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The Renaissance


The Renaissance is an era about which there is much disagreement among historians. Some portray it as a significant era of triumph in human development, while others claim that the term is nearly meaningless and the whole concept should be abandoned. What I present in these pages is but one interpretation--one that is mainstream and conservative, though I hesitate to say it is one held by a majority of historians.


The word itself is a useful place to begin: renaissance. It's a French word, though invented by the Italians, and that's only the beginning of the difficulties. Even the etymology is illustrative, however: there is much about the Renaissance that began in Italy but was adopted and adapted by the French and other cultures of northern Europe.

The word means "re-birth", which immediately raises the question of what was reborn. Few bothered to present clear definitions, but the general theme was clear enough: the great age of human accomplishment had been the Roman centuries, most especially the generations around Caesar Augustus. Once Rome fell, humanity entered into a long age of barbarism during which much was either lost or forgotten. In contemporary times--that is, during whatever times the author was writing--civilization is beginning to climb out of the medieval darkness and to recover the ancient arts. Some few of the accomplishments of Rome and Greece are being re-born.

The sentiment, if not the actual word, can be found as early as the early 14th century. The sentiment and the actual word, rinascimento is expressed clearly by a 16th century Italian, Giorgio Vasari, in his book Lives of the Artists. By the time his book appeared, the Renaissance was all but over, and for that reason, perhaps, he was able to give it clear shape and substance.

His book was about painters, sculptors and architects, all Italians. This was the original sense of the word, renaissance: it described a development in the arts. By the 18th century, historians extended to the word to include developments in literature and philosophy, and to expand the term to include all European countries. In the later 19th century, the term was expanded again to embrace developments in politics, economics, and even social relations. The Renaissance had become an era in European history, like the Middle Ages or Ancient Greece. This is why it has its own chapter in your textbook, though the editors forebore to use the term in the chapter title.

My Definition

I like old Giorgio, and I think he hit closest to the mark. The Renaissance, as far as these pages are concerned, is a term properly applied to the visual arts in Italy, running from around 1300 to about 1550. I'll go so far as to include literature and philosophy, with some reservations, but no further.

In this, the textbook and I agree. You'll note that the book places political and economic developments in a separate chapter. Yes, there were points of contact and influence, for neither art nor the state exist in a vacuum, but the ideas and ideals of the Renaissance artists and humanist writers do not serve very well to describe all of society. There was no "Civilization of the Renaissance."

Enough of what it was not. The following pages describe what the Renaissance was, with particular emphasis on a couple of aspects.

Art in the Renaissance

The most readily recognized aspect of the Renaissance is the art: the painting, especially, but the sculpture and architecture as well. Look at a medieval painting and a Renaissance painting side by side and the differences are startling. The one looks flat and almost cartoonish, while the other has depth and motion and realism.

The change came first in Italy, though a second center grew up independently in Flanders, and was driven by innovations in materials and technique, and was conditioned by changed in theme as well. By the 15th century, there was also a fundamental shift in the relations between artist and customer, and this too had a significant effect on the nature of the works themselves.

The textbook does a good job of covering the principal artists and their works. It's worth noting that the approach and overall assessment is not much changed from Vasari himself; his book is still available in paperback and is still a lively read.

Here, I shall look at the factors mentioned above: the innovations in material and technique, the new themes, and the changed relationship between artist and society.

New Materials

Sculpture and Architecture: Innovation in sculpture and architecture illustrates the theme of re-birth nicely. Italian artists in the early 15th century desired to imitate the works of the ancient Romans. They deliberately studied the ruined buildings and remaining statuary to try to learn the secrets of their construction.

For much had indeed been lost. No one knew how to construct a dome such as the one that covered the Roman Pantheon. No one knew how to construct the equestrian statues of the Empire, or even the free-standing human sculptures of the Greeks. Creating such works required a knowledge of materials and design that had simply been lost after the fall of Rome.

The Italians did recover, or at least re-invent, the techniques of the ancients. Donatello built the first free-standing equestrian statue, and Brunelleschi's dome over the cathedral of Florence actually surpassed that of the Pantheon. In both their cases, the artists had consciously sought to imitate the past.

Painting: The innovations in painting materials, on the other hand, were pure inventions. The most significant, the invention of oil paint, was actually the work of Flemish painters, though oil was quickly adopted in Italy as well.

