About people wearing clothes for warmth, only a certain kind of American sociologist would ask: “Why on earth do they do that?” But it is not silly to ask the same question about the practice of stretching the lobes of pierced ears to make pendulous loops, and then using the loops to carry enormous ear plugs like the gold ones that were a caste mark of the Incas. And the human cultures that have had “Orejones”—“eared ones” as Pizarro’s band called the Incas—have been rather more numerous in history than the cultures having art collectors.
To see that this is true, it must first be understood that true art collecting differs fundamentally from normal patronage of the arts and immemorial treasure gathering. These activities began, approximately, when art began on earth; and their results can be confusing, too, for they are often easy to mistake for art collections. For example, commissioning leading artists to provide works dedicated to the gods in temples was one of the commonest forms of public patronage in Greece in the great centuries. Thus the more famous temples eventually came to look very like modern art museums—but solely as a consequence of haphazard accumulation by patronage of the arts.
True art collecting is different because it always has two ingredients. One ingredient is the aesthetic sense, which is of course shared by patrons like Cosimo di Medici and the more inspired treasure gatherers like Abbot Suger. This sense was earliest manifested in men’s tendency to add beauty to things they made. In fact the Paleoanthropologists now hold that the aesthetic sense is a hominid trait, dating long before the emergence of Homo sapiens. All late Acheulian hand axes, from about 200 millennia ago, look very rough to us; but the Paleoanthropologists consider much trouble was taken to make some hand axes elegant as well as useful by late Acheulian standards.
As to art collecting’s second ingredient, it is the tendency to collect, first indicated by cave assemblages of odd shells, quartz crystals, and the like. These cave assemblages are identical with the assemblages that magpies make, but perhaps the men of the Paleolithic caves thought the shells and crystals were pretty as well as rare. It is clear, however, that the tendency to collect is quite separate from the aesthetic sense. Holy relics were the great collectors’ prizes of the Middle Ages. Besides stamps, early barbed wire, vintage Coca-Cola bottles, and God knows how many other things are ardently collected in America today. The mark of all collectors is that they want their prizes—whether relics of the Passion of Our Lord, Renaissance paintings, or specimens of the first barbed wire ever made—to be genuine, or “right,” as they say on the art market. Here is the only rational solution of the aesthetically insoluble problem of art historical authenticity. A costly faked work of a great master is not shown to be one whit less beautiful when the fakery is detected by subtle scientific tests of the paint. But the detected fake is hurried into the museum’s reserves or the art collector’s cupboards because it is now “not right,” whereas it was exhibited with pride and envied by all when first acquired.
This is not the end of the story either. True art collecting not only has two very disparate ingredients. In addition, art collecting has never appeared, anywhere or at any time, except as the primary phenomenon in a larger system comprising a series of other phenomena: art history, an art market, and up to four or five more such as art museums and art faking. Look, then, for the two ingredients and also for the accompanying system. You will soon find true art collecting is a peculiar byproduct of a tiny minority of all the art traditions the world has known. These five rare art traditions, as they may be called, are as follows:
In the West: the classical art tradition that was born in Greece; and after an intervening gap of about eight centuries, our own Western art tradition that originated in the Renaissance.
In the Far East: the second phase of the Chinese art tradition that began in the late third century BC; and the Japanese tradition after it had been transformed by Chinese influence.
And finally, as a somewhat anomalous case, the later Islamic art tradition.
Note that before very recent times, all these art traditions had their own strongly independent identities, and above all, some were totally unrelated to others. Yet all five traditions on the list nonetheless produced the same complex results—art collecting, art history, and some or all of the other linked phenomena—whereas no such results can be found in the overwhelming majority of art traditions. One naturally asks, therefore, “Why on earth these five and not all the many others?”
This is the question I now propose to try to answer, but before going to the main question, let me also set the stage a bit more fully. Rather more than 25,000 years—or about nine tenths of art’s known history on earth—had already elapsed before the seventh century BC, when a glorious and mysterious creative mutation occurred in Greece. In this long period, literally thousands of art traditions, major and minor, had undoubtedly come and gone with the rise and fall of the uncounted Paleolithic, Neolithic, and, last of all, complex metal-using cultures.
About many of these cultures and their art traditions we now know little or nothing. But the short list of major art traditions we know a fair amount about before 700 BC is already pretty long. It begins with the great, long-lasting art of the Paleolithic caves, and it comprises a whole series of art traditions generated by what we now call higher civilizations. Ancient Sumer and several of its successor cultures in Mesopotamia and Iran, Anatolia, and Syria-Palestine; Egypt, of course; the Indus Valley culture of Mohenjodaro and Harappa in pre-Aryan India; Minoan Crete and its conqueror-inheritor, Mycenaean Greece; the China of the first phase, which began around 1600 BC; the Olmec culture in Central America, which developed around 1200 BC and was the forerunner of so many other wonderful pre-Columbian cultures: these are the short list of early higher cultures that had their own art traditions. And among all these major art traditions of the first nine tenths of art’s story, not one produced any sign of true art collecting or art history, so far as we know today.
