Heinrich Wolfflin


Where it was that Heinrich Wolfflin managed to regain form

Heinrich Wolfflin (1864-1945) was sure of two things: firstly, that a systematic history of art was built upon the foundations of the psychology of perception; secondly, that artworks have their own formal language which is made up of a set of oppositions, called pairs, that structure the art of all ages.

Although it is clear that the appearance of art changes dramatically through time – Renaissance is very different to Impressionism for instance – certain categories do persist: compositions that are either closed or open, unified or multiple in conception, relatively clear in their presentation or do they evoke obscurity?

Wolfflin’s categories will probably now live forever, because they compare pictures together in the most common sense of ways, using dual projection, to contrast images side by side.

Describing the Raphael painting Miraculous Draught of Fishes which is housed in the V & A: the biographers might talk about feelings of loneliness and abandonment; the connoisseurs might talk of the individual aspects; while Wolfflin moved away from these to an understanding of the picture as a whole.


Raphael, The Miraculous Draught of Fishes (1515). Oil on canvas, 399 x 319 cm. Victoria & Albert, London

Details in Raphael’s masterpiece relate to counterparts elsewhere in the picture. For example, the shapes in the landscape create pictorial purpose, the lines follow clusters of figures organised in groups, and each part of the painting contributes to the stylistic character of the total image, in a manner that is greater than the sum of the parts. The emphasis on the relationship between formal elements is largely down to Heinrich Wolfflin, it has become one of the most credible ways of doing art history, and is known as formalism.

These famous pairs / fundamental characteristics, that were designed by Wolfflin always stayed the same, but his ideas about what causes art to change definitely did not.

Wolfflin decided from analysis of architectural forms, that we read the proportions according to our own body posture and mood. However, this was based on the assumption that the perception of the viewer was universal, rather than historically situated; the other problem was he couldn’t (yet) explain why a particular age, should choose certain stylistic principles over other periods, from history in art.

First, Wolfflin looked at bodily feeling from one period then another, e.g. a Renaissance hand was firm with articulated feeling, while a Baroque version was often more solid, heavy and restless.

Not only did Wolfflin think that feeling in art changed, but that it was responsible for changes in fashion and other spheres of life as well. Trying to find the cause of these changes was the problem to be addressed, but if it was thought to be a change in bodily feeling, that meant a change in style, was there not more too it?

Hence, he decided that purely artistic forms of vision, must change independently from feelings and other states of mind, thus many factors condition a new style in art; this is supposed to explain the transformation from Italian Quattrocento to Cinquecento art, where a new ideal of beauty was beginning to express itself.

Visual evidence in the picture by Raphael (above) suggested to Wolfflin that the gait of women changed from a stiff mincing walk to a tempo more akin to an andante maestoso.

This change of feeling however, wasn’t the only cause of the new style of art. The suggestion was that new pictorial forms came about, because of an independently occurring development in vision.

Wolfflin thought artistic vision improved in the sixteenth-century from the fifteenth-century. He thought artistic vision (which orders the chaotic mass of sensory perception) was better equipped for integrating a greater variety of perceptual phenomena, as it happens, in the sixteenth-century. Biologically, we were improving!

By the application of common beliefs about perception to these periods, Wolfflin was saying, the viewer could grasp greater variety, and more effectively: a picture as a unified whole.

This meant the viewer was presented with more clarity, thus the change in style was an improvement in technique and there are reasons. They belonged to the conditions; the mode of representation, for instance, such as the visual possibilities available to the artist.

The main area though is vision. Vision itself has a history, and by revealing the visual strata in paintings, it became hugely important to art historians like Wolfflin, thus he managed to provide a general set of descriptive terms – pairs – that captured forms visually in art; forms of an epoch. He has become quite famous for this!

Wolfflin argued, that when reading forms of expression, our state of mind makes the false assumption, that the same expressive methods are always available; he did believe both external and internal modes of explanation are justified.

Certain forms of beholding do pre-exist, then develop, but this depends on circumstances.

The forms of visuality according to Wolfflin are universally applicable; they are capable of describing the development of pictorial forms in different ages, countries and periods.

Although different forms dominated at different historical moments, they are still universally applicable, and operate in a cyclical fashion, moving from classical simplicity to baroque complexity.

This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout Western art history, thus, once the cycle has started, it runs its course; however when it reaches a state of complexity how does art return to adopting simplicity once again?

It cannot (apparently) be explained by art’s internal development, hence it is the wider and external factors that come into play helping Wolfflin with this problem.

He decided there was a return to the linear mode of vision around 1800; hence, this was part of the whole reappraisal of human values, culminating in the Romantic movement, which did respond to wider social change; thus, this was to set art history on the path to a new cycle of internal development.

Wolfflin then shifted his focus once again, and looked not just the cyclical ways of seeing, but partly the dependence upon racial difference between Northern European and Mediterranean people, and the affect this had.

This was part of his life long struggle in trying to identify the ultimate causes of historical change.

The age Wolfflin lived in had lost all senses of style in his opinion, and lacked any cultivated form of the Renaissance; he had an elitist aestheticism point of view, thus Empathy Theory was not dependent on classical learning but sensual projection and offered a conception of aesthetic experience; his history of artistic vision was motivated by a response to external social developments, rather than the logic of any internal argument, but the problem still lay in where to point the finger at ultimate causes.

