Chipping Away at Greek Sculpture
|The Mean Curve: To glimpse the Golden Mean, split the Venus de Milo down the middle from nose to toes and see how the two halves balance each other. Venus rests on her right foot, then lifts her left leg, setting her whole body in motion. As the left leg rises, her right shoulder droops down. And as her knee points one way, her head turns the other. Venus is a harmonious balance of opposites, orbiting slowly around a vertical axis, giving her body a balanced S-curve that the Greeks found beautiful. (Photo by: Rob Unck)|
Greek art is known for its symmetry, harmony, and classic simplicity. It shows the Greeks' love of rationality, order, and balance. When it came to sculpture, the Greeks featured the human body in all its naked splendor. The anatomy is accurate, and the poses are relaxed and natural. Greek sculptors learned to capture people in motion, and to show them from different angles, not just face-on. The classic Greek pose — called contrapposto, or counter-poise — has a person resting weight on one leg while the other is relaxed or moving slightly. This pose captures a balance between timeless stability and fleeting motion that the Greeks found beautiful. Following the "Golden Mean," statues strike a happy medium between rigid Archaic art and the unrestrained flamboyance of later Hellenistic art.
The optimistic Greeks pictured their gods as idealized humans (and their humans as godlike). They believed the human body expressed the human spirit. A well-proportioned statue em-"bodied" the balance and orderliness of the Greek universe. If the statue has clothes, the robes drape down naturally, following the body's curves. The intricate folds become beautiful in themselves. Golden Age artists sought the perfect balance between down-to-earth humans (with human flaws and quirks) and the idealized perfection of a Greek god.
As you sightsee, realize that the "Greek" statues filling Europe's museums are mostly chalky, lifeless Roman copies with blank stares and Vatican-issued fig leaves. When you see an original, you'll be impressed by its vibrancy.
Top Museums of Ancient Greece
- National Archaeological Museum, Athens (pictured below)
- British Museum (Parthenon sculpture), London
- Louvre Museum (Venus de Milo, Winged Victory of Samothrace), Paris
- Vatican Museum (Apollo Belvedere, Laocoön), Rome
- Pergamon Museum (altar from Ephesus), Berlin
Athens' National Archaeological Museum
Far and away the world's best collection of ancient Greek art, this museum takes you chronologically from 7000 B.C. to A.D. 500 through beautifully displayed and well-described exhibits (and in air-conditioned comfort).
As is the case in nearly every culture, it's smart to bone up on the history and art in the capital city's big museum before tackling the ruins that dot the countryside. Whether you're on a tour or on your own, take this museum as seriously as you can. Trace the evolution of Greek art, study a guidebook, take a guided tour, and examine the ancient lifestyles painted on the vases. After gaining a rudimentary knowledge of Greek art here, you can head for the hills and resurrect all that B.C. rubble.
Excerpted from Rick Steves' Europe 101: History & Art for the Traveler — completely revised in a full-color 2007 edition — available from our online Travel Store.