charioteer competing in one of the games.

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He's wearing an ankle-length robe and he's driving these horses.

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We know they must be thoroughbred racing horses because they have

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beautifully elegant, thin legs and these manicured manes.

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Four-horse chariot racing was the most prestigious and expensive sport

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of the Ancient Greek athletic games.

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It's been called the Formula 1 of its day.

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And Sicilian rulers were obsessed with it.

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They loved to compete but, even more, they loved to win

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and they recorded their victories on coins like these.

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It was a simple but ostentatious way of signalling their elite status,

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showing off that they were more Greek

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than the Greeks back home in the old world.

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The tiny island of Motya lies off Sicily's western coast.

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In 1979, archaeologists made a discovery here that laid bare

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that spirit of creative competition.

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They found a work that, in the 5th century BC,

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dramatically raised the bar of artistic ambition.

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Only one word begins to do justice to the effect of this sculpture -

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swagger.

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We are looking at an aristocrat and an athlete,

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probably a victorious charioteer.

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He's fully aware of his vigour,

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his physical power and sexual charisma.

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He's revelling in his recent triumph.

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As a figure, he's dripping with attitude and brazen self-display,

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like a strutting peacock.

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And, like a peacock, he is something of a dandy.

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Because, artistically,

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the secret weapon of this statue is what he's wearing -

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this high-belted, diaphanous robe,

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shrink-wrapping his still-sweaty muscles

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and revealing every last contour and swelling,

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leaving very little indeed to the imagination.

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All those swooping, darting, sinuous folds and crinkles,

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which have been carved

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with such a breathtaking new naturalism and subtlety

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so that they cascade down his body with the ease of water,

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they all caress and, therefore, emphasise his form,

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like underlining the most important passages in a book.

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This is no god but a wealthy, successful individual,

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one with the money to pay an artist for something very special.

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Victory statues like this

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would spur Greek sculptors to push their skills to the limit

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In terms of art history,

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the Motya charioteer seems to have come out of nowhere -

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this glorious apparition, a messenger

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announcing the sudden victory of the revolution with a flourish.

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Once announced, there could be no going back.

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Greek art would be fired into striving

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for greater and greater realism...

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..and a new sense of dramatic possibility.

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There are many possible causes for the Greek Revolution,

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but one of the strongest candidates has to be technique.

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The question is - did Greek artists begin to create lifelike images

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simply because they wanted to?

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Or did new techniques encourage artistic experimentation?

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What's certain is that in the competitive atmosphere of the time,

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new ways of creating art were developing at astonishing speed.

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Take a remarkable technique that was perfected sometime around 500BC.

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A way of casting life-size statues in bronze

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known as the lost wax technique.

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-Hello. Alastair.

-Vassilis.

-Vassillis, hi.

-Petros.

-Petros.

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Great to meet you both.

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'Vassilis and Petros have agreed to show me

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'how to make a bronze statue the Ancient Greek way.

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'First, the statue is modelled in clay

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'and encased in plaster to make a mould.'

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Part of the mould comes off quite easily. Very easily.

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'Inside the mould is the imprint of the statue.'

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You've made your model with clay, you've got all of your moulds,

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what's the next part of the process?

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TRANSLATION:

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'This plaster cast will be used to make a hollow wax statue.

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'The wax is poured out,

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'leaving a film of wax clinging to the inside of the mould.

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'When the model has set,

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'the mould comes off to release the hollow wax model inside.'

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So...now we have one wax warrior,

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and he's hollow.

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Amazing. It's really very ingenious indeed.

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'The hollow wax figure will be filled

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'with sand and plaster to make a solid core inside.

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'A second mould, in plaster, is made to encase the model.

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'When it's fired in a kiln, the wax melts away,

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'leaving a thin, statue-shaped cavity between the two moulds

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'and into that cavity goes the molten bronze.

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'It is then left to cool.

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'After a couple of hours, the mould is chipped away

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'and the sculpture revealed.

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'Finally, it can be cleaned and polished,

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'the end of a long and sometimes uncertain process.'

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The whole process, this bit, is unbelievably dramatic!

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Do you still find it very exciting to watch it?

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Though the process looks complicated, the technique is a gift to artists.

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Bronze is a much more fluid and forgiving medium than marble,

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and better suited for achieving tiny, refined details on the surface,

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so it allowed sculptors to experiment and innovate like never before.