Wolfflin and his art history

In order to demonstrate stylistic and historical shifts, we were given Wolfflin’s way of doing art history, using his now very famous and timeless ‘Pairs’ which everyone comparing paintings will at some time use.

Wolfflin’s method is essentially comparative, and it begins by using pairs of images, that each embody a different set of visual principles.

Photography helped by showing slides, side by side, for comparison. He drew out characteristics, but colour and texture were neglected in the analysis as was originality, thus, his categories for stylistic description were ridiculed by his colleagues to begin with.

Wolfflin loved the features of classical art: moderation and form, simplicity and noble line, stillness of soul, and gentleness of sensibility.

He figured that if we take the opposite of each of these concepts, it would help explain the substance of the new style – the Baroque!

Wolfflin proceeded by describing changes in style using these pairs of opposites, from one era to the next.

Wolfflin studied the stylistic change of Roman architecture over time. He defined the opposites of ‘moderation and form, simplicity and noble line, stillness and gentleness’ and used the terms ‘painterliness, grand scale, and massiveness in tension with movement’.

Wolfflin, thus was clearly interested not so much in the style changes due to the functional requirements of the buildings he studied, but, in showing the emergence of the first set of his principles. Then, from the High Renaissance he was able to use them on the work of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and Andrea del Sarto.

In contrast to Quattrocento art, the clarity of presentation at the apex of High Renaissance, unifies a variety of visual elements. Then after 1520 Wolfflin saw artistic decline, thus, subsequent generations of artists began competing and striving for effect rather than style.

Wolfflin spoke of a generation of eclectics, using multiple theories about art, thus it was only with a new attention to nature taking place that a revival of the principles of classic art came in the ‘Germanic North of Italy’ and Wolfflin clearly had Venice and Titian in mind with this.

When he saw formal properties in art, Wolfflin identified the most systematic and comprehensive way of providing (in generally descriptive terms) a way to capture the development of artistic vision, across countries and ages; and this has been emulated ever since.

Because the properties embedded a cycle, Wolfflin saw them to be repeated over and over again, thus, restarting conveniently whenever the external conditions suitably arose; hence, he spent a lot of time comparing sixteenth and seventeenth-century art, across many European countries, using his five oppositions:

  1. linear / painterly
  2. plane v recession
  3. close or open
  4. multiplicity v unity
  5. absolute or relative clarity

For example, this is how they work.

By comparing Venus of Urbino (1538) by Titian, to the Toilet of Venus (1648) by Velasquez, it is possible to elucidate the contrast between ‘multiplicity versus unity’ which is the fourth set of pairs, above. Wolfflin was adamant that when a picture showed one of the categories it must also show the others on its side of the table; meaning that all artworks that have linear aspect, will also display plane, closed, multiplicity and absolute, to a lesser or greater degree; but, no painterly, no recession, no open, no unity or relative clarity!


Titian,Venus of Urbino (1538). Oil on canvas, 119.20 x 165.50 cm. Uffizi, Florence


Velasquez, Toilet of Venus (1648). Oil on canvas, 122.5 x 177 cm. National Gallery, London

Linear v Painterly –

On the one hand, both paintings have firm outlines, and both include material objects, however, each picture has a different emphasis placed upon the appearance of the world; the atmosphere is shifting. Wolfflin says there is clearly a contrast between the Renaissance work of Titian, and a similar painting by Velasquez from the Baroque period, more than a hundred years after. The figures in the early painting could be cut out, but the later one has the figures bound with other motives. Titian’s lady has a rhythm alone, whilst Velasquez completes his lady with what is added to the picture.

Plane v Recession –

The difference is identifiable, if looking at the three dimensional space at the back. Titian orders everything parallel so we read from side to side like a book; however, Velasquez pulls us into the background, zig-zagging our gaze from the centre outwards, thus her back is turned so we follow her glance from her perspective into the mirror and all around thereafter.

Closed v Open –

How the picture appears to the viewer in relation to itself. In Titian’s version the viewer must be around eye level with the woman looking down, thus the space is clearly defined – box like – for the viewer to confront in a very open manner almost like you could climb in and wander around. Spatial indication is absent in the Velasquez, hence it is very closed; thus, Wolfflin points out you are tempted to stand to the right to see the woman’s frontal reflection in the mirror and we could almost peek around the Velasquez one secretly speculating about the various parts of the painting, adjusting our viewing position, unlike the Titian which is hardly an attempt to be discrete.

Multiplicity v Unity –

Wolfflin tries to emphasize how Titan’s figure appears self sufficient in form, made up of clearly articulated parts, thus there is a variety in the painting like a dog, a cat, maids, pillows and a window all clearly visible; together, they are a unified whole. There is almost something hidden in the Baroque, disguised as Velasquez shows, perhaps behind the curtain.

Absolute v Relative Clarity –

Similar to the first pair, these show the difference between optical effects giving the subject precision, and painterly techniques for atmospheric effect. Titian’s brushstrokes are used to evoke the textual difference between the silky sheets of the bed and the smooth skin of the woman; Velasquez on the other hand, is much less concerned with material illusions, and instead employs subtle changes in tone and colour, which register the almost imperceptible change in the angles of the surfaces, and which consequently capture the reflection of light.


