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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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Imitation was called mimesis in Greek and imitatio
in Latin: it is the same term in different languages.
The term exists since antiquity; the concept however,


has changed. Today imitation means more or less the
same as copying; in Greece its earliest meaning was
quite different.

The word “mimesis” is post-Homeric: it does not
occur in either Homer or Hesiod. Its etymology, as
linguists maintain, is obscure. Most probably it origi-
nated with the rituals and mysteries of the Dionysian
cult; in its first (quite different from the present) mean-
ing the mimesis-imitation stood for the acts of cult
performed by the priest—dancing, music, and singing.
This is confirmed by Plato as well as by Strabo. The
word which later came to denote the reproducing of
reality in sculpture and theater arts had been, at that
time, applied to dance, mimicry, and music exclusively.
In Delian hymns, as well as in Pindar, this term was
applied to music. Imitation did not signify reproducing
external reality but expressing the inner one. It had
no application then in visual arts.

In the fifth century B.C. the term “imitation” moved
from the terminology of cult into philosophy and
started to mean reproducing the external world. The
meaning changed so much that Socrates had some
qualms about calling the art of painting “mimesis” and
used words close to it such as “ek-mimesis” and “apo-
mimesis.” But Democritus and Plato had no such
scruples and used the word “mimesis” to denote imita-
tion of nature. To each of them, however, it was a
different kind of imitation.

For Democritus mimesis was an imitation of the way
nature functions.
He wrote that in art we imitate
nature: in weaving we imitate the spider, in building
the swallow, in singing the swan or nightingale
(Plutarch, De Sollert. anim. 20, 974A). This concept
was applicable chiefly to industrial arts.

Another concept of imitation, which acquired
greater popularity, was also formed in the fifth century
in Athens but by a different group of philosophers: it
was first introduced by Socrates and further developed
by Plato and Aristotle. To them “imitation” meant the
copying of the appearances of things.

This concept of imitation originated as a result of
reflection upon painting and sculpture. For example,
Socrates asked himself in what way do these arts differ
from the others. His answer was: in this, that they
repeat and imitate things which we see (Xenophon's
Comm. III, 10, 1). So he conceived a new concept of
imitation; he also did something more: he formulated
the theory of imitation, the contention that imitation
is the basic function of the arts (such as painting and
sculpture). It was an important event in the history
of thinking on art. The fact that Plato and Aristotle
accepted this theory was equally important: thanks to
them it became for centuries to come the leading
theory of the arts. Each of them, however, assigned
a different meaning to the theory and, consequently,
two variants of the theory, or rather two theories
originated under the same name.

Plato's Variant. In his early writings Plato was
rather vague in his use of the term “imitation”: he
applied it to music and dance (Laws 798D) or confined
it to painting and sculpture (Republic 597D); at first
he called “imitative” only poetry in which, as in trag-
edy, the heroes speak for themselves (epic poetry de-
scribes and does not imitate, he said). Finally, however,
he accepted Socrates' broad concept which embraced
almost the entire art of painting, sculpture, and poetry.

Later, beginning with Book X of the Republic, his
conception of art as imitating reality grew very ex-
treme: he saw it as a passive and faithful act of copying
the outer world. This particular conception was in-
duced primarily by the then contemporary illusionist
art of painting. Plato's idea was similar to what was
in the nineteenth century advanced under the name
of “naturalism.” His theory was descriptive and not
normative; on the contrary, it disapproved of the imi-
tation of reality by art on the basis that imitation is
not the proper road to truth (Republic 603A, 605A;
Sophist 235D-236C).

Aristotle's Variant. Aristotle, seemingly faithful to
Plato, transformed his concept and theory of imitation;
he maintained that artistic imitation may present things
either more or less beautiful than they are; it also may
present them such as they could or ought to be; it can
and ought to limit itself to their characteristics which
are general, typical, and essential (Poetics 1448a 1;
1451b 27; 1460b 13). Aristotle preserved the thesis that
art imitates reality but imitation meant to him not
faithful copying but a free and easy approach to real-
ity; the artist who imitates can present reality in his
own way. Aristotelian “imitation” was, in fact, the
result of a fusion of two conceptions: the ritualistic
and the Socratic. The idea of imitation, therefore, was
just as applicable to music as to sculpture and theater.