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Some time in the 5th century BC, the Ancient Greeks

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took bronze casting to a dazzling new level of artistry.

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For proof, let's look again at those enigmatic figures

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found on the seabed some 40-odd years ago.

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If the Motya charioteer is a tease,

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then these warriors are a revelation.

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The best works of art have a palpable charisma.

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Sometimes it's hard to explain why,

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but you know it when you see it

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and these two have got that X-factor.

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The details of both sculptures are extraordinary.

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Veins snaking across muscles,

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intricate locks of curling hair...

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..copper nipples,

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copper lips with silver teeth...

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..and those inlaid eyes with delicate foil lashes.

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And crucially, they're not identikit warriors,

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spewed from some workshop assembly line.

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Instead, each figure has a distinct identity.

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This one, he is vigorous, alert, tense, toned,

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the height of manliness with his shoulders back, his teeth bared.

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He is practically growling.

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His companion has a much more droopy quality.

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Look at the sloping shoulders,

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the slightly soft musculature...

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..a much more languid, sinuous pose,

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and just a hint of a depressive expression.

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Inside the contours of this guy, there's something new,

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a quivering sense of psychology -

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hesitant, a touch melancholic perhaps.

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Looking at these two figures,

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it seems self-evident that

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unprecedented accomplishments in bronze casting

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must have been a driving force behind the Greek Revolution,

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or at least an intimate part of it.

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The subtlety, the fluidity and the speed of bronze

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allowed Greek artists to experiment.

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And the forms they created were radically dynamic.

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The Greek Revolution wasn't confined to the sculptor's studio.

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It would become part of daily Greek life...

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..and find expression in a much lowlier, more everyday art form.

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In fact, it may even have started here, with pots.

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Pots, like all of these vases, drinking cups and storage jars,

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they weren't high-status objects in antiquity, unlike sculptures.

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A simply decorated pot might have cost

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the equivalent of two or three days' wages in the 6th century.

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But the funny thing is that the highly competitive artists

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who made and decorated these pots

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may have been in the vanguard of the Greek Revolution,

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blazing a trail for the sculptors who followed.

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Since the 7th century BC,

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there had been a standard way of decorating pots.

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The scene was painted on in clay that, when fired, turned black,

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then details were cut into it with a sharp instrument.

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This was known as black-figure.

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It's a style that's bold, linear, graphic.

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But then, as with bronze, new developments in technique

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offered exciting possibilities.

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Around 530BC,

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one Athenian vase painter decided to try something different,

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to become experimental.

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This is one of his pots.

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On one side, there's a scene in a straightforward black-figure style,

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showing Ajax and Achilles silhouetted in black against a red background

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as they are playing dice.

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But if you turn the pot around...

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..then there's another scene on the other side of it,

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this time a different moment from mythology

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showing Herakles battling a lion.

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But the technique is entirely new.

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The artist here has created the figures using the red,

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and the background has become black.

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We don't know what inspired this artist to try out this new technique.

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It's possible that he just wanted to stand out from his rivals.

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But a bilingual pot, as this is known,

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would have been a way

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of demonstrating that technique for customers.

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And the new technique would liberate vase-painting

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to new levels of sophistication.

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With red-figure vases,

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the details of the image are painted on,

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not scratched on with a metal point.

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Watching one being made, before it's fired,

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you can see how delicate and expressive the artist can be.

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This technique gives her a new, painterly freedom,

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particularly when describing the human figure.

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She's embellished the figures with a fine brush.

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Now she's filling in the background,

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that watered-down clay will turn black when fired in a kiln.

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She adds details.

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This man's curly ringlets...

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or slender curving strokes to suggest the muscles on this warrior's leg.

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Here it is once it's been fired.

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It shows Greek warriors slaughtering the citizens of Troy.

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That's blood on their bodies.

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But look, too, at the way that this sleeve falls on this man's arm,

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it's transparent, almost like gauze.

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And compared to the flat blocks of black-figure painting,

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the effect is much more realistic, almost three dimensional.

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This new freedom of technique

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allowed artists to expand their subjects.

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And it's exactly about this time that artists begin to experiment.

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Not just the old heroic stories from mythology,

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but now scenes of everyday life.

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Even scenes of drunken debauchery, in honour of the wine god Dionysus...