Using Wolfflin’s set of pairs, his descriptive terms can help us draw out an enormous range of observations in paintings, and this provides an ideal framework to delve deeper into the meaning, and cause, of change in art history!

Martin Chuzzlewit Montague Tigg Seth Pecksnith Charles Dickens Jack Falstaff
The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit is the last of Charles Dickens picaresque novels which means the main character is a loveable rogue like Jack Falstaff in Shakespeare, though this novel was not popular when it was published.


To improve sales and tap in to the American market Dickens changed the plot, sending two characters on an excursion to the US.

Seth Pecksnith claims to be an architect who lives in Salisbury in Wiltshire and takes Martin Chuzzlewit junior on, thinking he may be able to muscle in on the Old Martin’s will.

Pecksnith exploits Martin because he is a conman and makes a pass at Mary, Martin’s girlfriend as well as plagiarizing all his students work and passing it off as his own.

Young Martin Chuzzlewit was raised by his grandfather and namesake, who also raises an orphan girl called Mary, a nursemaid to be thrown out penniless when he dies.

Chuzzlewit senior is paranoid everyone is after his money, wanting him to die so they will be rich therefore Mary is employed to care for him. The longer he lives the safer she is but when he dies she gets nothing, so she is the only one who doesn’t want him dead as she can live in comfort for longer.

The last thing Mary wants is for grandfather Chuzzlewit to die and the complete opposite to everyone else, who want him out of the way so they can spend all the inheritance.

Martin junior falls in love with Mary and Martin senior disinherits junior because he wishes him to give up the engagement as it interferes with his original plan. Clearly, Mary all of a sudden will have a vested interest in all this lovely money.

Charles Dickens often ties inheritance into his stories, especially in Bleak House where the chancery case went on for thirty years and all the wealth was eaten up on legal costs.

Mark Tapley goes with young Martin go to America where they make fun off the Americans. Unfortunately, while in the States Martin catches malaria and nearly dies, though he comes home humbled and a changed man from the experience.

Senior Martin Chuzzlewit who moves in with Pecksnith is now completely under his evil control and shuns his grandson when he returns from the States.

Tigg Montague dresses to impress and sets up an insurance scam which ends up in blackmail and murder. Jonas is driven (it is implied) to murder Montague Tigg when he loses money in the scam.

Martin and Mary marry in a typical happy ending, with Chuzzlewit senior finally approving, though we learn that Martin senior had planned this all along and was only really annoyed that the couple had gone ahead without his say so – he wanted to officially plan this introduction between Mary and his grandson.

They all live happily ever after, presumably getting the inheritance with a blessing, when grand old Martin Chuzzlewit dies.




Why it is that formal dress is different to formalism 

Heinrich Wolfflin and Alois Riegl, broadened the discipline of art history, in the nineteenth-century. They were the formalists; and they sought to find the style characteristics of an epoch, in works of art!

Style in art, goes far beyond the characteristic features of an individual artist, because it includes the specific expression of an age: things such as the similarities between architecture, painting, sculpture, and ornaments of a particular period.

For example, there might be something that connects a Gothic church to a medieval picture, and this begs the question about what it is, that motors change, from Gothic to Renaissance art.

Wolfflin and Riegl were adamant that we must look beyond, excellent and individual, works of art, that command huge price tags, and find the fundamental laws that govern the development of artistic forms.

Riegl and Wolfflin argued, that art offered access to past world-views, thus when many art historians fled the rise of Nazism, it began to strengthen the discipline of art history, particularly in normal history departments at universities elsewhere in the world.

Formalism is the study of formal properties – the morphology – in art, that apparently follow a developmental logic; rather than simple, haphazard, changes. The formalists proposed a scheme for this.

Riegl and Wolfflin managed to separate visual forms that were developing in art, from their contingent contexts; thus, formal aspects can, and do, develop autonomously, because they are not necessarily tied to the intellectual context of the picture as a whole.

Art is clearly connected to society in a great many ways. For Wolfflin and Riegl as formalists though, it was like discovering how the underlying visual laws that govern general society, were to find their expression through artwork; they emphasized the form in art, rather than the content, hence they figured that this helped unlock different mentalities from the wider culture.

Moving on from Hegel and his ‘spirit’ plus, the individuality of the connoisseur, we can take a look further into this story of art. The function, the materials, and the technical requirements of art, were analysed by Wolfflin and Riegl; what they found helps us to answer the questions about art being socially specific, and what motivates it to change.

Wolfflin also used the psychology of perception based on ideas by Immanuel Kant; this suggested that we do not have knowledge of objects in the world as they are in themselves, but only as they appear to our sense organs, thus, sense-data and this area of perception was used to help answer many questions about the way we see paintings.

Symbols in pictures are like normal world objects, but our senses find them no different to symbols of the external world, and art sometimes manages to communicate these images in an active manner. Riegl and Wolfflin offered three types of psychological explanation for their way of doing art history:

Firstly, they identified the formal parts of sense-data (which is the analysed experiences inside our minds particularly when we look at a picture) and how sense-data appears to subsequent, more advanced mental operations later; these are distinct from the ‘real’ objects in the world, outside the mind, about whose existence and properties we often can be mistaken. Line and colour for instance, can be broken down in terms of sense data, but according to them, the mind only conducts relationships here between forms internally, which do not get influenced by events in the social world, and this ties in nicely with ideas about a distinction between the tactile and the optical in art history.

