I first came across Francis Haskell’s and Nicholas Penny’s Taste and the Antique: The Lure of Ancient Sculpture 1500-1900 when I was doing my doctorate on Poussin. NP has a reputation for being steeped in “the antique” and so I needed to familiarise myself with the canon of sculpture, the “admiranda” the group of ancient sculptures admired by antiquarians, scholars, travellers, and of course artists. For example in his painting, Gathering of the Manna, nearly every figure is based on famous classical sculptures, all of which appear in Taste and the Antique.
I don’t know the exact division of labour in the book but I’m guessing that Penny mostly handled the cataloguing of the sculpture, and the late great Haskell brought his considerable knowledge of taste and collecting to the series of essays that precede the catalogue. Both catalogue and a series of essays on such topics as Rome and the antique, the critical fortunes of the antique in the 18th century, and the decline in the interest of this famous collection of taste, are equally indispensable. Apart from the wealth of information, insight and scholarship, mention should be made of the reproductions which are superfine.
During my doctorate I spoke on Poussin and the antique at a Classical Association conference in Manchester (I think) and from them I learnt more about sculpture which isn’t in the book, partly because it hadn’t been found during the heyday of the canon. I collected books on Greek and Roman art, studied the drawings after the antique in the Greek and Roman section in the British Museum, studied the cast gallery in the Ashmoleon, and broadened my knowledge of classical art which has stood me in good stead when looking at figurative paintings from the renaissance onwards. You can’t understand renaissance art without a grounding in the antique. Did you know that the Elgin Marbles helped scholars to understand Piero della Francesca’s Arezzo frescoes? With the appropriation of the Elgin Marbles and more knowledge about original Greek sculpture coming to light- most of the statues in the book are copies from the Imperial period, the lustre of the canon of the antique began to fade. As Haskell said in Rediscoveries of Art, antiquity was still admired in the early nineteenth-century but it was “a different antiquity. ” From the early nineteenth-century onwards, we hear of artists professing their admiration for the Theseus from the Parthenon in the British Museum rather than the Apollo Belvedere, though that statue, along with the Laocoön and the Barberini Faun is still held in high regard among the cognoscenti.
Haskell and Penny were mainly “concerned with the creation, the diffusion and the eventual dissolution of a “canon” of universally admired antique statues.” They weren’t interested in the historical dimension of these statues; what could be gleaned about the culture of Hadrian from studying statues of his young lover Antinous, for example. Haskell was to devote an entire book to the problem of how art could be seen as historical data- History and its Images, which should be consulted too. In Taste and the Antique, he and Penny were trying to present a cultural history of Europe, with the antique dispersed throughout a network of art, economics, taste and social status.
The aesthetic side of this sculpture is only appreciated by a minority these days, the “happy few” who still find pleasure at looking at classical art, whilist appreciating the cultural context into which it emerged and from whence it came. When you’re looking at these statues, you’re conscious of a time that has gone and is irretrievably lost. As the authors say, tourists flock to the Sistine Chapel, not the Belvedere sculpture gardens in our times. Yet back in the renaissance, the finding of the Apollo and the Laocoön would have been of tremendous importance. No such interest nowadays. A renaissance scholar would be more likely to ask how much the marble of the Apollo Belvedere cost, whether it was luxury goods or functional object, or what pricing structure it falls into. And we have a culture secretary who can’t name a work in the British museum. God help us in this age of neoliberalism!
I’ve used Taste and the Antique extensively for a course I’m teaching on the Art of the Papal Collections. There’s a new blog with lots of information here, but if you just want to look at the images, here are the links to the SkyDrive galleries.
The images of Julius II finding the Apollo and the Iconographical dictionary comes from this great site dedicated to the drawing of these sculptures.