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..a gathering otherwise known as a symposium.

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Now if a symposium to you suggests earnest philosophers debating

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the point of existence, forget it.

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A symposium was a male drinking session.

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Nothing brought out the darker side of the Greek imagination

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like the symposium.

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By day, Apollo guided the Greeks,

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presiding over everything that was orderly and rational.

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But by night, it was the turn of Dionysus and the irrational.

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With booze came the promise of sex.

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And to help get the party going,

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Greek artists developed a racy new art form - the symposium pot.

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Symposium pots were a real gift to artists

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because they offered endless creative possibilities

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for all sorts of ambiguity, role playing, puns, double meaning.

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Mischief essentially.

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But there was a catch - you had to drink to the bottom of the bowl

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to discover what was painted there.

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And, of course, I've now obscured entirely

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the painting that's at the bottom of the pot but I'll give it a go.

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It does encourage quite big gulps, it's a very wide bowl.

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There is am important point here.

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Too often, we look at art in a detached way

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and it's important to remember that ancient artworks,

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objects like these, were made for purpose, they had a function.

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So to really understand them, arguably,

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you have to try and use them, like this.

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Maybe that's part of the point of these works of art.

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They are meant to be a surprise.

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You come into the room, lie down on your couch,

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you're handed one of these bowls, it's full of liquid

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and you get down to the bottom and, by the time you have,

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it's like looking into a mirror, you see a reflection and what

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you're looking at is your Dionysiac self writ large, kind of literally.

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Here the picture is,

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the painting at the bottom,

0:28:310:28:33

a satyr with a large erection,

0:28:330:28:37

a horse's tail to one side,

0:28:370:28:40

and he has amorous desires clearly, he's chasing a woman,

0:28:400:28:45

a maenad I guess, a follower of Dionysus

0:28:450:28:48

because she's wearing a panther skin and not much else.

0:28:480:28:52

She's got this rather large stick...

0:28:520:28:55

looks like a kind of mop, I think it's known as a thyrsus,

0:28:550:28:59

which she's using to tickle the satyr.

0:28:590:29:02

And, although she's resisting, it's still a bit of a come-on.

0:29:030:29:07

Clearly the whole mood evoked by this

0:29:070:29:10

is that there's going to be a happy ending to the evening.

0:29:100:29:15

The Greek Revolution -

0:29:250:29:27

a bold shift of style towards a more lifelike kind of art -

0:29:270:29:31

spanned the full range of human experience.

0:29:310:29:35

From the foibles of sexual desire

0:29:350:29:38

to the highest aspirations of the spirit.

0:29:380:29:41

And they found common ground in the Greek obsession with the human body.

0:29:420:29:47

The Greeks put man at the very centre of the universe.

0:29:510:29:54

You can see it in their visual arts

0:29:540:29:56

where their gods and goddesses resemble splendid men and women.

0:29:560:30:00

In idealising the human body, the Greeks felt

0:30:040:30:07

that they could come close to achieving artistic perfection.

0:30:070:30:11

One sculptor certainly thought so.

0:30:170:30:20

His name was Polykleitos.

0:30:200:30:23

Working in the middle of the 5th century BC,

0:30:230:30:27

he would have a profound effect on Greek art

0:30:270:30:30

and, indeed, on all later Western art.

0:30:300:30:32

You can't have a discussion about the ideal male Greek nude

0:30:360:30:41

without considering this fellow -

0:30:410:30:43

the Doryphoros, or spear-bearer, of Polykleitos.

0:30:430:30:47

He must be one of the most carefully

0:30:510:30:54

and subtly conceived sculptures ever created.

0:30:540:30:58

He looks like a virile youth with a large head.

0:31:030:31:07

But he is more than just a straightforward illusion

0:31:070:31:10

of flesh and blood.

0:31:100:31:12

He is also an essay in order and proportion,

0:31:120:31:17

a meticulously composed scheme,

0:31:170:31:19

a blueprint, if you like, for how the nude youth should look

0:31:190:31:24

in order to be as pleasing as possible for the Greek eye.

0:31:240:31:28

The pose is crucial.

0:31:300:31:33

It's known as contrapposto, a figure at rest,

0:31:330:31:36

with the weight shifted onto one leg,

0:31:360:31:39

so that one hip rises up assertively

0:31:390:31:41

while the other one dips under gravity.