Secondly, it is Empathy Theory that suggests each experience is dependant on the projection of bodily sensations, and the emotional resemblance associated to it; it kind of like, extends the sense-data idea, and includes this subsequent more advanced mental operations bit, thus, it means that fundamental formal elements of experience, such as line and colour, only really serve to produce their visual effect, when seen together as a whole. However, Empathy Theory is rich in expressive content, hence it projects a sense of our own body and aesthetic forms, e.g. lines that actually taper or colours blending / brooding. Thus, Riegl and Wolfflin both loved Empathy Theory at different times of their careers, and clearly made good use of it.

Thirdly, there were experiments taken on the basic formal elements that are given to our perception. We have shaped our perception – it was thought – by psychological constitution, in that we use our knowledge and equipment to interpret what we see. But basic emotional sensations were completely separate from intellectual processes to begin with – sense data – because intellectual processes were not amenable to experimental investigation like basic emotions sensations. There were almost gaps between sense-data, intellectual process converting this, and interpretation of the whole painting!

Wolfflin and Riegl found that if they referred historical and cultural difference in art, to differences in basic perceptual principles, art changes as people come to perceive the world differently. Almost like history of art being a history of vision, or seeing the world differently becomes painting the world differently, thus, all of this was crucial to Wolfflin and Riegl when giving birth to formalism.

Ideas about stable perception for instance, are hugely important to the way we see paintings and the formalist area in particular; thus, when our mental activities select and order information that is shifting, our eyes perceive in a certain way.

By privileging artistic intuition, over normal conceptual knowledge, a good artist doesn’t then just produce an ordinary image that we all recognise and perceive, but actually conveys knowledge in artistic form. This is the benchmark. It was image making – not copying the world – but interpreting it with visual intuition, and can now partly be explained by formalism.

Three dimensional awareness depended largely on touch and movement, thus the eyes have to interpret the visual clues given by the aritst and this is the skill of the artist if done effectively.

Artists are confined to a two dimensional space so the viewer must then reconstruct from images regarding spatial relationships in their own minds, and everyone does this differently – from the same exact image – to a lesser or greater degree, and the skill of the artist is also to create a clear image that generates continuous form across the plane.

Many theorists insisted that the production and reception of art were marked by detachment from the world of ordinary experience; thus, art’s special appeal was in its self containment and formal coherence – some believed a creative artistic act was exactly that, and only that, not translated to something else!

Furthermore, by studying the difference between visual perception of children compared to adults, it was very clear that different aspects of vision played different roles at different stages of the development of civilizations; as children develop to adults they perceive differently, e.g. children focus directly on the contours of features in isolation from each other, but as they grow up, they notice objects relating to each other. Early / late stages of child development is the same as the early / later stages of art, with regard to visual perception, according to Wolfflin and Riegl.

Vision has developed logically through the ages, according to research in psychology, thus, by analysing art at different stages, and in different periods, it has now been discovered, many things about how different cultures saw their world in their day. Wolfflin and Riegl managed to share their ideas with other disciplines, and this helped strengthen art history, which likewise became willing to develop ideas from elsewhere as well.

Now we have formalism that complements a great area of academia. The culmination of the various insights to psychology, perception and the history of vision, relating to art, combined to become Formalism, and brought together a highly credible way of doing art history analysis.

Sense and Sensibility Pride and Prejudice becoming Jane Anne Hathaway Emma Mansfield Park
Jane Austen was one of eight children born to an English clergyman in 1775 and Anne Hathaway played Austen in the 2007 film Becoming Jane.


Romantic fiction set among the gentry, the work of Jane Austen highlights women’s dependence on marriage for social hierarchy.

Largely taught at home and self studied, Jane was from a big family in Hampshire and is probably Bath‘s best loved resident from history who always read her work aloud to her family.

Jane Austen was part of a select few, famous for her juvenelia – that is children’s literature written when she was actually a child and did this to amuse her brothers and sisters which clearly paid off.

Like so many women, Austen was largely unrecognised for her achievements during her lifetime and it wasn’t until the 20th century that scholars really accepted her into academia as the great English writer she has become.

Now there is even Janeite – the term used by devotees of the ever expanding fan culture of Jane Austen. Janeiteism really only began after 1870, when the literary elite felt they had to separate the work of Jane Austen from the masses. Rudyard Kipling even published a short story entitled Janeites about a group of World War I soldiers who were fans of Austen’s novels.

Sense and Sensibility (1811) was Jane’s first novel and her brother Henry helped her negotiate with a publisher. The first draft was completed in1795 and originally entitled Eleanor and Marianne. It is about two sisters growing up and their journey through life and love in the 18th century. Eleanor is the practical/sensible one and Marianne the emotional/romantic sister.

Pride and Prejudice (1813) is about Elizabeth Bennett and Mr Darcy, one of the most famous couples anywhere in literature from early 19th century England, set among high society and landed gentry.

Mansfield Park (1814) is about Fanny Price who falls for Edmund Bertram.

