POMPEII: Dangerously Low Necklines

When the ruins of Pompeii came to light, they caused a revolution in taste-stripping away rococo gilt, reshaping the female figure, and leaving a deposit of pseudo-Greek temples from Moscow to Mississippi- although what sometimes passed for “classical” would have bewildered the ancients.

The rediscovery of the Roman ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum beginning in 1738 created a fashion sensation in design and architecture based on classical antiquity. There was a great aesthetic response to the demands of this new market. The rage for antique and the excitement over the new discoveries were eagerly taken up by architects and interior decorators, and a trail of painted interiors, based on the frescoes at Herculaneum and Pompeii soon stretched across the length and breadth of the Continent through in particular Robert Adam in England and Chalgrin in France.

JudgementofParis:No one revered her Classical qualities more than did her besotted husband, Sir William Hamilton. A collector of Greek antiquities, and a scholar of some note, Hamilton conceived of Emma as Helen of Troy for the 1790s. "She was Hamilton's living embodiment of ideal Greek beauty," history tells us, "the Galatea to his Pygmalion, whom he regarded with the eyes of a connoisseur and who became his own living work of art"...

As in architecture, so in other art forms: Pompeii and Herculaneum set the tone. Their influence is visible in every material and in almost every facet of life. Even men’s dress followed the prevailing trend, with Beau Brummell giving the lead. He applied those principles of restraint, naturalness, and simplicity, the Georgian version of Winckelmann’s famous slogan of ” noble simplicity and calm grandeur,” to his personal appearance. The result was a style more austere and more dignified than any before or since. It soon dominated the world of fashion, and its influence is still with us to some degree.

The chaotic history of male costume, alternating between that too fine and too coarse, came to a close on “that bright morning” to quote max Beerbohm, “when Mr. Brummell at his mirror, conceived the notion of trousers and simple coats.” Women,s dress had, of course, fallen into line with the new fashion much earlier. By 1787, the new “Grecian mode” was already making inroads on the hoop petticoat: by some it was held to be indecorous, for the soft gowns clung to the figure “like wet drapery” and revealed it for all to see; by others it was held to be dangerous, for no modest female, they said, was safe without her hoop- it was the rampart that protected her virtue. Fashion, however, has always triumphed over virtue and decorum.

Marie Antoinette Boudoir. wiki

The lady of fashion threw away her hoops, kicked off her petticoats, put on knickers, and dropped her neckline dangerously low. And her figure, if we can take art as our mirror, followed the pattern of her dress and changed to more classical proportions. The round rococo nudes that had bounced across Boucher’s canvases or frolicked in a Fragonard landscape were very different from the stately ladies drawn by David and Ingres. Like everything else, the female figure had to conform to the ideal.

Not only was their shape changed, but their attitude and posture. When Boucher’s Miss O’Murphy had sprawled invitingly bottoms-up on her silk cushioned sofa, and where Watteau and Rubens had sought inspiration in the ample buttocks of their models, the neoclassical artists’ approach was almost exclusively frontal. “The bottom,” Sir Kenneth Clark said, “is a baroque form,” and as such it had to go. The new line was harder, more severe, more classically correct. Where the baroque and the rococo “gave promise of pneumatic bliss,” the neoclassical promised pleasure only to necrophiliacs. The flesh had hardened into marble.

"Bronze tripod with ithyphallic satyrs, from Pompeii, House Hotel of Julia Felix Prior to the revival of interest in artifact collecting and classical history in general that precipitated the Renaissance in Italy, Ancient Rome was widely considered to be very ideal of a utopian society of high morals and even higher culture. Several finds early on challenged this view and began the process of broadening our understanding of classical culture in general. Indeed, as more finds surfaced, the concrete expression of Roman decadence, which would have been previously understood to a certain degree, could no longer be ignored."

The pendulum of European art had swung once more: it was Renoir who said,” The female nude rises from the sea or from her bed; she is called Venus or Nini.” In the early eighteenth century Nini reigned supreme. Gay, charming, and lively, she bounced around in pink and plump profusion and offered herself to one’s inspection without standing on ceremony, only to be banished into the background in the 1770′s, like a skittish parlormaid on the return of her stately mistress, Venus.

The eternal classical beauty, exhumed from the ashes of Pompeii, quickly reco

d her authority and enthroned herself in a court of uniformly sculptural beauties with the bashful and frigid Psyche as her chief lady-in-waiting. The change is symbolized by the tastes of Mme Pompadour and Marie Antoinette, everything had to be eventually “a la grecque”, and she herself, decked in Grecian robes and crowned with a laurel wreath, sat in the Trianon and played on an antique harp.

" Europeans and European-influenced countries saw the final triumph of undress or informal styles over the brocades, lace, periwig, and powder of the earlier eighteenth century. There was a return to the classical Greek hairstyles, with hair dressed closer to the head and fillets or bands of ribbon worn by women. No one in Europe wanted to appear to be an aristocrat, while in Britain, Beau Brummell introduced trousers, perfect tailoring, and unadorned, immaculate linen as the ideals of men's fashion.Women's fashions followed classical ideals, and tightly laced corsets were temporarily abandoned in favor of a high-waisted, natural figure."

The return of the classical had free play, even if some of its forms would have surprised a Greek or Roman. Although the antique was tghe touchstone of perfection, the eighteenth century was somewhat indiscriminate in its sources. The product had to be classical , but whether the source was from Rome of the first century A.D. , Greece of the fourth century B.C. , Italy of the quattrocento, or England of the eighteenth century, as long as it looked antique it would sell. For anything that was ancient was excellent.

And so across the ceilings of Europe, across its pottery, tapestries, and its canvases, danced a frieze of assorted gods, and goddesses banging cymbals, playing harps, carrying urns, and decked out in flowing veils. The coiffures were sometimes modified, the nudes were sometimes fig leafed, and their actions often invented- but their classical inspiration was unmistakable. And if they differed a little from the purity of the original, it is hardly surprising. Perhaps, each age creates its own Greeks, and the eighteenth century was smugly satisfied with its version.

“But the modern phenomenon of anti-civilizational xenophilia is an intellectual problem. The adoration of cultures other than our own, the worship of gods other than those we were brought up with, a devotion to all religions other than the one our parents believed—what A. O. Lovejoy and George Boas call in their book the “revolt of the civilized against civilization” with its admiration for pre-civilized social forms and a love of the exotic, the strange, and the outré—this is indeed a genuine puzzle. It is by no means obvious how it arose. What is clear at the outset, however, is that it involves an inversion of much that is natural, normal, and universal in social life.” ( Roger Sandall )

Judgementofparis.com:A famous nun visiting with Emma told her, "Your figure and features are rare, for you are like the marble statues I saw, when I was in the world" (Sherrard 114). Some contemporary observers even considered her beauty superior to the Classical past. According to William Locke, "all the statues and pictures he had seen were in grace so inferior to her, as scarce to deserve a look" ...

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. ( Keats, Ode On a Grecian Urn)

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