Classical antiquities and fine art

The antiquities of ancient Greece and Rome were considered to be special not only because they were often beautiful, but because ancient Greek and Roman authors wrote about the men who made them and achieved fame in their own life-times. The close association between fine art and classical archaeology was also a feature of the first public museums in Europe.

Oil painting by Zoffany

  • Oil painting by Zoffany, the Tribuna of the Uffizi. c. 1770

Following a much older model, such as the Tribuna of the Uffizi, seen here, in Zoffany's painting of the 1770s, commissioned by Queen Charlotte, and today in the Royal Collection, many of the new public museums displayed two types of objects - paintings by the Great Masters and classical sculpture.

Drawing of Ashmolean facade
  • Drawing of Cockerell's façade of Ashmolean Museum by A.L.Arschavir R.I.B.A.

When the University of Oxford's museum of archaeology and fine art opened in 1845, after two centuries of disparate collections being housed in libraries, classical sculpture and western paintings were displayed, and nothing else. The antiquities of other parts of the world were not displayed there for almost half a century. A department of Eastern Art was not added until 1960, although a significant collection had been housed elsewhere in the University. Initially known as the University Galleries, the museum was later given the name of Ashmolean Museum.

Against this general background it is hardly surprising that those who studied classical archaeology borrowed methods of study from the fine arts; those who had a particular interest in the figure-decorated pottery turned to European painting. Scholars of Renaissance paintings and drawings had Vasari's Lives of the Artists, and other contemporary or near-contemporary accounts, which named artists and described their works, usually by subject. Most studies of paintings tended to concentrate on subject-matter; they were textual descriptions of iconography. From the mid-nineteenth century, however, some art historians began to draw details of draughtsmanship and to note similarities in renderings.

Back to top