Museum Home Past Exhibitions Classical Connections: The Enduring Influence of Greek and Roman Art

December 16, 2003–November 9, 2008 at the Getty Center

Please note: Most of the J. Paul Getty Museum's antiquities collection has been moved to the Getty Villa in Malibu. A portion of the antiquities collection was on view in the Getty Center in the Classical Connections gallery through November 9, 2008.

Bust of Sabina / Unknown
Bust of Sabina, Roman, about A.D. 140

Classical Connections explores the influence of ancient art on the art of later centuries.

Many of our ideas about art come from antiquity. Portraiture and narrative painting had their origins in the ancient Mediterranean. So did bronze casting, gem cutting, and glass blowing. Even the word museum comes from the Greek mouseion, a place dedicated to the Muses, the goddesses of the arts.


The ancient Greeks and Romans honored individuals through portraiture. Roman artists especially are renowned for rendering their subjects' true physical characteristics, and they skillfully used costume, jewelry, and gesture to indicate a person's social or political status.

Above is a portrait of Vibia Sabina, the wife of Roman Emperor Hadrian (ruled A.D. 117–138). Hadrian declared Sabina a goddess after her death, and the diadem in her hair shows her changed status from mortal to goddess.

Noblewoman / Finelli
Bust of a Noblewoman, Giuliano Finelli, 1629–1634

The practice of creating a portrait to honor an individual carries on to the present day. So do many of the methods used to indicate social status.

This 17th-century bust of an Italian noblewoman shows her wearing an elaborate hairstyle as well as costly jewelry and dress. Her family coat of arms is carved on the stand that supports the bust.

Wall Fragment / Unknown
Wall Fragment (detail), Roman, about A.D. 70

Interior Decor

The Greeks and Romans employed fresco, a technique of applying pigment to wet plaster for architectural decoration. They decorated rooms with fantastic designs, floral patterns, monstrous figures, and landscapes.

This fresco fragment is one of many that were preserved in the volcanic debris from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius outside Pompeii in A.D. 79. These paintings became known as "grotesques" because they were found underground, in "grottoes." Renaissance artists copied the designs and patterns of these grotesques to embellish their works of art.

Paneled Room / Ledoux
Paneled Room, French, about 1790–1795

By the 18th century, interest in these ancient designs led to the Neoclassical style, which incorporated grotesques into architectural decoration.

This elaborate paneled room is decorated with classical motifs such as columns, Greek vases, and mythological creatures.

The Classical Nude

This Roman statue of Venus, the goddess of love (below left), is a copy of a lost Greek original made about 350 B.C. Venus's proportions represent the classical ideal of the female figure.

Mazarin Venus / Unknown Venus / Nollekens

Painters and sculptors of later centuries were greatly influenced by the classical ideal. This was especially true when many ancient sculptures were rediscovered in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries.

The 18th-century statue of Venus adjusting her sandal (above right) was inspired by the classical ideal. Like the ancient sculptors, Joseph Nollekens chose to depict Venus nude to emphasize her beauty and sexual allure.

Lotus Bud Beaker / Unknown
Lotus Bud Beaker, Roman, 1st century A.D.


Glassmaking had been practiced for more than two thousand years before artists discovered that it could be inflated at the end of a hollow tube, or free-blown, sometime in the first century B.C. Ancient glassmakers inflated glass vessels in a variety of shapes, colors, and sizes. This vessel was made using a mold decorated with raised knobs that look like lotus buds.

The Romans also made glass that imitated the look of natural stone, for glass was less expensive than semiprecious stone.

Molded Beaker / Unknown
Pattern-Molded Beaker, German, 1600s

Later glassmakers still use glass-forming techniques developed in antiquity. This knobbed Warzenglas, or "wart glass," is a 17th-century example of mold-formed glass.

Today, free-blown glass is more common than mold-blown glass.

Cameo / Unknown
Cameo, Roman, A.D. 100–300


Greeks and Romans used engraved gemstones as personal insignia to mark documents, the way we use signatures today.

Mythological figures were fashionable subjects for engraved gems. The head of the monster Medusa was particularly popular because her snaky hair fit well into an oval format. This gem of Medusa is a cameo, a type of gem carved in relief from two-colored layered stone.

Medusa / Gemito
Medusa, Vincenzo Gemito, 1911

Carved gems continued to be used as personal devices over the centuries. Carvers also copied ancient gems or made their own interpretations of mythological subjects.

Turn-of-the-century sculptor Vincenzo Gemito copied the head of the Medusa from an ancient cameo known as the Tazza Farnese to decorate this large silver plate.

Apollo / Canova
Apollo Crowning Himself, Antonio Canova, 1781


Floral wreaths were awarded as prizes for winning athletic competitions in ancient Greece. Wreaths were associated with special events, and certain plants used to make wreaths were associated with specific gods. Elaborate gold wreaths were worn on ceremonial occasions, and many have been found in tombs.

This 18th-century sculpture by Antonio Canova shows Apollo crowning himself with a laurel wreath. Our term poet laureate comes from Apollo's laurel wreath, because Apollo was the god of poets and writers. Artists, writers, and rulers were also frequently shown in European art wearing or holding wreaths.

The installation is located at the Getty Center, Museum, North Pavilion.