Florentine Renaissance (c.1400-1512)
Why Did the
Renaissance Start in Florence?
For a general guide to the evolution of
painting, sculpture and
The qualities which gave Italian Renaissance art its distinctive flavour during the quattrocento and early cinquecento, were a passionate desire for knowledge, and a passionate belief in experiment, especially the kind of experiment that puts knowledge to the test. And it was the special gift of Florence to be able to combine the two in her painting, sculpture and architecture, and to add to that combination a self-conscious and equally passionate pursuit of beauty. Two other important attributes of the Renaissance in Florence which made for continuity of tradition during the High Renaissance must be mentioned. One was the "Bottega" system whereby each well-known artist in fifteenth-century Florence had his own workshop, which recruited apprentices as young as 10-years old to learn drawing and painting as well as the whole business of picture-making from grinding colour pigments, preparing panels and canvases, to painting portions of the master's pictures. The other was the general level of enlightenment among patrons, who managed, with a minimum of interference, to stimulate artistic production to a remarkable degree, both in quantity and quality. A list of the princely patrons of the arts in fifteenth-century Italy would be a long one, but none of them provided a more intelligent or adventurous stimulus to the artists who worked under them, than the three generations of the Medici Family in Florence - Cosimo, Piero, and Lorenzo - between the years 1434 and 1492. It is true to say that while the artists themselves were widening their skills through technical and semi-scientific research, patrons were spurring them on to use these means to new and exciting ends.
The first major figure of the Medici dynasty was Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464). Head of the family business and banker to the Holy See, he was also dedicated to fine art in Florence. He had the Convent of San Marco rebuilt and decorated by Fra Angelico (1400-55), he was a patron of Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-69) and he sponsored Paolo Uccello (1397-1475). As one of the most active art collectors he acquired paintings and statues, as well as objets d'art (antique cameos, items of goldsmithery and jewellery art), and made his collection available to artists. He was also a protector of the humanists and the wave of scholars who had fled Byzantium, and his system of artistic patronage was widely imitated by the princes who ruled the courts of northern Italy.
Cosimo's son Piero (1416-69) (known as Piero the Gouty) only ruled Florence for five years (1464-9), but he proved to be even more of an art lover. It was to him that Domenico Veneziano (1410-1461) turned, in 1438, to ask if he would recommend him to Cosimo. Although he was the artist who brought the secret of Flemish oil painting to Italy, Domenico Veneziano was an expert in fresco painting who was very well informed about what was going on at the various building sites across Florence. He introduced a new range of colours, predominantly serene and light, into the monumental style of Masaccio. The sureness of his rhythm and the meditative solemnity of his figures are echoed in the work of his pupils, such as the little-known Alesso Baldovinetti (1425-99), a master of mosaic art, and Piero della Francesca (1420-92).
The accession to power of Lorenzo de' Medici (1449-92) (known as Lorenzo the Magnificent), marked a new phase. He has often been misunderstood: it fell to him to rule Florence at the very moment when the Medici bank was having to deal with a crisis in its European business. Traumatized, moreover, by an assassination attempt from which he was lucky to escape, Lorenzo was prone to fits of melancholy and found the exercise of power only moderately fulfilling, although he lacked neither courage nor diplomacy. He found a saving outlet in the company of philosophers and artists. Although he did not create his collection of antique art pieces in the garden of San Marco with the purpose of founding an 'academy' (this was only envisaged afterwards), he was nevertheless an important patron of the arts and an inspirational figure: he was a client of Andrea del Verrocchio (1435-88), Antonio Pollaiuolo (1432-98), Luca Signorelli (1440/50-1523) and Filippino Lippi (1457-1504). The remainder of the Medici clan strove to emulate him.
The rinascimento in Florence was marked by two major characteristics: humanism, which enriched art not only on the theoretical level but also by introducing classical thought; and research into geometrical perspective, of great importance in Early Renaissance painting and architecture up to 1600.
Humanism is a philosophical stance that emphasizes the value of human beings, both individually and collectively, and generally favours critical thinking (rationalism) over traditional doctrine or faith (scholasticism or religious dogma). Supporters of Renaissance humanism typically had a great respect for the thinkers of classical antiquity, such as Plato, Aristotle and Vitruvius. Humanists in Florence aimed to educate the Florentine citizenry through the study of the humanities: grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy.