Out of the Greek mutation in the seventh century BC came the great art of ancient Greece, as well as the entire classical art tradition. It has been wisely called the “Greek miracle,”1 and it was not miraculous solely because of Greek art’s originality and grandeur. Generations of great art historians and theorists, both in classical times and our own time, have studied and written about the “Greek miracle” in all its many aspects. To date, however, no special stress has been placed on the sheer novelty of certain behavioral traits that first appeared on earth in the great centuries of Greek art. More important, the meaning of these traits, in combination, has not been explored. Unless I am mistaken, in fact, it has never been suggested that the four novel behavioral traits of Greek art combine to explain the other Greek “firsts” that chiefly concern us: namely, the first appearances on earth of true art collecting, art history, and the other linked phenomena. All these phenomena are clearly recorded in the Greek world, and they had never been seen before.
I must add that I have no explanation for any of Greek art’s four behavioral novelties. It is bewildering, in itself, that a precedent-breaking creative mutation took place in the seventh century BC in the quarrelsome little states in Greece. Moreover, there was nothing unprecedented in any of the accepted indicators now used to pinpoint the mutation. Among these indicators, a key place is usually accorded to the earliest Greek monumental stone sculpture, which probably dates from about 650 BC. Yet the first Greek sculptors in stone were Johnnies-come-lately. Huge boulders roughly shaped into semihuman form have been found, somewhat unexpectedly, at a site in Yugoslavia that dates from about 8,000 years ago; and these are the earliest known monumental stone sculpture.
The Greeks got their inspiration, too, from the stone sculpture of Egypt. Perhaps the finest and most complete very early Greek kouros statue, the marble youth in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, still rather faithfully follows a system of human proportions imported from Egypt. The stance and much of the treatment of the hair come from the same source. In large measure, this was a borrowed image. There were also other borrowings, from the Phoenicians, from metal-rich Urartu in the Caucasus, and elsewhere. But what the Greeks then did with what they borrowed was wholly new under the sun; for the Greek artists of the great centuries were the first in the world history of art to innovate both rapidly and unceasingly.
This compulsive innovation was in truth the first of the Greek art tradition’s novel behavioral traits. Nowadays, of course, its novelty is far from easy to grasp. In the twentieth century, each new creative generation’s inescapable need to innovate is taken as an immutable fact of the life of art. All our beginning artists fear above all the verdict on their work, “It’s been done before.” But this was not the way of it in most art traditions of the past. What had been done before was instead quite happily done again and again. Here, consider E. H. Gombrich on this important problem:
Our modern notion that an artist must be “original” was by no means shared by most peoples of the past. An Egyptian…or a Byzantine master would have been greatly puzzled by such a demand. Nor would a medieval artist of Western Europe have understood why he should invent new ways of planning a church, or designing a chalice or of representing the sacred story where the old ones served their purpose so well…. There [still] remained enough scope for him to show whether he was a master or a bungler.2
Please note, however, that the absence of a compulsion to innovate continuously by no means implies changelessness in art. In the first place, all art traditions have gone through occasional spurts of bold innovation, either when a tradition was developing its own vocabulary of forms or themes, or a new style was evolving—as happened with Abbot Suger’s work at St. Denis, from which Gothic architecture was born. The step pyramid at Saqqara, the first in Egypt, resulted from another such inspired spurt around 2700 BC. In all art traditions too, styles and forms inevitably altered—for change is an unchanging constant in human history. Yet whenever doing what was done before was acceptable, gradual change was the norm; and in some traditions, artists were even trained and required to follow rules which severely retarded change. In the eighth century, the Second Council of Nicaea laid down the rule, “The making of icons is not the invention of painters…. Whatever is ancient is worthy of respect, saith St. Basil….” And the Council’s rule continued, in effect, that the conception of images belonged to the Church Fathers, only painting—execution—to the painters.
In Egyptian art, again, a carefully thought out system of proportions was probably in use as early as the late pre-Dynastic period, as indicated by the two figures of the ruler on the Palette of King Narmer. This system3 further became canonical rather soon in the Old Kingdom, in the fourth dynasty; and the canonical system thereafter controlled almost all Egyptian sculpture of the human figure for about 1900 years. Modifications were at last made in the canon in the twenty-sixth dynasty; and this modified system, which produced slightly more elongated figures, was the one taken over by the early Archaic Greek sculptors.