Oil paint allows for richer colors and a more textured painting. It gives the artist a far greater range in which to work, and this alone marks a significant divide between Renaissance and medieval art. Oil on canvas, which is the medium most likely to occur to a modern person when thinking of "painting", was simply impossible before the 15th century.

The 15th century saw, in fact, an age of vigorous experimentation in the media of paint. Leonardo da Vinci is the most noted experimenter, forever trying out different mixtures of paint for his frescoes, but many artists were exploring the chemistry of paint.

New Techniques

New materials were important, but around the same time that oil paint was being invented up in Flanders, the Italians were inventing a new technique that would revolutionize painting: perspective.

There is a trick to drawing three-dimensional figures in two- dimensional space. Actually, there are a number of tricks (vanishing points, horizon lines, and so on). The tricks are mechanical and mathematical. They can be taught. Without knowledge of them, it is nearly impossible to create an effective illusion of depth and substance.

The new technique was developed in Florence at the beginning of the 15th century. The technique spread rapidly, and one can see in the paintings how exciting and liberating perspective was for the artists. In the works of Masaccio and others, we can see the artist playing with perspective, viewing the world from odd angles, to enjoy the effect and to demonstrate his command of the technique. Artists had discovered that they could create convincing illusions, and they had no end of fun with their new power.

New Themes

Even when working in traditional media, the Italians began working in new themes. Most prominent among these was the use of ancient Roman and Greek mythology. Painting in the Middle Ages was almost universally concerned with religious themes, but in 15th century Italy, artists began to create works that had no reference to Christian themes at all.

In fact, some paintings seem to celebrate paganism. They show gods and goddesses at play, reveling in life. Other works have a religious theme but place the scene in a classical Roman setting, or in a carefully-realized Italian city. And some paintings, religious is theme, are investigations into the use of color or perspective or composition, and seem only formally concerned with religion.

The other new type of painting was the portrait. Portraiture was unknown in the Middle Ages, and only came into prominence in Italy in the later 15th century. From then on we see a profusion of such works--detailed studies of individuals, some of whom were princes but others who were simply merchants wealthy enough to pay the fees.

These new themes also serve to mark Renaissance art very distinctly apart from medieval art. Changes in theme were very closely tied to the changed conditions of the artists themselves, and in their relations to their customers.

New Markets

The final element in the development of Renaissance art, or at least the final element I shall emphasize here, was the changed relationship between artist and society. The artist acquired new customers and new markets and, in the process, acquired a new social standing. The new markets and new social condition permitted the artist to use the new techniques to create the new themes.

The Artist in the Middle Ages: We are accustomed to thinking of an artist as an independent figure, creating works and then trying to sell them. We distinguish strongly between a craftsman and an artist. But in the Middle Ages, artists were in fact craftsmen like any other. They belonged to a guild, they worked only on contract and created what they were told to create. There was little social or economic difference between the craftsman who built an altar and the craftsman who painted it.

A painter was a guildsman, as I've said. He had a shop, with journeymen and apprentices, and he made his living by painting on contract. His principal customers were religious institutions-- monasteries and churches and cathedrals. Painting was done on plaster (frescoes) or on wood (altar pieces and the like). The abbot or bishop would specify the theme of the painting, its size and location, who should appear in it, the colors to be used, even the ratio of blue to gold to other colors. This was all set down in a contract with a deadline.

The master did the primary work, assisted by apprentices. The master might do the principal figures in the work, and did the initial composition, while the apprentices filled in background and details. The master also submitted the original bid, rather like how companies bid on building projects. It was up to the master to see to it that the creation of the painting both satisfied the customer and turned a profit for the shop.

Persistence into the Renaissance: This method of work persisted into the Renaissance. Many Renaissance artists worked in a shop, or at least started there, and we have numerous contracts that survive to remind us that the old ways of doing business long survived.

In the 15th century, however, something new began to develop. Artists began to break free from the guild system, and began to value that freedom. They found new customers, outside the Church. Cities, princes and wealthy merchants began to commission paintings. Armed with new techniques and working in new media, these artists were able to be, in effect, independent contractors.

They worked alone, or with one or two paid assistants. They belonged to no guild and were not constrained by guild regulations. They created works that expressed their own view of the world, and their reputation was such that they found ready buyers.