Emma (1816) is about Emma Woodhouse, a rich, pretty and spoilt girl. This novel was dedicated to the Prince Regent who was an admirer of Jane Austen’s work.

Mansfield Park and Emma were the last two novels published during Austen’s lifetime, though she had two more published posthumously, Northanger Abbey which is a gothic romance and Persuasion. Both were published after her death in 1817 and brother Henry put in a eulogy identifying his sister for the first time, as the author of the novels. Sanditon was the unfinished novel.

Jane Austen’s resting place is Winchester Cathedral having died in her sister’s arms, possibly from Addison’s disease, at just 41 years of age.

A Guidebook in Hand is Worth Two in the Bush


How traveling back in time is easier than you think

Tourism is the biggest industry in Greece, thus both tourism and Greece lay at the heart of Classics. The ancients were tourists themselves, and there was a pecking order for travel back then, as well as during the rediscovery of ancient temples two-hundred years ago, and of course now in modern times too!

Perhaps the best surviving tourist guidebook of all time is by Pausanias from 2 AD which shows us around the best bits of Greece beginning with Athens; then, toward the south, and back up to Delphi in the north, whilst visiting the Temple of Apollo (in Bassae) on route, and the region of Arcadia in the Peloponnese too.

Pausanias describes in his tour-guide, the unmistakable beauty of the stone roof, and symmetry of proportions, on Apollo’s temple. Thus, it was Apollo who helped the people of Phigalia during the plague that ravished Athens in the Peloponnesian War against Sparta.

The ancient temple in Bassae was built especially for Apollo to give thanks for dispelling the sickness that spread with the plague, thus the architect – Iktinos – was involved with the Parthenon too; all of these details in the guide by Pausanias appear in modern guidebooks too and it was a contemporary version that inspired the intrepid explorers of rediscovery, to seek out the so-called ‘second Parthenon’ two-hundred years ago.

It was the bronze statue of Apollo placed in Arcadia, that had earlier been removed from Bassae and put on more convenient public display, that probably encouraged Pausanias to find the great temple in the first place – up in the mountains, it meant he was more than just a writer back then.

Pausanias was native to a Greek city which is now in modern Turkey, and he wrote his book shortly after the Roman conquest of Greece. However, he focuses on the monuments of Greece that were erected long before it was a province of Rome and includes the traditional Greek customs, myths, festivals and rituals of a country indistinguishable from the Roman-Greece, of his own day.

His guidebook is a template for any modern version, because the reading goes beyond how to get there and what to see, in a descriptive manner, but offers a vision of Greece with identity, rooted in the past even before the Romans came.

Not everything has survived like this famous guidebook did though; many great works survived, just by the skin of their teeth!

Catullus of course did “Lesbia” and this was rescued from one medieval manuscript; one poem by Lucretius was preserved through a single copy, luckily; but the “Great History of Rome” by Livy was sadly lost; as were many tragedies of the Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, unfortunately.

That is not to say we won’t find any more wonderful artifacts – far from it – because in the 1970s, eight unmistakable lines of verse by Cornelius Gallus were found discarded in a Roman military fort in Egypt.

A complete play by Menander was found quite recently (relatively speaking) in Egypt too, when all contact with him had been lost in the Middle Ages, thus, his work is of paramount importance; every child in the Greek speaking world from Egypt, past Turkey, and all the way to the Black Sea, would have studied his work. Chapters were even found written on the wraps of Egyptian mummies excavated from tombs in giant pyramids, thus, how fascinating this is and how perfect the story would be for a Hollywood blockbuster or Doctor Who script!

It is the vulnerability of Classical texts that has inspired so much in fiction too. “I Caudius” written in 1934 recreates the missing work of a Roman emperor in the form of his own autobiography. The lucky salvage of Menander’s work shows us also, how important he was to education in ancient Greece.

Juvenal manuscripts are in an abundance because medieval monks used his vivid poetry so often which deplored Rome and proved ideal material for their sermons in the Middle Ages; the reason we use it now is because he really was popular and this reinvented Classics once more, for use in the medieval churches of Europe.

The domino effect is astronomical when you factor the area of archaeology in to Classics. Excavation is like a tardis discovering quite possibly more – yet unknown – ancient texts. In fact, many sites got their huge budgets for ‘a dig’ on the strength of the literature that might be found; Troy City was found in 1870 because explorers went looking for places mentioned by Homer in “Iliad” and evidence of Agamemnon’s movements just happened to be found as a nice little extra bonus!

Revisiting the discipline of Classics in the 21st century, adds a fresh approach to the way the nineteenth-century lot saw it, thus, modern techniques can reveal more about the ancients, than many of them knew about themselves, hence, justifying the worthiness of the subject.

However, ancient Greece and Rome isn’t just about their drama and their art. It is a discussion of their culture in general, and how they debated and defined themselves. For example, Herodotus wrote about the victory over Persian kings with regard to political difference and the similarities of warfare in refusing to surrender; Polybius wrote in jail about how and why Rome dominated the Mediterranean world; and Julius Caesar himself, wrote about how different Gaul was to Rome which reflects a great deal about the character of Roman life itself.