Later theoreticians of art referred more often to
Aristotle, but tended to uphold the simpler and more
attractive conception of Plato's. Due to Aristotle's
personal interests the theory of imitation was for cen-
turies more concerned with poetry than with visual
arts. To Aristotle “imitation” was, in the first place,
imitation of human actions; however, it gradually be-
came the imitation of nature, which was to be regarded
as the source of its perfection.

In summary, the classic period of the fourth cen-
tury B.C. used four different concepts of imitation:
the ritualistic concept (expression), the concept of
Democritus (imitation of natural processes), Platonic
(copying of nature), Aristotelian (free creation of the
work of art based on elements of nature). While the


original concept was gradually falling into eclipse and
the ideas of Democritus were recognized only by a
few thinkers (e.g., Hippocrates and Lucretius), both the
Platonic and Aristotelian conceptions proved to be
basic enduring concepts in art; they were often fused
into one and the awareness that they were different
concepts was frequently lost.


When several centuries later Cicero contrasted imi-
tation with truth (Vvncit imitationem veritas; De Orat.
II, 57, 215) he of course understood it as a free expres-
sion of the artist and upheld the Aristotelian doctrine.
Nevertheless, in Hellenistic and Roman days the inter-
pretation of imitation as the copying of reality pre-
vailed. Such an oversimplified interpretation of the arts
could not but evoke dissent. Imitation was then con-
trasted with and replaced by such ideas as imagination
(e.g., Maximus Tyrius, Or. XI, 3; Pseudo-Longinus, XV,
1), expression and an inner model (Callistratus, Deser.
7, 1; Dio Chrys., Or. XII, 71; Seneca, Epist. 65, 7),
freedom of the creator (Horatius De arte poet.; Lucian,
historia quo modo conscr. 9), inspiration (Callistratus,
Deser. 2, 1; Lucian, Demosth. encom. 5), invention
(Sextus Emp., Adv. math. I, 297). Philostratus Flavius
regarded imagination (fantasia) as wiser and more
creative than imitation, because the latter confines
itself only to what it has actually seen while the former
represents also things it has not seen.

The theory of imitation was a product of the classical
era of Greece. The Hellenistic and Roman epochs,
although preserving the doctrine in principle, brought
out reservations and counter-proposals: this, in fact,
was their contribution to the doctrine's history.


The ancient theory of imitation was founded on
typically Greek premisses: that the human mind is
passive and, therefore, able to perceive only what
exists. Secondly, even if it were able to invent some-
thing which does not exist, it would be ill-advised to
use this ability because the existing world is perfect
and nothing more perfect can be conceived.

In the Middle Ages other premisses were advanced,
formulated early by Dionysius the Areopagite and by
Saint Augustine. If art is to imitate, let it concentrate
on the invisible world which is more perfect. And if
art is to limit itself to the visible world, let it search
in that world for traces of eternal beauty. This may
be better achieved by means of symbols than by imi-
tating reality.

Early and radical thinkers like Tertullian went even
so far as to believe that God does not permit any
imitation of this world (omnem similitudinem vetat
fieri; De spectaculis,
XXIII); the iconoclasts thought
the same; Scholastics, although free from such extreme
views, believed that only spiritual representations are
important. At the height of the Middle Ages Bonaven-
tura was to say of painters and sculptors that they only
show externally what they have thought internally (III,
Sent. D 37 dub). Painting which faithfully imitates
reality was derisively labelled the “aping of truth”
(simia veri, e.g., Alain of Lille, Anticlaudianus, I, 4).

As the result of such predilections the theory of
imitation was pushed aside in the Middle Ages and
the term imitatio rarely used. However, it did not
disappear completely; it survived in the twelfth-
century humanists, like John of Salisbury. His definition
of painting was the same as that of the ancients: it
is an imitation (imago est cuius generatio per imita-
tionem fit; Metalogicon,
III, 8). Above all, Thomas
Aquinas, the great Aristotelian philosopher of the
Middle Ages, repeated the classical definition without
any reservations “art imitates nature” (ars imitatur
naturam; Phys.
II, 4).


With the Renaissance the theory of imitation became
again the basic theory of art and poetry, and only then
reached its apogee. Saved from oblivion, it appeared
as a revelation and made the most of privileges enjoyed
by new ideas.

