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11 February 2013

Emulation: II.2

The. Classical. Tradition.

The Libreria Marciana, a radical classical
intervention on the Piazzetta S. Marco
In my forthcoming book The Challenge of Emulation in Art & Architecture (Ashgate, UK), I make a case that the culture of emulation depends on a canon of achievements, and some consensus on what defines excellence. For the classical artist, that canon has its roots in the art and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome, but is by no means confined to that. Emulation also presumes that one can, indeed must, apprehend the principles by which the canon is achieved, or else one is reduced to merely copying the forms. And if one apprehends the principles, one is prepared to develop new forms to add to the canon, since the principles need to be constantly applied to new and different needs and contexts, not to mention that each interpreter of them brings his or her own predilections to solving problems. The canon thus grows, and evolves.

On a day when a pope resigns—as some would claim, for the first time in 598 years, although it could be argued that no pope in history retired from office for precisely the reasons that Benedict XVI outlined—it is apropos to consider the radical, the traditional, and the nature of the classical. Benedict’s scholarly outlook, in many ways, has affinities to the classical. And in his capacity to do something radical or revolutionary, he operates very much as a classicist. A classicist is not a traditionalist. A classicist believes in principles more than precedents. There is nothing "traditional" about Benedict’s resignation from office.

The Classical Tradition (Belknap/Harvard) is a weighty tome edited by Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and Salvatore Settis. It is an odd book: neither encyclopedic nor introductory, it at once assumes the reader’s deep curiosity about the classical tradition and general lack of familiarity with it; it wants desperately to be relevant (Pop culture references abound), and revels in the esoteric; it makes a case for the continuity of “the classical tradition” across the millennia yet worries not a little about its imminent demise. The February 21 edition of the New York Review of Books tackles the tome in a review by Stephen Greenblatt (The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. New York: W. W. Norton) and Joseph Leo Koerner (The Reformation of the Image, U. of Chicago). Their “The Glories of Classicism” seems to want to poke holes in the pretense of being able to put this subject in a book, especially today. As they say, ‘With this ambition comes a set of difficult problems that may be summed up in three words: “The,” “Classical,” and “Tradition.”’ Like the Holy Roman Empire, there may be no “the,” no “classical,” and no “tradition” (discuss amongst yourselves). And certainly Grafton et al wouldn’t disagree. But the many scholars who contributed to this remarkable if odd book had a different end in mind: not to summarize in any definitive way “the classical tradition,” but to collect much that is relevant and seductive about it and drop it into the culture like a time capsule or life raft, something to hold onto when all else goes the way of Gangnam Style or Twitter (admit it, you know it’ll happen eventually).

Although the reviewer’s elective affinities are revealed in leaving the last words to Marx and Nietzsche, they do have a point about “tradition.” Using the word to refer to the classical is fraught, and perhaps folly. There really hasn’t been a classical tradition since the fall of the Roman Empire, but rather a series of (albeit prolonged) self-conscious recoveries of it. While the last may have ended decades if not centuries ago, there are those like me who would want to see another one. And if we want it we need to acknowledge classicism’s radical nature, its selective capacity to reject what is its nemesis and embrace what is essential; and each classicist may disagree in larger or smaller measure about the nature of each. What largely defines a classicist is that one considers oneself so, and a classicist has no particular interest in tradition per se; nor does he or she worry that the best is the enemy of the good; nor if they are architects do they care much about context. Jacopo Sansovino's Library on the Piazzetta S. Marco owed little directly to its architectural context.

Classicists are traditionalists with higher standards.