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Classicism: Periods of Classicism and Basic Critical Documents

Updated on April 27, 2013

Classicism is an adherence to the qualities customarily associated with the literature, art, architecture, and thought of ancient Greece and Rome. Classicism involves excellence, permanence, and values based on the Greek concept of life, which emphasized order and clarity of thought; dignity and serenity of spirit; simplicity, balance, and proportion of structure; and the union of subject with appropriate form. At classicism's core are esteem for objectivity, rationality, and moderation, and distrust of subjectivity, emotion, and excess. But because classicism rests on imitation and the acceptance of objective standards, it may lack spontaneity and meaning and degenerate into excessive traditionalism and empty formalism.

Classicism derives from the Latin classicus, a term used in Roman law to distinguish the highest category of taxpayers. In the 2d century A.D. the phrase scriptor classicus described writers who addressed the "fit though few," as opposed to the common reader. Thus classicism and the related terms classic and classical came to connote demonstrable superiority. Classical and especially classic may be applied to an object or a period of excellence in any civilization.

Classicism also has the more limited meaning of the scholarly study of the history and culture of ancient Greece and Rome. In a still more restricted sense, it may refer to a Greek or Roman expression used in later writing.

Periods of Classicism


Attempts to emulate Greek and Roman standards have characterized various eras of European culture. The Romans themselves copied the Greeks, and in the early Middle Ages Charlemagne tried to imitate the Romans. The Renaissance, beginning in the 14th century, was marked by a widespread classical revival. The works of Greek and Latin authors were ranked above those of medieval writers and were referred to as classics. The classicism or, more commonly, the neoclassicism of the 17th and 18th centuries was marked by a strict imitation of Greek and Roman models. Neoclassicism gradually faded with the rise of 19th-century Romanticism but was revived in the 20th century as part of the cultural diversity of the time.

Basic Critical Documents

Three critical documents are essential to an understanding of classicism. Aristotle's Poetics places a high premium on form, imitation, and regularity in all areas of art. Horace's Ars poetica emphasizes propriety, craftsmanship, polish, conscious balance, and decorum (particularly the relationship of the subject to its form or medium) in literature. Boileau's L'Art po├ętique (1674), codified the principles of Aristotle and Horace into a set of rigorous literary rules and a theory of forms or genres defining epic, tragedy, comedy, ode, eclogue, elegy, satire, and fable.


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