Whereupon the sculptured image so largely borrowed from Egypt evolved so swiftly in Greece that the Greek Archaic kouros statues can be dated within a decade or so, just by the anatomical innovations which the statues exhibit or lack. Thus the backs of the marble youths made between 590 and 570 BC still have “spinal furrows…indicated by grooves,” whereas the spinal furrows are already plastically “modeled” on the backs of youths dating from 570 to 550.4 There is a wealth of comparable data about Greek artistic innovation, and it can therefore be cogently argued (and I would argue) that Greek artists were the first in the world who ever worried about the verdict, “It’s been done before.”
Or perhaps one should say that the Greek artists were the first who positively felt compelled to be original, in the sense of adding something new and previously unseen. It might be no more than another of the newly correct renderings of this muscle or that part of the human body, which plainly preoccupied the Archaic sculptors; but still, it had not been seen before. Furthermore, innovation never flagged throughout the centuries of the Greek creative surge, from about 650 BC until the surge started to lose momentum around 325 BC. The last great sculptor before the surge subsided was Lysippos; and he, too, was a great innovator—in fact the inventor of yet another system of proportions that made his figures still more elegantly slender, as well as a new, more “vivid rendering of the hair.”5
Lysippos was also considered “supreme as regards faithfulness to nature.”6 In other words, the Greek artists’ innovations in the great centuries were primarily concerned with the accurate representation of reality—and mainly the reality of the human body, whether static or later in action, whether alone or later in groups. Nowadays, when the representation of reality strikes many people as a trivial trick, it is tempting to dismiss the Greek artists’ continuous innovations as a trivial and minor theme in the story of Greek art. This was certainly not the Greeks’ view, however, if we may read backward from the way the Greek art historians later dealt with this subject.
Another comparable difficulty also confronts anyone in the twentieth-century West who seeks to assess the second novel feature of the Greek art tradition. Representation in art is thought trivial today because of the stage our own art tradition has now reached; but signatures on works of art have come to seem far more trivial, simply because the sorriest manufacturers of motel bedroom art now sign their products without fail. In the larger frame of the world history of art, nonetheless, a signature on a work of art must be seen as a deeply symbolic act. By signing, the artist says, in effect, “I made this and I have a right to put my name on it, because what I make is a bit different from what others have made or will make.” In the entire course of the world history of art, this right to sign has most rarely been claimed by any artists beyond the limits of the five rare art traditions—at least before the present, when worldwide cultural homogenization by what is called “progress” has led to artists signing everywhere.
Before the Greeks, in fact, no artists’ signatures are known from any art tradition except the Egyptian. From Egyptian artists’ tombs and memorials, we have a considerable number of their names, but all of art history’s first known signature, meaning “I made this,” is on a statue base found in the wonderful pyramid-complex at Saqqara. The statue base bears the name of Imhotep, the artist-architect-engineer of King Zoser’s step pyramid, but also Zoser’s grand vizier, or the equivalent. Later, Imhotep was deified and worshiped for a couple of thousand years, and it is pleasing to think one can see an actual signature left on earth by one so long among the gods. Besides Imhotep’s, however, the millennially long Egyptian record has produced the merest handful of other true signatures, mostly of artists who were also very high officials like Imhotep. Otherwise, as I have said, no artist anywhere on earth is known to have put his name on any work of art before the Greek creative mutation in the seventh century BC; and the Greek art tradition was also the first in which it was not at all unusual for artists to sign.
The oldest Greek sculptor’s signature now surviving is incomplete—the name “…medes” on the twin statues of Kleobis and Biton in Delphi, which date from the early sixth century BC. The oldest Athenian potter’s signature is that of Sophilos, who also worked in the early sixth century. Thereafter, there was nothing in the least unexpected in any Greek artist’s putting his name on his work, if he felt like it. This does not mean, of course, that signing was a universal practice. Among the Greek potters and pottery painters of both black and red figure periods, a considerable majority left their works anonymous; and this majority included some of the finest masters, like the Berlin Painter. Over all, one should probably picture a situation in Greece like that in Italy during the High Renaissance, when no one was surprised because Raphael chose to sign only a few of his paintings, and Michelangelo signed only his Pietà in St. Peter’s, and in a fit of temper at that. Yet the fact that the Greek works of art were far from invariably signed does not in the least diminish the significance of the Greek artists’ signatures.
To say that the Greek artists’ compulsive innovations and their signatures were new under the sun does not automatically mean that they were important novelties, in and of themselves. The aim of the Greek innovations was clearly more accurate representation of the human body; yet anyone can see that the magic of Greek art does not lie in accurate representation. It is enough to compare the Delphic Charioteer, from fairly early in the fifth century, with the far more softly natural—but much less magical—late fourth-century bronze of a youthful athlete just acquired by the Getty Museum. Instead, both the artists’ signatures and their compulsion to do something that had not been done before are important, indeed deeply important, because of what they imply. They clearly imply that the Greek artists had a wholly new kind of self-image and goal.