Modern theory took the term imitatio from the
Romans: imitazione in Italian, imitation in French and
English (while the Slavs and Germans coined their own
equivalents). The translator of Averroës in 1481 used
the word assimilatio; G. Fracastoro wrote in 1555 that
it is irrelevant sive imitari, sive representare dicamus.
Nevertheless the term imitatio won an easy and com-
plete victory.

At the very beginning of the fifteenth century, the
doctrine of imitation was accepted earliest of all in
the plastic arts. It appeared clearly in L. Ghiberti's
Commentaries (1436), where he spoke of having tried
to imitate nature (imitare la natura) “as well as it was
possible for him” (I Com., ed. Morisani, II, 22). L. B.
Alberti adhered to the same theory; he maintained that
there is no better way to beauty than by imitating
nature (Della pittura [1435], part III). Leonardo da
Vinci had even more radical views. According to him
the more faithfully the painting depicts its object—
(conformità co'la cosa imitata; Tratt. frag. 411)—the
more praiseworthy it is. These were the pioneers who
were followed by other Renaissance writers.

The concept and the theory of imitation did not
enter Renaissance poetics until the middle of the six-
teenth century, that is, only after Aristotle's Poetics had
been fully accepted; from that time on it became the


most essential element of poetics. F. Sassetti (1575)
explained in an Aristotelian way that imitation is one
of the four causes of poetry, namely, the “formal” one,
the poet himself being the “efficient” cause, the poem
the “material” one, and the pleasure produced by
poetry the “final” one (Weinberg, p. 48).

The Italian theory of imitation penetrated into
Germany attracting Dürer (Aesth. Excurs. [1528], ed.
Heindrich, p. 277), then to France where it was taken
up by Poussin (Letter to Fréart, 1, 3 [1966]) and many
others. Even in the days of baroque and academism
the Italian theory remained in all countries the basic
theory of art. In the beginning of the eighteenth cen-
tury it was still regarded as an important principle of
aesthetics even by such innovators as Abbé Dubos
and Vico; it was Vico who declared in Scienza nuova
([1774], I, 90) that poetry was nothing else than im-
itation (non essendo altro la poesia che imitazione).

On the whole, the modern theory of imitation held
its position of strength in the theory of art for at least
three centuries. It was not during that period a uniform
theory however. Various meanings were assigned to it
in the theory of visual arts and different ones in poetics.
Some understood it in the Aristotelian way and others
in accordance with Plato and the popular conception
of faithful imitation. Hence there was more agreement
in terminology than in matters of fact; controversies

Various thinkers tried to overcome in many different
ways the obstacles which “imitation” encountered.
Some Renaissance writers stressed the point that not
all imitations serve art but only those that are “good”
(G. B. Guarini, 1601), “artistic” (B. Varchi, 1546),
“beautiful” (Alberti), “imaginative” (Comanini's imita-
tio fantastica,
1591). Other theoreticians tried to inter-
pret imitation more accurately and in doing so they
departed in various ways from the concept of literal
copying of nature. Imitation ought to be “original,”
bluntly wrote Pelletier du Mans. In Alberti's inter-
pretation art imitates the laws of nature rather than
its appearances; according to Scaliger (1561) art imi-
tates nature's norms. According to some, art ought to
imitate nature's beauty; according to Shakespeare
(Hamlet, III ii)

Let your own discretion be your tutor:...
With this special observance that you o'erstep not
The modesty of nature.
The followers of Aristotle (e.g., the Polish poet and
theoretician of poetry, M. K. Sarbiewski, De perfecta
[ca. 1625, 1954 ed.], 1, 4) maintained that nature
should be imitated as it could and ought to be.
Michelangelo assigned a religious meaning to the doc-
trine of imitation; it is God in nature which should
be imitated. Torquato Tasso (1587), concerned with
imitation in poetry, realized what a complicated proc-
ess it is: words (parole) imitate concepts (concetti) and
these, in turn, imitate things (cose).

