The Renaissance: The Big Picture
Transition from the Middle Ages
To best understand the Renaissance, it is important to visualize where it is situated in the "big picture" of time. The term, "Renaissance" is French for "re-birth" and refers to a renewal of interest in the culture of Antiquity. (Antiquity generally refers to anything Greco-Roman).
After the fall of Rome came The Middle Ages. It can be generally regarded as the 5th century to the 15th century. It is sometimes called The Dark Ages, asserting that a deterioration of culture occurred in this time between Antiquity and the Renaissance. It was a time plagued with constant war and famine. Life was extremely hard, and there was time for little else other than just trying to stay alive. This was a time of the Black Plague, which ravaged Europe again and again in multiple waves of outbreaks spanning generations. During the Middle Ages, the Church was the center of life for the people and it dictated their calendars and daily activities. Christianity had spread throughout much of the European continent. It was a unifying force and was directed by the Papacy.
Looking Back to Antiquity
Sometime in the 1400s, scholars and artists began studying the ancient scrolls and works of the Greeks and Romans. This gave gradual rise to a renewed interest in humanism: an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Depictions of the human figure moved away from the flat and rigid representations of the Middle Ages towards more rounded, natural, and anatomically correct bodies.
In conjunction with this new movement of humanism, came a series of developments that help define the period.
1) Circa 1439, the German Johan Guttenberg developed moveable type causing an explosion in the distribution of books and knowledge.
2) The absolute power of the Church began to weaken. In 1517 Martin Luther nailed a copy of his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. Among other grievances, he denounced the Church's practice of selling Indulgences. An indulgence was a payment to the Catholic Church that purchased an exemption from some types of sin. Thus began the Reformation, and the struggle between Protestants and the Catholics.
3) Campaigns of exploration were funded by multiple nations who raced to discover new trade routes. Christopher Columbus completed four voyages (between 1492-1503) across the Atlantic Ocean under the funding of Spain's Catholic Rulers. From 1519-1522, Ferdinand Magellan, circumnavigated the globe. From 1577-1580 the English Sea Captain Sir Francis Drake completed the second circumnavigation funded by the English Crown.
4) A system of quarantine was developed in response to infectious diseases. Lazarettos were plague hospitals, first used by the Republic of Venice in 1423.
Art as Power: The Medici, the Papacy, and the Guilds
During the Renaissance, art was commissioned by the powerful to advance agendas and exert dominance and authority. In Italy, the political structure consisted of city-states. The Duchy of Milan, the Republic of Venice and the Republic of Florence were a few of the most powerful city-states. City-states were oligarchies ruled by selected autocrats. One merchant family which had accumulated wealth was the the Medici of the Republic of Florence. The Medici family commissioned numerous works to establish the family's influence and authority. They served as patrons to artists such as Donatello, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo.
Rome was a papal state and a secular state. The Pope was the spiritual leader of Europe, and he was also the secular leader.
Guilds were another source of patronage during the Renaissance. Guilds were organizations of craftsmen that set standards of quality, established rules of apprenticeship, and controlled competition in a city or territory. There were Guilds for metalsmiths, blacksmiths, weavers, wool traders, bakers, butchers, painters, and so on. The first artwork that we will discuss is a piece entered into a competition sponsored by Florence's guild of wool merchants and held at the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.
Competition for the Baptistry Doors
In 1401, the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore held a competition to make the doors of the east portal of the Baptistery of San Giovanni. Competitors were directed to make a relief panel showing the sacrifice of Isaac from the book of Genesis where God tests Abraham's faith by asking him to sacrifice his son as a sign of devotion. Just as Abraham is about to carry out the gruesome task, an angel appears and stops him from cutting his son's throat.
Of the seven finalists selected by the jury, only the panels of two of the finalists, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) and Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) have survived. The two panels are shown below:
In Ghiberti's panel, we see the influence of Greco-Roman statuary in Isaac's nude kneeling figure. It is regarded as the first classical nude since antiquity. Quoting from Gardner's Art Through the Ages:
"Unlike his medieval predecessors, Ghiberti revealed a genuine appreciation of the nude male form and a deep interest in how the muscular system and skeletal structure move the human body."
