The ancient Mediterranean is home to some of the most renowned artworks and historical sites of all time, like the Pyramids of Giza and the Colosseum. The people of this area also developed new artistic techniques that are still used in modern artwork. So, buckle up because this unit is gonna be a fun dive into everything ancient Mediterranean!
🚨Reminder 🚨 Similar to the previous unit, since these works were made so long ago, we don't know exactly when each was created, so the dates below are approximations. Remember, you don't need to know the exact years for all the works on the AP Art History exam, just a general idea of when they were made and the artistic movement (or location for earlier ones)!
In the area surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers was a fertile river valley called Mesopotamia (present-day Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and small parts of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon). This region was home to the world's first civilizations, marking a shift from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to the rise of settlements. This region was composed of city-states, which are cities that have their own governments and operate as independent states, and the society was stratified (organized into different social classes). In comparison to the previous communities in Unit 1, Mesopotamia was less egalitarian (equal). The people of this region also practiced polytheism, a type of religion where followers believe in multiple gods. These two themes of class and religion are evident in a lot of the architecture and sculptures of this region.
Furthermore, the invention of writing marked the beginning of written history. Cuneiform, the first form of writing, was developed by Sumerian merchants in order to account for taxes. It was later used to write down laws and stories, helping art historians, develop more context about artwork, and further deepening our understanding of these forms.
Map of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and its surrounding areas. Image Courtesy of Wikipedia
Egypt is one of the more commonly known civilizations in this unit. It began as a divided society, until King Narmer unified upper and lower Egypt, forming the Old Kingdom. Egyptian dynasties are divided into different kingdoms; the earlier dynasties are known as the Old Kingdom. After Egypt faced another period of internal feuds, it was then unified again, forming the Middle Kingdom. The subsequent kingdom was known as the New Kingdom, a period of magnificence and arguably the height of Egyptian Art. Within the New Kingdom was the Amarna Period, which marked a change in Egyptian artistic style as Pharaoh Akhenaton sought to transform the traditional polytheistic religion, into a monotheistic religion (only worshipping one god).
Nevertheless, ancient Egyptian art is characterized by the use of hieroglyphs, symbolism, and highly stylized figures.
Hieroglyphics (ancient Egyptian writing system) decorate many works and provide more context about the artworks purpose, who is pictured, and what that person accomplished during their lives. Most of the artwork was used to convey religion, centering around the worship of the pantheon of gods. Egyptian works of art generally depicted gods and pharaohs, and there was a strong emphasis on the afterlife. This was exemplified by the pyramids, which were massive monuments built as tombs to ensure the prosperity and survival of the Pharaoh in the afterlife.
Map of Egypt. Image Courtesy of https://timemaps.com/history/ancient-egypt-1500bc/
Ancient Greece was divided into city-states, similar to that of civilizations in the Near East. It is known for its democracy, military power, and most notably, its art. Ancient Greek art is divided into four main periods: the Geometric period, the Archaic period, the Classical period, and the Hellenistic Period.
The Geometric period (900-700 BCE) is characterized by simple, geometric shapes on pottery. The Archaic period (700-500 BCE) was the first period in Greek sculpture. It saw the emergence of more naturalistic forms in art, such as the kouros (a statue of a standing male youth) and the kore (a statue of a standing female). Archaic sculptures are characterized by the archaic smile. The Classical period (400-200 BCE) and Hellenistic Period (200-30 BCE) are both considered the height of ancient Greek art. During this time, Greek sculptors mastered the art of creating realistic human figures. They used a technique known was contrapposto, which was invented by Greek mathematician and sculptor, Polykleitos, who displayed it in Doryphoros, or Spear Bearer. Contrapposto allowed these sculptures to appear natural and free-standing. Hellenistic sculptures differentiated from Classical sculptures because of their greater emotional expression.
Finally, within Greek architecture, there were three main forms: Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Doric is the oldest Greek order. It is characterized by its simplicity. The next order, Ionic, is known for its decorative scrolls, and the Corinthian order is the most ornate of the three orders, detailed with acanthus leaves.
Map of Greece. Image Courtesy of https://www.bte.org/theatreschool/study-guides/ancient-thunder/ancient-thunder-greek-geography.html
The Etruscans were predecessors to the Romans. Similar to the Greeks, Etruscan art is highly detailed. Their sculptures were primarily made from bronze and depicted human figures. Most of the art, such as the paintings made from fresco (pigments/paint applied to wet plaster), were found in tombs. The most important detail related to this civilization is their influence on Roman art.
Ancient Rome was a powerful civilization that existed in Italy and other parts of Europe. Rome has had a significant impact on the development of Western civilization, and the former cultural center of Europe, has a rich art history.
Roman art was greatly influenced by the other civilizations. For instance, similar to the Greeks, the Romans were known for their sculptures that depicted gods, emperors, and other important figures. These sculptures also contained elements of realism, except the Romans developed a specific technique known as veristic sculptures, which included an incredible amount of detail, even to the smallest wrinkle (see head of Roman patrician). Influenced by the Etruria, the Romans made fresco paintings, which decorated private homes and buildings. The Romans were also known for their mosaics, which are pieces of glass put together to form art.
Lastly, ancient Rome saw great engineering projects that lead to impressive architectural achievements. This included innovations in technology, such as the invention of concrete and aqueducts (channels connected cities and assisted with the movement of water).
Roman Emperor Augustus of Primaporta. Image Courtesy of https://arthistoryteachingresources.org/lessons/ancient-roman-art/ .
And that's it for Unit 2. Hopefully, this guide will come in handy as you go through the AP Art History course. Happy studying, art historians! 🎉