The contribution made by Renaissance humanism is epitomized in the activities of Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72). A painter, especially of medallions, as well as an architect (in Florence he produced the initial designs for the Palazzo Ruccellai and the facade of the Church of Santa Maria Novella), he was passionately interested in urban design. As a theoretician he not only formulated extremely modern ideas on the 'narcissism' of all artists and on art as a 'corrective' to death, but also recommended artistic schemes copied from ancient classical texts (Paolo Uccello was indebted to him for that of the Deluge, in the Church of Santa Maria Novella).
His treatise on architecture - enthusiastically dedicated to Filippo Brunelleschi and first published in 1485 - imposed classical standards on an already Platonic foundation of 'ideal beauty'. Outside Florence, Alberti produced plans for the Ferrara belltower, the Church of Sant Andrea in Mantua and, most notably, the semi-pagan temple of Sigismundo Malatesta in Rimini (1450). Alberti was highly esteemed by Luciano Laurana, who transformed the Palazzo Ducale of Urbino, and who introduced the Utopian approach to urban design. This was developed by Filarete (1400-70), who designed the hospital founded by Sforza in Milan (1465) and who was also the sculptor of the bronze doors of the Vatican: he dedicated his meticulous picture of an imaginary city filled with pagan-inspired architecture (including the churches) to Piero de' Medici. Simone del Pollaiolo (1457-1508) was to finish the Palazzo Strozzi (begun in 1489) in the same typically Florentine style: massive on the outside and light and delicate inside.
Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) is often misjudged as a painter. Too often regarded as a late representative of Gothic or as a 'comic' artist, he began his career in difficult circumstances as an apprentice to Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) - one of the giants of early Renaissance sculpture - and then as a mosaicist in Venice. In Padua he painted the Giants (now lost), which was admired by Andrea Mantegna (1430-1506), and in Bologna he painted a Nativity which is wholly humanist in inspiration. In Florence his career - the chronology of which remains a matter of debate - was dominated by his Battle of San Romano (1456, Florence, London and Paris), painted for the Medicis, and by the frescoes of the Chiostro Verde (Green Cloister) at the Church of Santa Maria Novella. A skilled practitioner of bifocal perspective, which he dismantled and reconstituted as he saw fit, and an occasional imitator of the relief sculpture of his friend Donatello, he arranged volumes and colours with no concern for realism other than that conveyed by the atmosphere (The Hunt in the Forest, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) rather than the action.
We are no better informed about the background of Piero della Francesca (c.1416-92). Born on the borders of Tuscany, this painter and mathematician was influenced by Masaccio (1401-1428) but surpasses him in the subjection of perspective to a strikingly rigorous geometry. He showed his artistic allegiance in Arezzo in the fresco cycle Discovery of the Wood of the True Cross. The light, spacious and limpid, but almost inhuman atmosphere in these frescoes becomes more mellow in several Madonnas that the artist executed later in his career (although these are still fairly austere), a balance being achieved in the panel painting entitled the Flagellation of Christ (1450-60, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino). The painter codified his highly cerebral art in several written works published after 1470, but it was his paintings which, in the short term, influenced Antonello da Messina (1430-79) and some time later Perugino (1450-1523) and, through him, Raphael (1483-1520). Forgotten in the 17th century, rediscovered and perhaps excessively praised in the 20th century), Piero della Francesca had fewer disciples in Florence than in Urbino, the Veneto, and especially in Rome and its surrounding region, where his influence was quickly spread by Melozzo de Forli and Antoniazzo Romano. His followers made their own unique contributions to Renaissance traditions. Antonello da Messina created several masterpieces, such as Christ Crowned with Thorns (Ecce Homo) (1470); Perugino became the leading light in Perugia and in 1481 was summoned to Rome by Pope Sixtus IV to create his fresco Christ Handing the Keys to Saint Peter (1482) for the Sistine Chapel.
The fame of Antonio Pollaiuolo (1432-98) and Piero Pollaiuolo (1441-96), derives mainly from the multiple talents of the elder brother. A goldsmith, binder of art books and designer of embroidery, he was the first artist to feature the male nude in an engraving and in frescoes. His rare paintings are remarkable for their anatomical vigour, for the use of aerial perspective - allowing an immense background to recede within the pictorial space without entirely vanishing - and for a kind of exuberance in the use of pagan allegories and myths. He was also an outstanding sculptor. He impressed Mantegna, Durer and Michelangelo. His brother and collaborator seems to have been given several commissions for paintings on the basis of Antonio's fame: the linear intensity and richness of colour which were Antonio's hallmark appear cumbersome in Piero's work.
A restorer of antique art pieces for the Medicis, Andrea del Verrocchio became one of the greatest Renaissance scuptors in Florence - ranking alongside Donatello, whose works inspired him. He carved marble sculpture and also worked in terracotta, but his forte was bronze - as in his Equestrian Monument of Bartolommeo Colleoni (c.1483-88, Campo dei Santi Giovanni e Paolo). His fame also derives from his painting workshop, where the great Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was beginning his career.