This transformation took place first and foremost in Italy, during the 15th century. By the 16th century, the situation had so changed that Michelangelo was to state forcefully that he was an artist, not a craftsman, and took pains to conceal that he had ever been an apprentice in a shop. And, we get a King Francis I of France, who writes a letter in which he states his desire to have a painting by Michelangelo--the subject matter and all details he left to the artist. He simply wanted to own a Michelangelo.

Filippo Brunelleschi

The themes discussed here--new materials and techniques, new themes, and new status--are illustrated well in the career of one Florentine, Filippo Brunelleschi. He is best known as the architect of the dome over Florence's cathedral, but he was remarkable in many aspects. In the next few pages I shall give some of the high points of his life, particularly as they illustrate the themes of this narrative.

His Youth: Brunelleschi was born in Florence and was apprenticed into the Goldsmith's Guild. He won early distinction for himself when he entered the competition to create the bronze doors for the baptistry of the city's cathedral. He lost that competition to Lorenzo Ghiberti, the best-known sculptor of his day. Ghiberti's work is justly famous, but Brunelleschi was bitterly disappointed.

Troubles, and a Journey to Rome: Filippo decided to go to Rome, to study the works of the ancients. He went there with his friend, Donatello, and together they examined closely the statuary and buildings of the city.

The Cathedral of Florence

The Duomo (cathedral) of Florence is the pride of the city, and deservedly so--it is a beautiful structure. It was begun in the 1290s by Cambio. He designed an ambitious, even heroic, building, but did not live to see it more than barely begun.

The Duomo was designed in the usual style, in the form of a cross. The outer walls are striking with their elegant green and red and yellow sandstone, and the whole is as Italian and un- Gothic as any building in Italy. Construction was under the supervision of the Wool Merchants Guild, which conducted the original design bidding and oversaw the project once under way.

The usual vicissitudes of Italian city-state politics, coupled with uneven economic fortunes and the devastating effects of plague, combined to stretch the construction of the cathedral over the course of a century and a little more. Successive generations of architects brought the cathedral along, but every generation recognized and avoided the central and seemingly unsolvable problem of the dome.

The area where the arms of the building crossed was a huge expanse, 140 feet across, and putting a roof over that wide space was the problem that vexed each architect in turn. Giotto himself had no solution, merely indicating that a dome should go there but not how to manage the feat.

A dome there had to be. Nothing else would be appropriate, and it had been designed that way. The problem was, no one knew how to build a dome so large. So, successive architects had completed every other part of the cathedral and had carefully avoided tackling the dome; they had, in the meantime, placed a flat roof over the space. By 1410, however, there was nothing left to be done.

The problems were prodigious. The dome had to span a space of 140 feet. It had to be built atop walls that were over two hundred feet high, so that even the initial construction entailed great feats of engineering. Even so, there was the pride of the city, all finished but looking curiously truncated. The city decided to hold a competition, to receive proposals, and to choose from among them. The call went out in 1417.

The Competition

The competition took time to arrange, for the city had invited architects from all over Europe. At last, in 1420, the various candidates assembled in the Office of Works in Florence. Filippo was there, and Lorenzo Ghiberti, and many others. They were called by turns and each presented to a tribunal of citizens his plan for raising a dome over the cathedral.

The great problem confronting the architects was how to keep the dome stable while under construction. Once the thing was finished, it would be held in place with its keystones and ribs, but when it was but partially finished it would simply be hanging out into space.

The usual approaches were either to build scaffolding up from the ground to hold the arches in place, and remove it once the dome was complete, or to build permanent piers to support the weight. Only Brunelleschi stated that he could build the dome without piers and without elaborate woodwork during construction. Not only would he build it without framework, he would build it for less money.

This seemed absurd, and the committee told him so. Brunelleschi replied that not only was it possible, it was necessary--the dome could not be built in any other manner. He might have been dismissed for talking nonsense, except he had a solid reputation and he made such perceptive criticisms of the other plans that it was obvious that he was no fool.

Still, how could he raise great stones to such heights without some massive framework? Brunelleschi would not say. He didn't want to reveal too much of his plan. He tried to explain his ideas in principal, but these merely confused the committee. He was asked to leave, he kept explaining, growing more animated. He was asked to leave repeatedly and he refused to stop. Finally, he was carried bodily from the hall, leaving something less than a favorable impression on the committee.

