Classical Art: A Life History from Antiquity to the Present
Caroline Vout
Princeton University Press
376pp, 20 colour & 136 black-and-white illustrations
Hardback, £30

What is 'Classical Art'? We think we know, or we have an idea of it, imagining certain material objects that have slipped down through history from Antiquity to hold a dominant place in country houses, galleries and museums. Since the Renaissance, when the acquisition of ancient sculptures was a perquisite of power, they have, says Caroline Vout, been a significant part of an 'elite club or canon that dictates taste and shapes culture'.

Vout is Reader in Classics at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Christ's College. She is the author of Sex on Show: Seeing the Erotic in Greece and Rome; The Hills of Rome: Signature of an Eternal City and Power and Eroticism in Imperial Rome, and her focus here is principally on sculpture. Yet at its beginnings, she points out, much of 'Classical Art' was not considered art or sculpture at all, but votive offerings, like the 500 bronzes Nero took from Delphi. Since those times, when treasures from Greek cities, such as Syracuse and Corinth, were plundered by Rome, the misappropriation and translocation of Greek and Roman objects has allowed them to cohere into 'Classical Art', a label not introduced until the 19th century.

Anyone interested in Greek and Roman art tends to look at it through Renaissance eyes when it was set high on a pedestal from which it has yet to descend. Its study and acquisition, says Vout, helped 18th-century aristocrats evade the ennui that a life of luxury brought, and provided 'the glue of male solidarity'. (Queen Charlotte, wife of George III and a keen collector, said she felt 'boxed out' of the commercial world.)

Today, the old cast of characters that idealise the human form can seem lifeless and unexciting, and even pieces swooned over by Johann Joachim Winkelman, who wrested Greek genius from Roman copyists, can anaesthetise the modern viewer, says Vout. But put them in a dialogue with other objects, and they can become dynamic.

Performance can play a part: Emma Hamilton's 'attitudes' breathed life into Sir William Hamilton's seminal antiquities collection as well as into the ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples himself, while nearly a century later a fig-leafed strongman, Eugen Sandow, wowed audiences in Britain and America with his poses, from the Farnese Hercules and Discobolus to The Dying Gaul.

More recently, distinctions of the art have become fragmented, as it is dissected into its constituent parts – Attic, Gallic, Italic, Lycian. But as recent blockbuster exhibitions have shown, Classical Art as we think we know it remains big business, while contemporary artists continue to reinterpret the familiar.

Vout highlights Mougins Museum of Classical Art in the Provençal hill-village where Picasso once lived. In this pioneering museum, works by Cézanne, Dalí, Cocteau, Gormley, Hirst and Klein, as well as Picasso, are juxtaposed,ancient and modern art together, revealing their 'inextricable relatedness'. Picasso saw no divisions between old and new art; there is only art.

Enlightening and thought-provoking, Classical Art is a thorough study, bolstered by 53 pages of notes and 42 pages of bibliography. The illustrations are finely chosen and show how Classical Art, as displayed at Mougins Museum, is – however we look at it – alive and well.

Roger Williams