Particularly important was the following: many
writers thought that art should not imitate nature in
its rough state but after its faults have been corrected
and a selection has been made. This view was held
mainly by the French classicists. Other theoreticians
stressed the fact that imitation is not a passive act;
first nature has to be “de-coded” and its beauty has
to be extracted (herausreissen, as Dürer said). Some
writers assigned to imitation such a broad meaning that
it embraced not only imitation of nature but also of
ideas (Fracastoro, 1555). Others included in imitation
even allegories (as Petrarch had done) and metaphors
(E. Tesauro: metafora altro non è che poetica imita-
see Cannocchiale Aristotelico [1655], p. 369).
Eventually Varchi (Lessioni [1590], p. 576) thought that
(if correctly understood) imitation is indeed nothing
else but spinning of fiction (fingere). G. Del Bene (1574)
was of a similar opinion; imitatio is the same as
finzione. Those writers might have seemed revolu-
tionary but in fact they were close to Aristotle. Some,
like T. Correa (1587) differentiated two kinds of imita-
tion; one is literal, the other one free, imitatio simulata
et ficta.
Similarly, when R. de Piles separated two kinds
of truth: the simple and the ideal, he had in view two
imitations, i.e., one that is faithful copying and the
other which is preceded by selection and which syn-
thesizes the elements of perfection scattered about in
nature (Cours de peinture [1708], pp. 30-32).

However, many Renaissance and baroque writers
reached the conclusion that it is pointless to stick
stubbornly to the old theory instead of producing a
new and a more accurate one. They were prompted
by two entirely different reasons. A minority main-
tained that imitation is a task too difficult for art be-
cause imitation can never equal the model. A majority
thought the opposite; imitation is a task too insignifi-
cant and too passive. The term imitatio was gradually
being replaced—not by creatio however which be-
longed to theology—but by inventio. Ronsard offered
a compromise; imiter et inventer, one should “imitate
and invent.” In V. Danti's view the aim of art was not
imitare but to portray, ritrarre (Trattato [1567], II, 11).
F. Patrizi said (Della poetica [1586], p. 135) that the
poet is not an imitator but a “facitor” (which, after
all, was a literal translation of the Greek “poet”—
poietēs). Danti maintained that the poet produces new
wholes, if not new things. F. Robortello was bolder;
art presents things such as they are not (Explicationes
[1548], p. 226). In the next century the great Bernini
was to say “painting shows that which does not exist”


(F. Baldinucci, Vita di Berńini [1st ed. 1682; 1948
ed.], p. 146). And G. P. Capriano in his poetics said:
Poetry is an invention out of nothing (Della vera poetica
[1555]; cf. Weinberg, p. 733). If that is so, then art
indeed does not imitate.

The new idea was that art may be more perfect than
the object of its imitation, i.e., nature. M. Ficino called
art “wiser than nature” (Theol. plat. [1482], 1, XIII,
Opere [1561], p. 296). Michelangelo professed that he
makes nature more beautiful (più bella); Dolce wrote
that the duty of a painter is to surpass (superar) nature,
and G. Vasari (1550) stated that nature was conquered
by art (natura vinta dall'arte; Vite, VII, 448).

The Renaissance introduced a new thesis which
although of doubtful value was, nevertheless, rich in
consequences; the object of imitation should be not
only nature but also, and foremost, those who were
its best imitators, that is, the Ancients. The watchword
of imitating antiquity appeared as early as the fifteenth
century and by the end of the seventeenth century it
supplanted almost completely the idea of imitating
This was the greatest revolution in the history
of the concept of imitation. It changed the classical
theory of art into an academic one. A compromise
formula was devised for the principle of imitation;
nature should be imitated but in the way it was imi-
tated by the Ancients. This meant that sculpture ought
to be modelled on Apollo Belvedere and writing on
Cicero. The fifteenth and sixteenth centuries called for
more imitation of Antiquity in poetry, and the seven-
teenth and the eighteenth centuries asked for the same
in the visual arts. However, dissenting voices were
sometimes raised. During the Renaissance at least three
protests against the imitation of Antiquity took place:
Poliziano (1491) against Cortesi said that “only he
writes well who has the courage to break the rules”;
Giovanni Francesco Pico della Mirandola (1512)
maintained against Cardinal Bembo that aemulator
veterum verius quam imitator;
and finally Desiderius
Erasmus (1518) argued that he acts truly in Cicero's
spirit who, in keeping with the changing times, departs
from Cicero.

To give a very general outline of the development
from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century we may
say that some theoreticians defended the principle of
imitation at the expense of some concessions, while
others abandoned it completely. It was abandoned by
those who adhered to the radical (Platonic) concept
of imitation and maintained by those who voiced the
moderate (Aristotelian) concept.