0:31:410:31:45

All of the elements of the body

0:31:450:31:46

are arranged in this complex system of balance and tension.

0:31:460:31:51

The arm above the slack leg is tense,

0:31:520:31:55

while the one above the weight-bearing leg is relaxed,

0:31:550:31:59

creating a sort of compositional X.

0:31:590:32:02

The anatomy is very symmetrical, architectural,

0:32:030:32:08

rigid, even, like a breastplate, rather than true to life.

0:32:080:32:11

The penis is modest and restrained.

0:32:130:32:16

And the gaze is calm and detached,

0:32:160:32:19

as though we've left behind the real world

0:32:190:32:22

and entered some lofty realm of art.

0:32:220:32:25

But the most influential innovation of all was this.

0:32:310:32:35

It's a lifted heel.

0:32:380:32:39

Something that implies spontaneity, in-the-moment relaxation,

0:32:390:32:44

which was absent from, say, the flat-footed Riace bronzes.

0:32:440:32:49

This heel was Polykleitos's masterstroke.

0:32:500:32:54

For some tastes, the Doryphoros is that little bit too contrived,

0:32:580:33:03

just a touch self-conscious,

0:33:030:33:05

but Polykleitos did manage to codify and distil

0:33:050:33:09

a large number of complex elements into a single, elegant composition,

0:33:090:33:15

like a beautiful piece of algebra.

0:33:150:33:17

Polykleitos believed he'd discovered the exact proportions of the body

0:33:240:33:27

that expressed artistic perfection.

0:33:270:33:30

"Perfection," he said,

0:33:330:33:35

"comes about little by little through many numbers."

0:33:350:33:38

He even wrote down his calculations in a treatise

0:33:400:33:43

that unfortunately hasn't survived.

0:33:430:33:45

It's a really significant moment in the history of art -

0:33:480:33:52

an artist reflecting on what he does and then theorising about it.

0:33:520:33:57

It's as if Polykleitos was interested in art,

0:33:570:34:01

the pursuit of perfection, for its own sake.

0:34:010:34:04

Thanks to him, it was now legitimate

0:34:040:34:07

to consider people making images in the ancient world

0:34:070:34:10

not as craftsmen, but as artists.

0:34:100:34:13

Polykleitos became known as the man who defined Classical art,

0:34:170:34:22

an art based on ideals of restraint, proportion and harmony.

0:34:220:34:27

This fascination with the idealised male body was a powerful factor

0:34:290:34:34

in the Greek Revolution.

0:34:340:34:36

It led to a kind of heightened naturalism never seen before.

0:34:370:34:41

The Classical style had arrived

0:34:440:34:47

and would become the bedrock of Western art.

0:34:470:34:50

If Polykleitos was the man who codified the art of Classical Greece,

0:34:590:35:04

then the place where it found its highest expression

0:35:040:35:08

was the city-state of Athens.

0:35:080:35:10

In the 5th century BC,

0:35:120:35:14

Athens dominated Greek art and philosophy, drama and politics.

0:35:140:35:19

The Athenians pioneered a new and unique system of government -

0:35:210:35:25

democracy.

0:35:250:35:27

They were extremely, even fanatically, proud of it,

0:35:270:35:30

though the only people allowed to vote were free men.

0:35:300:35:34

They were even prouder of their military power.

0:35:350:35:38

They had just driven out their mortal enemies, the Persians.

0:35:380:35:43

In 480BC, the Persians had trashed the sacred heart of the city -

0:35:430:35:49

the Acropolis.

0:35:490:35:51

The site lay untouched for years, an Athenian Ground Zero.

0:35:510:35:56

And when they rebuilt it, it was with reborn ambition.

0:35:560:36:00

Everything about the extensive building project

0:36:190:36:22

on the Acropolis was grandiose.

0:36:220:36:24

It was a showpiece, really,

0:36:240:36:26

that expressed the wealth and power of the Athenian empire.

0:36:260:36:30

Elaborate artworks adorned the temple-cum-treasury of the Parthenon.

0:36:310:36:36

At either end, in the pediments,

0:36:360:36:38

there were grand sculptures portraying the gods.

0:36:380:36:41

And, wrapped around the exterior of the building,

0:36:410:36:44

there were dramatic sculpted panels showing mythological scenes.