The Ghirlandaio workshop was more firmly focused on painting. The eldest son of this prolific family, Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-94), placed the fresco in an intimate, almost photographic, narrative framework. The fact that the bourgeoisie found themselves cosily reflected in his religious paintings (see the fresco cycles in Santa Trinita and Santa Maria Novella) should not lead us to overlook his truly scientific approach to portrait art, its humanist implications, his measured and clear style - elegant but firm - and the discreet emotion involved in his evocation of Florentine life around 1480-90. See, for instance, his masterpiece: Old Man with a Young Boy (1490, Louvre, Paris).
With Botticelli (1445-1510), a new and far more subtle note appears in Florentine painting - a curious suave melancholy on which, by virtue of his extraordinary control of delicately modulated line, Botticelli could play an infinite number of variations. He was Filippo Lippi's best pupil, and by comparing his early work with that of his master one can easily see how, with slight alterations of emphasis, naive prose can become sophisticated poetry. Botticelli's temperament is a complex one. Basically he belongs to Gothic art, the lyrical side of Italian painting. His prototype is Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427). With Giotto and Masaccio he has no connexion. Yet he lived at the moment when the influence of the Medici was at its height, and he must have been submitted to all the most advanced aesthetic and humanistic theories of that highly specialized circle of poets and scholars. In his early "Adoration of the Magi" (1475, tempera, Uffizi Gallery) one sees their portraits with old Cosimo de'Medici as the eldest of the Magi kneeling at the Virgin's feet while his grandsons Lorenzo and Giuliano wait at the sides. Botticelli's Virgins - like those in "La Primavera" (c.1482-3, Uffizi Gallery) - have an unearthly, complicated wistfulness, and when he was persuaded to illustrate pagan themes, his Venus, his Mercury, his three Graces had the same refined sadness as his Virgins. If the quality of his vision was archaic, in that he was not interested in the solidity of Masaccio or the scientific researches of his contemporaries into the problem of space and perspective, his way of translating his vision into paint was more subtle and sophisticated than any of his contemporaries. It combines languor with litheness, voluptuousness with purity. His work is the expression in art of the Medicean world, full of references to the unattainable but desirable glory of the Platonic ideal of beauty. In the "Birth of Venus" (1484-6, tempera Uffizi Gallery), painted for one of the country houses of the Medici, Botticelli could quote the Roman Medici Venus almost line for line in his painting of the nude goddess, yet, by the strangely attenuated modulations of his line, he could turn her into a madonna as virginal as any by the great Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319). After the death of Lorenzo he fell under the puritan spell of the Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98).
In fine art painting, the term "perspective" or "linear perspective" is an attempt to represent a three-dimensional object or scene on a two-dimensional surface like paper. The artist tries to depict the image as it is viewed by the eye. The perspective in a painting or drawing is what gives it "depth". Before the Renaissance, painters and draughtsmen had not understood the geometry involved in perspective. Thus earlier Gothic painting - as characterized by the Sienese School, or by the traditions of Gothic Illuminated Manuscripts - had little depth. Even the pre-Renaissance Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel Frescoes painted by Giotto in the early trecento were more two-dimensional than three-dimensional.
The Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) - effectively the father of Renaissance architecture - was the first to demonstrate the geometrical method of perspective. In about 1425, after painting the outlines of various Florentine buildings onto a mirror, he noticed that when the building's outline was continued, all of the lines converged on the horizon line. According to his biographer Giorgio Vasari, he then set up a demonstration of his painting of the Florentine Cathedral Baptistery in the incomplete doorway of the Duomo. Viewers looked through a small hole on the back of the painting, facing the Baptistery. Brunelleschi then set up a mirror, facing the viewer, which reflected his painting. To the viewer, the picture of the Baptistery and the Baptistery itself were virtually indistinguishable.
By formulating the laws of perspective, Brunelleschi made it possible for a painter to grasp the complex spatial relationships involved in his picture. Giotto's intuitive approach to the problem of space and the International Gothic refusal to consider the problem at all, at once became obsolete. Thanks to Brunelleschi, the Renaissance painter was given an intellectual tool by the aid of which new worlds could be conquered. It may seem absurd to suggest that the art of painting, which owes so much to the creative imagination, should be dependent for its power on the discovery of a mathematical formula. The artist of today rightly shuns the tyranny of perspective. Indeed, Henri Matisse (1867-1954) was at pains to ignore what Masaccio was so anxious to learn. But there is a difference between defying law and being ignorant of its existence. While Giotto had pushed the empirical method of painting to its furthest limit, Masaccio, with the discoveries of optical science at his disposal, could not only organize his space with more precision and conviction, but he could bring a new kind of observation to bear on it. For to understand the nature of space leads to a deeper understanding of the objects that occupy space. (For more, about Brunelleschi please see: Florence Cathedral, Brunelleschi and the Italian Renaissance: 1420-36.)