All in all, between the fifteenth and the eighteenth
centuries there was no principle more commonly ap-
plied than imitatio. And it is hard to understand how
Ch. Batteux could announce in his Les beaux arts
Réduits à un seul principe, (1747), that he had discov-
ered the principle for all the arts, namely, imitation.
The point of it is that countless earlier treatises applied
the principle of imitation but only to a particular group
of arts—some to poetry, others to painting and sculp-
ture. Batteux generalized this principle for all arts. He
could manage to make such a generalization because
he had a vague idea of imitation; he regarded it as
a faithful copying of nature. He was apparently the
first to say: Imiter c'est copier un modèle, and on the
other hand, is a selection from nature, is imitation of
a beautiful nature.


The idea of imitation having been thoroughly dis-
cussed and analyzed nothing much was left to be done.
The eighteenth century inherited and accepted this
idea but ceased to be preoccupied with it. These senti-
ments were best voiced by an aesthetician who was
typical of his century, Edmund Burke: “Aristotle has
spoken so much and so solidly upon the force of imita-
tion in his poetics, that it makes any further discourse
upon this subject the less necessary.” This appeared
in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas
on the Sublime and the Beautiful
([1757], Part I, Sec.
XVI). However, Burke himself did not interpret imita-
tion in the Aristotelian way, as he demanded faithful

At the end of the eighteenth century after the dis-
covery of Herculaneum and Pompeii and the archeol-
ogists' travels in Greece, it became more popular than
ever to imitate antiquity. It was the era of Mengs and
Winckelmann, Adam and Flaxman, Canova and
Thorwaldsen. However, the concern was a matter of
practical application; the theory of imitation did not
advance farther.

The nineteenth century laid the greatest stress on
being faithful to nature (not to antiquity). Nevertheless,
the term “imitation,” which for ages played the leading
part in the theory of art, disappeared suddenly; it
acquired a pejorative meaning and was used to denote
something unauthentic, faked—imitations of diamonds,
marble, furs, etc., and could no longer be applied to
art. Which other terms have taken its place? Mainly
“realism” and “naturalism.” Those were the watch-
words of writers like G. Planche (1816), J. H. Champ-
fleury (1857) and É. Zola (about 1870) and artists,
beginning with G. Courbet (1855). The theory of
naturalism was, in fact, a continuation of the theory
of imitation but with a certain difference; it was con-
cerned not so much with art reproducing things but—
like science—exploring them.

The twentieth-century theorists of art abandoned
not only the term “imitation” but also its principle.


Our age does not deny that art relies on nature—even
Picasso says that it could not be possible otherwise—
but it does not maintain that art imitates nature. For
some art is construction, for others expression; for none
is it imitation. We indeed agree with the Greek
“mimesis” in its original sense of expression and the
Democritian sense of being guided by the laws of
nature. “We do not wish to copy nor to reproduce
nature,” writes Mondrian, “we want to shape it as
nature shapes the fruit.” On the other hand, our times
do not wish to imitate in the sense of copying the
appearance of things, the idea which was in the fore-
ground for so many centuries after Plato. The majority
of contemporaries would rather agree with Girolamo
Savonarola in his De simplicitate vitae humanae (ed.
Lyon [1638], III, 1, 87) who asserted that what in fact
belongs to art is only that which does not imitate nature
(ea sunt proprie artis, quae non Vere naturam imi-


The newest interpretation of the idea of imitation in
Greek and especially in Aristotelian thought has been
developed by R. Ingarden in his paper on Aristotelian
Poetics (Proceedings of the Polish Academy of Learning,
1945) and in four books: H. Koller, Mimesis in der Antike
(Bern, 1954); G. F. Else, Aristotle's Poetics: The Argument
(Cambridge, Mass., 1957); G. Sörbom, Mimesis and Art
(Uppsala, 1966); and W. Tatarkiewicz, The History of Aes-
3 vols., (Polish ed., Wroclaw, 1960-68; English ed.,
The Hague, 1970). The three volumes of the present writer
follow the development of the idea of imitation from antiq-
uity until 1700. B. Weinberg, A History of Literary Criticism
in the Italian Renaissance
(Chicago, 1961) makes available
the variety of opinions of the seventeenth century on imita-
tion. The earlier book of B. Weinberg, French Realism: a
Critical Reaction
(New York and London, 1937) discusses
the point of view of the nineteenth century.


[See also Baroque; Classification of the Arts; Form; Iconog-
raphy; Naturalism in Art; Religion, Ritual in; Ut pictura