0:36:440:36:48

Even in antiquity, the Parthenon was recognised

0:36:550:36:58

as perhaps the most perfect Greek temple ever built, bringing together

0:36:580:37:02

all the Classical ideals of order, symmetry and geometrical proportion.

0:37:020:37:07

But running around the building's inner block was something new -

0:37:140:37:17

an elaborate frieze that was 160 metres long.

0:37:170:37:21

Some of the Parthenon's sculptures are just breathtaking.

0:37:270:37:31

Was there ever a horse's head with as much nervous energy as this one?

0:37:330:37:37

Look at this goddess, probably Aphrodite,

0:37:390:37:42

her clothes cling to her in sensuous folds that beguile the eye.

0:37:420:37:47

But there's a mystery to much of what is here.

0:37:530:37:55

The really surprising thing about the Parthenon sculptures

0:38:010:38:05

is that no-one knows what they represent.

0:38:050:38:08

There are lots of theories, some more outlandish than others.

0:38:090:38:14

But this is arguably the most famous work of Ancient Greek art

0:38:140:38:20

and it still leaves us perplexed.

0:38:200:38:22

Take the frieze.

0:38:240:38:26

We can see that it dramatises a great procession,

0:38:260:38:31

mingling citizens and also gods,

0:38:310:38:34

yet its precise significance is still elusive.

0:38:340:38:37

But in a broad sense,

0:38:420:38:44

the overriding message of the frieze is pretty clear.

0:38:440:38:48

The giveaway is the manner in which the figures have been sculpted.

0:38:480:38:53

Look at the faces of these skilled horsemen

0:38:530:38:55

who once thundered along the northern side of the temple.

0:38:550:38:59

They are all so similar -

0:38:590:39:01

strangely blank, uniformly beautiful, and idealised.

0:39:010:39:06

They're certainly not portraits of individuals.

0:39:070:39:12

But, cumulatively, they offer a vision of a well-drilled community

0:39:120:39:16

with a really powerful sense of its own identity.

0:39:160:39:20

So this is art as a glorious statement of political togetherness.

0:39:230:39:29

The Classical style has become the servant of Athenian self-confidence.

0:39:290:39:35

In this sense, a social revolution had stimulated an artistic one.

0:39:400:39:45

These identikit citizens seem to be riding towards a glorious future.

0:39:490:39:54

Democratic Athens lavished money

0:40:110:40:14

on huge public projects like the Parthenon.

0:40:140:40:17

But there's another side to Greek art, less well known, perhaps,

0:40:180:40:23

but, to me, equally beautiful.

0:40:230:40:25

One that has nothing to do

0:40:250:40:27

with the triumphalist carvings up there on the Acropolis.

0:40:270:40:30

This is the site of the Kerameikos cemetery.

0:40:330:40:37

It's where 5th-century Athenians buried their dead.

0:40:370:40:41

And when democratic Athens was at its self-promoting height,

0:40:410:40:45

it banned grave monuments that were considered too ostentatious,

0:40:450:40:49

so no big statues, no great sarcophagi.

0:40:490:40:53

Ordinary people were now buried here, not just the elite,

0:40:540:40:57

and space was confined.

0:40:570:41:00

Some Athenians developed a much more modest, more intimate way

0:41:000:41:03

of remembering their loved ones.

0:41:030:41:05

One artist in particular pioneered

0:41:170:41:19

a new, restrained and melancholy sort of art.

0:41:190:41:23

If you think all Greek pots look the same, then look again

0:41:340:41:38

because works of art like this

0:41:380:41:41

with their exquisite draughtsmanship

0:41:410:41:43

and colour against a white background

0:41:430:41:46

are unusual.

0:41:460:41:47

One of the masters of the genre was the man who painted this

0:41:480:41:52

and he specialised in simple, serene scenes.

0:41:520:41:56

Intimate, domestic moments like this one

0:41:560:41:59

where we see a wife and her husband taking his leave.

0:41:590:42:02

Look at the subtle use of colour to evoke that delicacy,

0:42:030:42:07

the transparency of the top worn by the woman.

0:42:070:42:12

And that woman, she's beautiful.

0:42:120:42:15

She's almost imperious, empowered,

0:42:150:42:19

because her expression looks yearning, perhaps even reproachful,

0:42:190:42:25

but she emits poise with that relaxed arm slung over the back of her chair.