Every Greek artist of consequence in truth wished to put his own individual stamp on his work in the most emphatic manner. To us, the artist’s hankering to assert his individuality is a matter of course. But it was far from a matter of course when this drive first manifested itself in Greece. It was brand new in history. Then, too, when artists seek to put their personal stamps on their work, as they first did in Greece, this amounts to a claim, whether conscious or unconscious, to have some sort of place in history. When artists claim places of their own in history—even quite modest places—this means, in turn, that something like a historical response to art is already dimly taking shape. And the Greeks’ historical response to their art was again brand new in art’s story on earth.
This special response is perhaps more clearly revealed by Greek art’s two other wholly novel behavioral traits, which can be more briefly reviewed. The first was the large volume of theoretical writing about art, mostly by the artists themselves. It may seem astonishing that theoretical writing about art first began in Greece, and that this kind of writing about art has also been severely limited to the five rare art traditions. In the Western world, on the one hand, art theory has been around for a very long time. Filarete denouncing Gothic architecture in his fifteenth-century treatise on an ideal city sounds very much like a Bauhaus propagandist giving stick to the Beaux Arts nearly 500 years later. On the other hand, a considerable volume of nontheoretical writing about art survives from art traditions quite outside the rare group.
The truth is that how-to books on art have often been produced in literate art traditions—a good many more, I suspect, than we still have today. I think there were Egyptian craftsman’s handbooks which have not survived. We know there was a Khmer one. We still have an Indian one from the sixth century AD. We also have a late reflection of a Byzantine one. And there are several medieval European ones like the Sketchbook of Villard de Honnecourt. But craftsman’s handbooks merely tell how to do it, without argument. They are about the “now” of art, whereas theoretical works on art are about art’s past, present, and future. The mere instruction, “This way, and not that dreary old way, for the following reasons,” in fact reveals a strong sense of art as a continuing historical process.
So far as is known today, no one had ever written theoretically about art when Greek artists took to producing works of this sort. The earliest was a work on ideal human proportions, the Canon, by Phidias’s sculptor-rival, Polykleitos. If we may believe Vitruvius, the theory was strongly mathematical, but Polykleitos also made a statue called The Canon to illustrate his theory. The last theoretical work in the great period was probably that by Lysippos’ painter-contemporary, Apelles, but there were others in between. They are all long lost, but their former existence is certain; and when these works were written, they were, yet again, something altogether new under the sun.
As for the Greek art tradition’s fourth novel behavioral trait, it is even more important for our purposes than the other three, but somewhat different for it has to do with the Greeks’ feelings about their artists and their art. The evidence is clear that throughout the great centuries of Greek art, each generation’s leading artists found a warm welcome which such innovators could never have received in Egypt, for example, except in the brief, abnormal time of Akhenaton. The welcome in Greece was not universal, to be sure. Plato and Aristotle were the first major thinkers in human history to write about art; and in what they wrote, both betrayed a decided conservatism. There must have been a good many other Greeks who wished their artists would stick to the old ways. Yet the mere facts that innovating artists never lacked patrons, and that the next generation of artists always went on where the innovators left off, are enough to prove that the conservatives were impotent. Furthermore, the Greeks’ response to their artists went much further than mere welcome. In brief, the leading masters of each generation found just the places in history they so evidently hankered for, since they were always remembered.
Nowadays, once again, this habit of remembering artists may seem a trifling matter; for educated men now have memories stocked with names of scores, or even hundreds, of the past’s great artists, along with something of their achievements. But when artists began to be remembered in Greece, this was still another thing quite new under the sun. There is not a shred of evidence that any artist anywhere had ever before been treated as a historical personage, with the sole exceptions of Imhotep, who became a god; another deified Egyptian whose case is arguable; plus the Old Testament’s presumably mythical Bezaleel and Aholiab, personally commanded by Jehovah to make the Ark of the Covenant for Moses, and the first artificer, Tubalcain.
It seems all but certain, too, that the Greeks did more than just remember their leading masters. The odds are heavy, in fact, that they finally recorded their most famous artists in chronological lists, similar to the Italian lists that were repeatedly made in the century and a half before Giorgio Vasari set to work. No such Greek lists of artists now survive, but there is a clear analogy with the list of Olympic victors which later provided the chronological framework of Greek history according to Olympiads. There were other kinds of Greek list makers, too. Plato called them “archeologists.” So lost lists of artists are not at all improbable. In addition, the period of the Renaissance lists of artists coincided almost exactly with the period of theoretical writing about art by Renaissance artists like Alberti and Leonardo; and one suspects the Greek case was basically similar.