Soon after these peepshow demonstrations, nearly every artist in Florence began to use geometrical perspective in their artworks, including Masolino (1383-1440), Masaccio (1401-1428), and Francesco Squarcione (1395-1468), among many others. Perspective was not simply a way of showing depth, it was also a new method of composing a painting. Artists began to depict a single, unified scene, rather than a combination of several.
Given the sudden profusion of accurate perspective paintings in Florence, it is likely that Brunelleschi - aided by his mathematician friend Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli (1397-1482) - fully understood the geometry behind perspective, although he published no account of it. This task was left to his younger friend Leon Battista Alberti (1404-72), who in 1436 wrote De Pictura, a treatise on proper methods of showing distance in painting. Alberti explained matters by referring to planar projections - that is, how the rays of light (passing from the viewer's eye to the landscape), would strike the picture plane (the painting).
The evolution of linear perspective during the Italian Renaissance in the period 1300-1600, may be briefly summarized as follows:
1303. Giotto introduces some elementary rational perspective into his Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel Frescoes (c.1303-10).
1330-1400. A new type of pictorial perspective, known as 'bifocal' using, for example, guide marks on wall to be frescoed - gains widespread currency.
1342-4. The Presentation in the Temple (Florence) and Annunciation (Siena) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (active 1319-48) are early instances of pictorial perspective used in accordance with mathematical rules, including a single vanishing point.
1400. A new interest, in Vitruvius in Florence in the early years of the 15th century alerts artists to the fact that the Greeks and Romans of Classical Antiquity may have developed some kind of systematic 'perspectival' method - at least for stage design.
1425. Brunelleschi's 'peepshows', demonstrate the possibility of exact coincidence of 'natural' vision and pictorial vision in a determined space.
1435-6. Alberti's treatise On Painting (De Pittura) defines the picture as a kind of window, circumscribing "the intersection by a flat surface of the pyramid of visual rays".
1450. Experiments in 'aerial' perspective by the Flemish painters represent recession in landscape backgrounds through a series of increasingly cool and pale colour zones.
1450-60. Experimentation by Paolo Uccello: mixed perspectival system, sometimes bifocal in appearance, sometimes in separate planes, sometimes 'legitimate' but usually based on complex calculations.
1465. Aerial perspective is used by Antonello da Messina, involving very low horizons and flattened, low-lying background scenery, enhancing the role of the light.
1498. The treatise On Divine Proportion is published by Luca Pacioli. It is reprinted in 1509 with diagrams attributable in part to Leonardo da Vinci, whom Pacioli praises. Another treatise, by Jean Pelerin, appears in 1505.
1525-8. Treatises by Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), who makes various devices (the 'perspective machine') to help perspectival painters achieve perfect accuracy without resorting to arithmetic.
1537. In his edition of Vitruvius, Serlio lays the foundations for stage design, a direct application of Brunelleschi's theories.
1576. Androuet du Cerceau publishes his Lessons in Positive Perspective.
1578. For the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio (1508-80) designs the first complete example of scenery with a trick perspective, giving the illusion of depth on stage.
The close of the 15th century was a time of terrible crisis for Florence. The unexpected death of Lorenzo the Magnificent in 1492 left power in the hands of his son, the incompetent Piero. For several months, the city had been shaken to the core by the prophecies of Savonarola. This monk inveighed against Pope Alexander VI and predicted the vengeance of God in the guise of an impending calamity: when the French then invaded Italy, Piero fled in terror (1494). The popular uprising that is said to have taken place is a myth: the Medici palace was only pillaged after the art collections had been removed from it, most of them being sent to Rome for safe-keeping. A fanatical fundamentalist, Savonarola revived the medieval custom known as the Bonfire of the Vanities where frivolous items, including perhaps drawings and paintings, were burned. Several Florentine artists - like the pious Botticelli and Fra Bartolommeo (1472-1517) - were shaken by the situation - either by the vicious criticism directed at them by Savonarola, or the excommunication of the Dominican preacher by the Pope. Eventually, in 1498, he was arrested and executed in the Pizza della Signoria, although the Medicis did not return to the city for another fourteen years.
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