Having botched his presentation, Brunelleschi tried lobbying the committee individually. In this he was successful, partly because he revealed more of his ideas and partly because the other proposals were equally unsatisfactory. The committee decided to give him another chance to present. They wanted him to show them a model, but he refused, arguing that his ideas were so revolutionary that if he showed a model, others would steal his ideas from him.

Brunelleschi's Plan

His ideas were indeed revolutionary, and so numerous that I'll only mention a few here. For one thing, the dome isn't a dome. Brunelleschi realized correctly that a dome that size would but unstable (given the building materials of the day), so he designed a cupola that is eight pointed arches. These are so smoothly integrated, however, that the initial visual impact is of a dome.

The cupola is not one dome, but two, one inside the other. This was one of the points that caused others to think Brunelleschi was loony, but again only Filippo understood the matter correctly. The cupola is a double-shell construction, with the two shells being solid at the base and then, higher up, with open space between and ribbing connected the two. The double-shell gives the cupola strength and lightness.

The lantern, which is the tower-like construction on top of the dome, Brunelleschi designed to be huge. When the Florentines learned of the great size of the lantern, they thought Brunelleschi had gone too far in his presumption. Once again, though, Filippo had it right--the great weight of the lantern is needed to lock the eight arches of the dome into place.

Filippo saw to matters both great and small. He understood that wind would imperil a structure that large, and designed into the construction holes and fluting that would ease the stress. He understood even that rain would add much weight and designed the gutters and spouts so as to move the water quickly from the surface. He designed in stairwells, so that it is possible to climb all the way up into the lantern.

The completed cathedral rises nearly 400 feet, including a prodigious 70 feet for the lantern alone. The dome itself is 90 feet high and spans 140 feet at its base. It's an astounding achievement.

Artistic Indpendence

As important as were Brunelleschi's artistic and technical achievements, he also achieved a new standing within Florentine society that is significant. Like everything else in his life, this was not won without a battle.

Filippo was able to break free of the guild system and make an independent career for himself. When he left Florence in 1401 to go to Rome, he neglected to keep up his membership in the Goldsmith Guild, which is where he was originally enrolled. When he returned and won the contract for the cathedral, this was used as an argument against him. He prevailed through sheer force of will and brilliance.

He also won free of the influence of the Wool Merchants Guild, which was supervising the contract. They, at the urging of various factions within the town, originally awarded the contract to Filippo, then changed their minds and awarded it jointly to Bunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti.

Ghiberti had had no part in the design of the dome, but the guildsmen and other members of the committee simply could not bring themselves to give the whole project to Filippo. For a few years, Filippo tolerated this, but in 1426 he'd had enough.

One day, Brunelleschi did not show up at the work site. Ghiberti did not know what to do next and inquired after his partner. Filippo was sick. So, Lorenzo sent all the workers home for the day.

The next day, Filippo was still sick. After a while, it was becoming obvious that Lorenzo did not know what to do. He called on Brunelleschi himself, who continued to feign a fever and enjoined Lorenzo to do whatever seemed best to him.

Ghiberti was completely stymied. Construction had stopped. At last, embarassed and angry, Ghiberti declared that he had too many other projects and resigned his commission. Filippo miraculously recovered and was in sole possession of the contract.

In this incident we see the artist desiring fame and sole credit for his genius. This is, too, is a characteristic of our modern notions about art and artists.

Brunelleschi was not the only artist to exhibit genius and was not the first to work outside the guild structure. Similarly, artists who came after still generally worked within the guilds, but the way had been marked and more would follow in the steps of Filippo. The Renaissance did not only redefine art, it redefined the artist as well.


If there is any one aspect of the Renaissance that can be said to have been characteristic, that must surely be the movement known as humanism. This term has served multiple purposes over the years and sometimes has been stretched until it has lost most of its meaning. As with the word "renaissance", I shall here use the word "humanism" in a fairly narrow sense.

The word itself appears first in Italy in the later 15th century, where it was used to describe university students to subscribed to a particular programme of study. These students rejected the traditional curriculum of theology and medicine to concentrate on grammar, rhetoric, and a study of classical literature.