The truth is that lists of artists almost have to be assumed in fourth-century Greece, merely because of what came next. For without pre-existing lists to aid the work, it is exceedingly hard to see how Xenokrates of Sikyon managed to write his history of Greek art fairly early in the third century BC. This was not only the first Greek art history; it was also, so far as we know, the first history of art ever written anywhere on earth. Something so unknown before can hardly have been created out of an absolute void.
With the world’s first art history, the stage has now been reached when the whole system of phenomena based on art collecting made its first appearance in the story of world culture. Like so much else that one longs to have from Greece, Xenokrates’ work is lost. The arcane methods invented by the classical scholars were long ago used, however, to reconstruct the outline of the lost text from known echoes of Xenokrates, particularly in the chapters on the arts in the elder Pliny’s Naturalis Historia. If the reconstruction is correct,7 it is downright astonishing to see how often this Greek of the third century BC foretold our own tradition’s first art historian, Giorgio Vasari, some 1900 years later.
Like Vasari, Xenokrates interpreted the story he was telling as a grand progression from imperfection to perfection—perfection being achieved by a continuous surge of inspired innovations in the representation of reality. Like Vasari, he credited each innovation to a leading artist—once getting his progression chronologically wrong with Myron, too, for much the same reasons Vasari got Masaccio’s dates wrong. Xenokrates further held that the Greek progression reached a final climax in the later fourth century, with Lysippos as culminating sculptor and Apelles as culminating painter. “Deinde cessavit ars“—“Art then stopped”—Pliny the Elder wrote of what happened just after the opening of the third century BC. To be sure, Pliny contradicted his own statement almost in the next breath. But the point is that the bleak sentiment just quoted is again thought to reflect Xenokrates. Vasari similarly held that Italian art had reached a final climax with Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, and the other giants of the High Renaissance. He did not go so far as to say “Art then stopped,” but he frankly doubted whether artists to equal the High Renaissance giants would ever be seen again.
Hence it is clear that Xenokrates and Vasari both felt—although in varying degrees—that a sad ending of sorts had already occurred when they set to work on their art histories after looking backward over the preceding centuries. Surely it was no accident, moreover, that this sense of a prior ending was in the air when other Greeks also looked backward and set out to collect works by the great masters of the same centuries that interested Xenokrates.
How then is this art collecting, seen in the Greek world for the first time in art’s long history, to be surely distinguished from patronage of the arts, the normal activity since art began? The simplest of several litmus tests concerns the different roles of the patron and the collector. In brief, the patron always shares, in some measure, in the acts of creation of the artists he patronizes. His share may be no more than setting the price of a commission—and thereby determining whether the work of art is to be ambitious or the reverse. More often in history, patrons have been extremely detailed in their stipulations to artists. In contrast, the English critic John Steegman laid down the useful rule that the collector is never “responsible in any way for the works of art that he acquires, even if he collects the works of his contemporaries.”8 Using this single test, one can see that during the great centuries Greek public patronage of the arts was singularly lavish and discriminating. Meanwhile, Greek private patronage—commissioning works of art to adorn one’s own surroundings and way of life—was quite remarkably sparse; and true art collecting was unknown in the great centuries.
Pericles, the grand organizer of the Athenian public patronage that produced the Parthenon, nonetheless lived privately in a strikingly modest way. One scholar has even observed that in Greece before Hellenistic times, there was “no domestic architecture or domestic sculpture of artistic merit.”9 Yet even in Greek art’s great centuries, the rich Greek tyrants and rulers were generally exceptions to this scholar’s rule. In the sixth century BC Polykrates of Samos had a famous palace. Alexander the Great’s forebear, King Archelaos of Macedon, built another famous palace at Pella in the fifth century. After Alexander’s conquests poured the gold of Persia into Greece, moreover, private patronage of the arts became very lavish indeed.
But the question remains, exactly when did true art collecting begin, i.e., the collecting of works in whose creation the collector had no part? The founder of the study of Hellenistic art, Margarete Bieber, once answered a question of mine by calling King Attalos I of Pergamon “the first big art collector.” Professor Bieber may have been too sweeping. I myself suspect the early Ptolemies were art collectors as well as grandiose patrons, by the test given above. But Attalos I of Pergamon was unquestionably the first art collector to be solidly attested in the whole world history of art.
