Classical anti-classicism

For the ancient Romans, the past was dominated by Greece and Greek classicism, just like the Renaissance and most of our modern period were dominated by classical antiquity. In fact, our modern love affair with the classical past and classical authors starts with the Paduan scholar and poet Lovato Lovati (1241–1309). He wrote:

‘Do you despise him [the courageous, classically-minded poet] because he believes that one must follow in the footsteps of the ancient poets or because he subordinates a discourse well-formed with metric rules suited to its subject, lest the word becomes the predominant concern and the subject perish? Or because he mocks the verses of rhythmic compositions [modern poetry for Lovato, medieval for us] where rhyme distorts the meaning?’

Quod sectanda putat veterum vestigia vatum,
Despicis aut metrica quod cogit lege decentem
Sermonem servire rei, ne principe verbo
Res mutata cadat? Quod textus metra canori
Ridet, ubi intentum concinna vocabula torquent? 

(William P. Sisler, 􏰒An Edition and Translation of Lovato Lovati􏰑s 􏰐Metrical Epistles􏰑 with Parallel Passages from Ancient Authors,􏰓 Ph.D. Diss., The Johns Hopkins University, (1977), p. 42)

Lovato’s beautiful expression ‘veterum vestigia vatum’ (in the footsteps of the ancient poets) is remarkable. Lovato is a true lover of the classics, and the obsession with classical authors of the humanist period starts with him. Humanists after him, led by Petrarch, continued to sacrifice modern-ness on ancient classical altars. Modern Dante, despite his innovative radicalism, was not spared either. For these modern pontiffs of the ancient world, the present was valuable inasmuch as it revealed the classical past. Modern-ness was inferior to classicism. The old was better than the new. What can the new teach that the old hasn’t already?

Yet, modern-ness found defenders in the midst of the very thing that sought to ruin it: the classical past. There were many such ‘Trojan horses’, but my favourite is Horace’s. One of the things I like most about him is his even-handed treatment of the classical past. In his letter to Emperor Augustus, he makes it clear that the present is not to be despised for its ‘recentness’, emphasizing the contradiction embedded in all conservative sentiments: The old has been new at some point. As Luxembourg’s Museum of Modern Art captured it: All art has been contemporary. But to come back to Horace.

Screen Shot 2018-07-26 at 1.12.20
Maurizio Nannucci
All Art Has Been Contemporary, 1999
© Roman Mensing /

It is foolish to despise modern art for being modern, Horace says. He explains:


‘I am impatient that any work is censured, not because it is thought to be coarse or inelegant in style, but because it is modern, and that what is claimed for the ancients should be, not indulgence, but honour and rewards. If I were to question whether a play of Atta’s keeps its legs or not amidst the saffron and flowers, nearly all our elders would cry out that modesty is dead, when I attempt to blame what stately Aesopus and learned Roscius once acted; either because they think nothing can be right save what has pleased themselves, or because they hold it a shame to yield to their juniors, and to confess in their old age that what they learned in beardless youth should be destroyed. Indeed, whoever cries up Numa’s Salian hymn, and would alone seem to understand what he knows as little of as I do, that man does not favour and applaud the genius of the dead, but assails ours today, spitefully hating us and everything of ours. But if novelty had been as offensive to the Greeks as it is to us, what in these days would be ancient? What would the public have to read and thumb, each according to his taste?’

Indignor quicquam reprehendi, non quia crasse
compositum inlepideue putetur, sed quia nuper,
nec ueniam antiquis, sed honorem et praemia posci.
Recte necne crocum floresque perambulet Attae
fabula si dubitem, clament periisse pudorem
cuncti paene patres, ea cum reprehendere coner
quae grauis Aesopus, quae doctus Roscius egit,
uel quia nil rectum, nisi quod placuit sibi, ducunt,
uel quia turpe putant parere minoribus et, quae
inberbes didicere, senes perdenda fateri.
Iam Saliare Numae carmen qui laudat, et illud
quod mecum ignorat solus uolt scire uideri,
ingeniis non ille fauet plauditque sepultis,
nostra sed inpugnat, nos nostraque liuidus odit.
Quodsi tam Graecis nouitas inuisa fuisset
quam nobis, quid nunc esset uetus? Aut quid haberet
quod legeret tereretque uiritim publicus usus? (Epistles 2.1, 76-92)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: