Artibus et Historiae no. 6 (III)

1982, ISSN 0391-9064

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CHRISTIANE L. JOOST-GAUGIER - The Early Beginnings of the Notion of «Uomini Famosi» and the «De Viris Illustribus» in Greco-Roman Literary Tradition

The subject of uomini famosi, or cycles of famous men, has been recognized as a major form of secular iconography in the art of painting and sculpture of the Italian Renaissance since the early twentieth century. In addition to the many lost examples and surviving fragments of this tradition from various geographical areas of fourteenth to sixteenth century Italy, extensive references to this subject in the literature of the Early Renaissance as well as in the revival of classical works in the manuscript and book production of this period make it clear that in devising such programs Renaissance patrons had antique precedent in mind.

Although antique examples are essentially all lost, surviving references to this tradition strongly suggest that in antique times this artistic practice derived directly from what had become established literary practice.

The development of the idea of citing illustrious citizens for their ancestry or for the glory they relinquished to a city in order to inspire imitation of their excellence in contemporary society is one which though it develops steadily in Greek literary practice does not emerge in the form of presenting collections of biographies assembled from the point of view of a heroic ideal until Hellenistic times. Further, the sources indicate that the idea was quite clearly a Roman one, and one which can be identified with some degree of precision as a Ciceronian invention and localized in time at about 40 BC.

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