Like the stories of the other Hellenistic monarchies, the story of Pergamon is far from edifying, and Attalos I was probably far from being a morally admirable man. The story of Pergamon (now Bergama in modern Turkey) began with a treacherous embezzlement from one of Alexander’s generals, Lysimachos. In the vicious Wars of the Successors after Alexander’s death, Lysimachos decided to deposit his treasure of 9,000 talents in this obscure but strongly placed little hilltop town on the Anatolian coast. Whereupon Lysimachos’ eunuch-treasurer, Philetairos, locked the town’s gates, changed his allegiance, and carved out a state for himself with the help of his master’s gold. He left the state to his nephew, Eumenes; and the third ruler of Pergamon was Attalos I, who inherited in 241 BC and made the state into an important kingdom by craft and valor. For our purposes, meanwhile, Attalos I is so interesting because he sought to make provincial Pergamon into a major center of Greek culture.
With this end in view, he built and endowed a famous library and brought scholars to work and teach in it, here imitating the first Ptolemy’s great library in Alexandria. He and his successors were also ambitious patrons of the arts, employing contemporary architects and sculptors in large numbers. The original of the Dying Gaul was made for Attalos; and the birthplace of the Pergamene school, perhaps the most creative school of art in Hellenistic times, is revealed by its label.
But Attalos I also sought to enrich Pergamon with as many masterpieces from the great centuries of Greek art as he could get his hands on, and it was this which made him the first documented art collector. Here, however, the record is confused by the fact that Attalos I was also history’s earliest documented founder of an art-collecting dynasty, like the Medici or the Rothschilds. The dynasty included a second and a third Attalos. The story ended, in fact, with Attalos III, who bequeathed his unhappy kingdom to the Roman Senate and the Roman tax gatherers in 133 BC. Furthermore, the classical texts do not clearly indicate which parts of the Pergamene art collection were owed to which King Attalos.
The uncertainties make it an interesting exercise to study the much later descriptions of the works of art at Pergamon in Pausanias and Pliny, and to speculate on which was brought there originally by which Pergamene dynast. One may attribute to King Attalos I the “celebrated group” by the son of Praxiteles, Kephisodotos, “in which the fingers [seemed] to press on flesh rather than marble.”10 The Ajax Struck by Lightning by Apollodoros of Athens, known as the first Greek painter “to give his figures the appearance of reality,”11 probably represented the less ornate taste of Attalos II. But the Archaic “statues of the Graces,” by the sixth-century sculptor Boupalos, which Pausanias admired “in the bedroom of King Attalos,” 12 are most likely to have been acquisitions by Attalos III.
All these guesses are based on the evidence that the later Greek art of the great centuries apparently had the same unique desirability for the first Greek art collectors that the art of the High Renaissance enjoyed for a much longer period in Europe. The Hellenistic collectors’ initial preferences are also suggested by the bribes of Aratos of Sikyon. In the mid-third century, Aratos became the leader of the Achaean League, lately refounded to defend the Peloponnese against the new giant powers of that age. He wanted help for the league from Attalos I’s near-contemporary, the third Ptolemy to rule in Egypt. Plutarch tells us Aratos himself was “not without good taste,” and was “constantly collecting works which were of high artistic skill, and great refinement.” So Aratos sweetened the third Ptolemy with paintings by masters of the Sikyonian school of the very late fifth and fourth centuries, when painting in Sikyon was probably more important than it was in Athens.
So much, then, for the origins of art collecting and art history in the Greek world. Uncounted art collectors followed in the footsteps of Attalos I and Ptolemy III, throughout the seven centuries of the classical art tradition’s subsequent duration. A considerable number of Greek and Roman art historians continued the work of Xenokrates—although classical art history never entered the scientific phase we know today, for this never happened anywhere except in the modern age. Furthermore, as soon as these primary phenomena had appeared in the Greek world, all the other linked phenomena also appeared, in exceptionally rapid succession. Thus in addition to art collecting and art history, a true art market, public art museums, aesthetic revaluation of the art of the past, art faking, antique collecting, and super-prices for works of art are all, so to say, Hellenistic Greek inventions. Toward the end of the second century BC, too, the Roman plutocrats began to take up art collecting, and Roman collecting then developed to a state of luxuriance that recalls the bizarre situation in New York today. It was a topic for mockery by both Horace and Martial—although Martial was flattering about Novius Vindex, a collector who gave uncommonly good dinners, as was his fellow poet and diner-out, Statius.
This summary tells the main story, but it deserves to be fleshed out with a few notes. The classical art market was undoubtedly organized as soon as art collecting and art history had appeared; and we know that super-prices prevailed rather early. As a Roman collaborator in the Greek world, the second Attalos of Pergamon supported the dreadful Roman seige and sack of Corinth in 146 BC. At the ensuing auction of loot, Attalos’s agent bid 100 talents for an Athenian old master painting by Aristeides, which the Roman soldiers had been using as a dice table.
