“Renaissance” is literary translated from French as “rebirth”. It’s calque from Italian “Renascimento” — term, introduced by Giorgio Vasari in “The Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects” to identify a new artistic generation that saw its aim in revival of antique traditions. In fact, it was the first historical epoch that was self-aware. Nowadays it’s used as a definition for a cultural movement emerged in Italy in the 14th — 16th cent. and spread all over Europe (France, England, Spain, Germany etc.). There’re a lot of discussions about relevancy of its application to the art of other countries, except for Italy, as it’s the only direct successor of ancient roman heritage. It’s also often mentioned in the context of the art of other epochs, to outline the periods of their high artistic prosperity (Carolingian Renaissance in Early Medieval art, Macedonian Renaissance in Byzantium). Therefore, for avoiding confusions and for better understanding of the essence of the style, we’ll be talking about Renaissance on the territory of Apennines.
Three stages are traditionally singles out in its history:
Renaissance began in Tuscany — the central part of Italy. It was the wealthiest region, a center for trade exchange between Europe and eastern countries. Economical situation greatly favored the process of urbanization and growth of power of the city-states. These way main centers were formed: the Papal States (in Rome) ruled by the Pope, the republics of Firenze and Venice, the kingdom of Naples, and the duchy of Milan. Republican cities witnessed changes in configuration of social classes — new mercantile governing class started playing out a significant role.
However, Italy during those centuries was in almost permanent conflicts — inner (fight inside and between the city-states for influence) and exterior (French invasion in the end of the 15th cent.). Renaissance wasn’t the time of stability that is stereotypically thought to be important for cultural ascent. But its restless atmosphere was one of the ingredients of this unique phenomenon.
Each style has its own reference points, a set of values that forms its framebase, canon. A Renaissance paragon of beauty was classical antiquity. It provided a new attitude, grounded on anthropocentrism (considering human beings as central fact of the universe). That showed up in close attention to investigating of human body proportions, formation of image of ideal torso. Such shift was a reaction on the medieval denial of corporeality. If Gothic art new Pythagoreanism, then Italian Renaissance originated a kind of Sensual mathematics, concentrated on measuring and expressing of reality. Still it wasn’t realism, but idealistic naturalism: artists tried to compete with observed physical world, but not merely replicate it.
For Middle ages man was stained a paltry creature, stained with the original sin. Bur humanism, that gained extreme popularity in Renaissance, was inspired by the antique notion of individualism. Its personation in capacity of intellect had something in common with youthful enthusiasm. But, as the same time, a lot of creators of that time had a deep feeling of human fragility. So, truly Titanic personalities were needed to support their certitude.
Renaissance art was incredibly syncretic: architecture, sculpture and painting formed an integral ensemble. For understanding preconditions of such situation, a phenomenon of Homo universalis (universal person) should be contemplated. Summarily explaining, it’s polymath — a person, who expertise in a wide variety of spheres and subjects. Humanists believed that our powers were limitless. Their aim was to grasp as many fields of knowledge as it was possible, but (what is also important) with sprezzatura — effortlessly, naturally. Many genial Renaissance artists and architects (like Leonardo, Alberto and Brunelleschi) were also prominent mathematicians, engineers, poets etc. These skills allowed them to advance both art and science.
Città ideale (ideal city) was a typical for Italian architects and writers of the 15 — 16th cent. concept of a city-planning, expressed in drawn or written form (rarely done in practice), that was a model of a living space, perfect from utilitarian and moral points of view. It gives the notion of Renaissance idealism and belief in possibility harmonization of human existence. Development of city-states formed a perception of the city as the single organism. The idea of brotherhood among citizens was reflected in well thought-out urban organization. To some extent, it was a reaction on rather chaotic and loose evolution of medieval cities. Such great minds like Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci made some samples of ideal cities, with accurate geometrical scheme (orthogonal, circular, radial). It had a symbolic meaning, as authors adhered the idea of Vitruvius, that architecture should be commeasured to the human body. For example, the city’s center was its “heart” and the seat of power was located there; fortress was it “head” etc. All in all, most of ideal city projects were never realized utopias, but they brightly show us the optimism and rationalism of the humanistic mentality.
As well, as in previous periods, the main force of artistic life in Italy was patrons, who commissioned sculpture or paintings, designs and decorations of buildings and so on and so force. For them it was an integral part of social prestige. An artist could be hired for a particular project or become a part of the patron’s household. Whatever had been ordered, an official contract, indicating job, materials, sums of money and other details, was always prepared.
There were two main kinds of patrons: private wealthy families and church. Florentine Medici dynasty is the legendary representative of the first group. Its story is typical illustration to “from rags to riches” saying. It was a merchants, banking family, that became especially powerful under Giovanni di Bicci de’Medici. To gain a foothold in the noble circles they had to demonstrate not only their financial power, but also their enlightenment and interest in culture. Cosimo Medici, Lorenzo, merited title the Magnificent, the first Pope from the dynasty Leo X — all of them supported arts. Gradually Medici turned into true connoisseurs, who gathered around themselves prominent talents of their time, like Donatello, Rafael, Michelangelo and others.
Despite rather shaky situation inside the church (Reformation was about to happen), it remained the key social and political factor in life of Italy. Vast number of pieces were purchased were purchased by clergyman and religious organizations, like confraternities. Even more then for wealthy laymen, for ecclesiastical group, it was the instrument of influence. Turning back to imperial Rome as a model, they treated building and art projects as political statements (like Nicholas V) or a way of self-glorification (like Pius II).
Another motive that stimulated prosperous and less prosperous people, to put their money in church artistic endeavors was religion. For such usurer as Cosimo Medici building a San Marco monastery, for example, was an investment into his own salvation. There’s even a plate on it, that documented a Pope’s Eugene VI promise of absolution from all sins for erecting the convent.
Renaissance from the beginning readopted medieval guild system of Guilds. It was especially flourishing in Florence. The production of art was foremost a cooperative affair and took place in workshops (or so-called bottegha). They were headed by a master, assisted by several apprentices. Majority of them were entrusted a mere navvy’s work, but the most skillful ones were admitted to more responsible tasks (like painting a part of background or some figures). After passing an examination and creating a masterpiece (a qualifying work), an apprentice could become a master and open his own workshop.
Broadly speaking, they remained the same medieval craftsmen, but Renaissance respect to talent, for the first time since the Ancient Greek epoch, brought the artists’ personality in the center of public’s attention. They weren’t anonymous icon painters, sculptors or architects of the past anymore. Since the 14th cent. a new type of artists, conscious of themselves as of artists, emerged and occupied a higher position on a social ladder. For sure, patrons still largely limited their creative freedom, but now artists enjoyed fame. A remarkable evidence of it was the publishing of “The Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Painters, Sculptors, and Architects” by Giorgio Vasari: the oeuvres and names of individual masters was considered worthy of perpetuation. All that prompted artists to elevate standards. Now a lot of them tried to elements of science and philosophy in their works. Treaties on painting and architecture that laid the foundation of art theory were written. Such evolution shaped an image of an artist as a genius. In the upshot, the demand of professional artistic education led to opening of first academies of art in the 16th cent.
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