We engage in a debate – when studying Classics – with ancient writers who were indeed debating their own culture themselves, as well as the culture of the exploration age two-hundred years ago. Now that has now gone even further into outer-space, hence Bassae is really just a signpost that leapfrogs back and forward and beyond the ancient world, regurgitating great ideas, and generating some excellent new ones!

Pausanias was particularly concerned with Greek culture in the Roman empire, thus Roman culture may be dependent on Greek, and Greece can be seen through Roman eyes. For instance, many Greek sculpting were preserved only through copies made by Roman artists, and it was free standing figures rather than the Bassae frieze that got reproduced by the Romans: Discobolus by Myron, Wounded Amazon by Pheidias, and Naked Aphrodite by Praxiteles, are but a few!

Pausanias seems to have a fascination for this isolated temple on a remote mountain in Greece. It is part of a larger vision because it is so unique, combined with a place in the Greek past, as part of the Roman empire – something from history that nobody can escape back then or even now – thus, there is a wider experience in a trip to such a place like Bassae, and proves that Classics can be part of a much bigger story.

British Authors


William Makepeace Thackeray was born in India and moved to Britain aged five years old, just like Rudyard Kipling. He stopped over at the British island of St Helena where Napoleon was in jail after defeat in the Battle of Waterloo.

During the Victorian era, just Charles Dickens was above Thackeray in literature, though nowadays William Makepeace is only really famous for one book and hasn’t lasted the test of time the way his great rival did.

Vanity Fair: A Novel without a hero was published in 1847. The fair is never ending in a town called Vanity and represents our sinful attachment to worldly things. The novel is about Becky Sharp who is funny, intelligent, musical and shows great talent as an actress. She lies and manipulates men, flirting her way to the top seeking wealth and social position above all else. She was a poor orphan as a child and trains to be a governess.

Thackeray used his own illustrations at times to hint at plot changes as well as designing the front cover to some of his books. He loved his drink, stemming from his trip to New Orleans where he developed a taste for absinthe.

Comedian, Al Murray’s great, great, great, grandfather is William Thackeray who lived in Tunbridge Wells where that house – a grade II listed building – is now a restaurant named after him and located just off the main London Road.

Studying at Charterhouse School he called it Slaughterhouse and turned to journalism after university, “writing for his life” as he put it to support his young family as Charles Dickens did with his potboilers.

Working for Punch magazine, Thackeray invented the word “snob” popularising it the way it is used today when he published the Snob Papers, however his wife went mad with post natal depression affecting him greatly but he did remain at ‘the top of the tree’ for the rest of his life, twice visiting the US.

The American magazine, Vanity Fair centres on popular culture, fashion and politics. Revived in 1983 it has been in publication since 1859, twelve years after the book was published.

Vanity Fair remains an extremely successful periodical, focusing mainly on Hollywood, fitting because, of course, William Makepeace Thackeray began his career as a a successful magazine writer himself, during and after Cambridge University where he won an award for Timbuctoo – a collection of fictional sketches which he named after an ancient city in Africa that had just been discovered in 1826.

Sadly, William Makepeace Thackeray was addicted to spicy peppers that ruined his digestion and probably killed him, along with the drink and he died in 1863 with the funeral being held in Kensington Gardens that year.

Classical Greece and Rome Partly at Home


Lear, The Temple of Apollo at Bassae (1854). Oil on canvas, 229 x 146 cm. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Who it was that summed up Classical Greece in one painting

This is an image of Bassae which is quintessentially Greek in the past, present and future. With the temple in the rugged mountains, Greece is more than that these days: party islands and sexy beaches where time doesn’t matter. But, beaches in the sun could be anywhere really; wouldn’t the above picture only be of Greece?

The Classical world is certainly summed up by Edward Lear in the above picture of that wonderful Greek temple in a mountain setting. But the Roman empire has spread the remains of the classical past right across Europe: as far as Scotland, to bits of Africa, and parts of Asia.

The deserts of Tunisia house some of the best preserved remains anywhere in the Roman empire and Hadrian’s wall is a clear boundary between a civilized world and barbarian territory – though Athens and Rome seem conveniently central to the whole process. Bassae is actually hidden away.

There is no doubt about this place being such a romantic spot; Bassae, on the Peloponnese peninsular, on a clear night, it might even be possibly to almost look up and see Apollo himself smiling.

Visiting this area of the world is popular among travelers and there is still a way of discovering unspoilt Greece – even now – though you won’t need a mule any more because they have windy roads, but the tarmac still snakes around the cliffs like you were exploring unknown territory, even if you are in a taxi!

Bassae is around 4000 feet above sea level and there are no houses nearby other than this one designed for Apollo; it is a perfect place to read poetry. However, many of the scattered / sculpted blocks have been reorganized to appear kind of like as they were originally. Plus, there is now a lovely authentic white marquee – somewhat younger – that hardly enhances the romantic image of a classical ruin, thus this white canvas does serve a purpose; it protects the ancient ruin from acid rain and provides shelter for the restorers.

We are thus, enabled to continue seeing such marvelous history as a result of these changes.

Another change is the law. Nowadays you’ll get arrested for taking more than a photograph away, let alone 23 slaps of sculpted priceless marble, hence, concepts such as heritage and conservation are new to Classics (relatively speaking) but paramount in the protection of this ancient site.