0:42:250:42:30

There's no question this woman is the equal of her partner.

0:42:340:42:38

And as he holds out his helmet, just look down at the bottom

0:42:380:42:42

where, sweetly, they are playing this game of footsie.

0:42:420:42:47

Crucially, her foot is on top of his.

0:42:470:42:50

What a telling, powerful, psychological detail.

0:42:520:42:55

It's so sad. She doesn't want to let him go.

0:42:550:42:58

It's a really tender note,

0:43:000:43:02

everything that the big, public monuments

0:43:020:43:04

of Classical Athens were not,

0:43:040:43:06

as this couple prepare for departure, for war, and beyond.

0:43:060:43:11

For centuries, art historians argued that the Greek Revolution

0:43:220:43:26

grew directly out of the triumph of Athenian democracy.

0:43:260:43:30

But surely it's much more complex than that.

0:43:320:43:36

The truth is it was more a question of everything coming together

0:43:360:43:40

at the same extraordinary moment.

0:43:400:43:43

Political power of course but, also, new techniques in making art,

0:43:430:43:48

a novel, sensuous awareness of the human body,

0:43:480:43:52

terrific competitiveness between artists and craftsmen,

0:43:520:43:56

and an exhilarating sense of unique Greek identity.

0:43:560:44:01

The great age of Athens would last for a century and a half.

0:44:050:44:09

But Greek city-states were frequently at war.

0:44:110:44:14

Athenian might would eventually fall to a hostile power.

0:44:160:44:20

From Greece's mountainous northern region known as Macedonia

0:44:360:44:40

came a dynasty of warrior kings.

0:44:400:44:43

By the middle of the 4th century BC,

0:44:430:44:45

Athens and most of Greece had been brought under their sway.

0:44:450:44:49

Here in 1977, archaeologists made an extraordinary discovery.

0:44:530:44:59

Deep in a hillside near the small town of Vergina,

0:45:010:45:05

they unearthed the royal burial site of Macedon,

0:45:050:45:08

including the tomb of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great.

0:45:080:45:14

The tomb, and what was found inside it, told a powerful story

0:45:180:45:22

about a new ideology of royal power.

0:45:220:45:25

Dominating the facade of Philip's tomb is this extraordinary survival -

0:45:400:45:46

a rare original painting from Ancient Greece.

0:45:460:45:49

Of course, now, it's withered over time,

0:45:490:45:53

but you still get a strong sense of its subtlety and complexity.

0:45:530:45:59

We see a group of young men, some of them on horseback,

0:45:590:46:03

out hunting wild beasts in a forested landscape.

0:46:030:46:06

The first time, as far as we know,

0:46:060:46:09

that landscape appeared with such prominence in Greek art,

0:46:090:46:12

almost as a subject in its own right.

0:46:120:46:15

The landscape gives us a sense of depth.

0:46:160:46:19

These are figures occupying a believable space,

0:46:190:46:22

the effect being enhanced by clever details

0:46:220:46:25

like the horse rearing up on its hind legs

0:46:250:46:28

and its neck veers off towards the distance,

0:46:280:46:31

momentarily drawing us that way.

0:46:310:46:33

The shafts of the men's spears, they structure the composition as well,

0:46:350:46:39

pointing us towards the quarry of the men, what they're hunting -

0:46:390:46:44

a lion, a deer, a boar and a bear.

0:46:440:46:47

This is a painting that's glamorous and elegant,

0:46:490:46:52

recording a favourite pastime of the Macedonian elite

0:46:520:46:56

and it might even feature Alexander himself -

0:46:560:46:59

the youth on horseback in the middle, wearing a wreath,

0:46:590:47:02

charging in for the kill.

0:47:020:47:04

But the striking thing about this is that you can still see

0:47:060:47:10

the skill with which it's been constructed.

0:47:100:47:13

The tree trunks act like punctuation marks,

0:47:130:47:16

giving the whole thing poise and structure

0:47:160:47:19

so that there is a sense of the frenzy, the excitement of the hunt,

0:47:190:47:23

but we're never lost amid the fog of the action.

0:47:230:47:26

Today, the condition of the painting

0:47:290:47:31

has a distinctly foggy quality itself.

0:47:310:47:34

Above all, it's rather sad.

0:47:350:47:38

A tantalising work of art,

0:47:380:47:40

a glimpse of the many riches of Greek painting which have been lost.

