Classical mythology in culture  

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Venus of Urbino (1538, detail) by Titian. The frankness of Venus' expression is often noted; she makes direct eye contact with the viewer
Venus of Urbino (1538, detail) by Titian. The frankness of Venus' expression is often noted; she makes direct eye contact with the viewer

"When the Roman empire fell civilization was nearly ruined. Literature and the arts became refugees, hiding in outlying areas or under the protection of the church. Few Europeans could read during the Dark Ages. Fewer still could write books. But those who could read and write did so with the help of the international Latin language, by blending Christian material with Greek and Roman thoughts.

New languages formed themselves, slowly, slowly. The first which has left a large and mature literature of its own is Anglo-Saxon, or Old English. After it came French; then Italian; and then the other European languages. When authors started to write in each of these new media, they told the stories and sang the songs which their own people knew. But they turned to Rome and Greece for guidance in strong or graceful expression, for interesting stories less well known, for trenchant ideas.

As these languages matured they constantly turned to the Greeks and Romans for further education and help. They enlarged their vocabulary by incorporating Greek and Roman words, as we are still doing: for instance, television. They copied and adapted the highly developed Greco-Roman devices of style. They learned famous stories, like the murder of Caesar or the doom of Oedipus. They found out the real powers of dramatic poetry, and realized what tragedy and comedy meant. Their authors modelled themselves on Greek and Roman writers. Nations found inspiration for great political movements (such as the French Revolution) in Greece and Rome." --The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature (1949) by Gilbert Highet

"[During the Renaissance] Greco-Roman mythology becomes a favourite subject of painting. This is not necessarily a result of secularization, since the Renaissance is essentially as Christian as the Middle Ages. The shift has more to do with the nature of art patronage. These are mainly the Church in the Middle Ages, while in the Renaissance courts and the growing bourgeoisie, the new affluent middle class, reach for their wallets to order works of art."--A History of Erotica (2011) by Jan-Willem Geerinck

"With Rubens the antique is a great butcher-shop. Upon the subjects which he portrayed a book has been written, in which it is proved that in his two hundred and eighty mythological pictures nearly all the scenes are treated which occur in the works of Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Plutarch and Livy."--The History of Painting: From the Fourth to the Early Nineteenth Century (1893/94) by Richard Muther

The Birth of Venus (1486, detail) by Sandro Botticelli
The Birth of Venus (1486, detail) by Sandro Botticelli

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The widespread adoption of Christianity would not curb the popularity of the myths and their continual recycling in art, music and literature.

With the rediscovery of classical antiquity in Renaissance, the poetry of Ovid became a major influence on the imagination of poets and artists and remained a fundamental influence on the diffusion and perception of Greek mythology through subsequent centuries.

Mythological painting first came to prominance during Renaissance art. The source for their inspiration were Ovid's Metamorphoses, especially the stories concering The Loves of the Gods, which provided a perfect pretext for nudity in art.


Middle Ages

medieval literature, Ovid illustrated

The Aetas Ovidiana (the Ovidian epoch) is a phrase used to denote the popularity of Ovid in Medieval literature. The epression was coined by German mediaevalist and palaeographer Ludwig Traube.

As Traube shows, the Ars amatoria was included in the syllabuses of mediaeval schools from the second half of the 11th century, and its influence on 12th and 13th century European literature was of considerable importance. The Amores and Ars amatoria also exerted a great influence on the troubadour culture, and the lyric of courtly love around Orléans.


16th century art, Northern Mannerism, Italian Renaissance

From the early years of Renaissance, artists portrayed subjects from Greek mythology alongside more conventional Christian themes. Among the best-known subjects of Italian artists are Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Pallas and the Centaur, the Ledas of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, and Raphael's Galatea.

Italy: the visual arts

The Carracci

The Loves of the Gods is also the title of a fresco cycle completed by Annibale Carracci and his studio in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, completed in 1608. The fresco series was greatly admired in its time, and was later felt to reflect a change in aesthetic in Rome from Mannerism to Baroque. Mythology spread throughout Europe via Northern Mannerism.