A word to describe a movement often will not appear until the movement itself is well under way. So it is with "humanism." We can see individuals evincing the same interests and beliefs as the humanists long before anyone was referring to humanists. Petrarch is the founding father of humanism, along with Bocaccio. The movement gained real momentum at the beginning of the 15th century and was a significant force throughout that century and the next.

Tenets of Humanism

Humanism never was defined formally by its adherents, and so it is possible to find it applied to quite a range of people. Humanism must be understood in two fundamental aspects: as a programme of study, and as a motivation.

For the former, humanism was an interest in and a study of rhetoric, literary criticism, grammar, philology, poetry, and history. This list is akin to what we call today the liberal arts. The parallel is instructive. Our term "liberal arts" does not have anything to do with a political position (liberal vs. conservative). Rather, "liberal" means "free." The liberal arts are what are studied by free people and in turn are those arts whose studies make one free.

For the humanists, the studia humanitatis was pre- eminently the course of study undertaken by free men. They came to this conclusion because this was the course of study followed by the ancient Romans, and the citizens of Republican Rome were the ideal of the free citizen. The humanists, following their hero Cicero, believed ardently that there was a close relationship between freedom and a citizenry educated in the liberal arts.

They also believed, again following Cicero and other classical writers, that public service was a right and duty of the educated citizen. In the days before mass communication, the ability to write well and to speak effectively in a public form were crucial to political success. Rhetoric and grammar were foundations of this. A good knowledge of the past was likewise important, for the humanists idolized the Romans and Greeks. They sought not only information about the past, but also they sought to know the past accurately--hence their interest in literary criticism, by which one can closely examine texts, both for forgeries and for inadvertent errors.

The admiration of the past was the motivation, emulation of the past was the ideal, and studia humanitatis was the means for achieving this. Within this narrow definition was room for a variety of personalities, beliefs and actions. Some humanists were courtiers and served princes. Others were ardent republicans and resisted the princes. Some were devoutly religious, others were openly pagan.

Spread of Humanism

The home of humanism was Florence. It moved early to Rome (mid- 15th century) and from there to other Italian cities. Initially, humanism had little to do with the visual arts, but in the 15th century, especially in Florence and Rome, a new generation of artists grew up who either were themselves interested in and sympathetic to the humanist agenda, or else found that their patrons were themselves humanistic.

So the artists of the 15th century familiarized themselves with classical themes and humanist values, and worked these into their paintings, monuments and buildings. By the end of the 15th century, the movement was so deeply rooted and widespread that northerners began to take note.

The Renaissance as a package--art and humanism--moved north of the Alps around 1500. There the ideas took on peculiarly local flavors. The classical tone of the humanists glorified an Italian history; the northerners found ways to celebrate their own cultural past. The North, too, had its own artistic traditions, especially in Gothic architecture, and the influence of Italy was less here than in painting.

Still, in the so-called Northern Renaissance one can still see most elements of the humanist ideal. In the first half of the 16th century, things Italian were all the rage, even as Italy itself was dissolving into war and chaos.

The End of the Renaissance

The Renaissance had no proper beginning and no proper end. Various writers choose a beginning date as early as the later 1200s and as late as the early 1400s, and even later if one moves north of the Alps. Likewise, the Renaissance is over anywhere from 1498 to the early 1600s.

My definition was the narrower one, centering on art and on Italy. By this definition, the Renaissance can be carried no later than the death of Michelangelo in 1564. I prefer the date of 1532, when Florence ceased to be an independent republic and became the Duchy of Tuscany. The art historians will agree, for they begin talking about Mannerism as the successor to the pure Renaissance style.

In the North, and especially in literature, the Renaissance either never got started or else lasted for a long time. In the one sense, what happened in the North was something called Christian Humanism, for the entire movement was colored almost from the start by the profound effects of the Reformation.

In a more generous sense, the Renaissance lasted as long as there were adherents of the studia humanitatis and the classical ideal. In the later 17th century there was a literary debate known as the Battle of Ancients versus Moderns. In this debate, carried out in various letters and broadsides, the issue was whether the accomplishments of modern civilization had at last eclipsed the accomplishments of Greece and Rome.

The debate itself was rather silly, but the fact of the debate is at least symbolic if not all that significant, and I use it to mark the undoubted end of the Renaissance in the North. For, one fundamental element of the Renaissance was an infatuation with things antique. When that ended, when artists could dare to believe that they had achieved more than the Romans, then something new was in the air.

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