0:47:400:47:45

Inside the complex of royal tombs

0:47:510:47:54

excavators found a series of dazzling treasures.

0:47:540:47:57

In an antechamber, they discovered this gold casket

0:47:590:48:03

containing the remains of a woman, Philip's queen.

0:48:030:48:07

Nearby lay the gold crown of Philip himself,

0:48:090:48:12

made to resemble an oak wreath, with a dramatic mesh of leaves and acorns.

0:48:120:48:18

It looks light as gossamer, but weighs more than a kilogram.

0:48:200:48:24

But the treasure that thrills me most is this.

0:48:270:48:31

This diadem that's just so delicate.

0:48:440:48:48

This carefully composed flurry of tendrils and spirals,

0:48:480:48:53

leaves and petals and flowers.

0:48:530:48:55

The workmanship is detailed, but it's just exquisitely done.

0:49:000:49:04

The whole thing feels like it's been spun out of light.

0:49:070:49:10

This is a new kind of Greek art,

0:49:210:49:24

different from anything we have seen.

0:49:240:49:26

It isn't the religious art of the temple,

0:49:260:49:29

or the humanist art that celebrated the naked body.

0:49:290:49:32

But art that glorifies an all-conquering hero.

0:49:340:49:38

This set of ivory figures was found inside Philip's tomb.

0:49:450:49:49

Just look at that face - he's wily, wrinkled, supremely self-assured,

0:49:570:50:03

a nugget of concentrated charisma.

0:50:030:50:06

It is probably a portrait of Philip himself.

0:50:080:50:11

And if it is, it represents a sea change in Greek art

0:50:130:50:17

because the restrained, almost blank facial expressions

0:50:170:50:21

of earlier Classical art have disappeared,

0:50:210:50:24

replaced with something approaching an actual likeness.

0:50:240:50:28

The triumph of the individual

0:50:280:50:30

over the old communal identity of the city-state.

0:50:300:50:33

That sense of individualism touched the artists themselves.

0:50:440:50:49

With self-glorifying rulers came a new generation of celebrity artists,

0:50:490:50:54

men who cultivated their image, broke the rules

0:50:540:50:57

and occasionally liked to shock.

0:50:570:50:59

The most celebrated artist of all was called Praxiteles.

0:51:040:51:08

And, amazingly, he was listed among the 300 richest men in Athens.

0:51:080:51:12

He didn't make art to order, pandering to clients.

0:51:120:51:16

Instead, people came to him

0:51:160:51:18

and clamoured to buy whatever he decided to make.

0:51:180:51:20

Praxiteles relished scandal.

0:51:290:51:31

His girlfriend was a famous courtesan.

0:51:310:51:34

And there's an irreverent wit to everything he does.

0:51:340:51:38

His sculpture took the Classical style in a direction all his own.

0:51:470:51:51

No-one would exploit the sensual appeal of marble like Praxiteles.

0:51:590:52:03

Praxiteles's vision of male beauty wasn't macho

0:52:240:52:28

but softer, more androgynous.

0:52:280:52:31

Rather than magnificent athletes, he wanted to portray the gods

0:52:330:52:37

and in a way that had never been seen before.

0:52:370:52:40

He certainly didn't inject much shock and awe

0:52:400:52:44

into his depictions of divinity.

0:52:440:52:47

Here, we see Apollo, almost boyish,

0:52:470:52:51

an indolent adolescent,

0:52:510:52:54

idling away his time

0:52:540:52:55

by languidly threatening a passing lizard with an arrow.

0:52:550:52:59

If the gods were the film stars of the ancient world,

0:53:010:53:06

this is a young heart-throb caught off duty in a moment of informality.

0:53:060:53:13

And there's real boldness in that new spirit of irreverence

0:53:140:53:19

because we're left with something very charming, teasing,

0:53:190:53:23

even ironic

0:53:230:53:25

and, in the 4th century BC,

0:53:250:53:27

that must have felt very sophisticated and modern.

0:53:270:53:30

It was here, among the scattered ruins of Olympia,

0:53:400:53:44

that another statue believed to be by Praxiteles

0:53:440:53:47

was excavated in the 19th century.

0:53:470:53:49

Like the Apollo with the lizard,

0:53:510:53:53

it shows a Greek god engaged in an ordinary, rather mundane activity.