Correggio's Ovid Room paintings

The Ovid Room; Correggio's mythological cycle based on Ovid's Metamorphoses

In the late 1520s and early 1530s, Antonio da Correggio conceived a famous set of paintings depicting the Loves of Jupiter as described in Ovid's Metamorphoses. The voluptuous series was commissioned by Federico II Gonzaga of Mantua, probably to decorate his private Ovid Room in the Palazzo Te; however, they were gifted to Emperor Charles V, and subsequently the cycle was dispersed outside Italy.

The cycle includes Jupiter and Io (c. 1530), its companion piece Ganymede Abducted by the Eagle (1531-32), now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna, Leda and the Swan (1532), now in Staatliche Museen of Berlin, Danaë (1531-1532), now in Rome's Borghese Gallery, and Venus and Cupid with a Satyr (c. 1528), now at the Musée du Louvre of Paris.

Titian's Poesies

Titian's Poesies painted for Philip II of Spain

Italy: literature

Through the medium of Latin and the works of Ovid, Greek myth influenced medieval and Renaissance poets such as Petrarch, Boccaccio and Dante in Italy.

Northern Renaissance

In Northern Europe, Greek mythology never took the same hold of the visual arts, but its effect was very obvious on literature. Both Latin and Greek classical texts were translated, so that stories of mythology became available.


In England, Chaucer, the Elizabethans and John Milton were among those influenced by Greek myths; nearly all the major English poets from Shakespeare to Robert Bridges turned for inspiration to Greek mythology.


Jean Racine in France and revived Greek drama. Racine reworked the ancient myths — including those of Phaidra, Andromache, Oedipus and Iphigeneia — to new purpose.

The 17th century

17th century art

The two most important mythological painters of the seventeenth century are Rubens and Poussin, both heirs to the Carracci.

The 18th century

academic art, 18th century art, Neoclassicism

The 18th century saw the philosophical revolution of the Enlightenment spread throughout Europe and accompanied by a certain reaction against Greek myth; there was a tendency to insist on the scientific and philosophical achievements of Greece and Rome.


By the end of the century, Romanticism initiated a surge of enthusiasm for all things Greek, including Greek mythology. In Britain, it was a great period for new translations of Greek tragedies and Homer, and these in turn inspired contemporary poets, such as Keats, Byron and Shelley. The Hellenism of Queen's Victoria poet laureate, Alfred Lord Tennyson, was such that even his portraits of the quintessentially English court of King Arthur are suffused with echoes of the Homeric epics.

Visual arts

The visual arts kept pace, stimulated by the purchase of the Parthenon marbles in 1816; many of the "Greek" paintings of Lord Leighton and Lawrence Alma-Tadema were seriously accepted as part of the transmission of the Hellenic ideal.

19th century

American authors of the 19th century, such as Thomas Bulfinch and Nathaniel Hawthorne, believed that myths should provide pleasure, and held that the study of the classical myths was essential to the understanding of English and American literature. According to Bulfinch, "the so-called divinities of Olympus have not a single worshipper among living men; they belong now not to the department of theology, but to those of literature and taste".

20th century

In more recent times, classical themes have been reinterpreted by such major dramatists as Jean Anouilh, Jean Cocteau, and Jean Giraudoux in France, Eugene O'Neill in America, and T. S. Eliot in England and by great novelists such as the Irish James Joyce and the French André Gide.


In music, the Greek myths continue to provide an important source of raw material for dramatists, including those who wrote the libretti for Handel's operas Admeto and Semele, Mozart's Idomeneo and Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide.

Richard Strauss, Jacques Offenbach and many others have set Greek mythological themes to music.

The German composer of the 18th century Christoph Gluck was also influenced by Greek mythology.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Classical mythology in culture" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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