The Roman general, Mummius, followed long-established Roman precedents by making rich temple dedications of works of art from Corinth, but he was taken completely by surprise by Attalos II’s high bid for a single picture. His astonishment suggests that Rome had not yet begun to imitate Greek art collecting, and there is other similar evidence. Roman art collecting was in fact probably first stimulated by the spoils of Corinth, and in Rome about a century later, we even know of the classical art market’s Lord Duveen. Damasippos was a Greek who sold Greek old masters in Rome in the first century BC, just as Duveen, the Englishman, peddled English and European old masters in the United States. Cicero had rather contentious dealings with him through his friend M. Fadius Gallus, and the dealer’s fame was such that Horace made him the subject of a satire after his death.
As to art museums, the idea for them clearly derived from the Greek temple accumulations of works of art dedicated by their patrons to the gods. An Alexandrian comic sketch of the third century BC, Mime IV of Herodas, describes two silly women visiting a temple in just the spirit of aspirants to higher culture visiting art museums today, and brandishing the names of great Greek artists, too, in a way that significantly proves leading masters were popularly remembered. As early as the third century, moreover, an art museum in the modern sense of the phrase—in other words, a public art gallery—was established in Xenokrates’ and Aratos’ home city of Sikyon, no doubt because of municipal pride in the Sikyonian school. Alas, I think Aratos must have taken his bribes for the third Ptolemy straight out of this gallery; and in 56 BC, all Sikyon’s works of art were sold in Rome, by then the capital of the art market, in order to pay off the heavy municipal debt. Meanwhile, however, public display places for works of art also became common in Italy. In the Satyricon the hero, Encolpius, meets the old fustian poet Eumolpus in a public art gallery in a small Italian provincial town.
A last note is also needed on revaluation. None of the other rare art traditions ever experienced an all-embracing aesthetic revaluation like our own, that has now downgraded the former “most admired statue in the world,”13 the Apollo Belvedere, and given a high place to much African sculpture. In the classical art tradition, revaluation was instead restricted to reordering Xenokrates’ hierarchy of the great masters of Greek art, to give equal or higher rank to the masters of the earlier periods. You can see how far this kind of revaluation went in the celebrated discussion of classical art history by Quintilian, the Roman scholar-rhetorician of the early second century. Quintilian preferred Phidias and Polykleitos to Xenokrates’ special hero, Lysippos. But he also laughed at the cultural exhibitionism of some unnamed contemporaries of his, who gave the highest place to the “almost primitive works” of the painters Polygnotos and Aglaophon.14 Nowadays, cultural exhibitionism would again be suspected in anyone who announced, “For me, there’s nothing in Renaissance painting that really matters after Masaccio,” and this is a fair parallel.
To sum up: First, you have the appearance in Greece of a wholly new kind of art tradition, marked off from all its predecessors in the first nine tenths of art history by wholly novel behavioral traits. These behavioral traits then led on quite naturally to the first historical appearances of art collecting and all its linked phenomena. The essence of the matter, at least in my opinion, is that the Greeks, for the first time in history, added the historical response to art to the ever present aesthetic response. As I have tried to show elsewhere,15 this uncommon double response to art is the egg from which both art collecting and art history are born. Who can imagine art collecting beginning, for instance, without remembered masters to create collecting categories? Out of art collecting and art history, moreover, all or most of the other associated phenomena, right down to super-prices for works of art, have always arisen quite naturally and in some degree necessarily, as they first did in the Greek world.
The wonder of the Greek story lies, not just in the novelty, but equally in the complexity of all these interrelated developments, amounting in reality to a total process without any historical precedent. The wonder is enormously magnified, moreover, because almost the same process then unfolded again at the opposite end of the Eurasian land mass, without any possibility of stimulus from the Greek world and therefore again completely de novo. With certain precedents in the Neolithic period, the superb art of China really took form, so far as we know, with the opening of the metal-using Shang dynasty about 1600 BC. In this very long first phase, Chinese art never included the accurate representation of reality among its goals. Painting was not a central art. Writing was no more an art than it is with us—except in so far as the inscriptions on the early bronzes also had a decorative intention. Certainly there was nothing to suggest true art collecting or art history. But all this was changed, over time, by an abrupt creative mutation toward the end of the third century BC.