0:53:530:53:59

Hermes playing with the infant Dionysus.

0:54:010:54:04

In his missing right hand,

0:54:070:54:09

Hermes probably once dangled a bunch of grapes.

0:54:090:54:13

After all, Dionysus would grow up to be the god of wine.

0:54:130:54:17

It's a lovely, witty and ironical conceit

0:54:260:54:29

in which innocence is perversely being tempted

0:54:290:54:34

by the pleasures of experience.

0:54:340:54:36

What's so appealing about Praxiteles

0:54:360:54:39

is that he was such a deft and nimble artist.

0:54:390:54:43

He enjoyed teasing, toying with conventions

0:54:430:54:46

in order to foreground his own light-footed genius,

0:54:460:54:50

rather than just shackling it in simple service to Greek religion.

0:54:500:54:55

This is as much about the artist as it is about the gods.

0:54:550:55:00

This gleaming sculpture

0:55:040:55:06

gets to the heart of what Praxiteles was all about.

0:55:060:55:09

Gone are the awe-inspiring, rugged Olympian gods

0:55:200:55:24

imagined by earlier Classical artists.

0:55:240:55:27

In their place is a new vision,

0:55:270:55:29

something sleeker, more sinuous and graceful, even effeminate,

0:55:290:55:35

something that champions the smooth polish of shining Parian marble

0:55:350:55:40

over the effects of bronze,

0:55:400:55:42

though without losing some of the subtlety

0:55:420:55:44

that bronze had added to Greek art.

0:55:440:55:47

There is a softness here,

0:55:470:55:49

a blurriness to the transitions of the muscles across Hermes's torso,

0:55:490:55:53

as well as his face.

0:55:530:55:55

And that old Polykleitan idea of the contrapposto pose,

0:55:550:56:00

here it's been distorted, exaggerated to an off-balance extreme,

0:56:000:56:06

because Hermes is thrusting out one hip in this exaggerated,

0:56:060:56:11

almost camp fashion.

0:56:110:56:13

We've come a long, long way from the virile ideal of the Riace bronzes.

0:56:150:56:20

Is it ever possible to explain

0:56:270:56:29

exactly why a culture suddenly becomes capable of such excellence?

0:56:290:56:35

It's been called the Greek Miracle.

0:56:350:56:38

Perhaps it was just a perfect storm

0:56:390:56:42

of ambitious artists and demanding clients...

0:56:420:56:45

..of technical innovation

0:56:480:56:50

and fast-growing skills...

0:56:500:56:53

..of dynamic social change...

0:56:550:56:57

..and the freedom to experiment.

0:56:580:57:01

To us, the artistic achievement of Classical Greece

0:57:040:57:08

seems almost overwhelming.

0:57:080:57:10

And yet the strange thing is,

0:57:110:57:13

the Greeks didn't necessarily think

0:57:130:57:15

that art would be their greatest legacy.

0:57:150:57:18

The Athenian leader Pericles supposedly said

0:57:210:57:25

that Athens would be remembered for ruling more Greeks

0:57:250:57:28

than any other Greek state.

0:57:280:57:31

He was wrong.

0:57:310:57:33

As well as its empire,

0:57:330:57:34

it was the art of Athens and the wider world of Ancient Greece

0:57:340:57:38

that secured its immortality.

0:57:380:57:41

The irony is that Greek artists were just so good, so successful

0:57:410:57:46

and achieved so many breakthroughs, that their revolutionary creations

0:57:460:57:50

became the benchmark not only for the Greeks,

0:57:500:57:54

but also for the entire tradition of Western art.

0:57:540:57:57

Next time.

0:58:000:58:01

The astonishing afterlife of Greek art.

0:58:010:58:05

How, for 2,000 years,

0:58:050:58:07

a handful of masterpieces held the world in thrall.

0:58:070:58:11

Alastair Sooke unpicks the reasons behind the dazzling revolution that gave birth to classical Greek art, asking how the Greeks got so good so quickly. He travels to the beautiful Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, and to the island of Mozia to see the astonishing charioteer found there in 1979, and marvels at the athletic bodies of the warriors dragged from the seabed - the Riace Bronzes.

It was a creative explosion that covered architecture, sculpting in marble, casting in bronze, even painting on vases. Perhaps the most powerful factor was also its greatest legacy - a fascination with the naked human body.