After aperitivo at the bar the conversation continues to unwind at our home while we consume a simple dinner made of spaghettoni al ragù, cheese with a side dish of boiled vegetables, all washed down with Chianti and some Grappa as digestivo.
Classicus and King Servius Tullius
Extropian: “In my Calonghi Latin dictionary classis means both ‘fleet’ and ‘social class'; classicus is both a ‘sailor’ and ‘a member of the first Servian class of citizens’, out of the five tax classes set up by the Roman King Servius Tullius.
Giorgio: “It implies some timeless worth, it is known. Less known perhaps the origin of the notion. In the 2nd century CE Aulus Gellius, a Roman grammarian, [see image below] in his Noctes Atticae (Attic nights) – I just found out – was the first to mean by classicus ‘a writer of the first Servian class’ (classicus scriptor). He was the first to connect via a metaphor 1) literary and 2) social excellence. Classicus to him was a first-class & exemplary writer.
Extropian: “Well, it somewhat reflected the elitism of antiquity.”
Flavia: “Yes, but I’d say excellence is excellence. Horace and Virgil were of humble background (Horace – read a reply to Sledpress on him – was even the son of a freed slave,) but were revered as excellent (and timeless) as soon as their works came out.”
Giorgio: “Horace himself refers to his Odes as timeless. But people didn’t call them classici. The new meaning didn’t immediately spread. In the 5th and 6th centuries CE authors such as Martianus Capella, Fulgentius and Boethius began to reconsider earlier pagan authors as models of style and thought, although again no use was made of the term classicus in the sense Gellius did.”
Extropian: “I see.”
Classicus to Renaissance People
Giorgio: “And throughout the Middle Ages too we have the concept but not the word for it. Until we get to the Renaissance men, in 1400s-1500s CE.
In their Latin classicus refers again to something seen as timeless and as a standard of excellence: to the people of the Renaissance [see a Palladian villa above] the Greek and Roman past was THE classicus exemplary model in all fields.”
Mario: “In fact we still say ‘Classical Antiquity’. Of course the Renaissance is neoclassical ante litteram since it found inspiration in Antiquity and looked down upon the Middle Ages.
By the way, wasn’t the second half of the 18th century labelled as neoclassical?”
Rome and the Grand Tour
Flavia: “It was. Giorgio and I recently visited the exhibition Rome and Antiquity. Reality and vision in the 18th century.
At the end of the War of the Austrian Succession (1748) a long period of peace ensued in Europe. Winckelmann arrived in Rome in 1755. He there conceived his master-work History of Ancient Art (1764) which influenced the entire neoclassical attitude from that year onwards and basically blew the minds (to mention the Germans only) of people like Hölderlin, Goethe, Lessing, Herder, Heine, Nietzsche etc. The marriage and the tyranny of Greece over Germany started with him.”
Giorgio: Those were the days of the Grand Tour. People flocked to Italy and especially to Rome to study classical culture. Rome with all her statues etc. also became a huge workshop of copies purchased worldwide. Bartolomeo Cavaceppi was the best sculptor to make casts, copies and fakes.
Cavaceppi’s studio was in via del Babbuino, close to Caffè Greco (opened in 1760, see above,) to via del Corso (where Goethe lived at num 18 between 1786 & 1788,) to Piazza di Spagna: all popular places among the expatriates of the time. Cavaceppi’s shop was a must-see. Goethe was there and Canova himself was greatly impressed by Cavaceppi’s atelier. Goethe bought a cast of the Juno Ludovisi [see the last big picture below] but I forgot from whom though.
Anton Raphael Mengs, Jacques-Louis David, the Scottish architect Robert Adam, Canova, Piranesi with his efforts to build a map of Ancient Rome: surely a great period for our city.”
[The exhibition catalog is now on the living room table. Grappa is unfortunately served. Art and Bacchus are a perfect match since Homer, what did you think …]
Giorgio: “Last (but least) Italians played the guitar quite a lot during the 18th c. before the Spanish took over. I am studying Mauro Giuliani and Ferdinando Carulli who composed delightful classical pieces for this instrument, mixing sober taste (Giuliani) or brilliant grace (Carulli) with rationality.”
Extropian (reading the catalog): “New archaeological discoveries fuelled the Roman and Greek frenzy. A great number of statues and mosaics were unearthed and reproduced. Décor and clothes were created in the neoclassical style in Europe and in the New World. Also Nero’s Domus Aurea wall paintings – at that time thought to belong to Titus’ thermae – were reproduced on mansions, on decorative furniture etc.
The spirit of the Ancients and of the Enlightenment (Age of reason) splendidly matched. Classical triumphed and influenced the French and American Revolutions.”
Classicism as a Concept. Mere Chance?
Extropian: “Classic, more generic for valuable, is related to classical … Wait a minute. Such fundamental concept going back to this Aulus Gellius, an almost unknown, second-rate Roman writer? Something is wrong here.”
What would modern aesthetics have done for a single general concept that could embrace Raphael, Racine, Mozart, and Goethe, if Gellius never lived?
Extropian: “Or if Servius Tullius didn’t divide Rome into 5 classes! I wonder whether we know the exact connection Gellius-Renaissance, but certainly goddess Fortune plays her tricks when making ideas successful or not, as Curtius also suggests.”
Grappa is making all blurred at this point.
That is, we have traced some origins but couldn’t define that general concept that can embrace Horace, Mozart, Mauro Giuliani, Haydn, Raphael, Schubert, Pindar, Canova, Racine, Goethe, Jane Austen and many elements of British and American Georgian culture.
Next time Ferruccio Dante Michelangelo Busoni‘s aphorisms (big name, I know) on Mozart might help us hopefully.
Busoni’s aphorisms are in German since Busoni was Italian & somewhat German too [following Philippe’s advice we try to expand language variety in this blog.]
See you then.