In his encyclopedic work Naturalis Historia, the Roman philosopher and author Pliny the Elder praises Apelles as an exemplar of Grecian artistic fortitude: “[I]t was Apelles of Cos who surpassed all the painters that preceded him and all who were to come after him….He singly contributed almost more to painting than all the other artists put together….His art was unrivaled for graceful charm, although other very great painters were his contemporaries.” Apelles, who worked sometime in the late 4th century BCE, is known only by anecdotes related by later authors, through whom his legend has resonated down through the centuries. Little is known of Apelles’ life, but ancient texts assert that he was likely born in Ionia and later apprenticed under Pamphilus of the Sicyonian school (Pliny alleges Sicyon to be the birthplace of painting in ancient Greece). After acquiring some publicity, he was entrusted with painting a portrait of Alexander the Great and other such commissions as a Macedonian court painter; for Aphrodite Anadyomene (Aphrodite Rising from the Sea), Pliny relates the tradition that Apelles used one of Alexander’s consorts (allegedly Campaspe) as his model for the goddess; according to legend, Alexander was so taken by the painting that he granted Apelles Campaspe as a reward for his endeavors. Such is the myth of the man; whether any of these tales is true is a subject of debate. His works must have been revolutionary and breathtaking, regarded as unsurpassed in grace and beauty even five centuries after his death. Apelles came to embody the genius of ancient Greek art, and to the artists of the Renaissance, who strove to emulate the masters of antiquity, he was the pinnacle of artistic achievement.
With the ascension of Neoplatonism in the Renaissance, there was an influx of names, histories, and legends lost to Europe for a millennium. The humanist tradition that catalyzed the resurgence of classical antiquity began with a refutation of the Gothic style in all its applications- beginning with literature and expanding into the arts and architecture. The Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi was one of the first artisans to challenge the orthodox building practices of the Gothic style; he saw the Gothic arches as solecisms and barbaric corruptions of classical architecture. Brunelleschi’s influence spread beyond architecture and into the realm of painting; his discovery of perspectival drawing, famously applied by Masaccio in The Holy Trinity, was perhaps a rediscovery of methods that had allowed Apelles to deceive the sense of sight. But the true heritage of Greece is the use of light in illusionism. E.H. Gombrich, in The Heritage of Apelles, asserts that the differentiation between light and luster (allegedly pioneered by Apelles) was pivotal to the artistic revolution of the Renaissance and just as important as the advent of perspectival drawing. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and the Latin world’s subsequent slide into disorder, the artistic and literary traditions begun by the ancient Greeks were forsaken; the artisans of Europe abandoned the Greek tradition in favor of flat planes and austere mosaics. Yet, the Greco-Roman artistic tradition was not entirely lost- for example, during the Byzantine era, mosaics and such religious icons as Christ Pantocrator dominated the artistic landscape, utilizing the artistic convention of “grazing light”, a lateral illumination which can be traced back to the Pompeiian muralists of classical antiquity. After a thousand years of unreason, the artistic traditions of Apelles finally reemerged, driven by a revived scholarly interest in pagan religion. A number of “new Apelles'” were born; from Masaccio to Jan Van Eyck, from Leonardo Da Vinci to Titian, each of these new artists carried on the tradition of ancient Greece, the tradition of Apelles, as they sought to usher in a new age of beauty and refinement. Apelles’ influence was so poignant and pervasive that he can rightly be called the progenitor of the artistic Renaissance in Europe.
The Calumny: Apelles’ Reemergence
A rediscovered treatise, On Calumny, authored by the Syrian rhetorician and satirist Lucian, gives a detailed description of a long lost Apelles’ painting titled Calumny:
On the right of it sits a man with very large ears, almost like those of Midas, extending his hand to Slander while she is still at some distance from him. Near him, on one side, stand two women—Ignorance and Suspicion. On the other side, Slander is coming up, a woman beautiful beyond measure, but full of malignant passion and excitement, evincing as she does fury and wrath by carrying in her left hand a blazing torch and with the other dragging by the hair a young man who stretches out his hands to heaven and calls the gods to witness his innocence. She is conducted by a pale ugly man who has piercing eye and looks as if he had wasted away in long illness; he represents envy. There are two women in attendance to Slander, one is Fraud and the other Conspiracy. They are followed by a woman dressed in deep mourning, with black clothes all in tatters—she is Repentance. At all events, she is turning back with tears in her eyes and casting a stealthy glance, full of shame, at Truth, who is slowly approaching.
He describes calumny as a product of ignorance and “undoubtedly one of the greatest evils incident to mankind… the source of innumerable misfortunes…”. After this denouncement, he relates the legend of the Calumny of Apelles, in which Theodotus, envious and desirous of Apelles’ skill, spreads false rumor against him. Apelles allegedly reproaches the calumniator by painting the Calumny, a pictorial representation of his victory over the slanderer. Apelles’ skill was thereafter unquestioned, and his fame was assured. The artists of the Renaissance must have seen the Grecian artist as the pinnacle of the artistic and intellectual culture they were trying to revive.
Sandro Botticelli painted The Calumny of Apelles in 1497 CE (see Figure 1 above) in accordance to Lucian’s description. Botticelli was a prolific Florentine painter, renowned for his depictions of pagan gods in his paintings. In the Renaissance, especially in Florence, there was a strong interest in the occult; these supernatural forces were beautifully captured in Botticelli’s works. The Birth of Venus contains the first monumental female nude since antiquity- a syncretic painting, representative of the Neoplatonic thought that dominated the Renaissance. Neoplatonism conflated paganism and Christianity, taking the virtues of each and extolling them. For example, the Neoplatonists saw Venus as interchangeable with the Virgin, an embodiment of love. Many other parallels were made between the scriptures and the ancient pagan religions. Viewed in this way, pagan and Christian beliefs could exist harmoniously. For painters like Botticelli, this new ideology allowed for greater artistic freedom and a means to explore the ancient past. Perhaps the suppression of the Greco-Roman artistic tradition by the medieval Church could be seen as another calumny against Apelles- and the Renaissance his crowning glory.