To the Greek climate we owe the production of Taste, and from thence it spread at length over all the politer world. Every invention, communicated by foreigners to that nation, was but the feed of what it became afterwards, changing both its nature and size in a country, chosen, as Plato says, by Minerva, to be inhabited by the Greeks, as productive of every kind of genius.
But this Taste was not only original among the Greeks, but seemed also quite peculiar to their country: it seldom went abroad without loss; and was long ere it imparted its kind influences to more distant climes. It was, doubtless, a stranger to the northern zones, when Painting and Sculpture, those offsprings of Greece, were despised there to such a degree, that the most valuable pieces of Corregio served only for blinds to the windows of the royal stables at Stockholm.
There is but one way for the moderns to become great, and perhaps unequalled; I mean, by imitating the antients. And what we are told of Homer, that whoever understands him well, admires him, we find no less true in matters concerning the antient, especially the Greek arts. But then we must be as familiar with them as with a friend, to find Laocoon as inimitable as Homer. By such intimacy our judgment will be that of Nicomachus: Take these eyes, replied he to some paltry critick, censuring the Helen of Zeuxis, Take my eyes, and she will appear a goddess.
With such eyes Michael Angelo, Raphael, and Poussin, considered the performances of the antients. They imbibed taste at its source; and Raphael particularly in its native country. We know, that he sent young artists to Greece, to copy there, for his use, the remains of antiquity.
An antient Roman statue, compared to a Greek one, will generally appear like Virgil’s Diana amidst her Oreads, in comparison of the Nausicaa ofHomer, whom he imitated.
Laocoon was the standard of the Roman artists, as well as ours; and the rules of Polycletus became the rules of art.
I need not put the reader in mind of the negligences to be met with in the most celebrated antient performances: the Dolphin at the feet of the Medicean Venus, with the children, and the Parerga of the Diomedes by Dioscorides, being commonly known. The reverse of the best Egyptian and Syrian coins seldom equals the head, in point of workmanship. Great artists are wisely negligent, and even their errors instruct. Behold their works asLucian bids you behold the Zeus of Phidias; Zeus himself, not his footstool.
It is not only Nature which the votaries of the Greeks find in their works, but still more, something superior to nature; ideal beauties, brain-born images, as Proclus says.
The most beautiful body of ours would perhaps be as much inferior to the most beautiful Greek one, as Iphicles was to his brother Hercules. The forms of the Greeks, prepared to beauty, by the influence of the mildest and purest sky, became perfectly elegant by their early exercises. Take a Spartan youth, sprung from heroes, undistorted by swaddling-cloths; whose bed, from his seventh year, was the earth, familiar with wrestling and swimming from his infancy; and compare him with one of our young Sybarits, and then decide which of the two would be deemed worthy, by an artist, to serve for the model of a Theseus, an Achilles, or even a Bacchus. The latter would produce a Theseus fed on roses, the former a Theseus fed on flesh, to borrow the expression of Euphranor.
The grand games were always a very strong incentive for every Greek youth to exercise himself. Whoever aspired to the honours of these was obliged, by the laws, to submit to a trial of ten months at Elis, the general rendezvous; and there the first rewards were commonly won by youths, asPindar tells us. To be like the God-like Diagoras, was the fondest wish of every youth.
Behold the swift Indian outstripping in pursuit the hart: how briskly his juices circulate! how flexible, how elastic his nerves and muscles! how easy his whole frame! Thus Homer draws his heroes, and his Achilles he eminently marks for “being swift of foot.”
By these exercises the bodies of the Greeks got the great and manly Contour observed in their statues, without any bloated corpulency. The young Spartans were bound to appear every tenth day naked before the Ephori, who, when they perceived any inclinable to fatness, ordered them a scantier diet; nay, it was one of Pythagoras’s precepts, to beware of growing too corpulent; and, perhaps for the same reason, youths aspiring to wrestling-games were, in the remoter ages of Greece, during their trial, confined to a milk diet.