Nudity appeared rarely in the art of the Middle Ages. The clergy regarded nude statues as idolatrous and indecent and was used only to depict biblical scenes involving Adam and Eve or depictions of Hell.
While Ghiberti's panel is the first depiction of a classical nude, Donatello's David is considered the first free-standing nude since antiquity. It was made between 1440 and 1460 for the Medici palace in Florence.
Here, Donatello depicts the Biblical hero of David after he has has slain the giant Goliath. As the story goes, the Israelites and the Philistines face off in the Valley of Elah. The giant, Goliath challenges the Israelites to send forth a champion to decide the battle in single combat. Young David, who has come to the battlefield to bring food to his brothers, takes up the challenge. He refuses armor, and faces the giant with only his staff, his sling, and a few pebbles he collected from a nearby brook. David hurls his stone at Goliath and hits him square in the forehead. The Giant falls to the ground and David cuts off his head.
This slayer of Goliath had become the symbol of the Florentine Republic which was threatened on all sides by rival states, and was therefore an ideal choice of subject for the Medici family- the most powerful family in Florence.
Leonardo's Last Supper
The High Renaissance is defined as the quarter century between 1495 and the deaths of Leonardo da Vinci in 1519 and Raphael in 1520.
Leonardo da Vinci painted this work for the refectory of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. As our previous works, it also depicts a scene from the bible. Here, we see Jesus sitting at the center of a table surrounded by his disciples. With outstretched hands, he says "One of you is about to betray me".
In this work, we clearly see the use of linear perspective. Linear perspective is a technique or formula for drawing that applies a mathematical system to create the illusion of three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional picture plane. It does so through the use of a vanishing point where all diagonals converge to create a convincing and consistent illusion of space. In this piece, the vanishing point is just above Jesus's right eye (see second illustration).
This use of perspective is another influence from Classical times. Frescoes on Classical Roman villas show cityscapes in a loose perspective. While Brunelleschi is credited with the "discovery" of the system of linear perspective, it may be more appropriate to consider it a "re-discovery and fine tuning" of the perspective device first used by the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The importance of David as a civic symbol for the Republic of Florence led to another commission of David this time by Michelangelo. Unlike Donatello's David, Michelangelo chose to portray the youth before his battle with Goliath. This David is 17' high, made of marble, and depicts an athletic body with head turned towards the unseen adversary. In the thick, tense, muscles and popping veins, we see a connection to Hellenistic (a period of Greco-Roman) sculpture.
Raphael's The Philosophy (School of Athens)
In 1508, Julius II called Raphael to the papal court in Rome. Julius II commissioned him to decorate the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican. On the walls of the Signature Room (the Papal Library where Julius II signed official documents), Raphael depicted images symbolizing Theology, Law, Poetry and Philosophy. In Philosophy (commonly called School of Athens) all of the philosophers and scientists of the ancient world are depicted. Here again, we see the use of linear perspective with the central vanishing point located between the figures of Plato and Aristotle.
What is being "re-born" during the Renaissance?
Renaissance refers to the cultural re-birth that occurred in Europe between the fourteenth and middle of the seventeenth centuries based on the rediscovery and renewed interest in literature and artworks of the Greeks and Romans.
Influences from antiquity seen in Renaissance art that are not seen in art of the Middle Ages:
- Anatomically correct figures
- Consistently applied Linear Perspective
Kleiner, Fred. “The Renaissance in Quattrocento Italy.” Gardener's Art through the Ages, Senior Development Editor: Sharon Adams Poore, 14th Edition, Boston*, Clark Baxter, 2013, pp.559-597.
Kleiner, Fred. “Renaissance and Mannerism in Cinquecento Italy.” Gardener's Art through the Ages, Senior Development Editor: Sharon Adams Poore, 14th Edition, Boston*, Clark Baxter, 2013, pp. 599-643.