Some time ago, Professors Max Loehr of Harvard and William Watson of London University independently suggested that well before the Christian era Chinese art had somehow adopted a new and major goal—in fact, the representation of reality. A firm date for this change of goal has now been provided by the astonishing tomb figures unearthed on the approaches of the gigantic tomb of China’s “First Universal Emperor.” Ch’in Shi Huang Ti, who brought the whole of China of his time under his ruthless rule in 221 BC. His tomb figures are the very earliest realistic representations of human beings in the whole history of Chinese art. Even more important, Ch’in Shi Huang Ti caused the way the Chinese characters were written to be standardized and systematized. No doubt he did this solely to assist his bureaucrats and tax men, but it obviously opened the way for calligraphy to become China’s art of arts—as then happened over a period of about 200 years. When calligraphy had become the art of arts, moreover, painting more gradually became China’s other major art, with the calligrapher’s brush as the painter’s tool, and the representation of reality as painting’s primary theme for a period of well over a thousand years, lasting until the end of the Sung dynasty.
In short, Chinese art entered a second phase quite different from the first, and in this second phase of Chinese art the same complex process can easily be traced that has already been traced in Greek art. In pointing out this startling similarity, however, two points need to be firmly made. Just as Chinese works of art were always utterly different from Greek works, so the process in China differed from the Greek process in many details, such as a slower, more irregular timetable, and the way signing works of art began, with pottery just before the Ch’in dynasty, and then with the products of the royal artisans of the Han dynasty—who were paid, one may guess, on a piecework basis.
But second, the main features of the larger process were at least schematically identical. In other words, Chinese calligraphers and painters also felt a strong impulse to go beyond what had been done before. In time, it became usual though not invariable for them to sign their works, although certainly not from the motive above assigned to the Han royal artisans. Large volumes of theoretical writing about art were produced from rather early dates. The leading masters of each generation were also remembered. And these four behavioral traits also led to the same ultimate results: art collecting passionately practiced, century after century; art history of almost every style except modern scientific art history; an art market and art faking; revaluation of a peculiarly Chinese type; and of course super-prices. Only public art museums were missing, and the same impulse that produced museums in the West clearly produced China’s enormous imperial collections documented from close to the beginning of our era, with their catalogues—beginning with that of the Sung emperor, Hui Tsung, in the eleventh century—that still put to shame the catalogues available in most Western art museums.
Nor is this astonishing repetition in China of the complex, unprecedented process first seen in Greece the end of the wonders that confront us at the center of the history of art collecting. As anyone can see, precisely the same process was repeated, with precisely the same results, in the story of Western art beginning with the onset of the Renaissance. Less completely but still discernibly, the same process was also repeated in the story of later Islamic art, when the vestigial Islamic art collecting began around 1400 AD so far as one can tell. Only in Japan was the story different, for here art collecting was imported from China in the eighth century AD, in much the same way a program to provide public art museums was imported from Europe by the Japanese Westernizers of Meiji times in the later nineteenth century. But I have come so far without answering my opening question: “Why these five art traditions and not all the many others?”
The truth is I have only one clue to the final answer. Long ago, the great Swiss historiographer Eduard Fueter made a crucial distinction between annals—mere records of rulers, battles, and the like—and true history, which deals with the why and how of events as well as the what and when. If Fueter’s definition of true history is accepted, you then find that only five cultures have produced true history before modern times, namely, the classical culture that began in Greece; Chinese culture in its second phase; Japanese culture following after China; later Islamic culture; and the new kind of Western culture that originated in the Renaissance. It seems to me no accident that these same cultures nourished the five rare art traditions, with their shared historical response to art.
December 21, 1978
E.H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, third edition (Phaidon, 1968), p. 120. ↩
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art, eleventh edition (Phaidon, 1966; reprinted 1968), p. 114. ↩
This is a complex and somewhat controversial subject. I have followed the recent study by Erik Iversen in collaboration with Yoshiaki Shibata, Canon and Proportion in Egyptian Art, second edition, revised (Aris and Phillips, Ltd., 1975). ↩
Gisela M. A. Richter with cooperation of Irma A. Richter, Kouroi (Oxford University Press, 1942), pp. 62, 102, 130. ↩
Pliny, Naturalis Historia XXXIV, 65. ↩
Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria XII, x, 9. ↩
The reconstruction still accepted by the scholarly consensus is that by K. Jex-Blake and E. Sellers, The Elder Pliny’s Chapters on the History of Art (Argonaut, Inc., 1968), pp. XVI-XXXVI. ↩
John Steegman, The Rule of Taste from George I to George IV (London: Macmillan, 1968), p. 96. ↩
Margarete Bieber, The Sculpture of the Hellenistic Age, revised edition (Columbia University Press, 1955; 1961), p. 5. ↩
Pliny, Naturalis Historia XXXVI, 24. ↩
Pliny, Naturalis Historia XXXV, 60. ↩
Pausanias IX.35.7. ↩
Kenneth Clark, Civilization (Harper & Row, 1969), p. 2. ↩
Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria XII, x, 1-10. ↩
Joseph Alsop, “Art history and art collecting,” The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3, 982 (July 28, 1978), pp. 851-853. ↩