Sunday, October 9, 2011

Anton Raphael Mengs - Apollo and the Muses on Parnassus

Anton Raphael Mengs, Apollo and the Muses on Parnassus, 1760-61
(Villa Albani, Rome)
Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a German literary scholar, who was working in Rome during mid 18th century, was one of the  biggest advocates of an art in the noble simplicity and quiet grandeur of the ancient Greeks.  According to Winckelmann, Greeks lived an exemplary life of a healthy diet and regular exercise which led to a healthy mind and high moral standards.  He saw an intense study of  Classical art as the only way to improve the decadence of 18th century society and the arts.  A trip to Rome and the study of the Renaissance masters, especially Michelangelo and Raphael was an essential part of for many young artist's training.   By 1760's those artist working in Rome were also exposed to Winceklmann's teachings  and were beginning to incorporate these elements in to their work. Since the 1880's, the art of this period is referred to as Neoclassical.

Apollo Belvedere, Roman 120- 130
(Copy of Bronze Original Greek 325-350BC)
(Vatican Museum, Rome) 
The German painter Anton Raphael Mengs was one of the artists who was working in Rome in the 1760's and he was commissioned by Winckelmann's patron, Cardinal Albani, to paint his new villa's reception room ceiling.  The ceiling fresco Mengs painted, Apollo and the Muses on Parnassus, is considered to be the first example of  Neoclassical painting, a revolutionary declaration of a new art. Mengs' stoic figures are standing, in a shallow picture plane in front of trees that are forming a backdrop with the mythological source of artistic inspiration, the Castillian spring in the front.

Instead of concealing the ceiling with illusionism as was the custom since the Renaissance, Mengs emphasized it as a flat surface.  Apollo is standing in the middle wearing laurels and holding a lyre, surrounded by muses in a symmetrical composition.  Mengs' idealized figures recall sculptures from antiquity, his composition, paintings from the Renaissance.  As a matter of fact, his Apollo is a rendition of the Apollo Belvedere in reverse which was believed at the time to be the most magnificent sculpture from ancient Greece (it has been proved to be a Roman copy since.)  In this ceiling fresco he seems to have captured the essence of what his friend Winckelman was calling for at the time to cleanse the arts from French Rococo and bring a subdued gravity in its stead.

Raphael, The School of Athens, 1509 -1510
(Apostolic Palace, Vatican City, Rome)

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