Classicism is the historiographic denomination of a cultural, aesthetic, artistic and intellectual movement. Classicism developed in France, and more widely in Europe, at the frontier between the 17th and 18th centuries. Between about 1640 and 1725 it advocated a return to classical Greek and Roman examples. The great masters of the Renaissance also served largely as examples for the classicists. It was defined by a set of values and criteria that outlined an ideal embodied in the "honest man" and developed an aesthetic based on a quest for perfection, with reason as its keyword.


Classicism is inspired by the aesthetic and philosophical patterns of classical antiquity:

  • Simplicity
  • Unity
  • Sobriety (decorum)
  • Rationality
  • Harmony
  • Balance of proportions (concordia oppositorum)
  • Mimesis (imitatio naturae)
  • "Man as the measure of all things" (homo omnium rerum mensura est)

Classicism developed simultaneously with the different artistic styles and literary movements of the Modern Age. In terms of time, classicism belongs to the style period of the baroque, although it is opposed to it in a certain sense.

Scott Lawrie Gallery - What is Classicism?


The notion of "classicism" poses problems of definition. Therefore, it may be useful to go back to the semantic origin of the word to understand its meaning. The origin of the term seems to come from the use of the word 'classicus' by Aulus Gellius in Attic Nights (2nd century) to refer to the most affluent class in today's societ; the 'first class of citizens' who were called in the first place to vote in the Roman elections).

In the early Middle Ages the term classicus is used as opposed to modernus, to commend the simplicity and timelessness of the ancient 'classics' as opposed to the affectation and triviality of the 'moderns' of the 5th or 6th century. By successive shifts, the term has come to designate the last class of authors, i.e. the writers of reference, those studied in the classroom. It is from this meaning that the word has been used to designate, on the one hand, the authors of Antiquity worthy of imitation and, on the other hand, the French authors of the 17th century who developed an art of measure and reason by defending the respect and imitation of the Ancients.

The use of the terms 'classical' and 'classicism' to designate the aesthetic ideal and the period will arrive in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The term classicism was first used by Stendhal in 1817 to designate works that took ancient art as a model, as opposed to romantic works. The French term classicisme seems to have been coined a posteriori by the Romantics in their reaction against academic rules, appearing first in Stendhal's Racine et Shakespeare (1823-1825) and somewhat later in the preface to Victor Hugo's Cromwell (1827).

Classical Architecture - Villa Almerico Capra 'La Rotonda' by Andrea Palladio and Vincenzo Scamozzi in 1571.
Classical Architecture - Villa Almerico Capra 'La Rotonda' by Andrea Palladio and Vincenzo Scamozzi in 1571.
Classical Painting - Bacchanaal: The Andrians by Nicolas Poussin ca. 1630.
Classical Painting - Bacchanaal: The Andrians by Nicolas Poussin ca. 1630.

Regional Differences

Classicism is a tricky term that basically just indicates a return to the classics, but in different parts of Europe it does not always refer to the same period within art history. For example, Palladianism, which was especially imitated in Italy and the United Kingdom, is sometimes included and sometimes excluded from Classicism. In German-speaking countries and in Eastern Europe, Klassizismus refers to the period of Neoclassicism, which is basically a new wave of classicism at the end of the 18th century. In most other countries, the term classicism is used specifically for the period between 1640 and 1720. In Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, the term classicist baroque is also in vogue for this period. The 17th-century architecture of the Northern Netherlands is usually referred to as Dutch classicism.

In fact, a phase of the Italian Renaissance is also called "Classicism": the full Renaissance of the first quarter of the 16th century, when the figures of the "big four" (Leonardo, Bramante, Raphael and Michelangelo) coexisted and moved the center of art from Florence to Rome (the last three, while the first ended his days in France, which opened up to Italian influence - Fontainebleau school - as did all of Europe - Nordic Renaissance, Spanish High Renaissance).


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Andrea Palladio
Classical Antiquity
Classical Period
Dutch Classicism
Literary Classicism


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This page was last changed on 2021-09-21.