The wonderful white tent represents care and preservation today and may still remind us of the intrepid ideas of those nineteenth-century adventurers who dodged bandits, fought fever and camped out at night too when rediscovering Bassae.

The ironic thing about keeping the Parthenon marbles in London is that they are probably safer here and have been better protected – quite possibly – than if they were left in Greece; no matter how dubious anyone thinks the acquisition was, they are for everyone to see completely free of charge.

There is no better preserved temple outside Athens anywhere in Greece than the beautiful one on the hill in Bassae, though there are clearly differences between the idealized image of the classical world, and the peasant life the explorers actually found upon arrival around 200 years ago; the team managed to swing their story around with glamorous tales of heroic exploration, and this helped bridge that gap giving a more modern element to it. There are two ideas about Classics here: ancient ideals of classical perfection; and nineteenth-century romantic vision. Both seem interesting to popular culture these days and help strengthen the discipline as a whole.

A real life visit to Greece these days would definitely involve many visions of Classics and the classical world. By bringing something new and inheriting something from the past the experience would surely be enhanced.

All of these people live on in libraries across the world: Homer, Virgil, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Plautus. If we read about them we share something with many a bygone era; they are the oldest books, and they are still in print, so they must have lasted the test of time, and appeared in libraries or equivalent ever since these authors lived.

Medieval monks studied classical texts, and schools had Classics on their equivalent of the national curriculum for hundreds of years. Furthermore, the architects who built Europe often quoted from Vitruvius to construct more modern buildings (many of which still stand today) hence, lots of lessons can be learned from Classics and the evolution of the subject over the years which will probably reinvent itself forever.

It was the medieval monks who managed to preserve most of the classical texts by copying and recopying them for the next bunch, meaning we are all free to use Classics today. However, the romance of classical Rome or Athens as this superior set of beings with their ingenious methods, isn’t such a distant memory. They were just as multicultural as London or New York is today, having been influenced by Asian, African and many other cultures.

The centrality of classics binds Western civilization in location, culture and politics. There is something similar and different about reading Virgil’s Aeneid today: in a taxi / on  a mule / bound in leather / or dictated by a terrifying Victorian schoolmaster – the experience is new every time!

We do bring differences to classical texts and use them differently to nineteenth-century readers in the same way we understand the concept of fire in a manner unlike a medieval person, hence, our attitudes have changed for many reasons which brings something new to the old and likewise, something old to the new.

Feminism for example, and psychoanalysis, are relatively new approaches to the discipline of Classics and with this it means many of us get a new and different understanding of ancient literature. Women had little in the way of rights in ancient times, and in Victorian times when these sculptures were rediscovered, but that has changed more recently, and has bearing on how we read the poetry of Virgil and the philosophy of Plato.

Just one visit to Bassae emphasizes this gap between the modern world and the ancient world and raises all of those debates to a lesser or greater degree, thus, this would be largely ignored without a scintillating visit.

Edward Lear gave the picture above to the museum for everyone to enjoy, and the painting sums up the romantic image of Bassae by showing two main things: the desolation of the landscape; and the lonely temple. It can only just be seen through the rocks and twisted mountain trees though.

This Greek landscape was actually painted in England out in the English countryside using the artist’s sketches he made on his trip to Greece, thus he has blended these memories well with some from home and benchmarks the idea about Classics today really being home and away.

Lear has managed to weave in his own recollections, to the local scenery of his own countryside in a way that helps many others to also understand the Greece he traveled in a time before photography and postcards.

Classics is now in the epicenter of Western culture which of course includes: politics, education, tourism, religion, and much more. Long may this continue!

Peter Rabbit Miss Tiggy Winkle Beatrix Potter National Trust Lake District
Helen Beatrix Potter was born in Kensington in 1866 and tutored at home by a governess. Painting landscape was her hobby and she had only pets as friends, while her brother was away at boarding school.

Beatrix had problems getting published because her illustrations lacked any colour so she amended this, shortened the title and self published her first children’s book The Tales of Peter Rabbit in 1902.
When she became financially independent, Beatrix bought a farm in the Lake District, got married and farmed sheep. The local vicar and family friend Canon Rawnsley was worried about the effect of tourism and industry in the area and founded the National Trust in 1895 to protect the countryside. Beatrix had always loved the rugged mountains and now learned the importance of conservation, something that was to stay with her for the rest of her life.
The Story of Miss Moppet was published in 1906 with many beautiful images of the Newlands Valley. It tells the tale of Tom Kitten’s sister and her botched efforts at catching a mouse.
When her fiancé died, Beatrix bought Hill Top Farm near the lakes, caring for many animals including a pet hedgehog, called Mrs Tiggy-winkle. This farm is now owned by the National Trust.
Before microscope technology, the only way to record images of fungi was to paint them and Potter was a pioneer of this, widely respected in the scientific community for her contributions to mycology.
In the story The Tales of Peter Rabbit, she names Peter’s mother Josephine and his cousin Benjamin Bunny! His sisters are Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-Tail but there is no Alex. Her writing has even been compared to Ernest Hemingway’s with the way she uses prose and modernism.
Walt Disney wanted to buy the film rights but Potter refused and her works remained only in print until long after her death in 1943.
Renee Zellweger earned her sixth Golden Globe nomination for her portrayal of Beatrix in the film Miss Potter in 2006, a biopic directed by Chris Noonan.
With all her wealth, Beatrix Potter went on to buy 17 farms with 4000 acres of land, leaving her entire estate to the National Trust when she died and a gallery of her work is displayed in a National Trust townhouse in Cumbria.
Her legacy is surely that many areas of fell farming – uncultivated high ground used for common grazing – remain unspoiled to this day.

Classical Journey of Discovery


How the rediscovery of the Bassae Temple reveals so much about Classics

The story about this place is quite fascinating from an adventure point of view but also in how Classics has become to be understood.

Athens in the nineteenth-century was a little town under Turkish rule and the place had been visited by Lord Byron and the Parthenon housed a mosque.

With exploration gathering pace and the possibility now of finding another Parthenon the challenge was combating malaria and the lawless bandits of Arcadia.

When parts of the temple freize were found the explorers dragged them to the coast and off to Zante where the British Navy was conveniently stationed. However, this party were interested in how these temples matched up with Vitruvius of Rome to design a professional manual about architecture for contemporary craftsmen.

Many of the debates in modern architecture use the role of the classical world to decide whether their forms are still the best to imitate.

At this time of rediscovery the international group essentially were all fighting each other in the Napoleonic Wars – they potentially were all enemies – and the classical world drew them together with academic and cultural interest whilst putting themselves at great risk in many ways this speaks volumes for the discipline of Classics and what it offers to the interest in Europe.

Rediscovering the origins of Western culture gave insight to the origin of European civilisation and a base for education and democracy and war; all three of which haven’t really changed a great deal in thousands of years, thus Classics is a voyage of discovery if you use the Bassae expedition as an analogy. A far cry from sitting in libraries or visiting museums to gaze at neatly displayed exhibits it is more like an Indiana Jones movie for real.

The dispute over the Elgin Marbles may never go away. Lord Byron wrote a poem about it on the ship carrying some of the marble defending Greece’s position and suggesting Elgin was a vandall. And when the marble arrived expectations were so high many people were convinced there had been a terrible mistake, fearing they were not originals.

Greece was further than Italy and frequented far less so the more distant shores of Athens represented a huge shift in archaeology in the nineteenth-century. It was more of a heroic journey than one to Rome and back where the tourist industry was in place, thus Greece was sort of undiscovered in many ways with her mountain hideouts and hidden monuments. Rome could easily trace much of its art directly back to ancient Greece.

One thing that remains constant is that a discovery of Rome will lead to Greece today as it did 200 years ago 2000 years ago as well.

Bassae is actually crucial to the Roman connection, hence their style for decorating columns is known as Corintian, thus architect Vitruvius said he inherited the style from a Greek man living in the city of Corinth; the style was intricate and became symbolic of Rome’s best architecture, however the earliest example of it was found in the the Temple at Bassae and these explorers recorded it as the Greek ancestor of the most striking Roman architecture they’ve seen!

The sculptures went to auction and after a lot of international toing and froing the marble went to the British offer of £19,000 perfectly legally and ever since has provoked debate about the artwork, the history and the politics of the whole extravaganza 200 years ago.



How the area of Classics is so named

A museum is a great place to start, for any research project into the world of what has become known as Classics; something that of course extends far beyond any exhibit.

The British Museum is world famous, but perhaps the most infamous bit appears in a specially designed exhibition room, which has carefully planned spotlights aimed at a series of ancient slabs, that form a frieze of fighting bodies: men, women, horses and half horses, all carved in stone!

Part of the Temple of the God Apollo these sculptures originate from the fifth-century BCE in a place called Arcadia, which is a remote district in Greece; thus, the panels show two of the most famous scenes from Greek mythology.

These things are sculpted versions of Greek soldiers, centaurs stealing a woman from her wedding, and Hercules himself with the Amazon Queen.

When these remains were discovered by a group of international archaeologists some 200 years ago, a large proportion of it was auctioned to the British government.

There are 23 slabs, neatly laid out in the British Museum, but they were found scattered in ruins and no one has yet been able to complete this giant, stone, jigsaw-puzzle, to find out what the picture should actually be.

Furthermore, at home in their ancient temple these sculpted stones were almost certainly 7 metres up, inside a poorly lit room, and very difficult to see; thus, herein lieth the difference between a museum designed for punters and the temple which was a religious shrine including many stone carvings as part of that holy place!

We have labels on our museum exhibits, but the ancients knew these stories (all embedded in stone) about Hercules versus the Amazons and Centaurs; it was common knowledge, thus a gap now exists between historical context and modern displays like those which we see in museums.

This gap between museums and the past prompts many questions: how was religion practised in a Greek temple? how and when did these sculptures become works of art to us? why was this temple in the middle of nowhere on the side of a mountain? and what are to differences or similarities to the visitor/tourist/pilgrim/worshipper of the 5th century BCE compared to one looking at the sculptures today?

Greece back then had just become part of the Roman empire but the temple was still 300 years old to them, so what did this mean to the people of both countries?

The Roman conquest may have influenced who used the temple and those intrepid explorers 200 years ago, were hardly rediscovering the place on recognised international visas, risking their lives to bring the sculptures back to England!

How all of this fits into the classical world of ancient Greece and Rome is of great interest to many people today!