Very few terms ignite our imaginations the way the Renaissance does. We reflect on the achievements of those times and are astounded that such superiority could have flourished against a backdrop of Machiavellianism, depravity and terror. But that is the reality. The eternal drama played out in fourteenth century Florence as it always has done: with good and evil never very far apart. This troubles us. We strive to be good… to do good… however we conceive it. And, equally, we attempt to eradicate evil. But it is a futile task, perhaps. As the great Buddhist scholar Alan Watts has cautioned: attempting to expunge evil from the world by always doing good is rather like trying to get rid of the left by constantly turning to the right.
The Renaissance genius was grounded in the belief, as Henry David Thoreau puts it in Walden, of ‘…the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.’ This, in essence, was the guiding humanist muse that animated this great energetic age. It was a celebration of man and his humanity, of his place in the world, and of his kinship to the gods. And it is no very different to how we feel about ourselves today.
[Fra Angelico’s magnificent altarpiece of the Perugia Triptych depicts three scenes that show the commercial, political, and religious sides of Florence. On the left, grain is loaded unto merchant vessels; in the centre the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor (who at the time of this work would have been Frederick III) pays his respect to St. Nicholas, who, on the right extends his benefactions to the safe passage of a ship.]
[The invasion of the Italian peninsula by the French monarch, Charles VIII, marked a low point in the fortunes of the Medici. Charles’ formidable force, intent on the capture of Naples, must march through Florence’s Tuscan lands. The young and inexperienced Piero di Lorenzo de' Medici bends over backward to ensure Florence is untouched. He allows the French to take control of the ports of Pisa and Livorno and several strategically situated castles. Even the French are astonished at his concessions. The Florentines are so angry at his incompetence that the entire Medici clan are driven out.]
The term Renaissance or rebirth was coined in the late 18th century to describe the revival of ancient Greek and Roman architectural forms in 16th century Italy. In the 19th century, it started to be used in a wider sense encompassing the changes to art as a whole which the humanist approach was galvanizing. The nucleus of the Renaissance was the Italian city state of Florence. From there, it diffused through all of Europe. In discussing this great cultural upheaval, it is sometimes useful to speak of three periods: the early Renaissance from 1400 to 1495, the High Renaissance from 1495 to 1520, and the late Renaissance from 1520 to 1600. The late Renaissance period saw the emergence of a focus on style and other technical elements to illustrate emotion that came to be known as Mannerism (from Italian maniera – style), a good example of which is Jacopo da Pontormo’s Deposition of Christ. These ten figures are posed with complete disregard to any realist pretensions. Yet this oil on wood that serves as an altarpiece of the Capponi Chapel in the Chiesa di Santa Felicita in the city of Florence, does not appear unrealistic. We comprehend fully its narrative of grief.
Michelangelo, da Vinci, Humanism, Alberti, and Dürer
[Left: Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing is a based on a model by the Roman architect, Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who authored De Architectura (On Architecture) sometime in the first century BCE. In Book III, Vitruvius discusses proportion in relation to the human body saying: For the human body is so designed by nature that the face, from the chin to the top of the forehead and the lowest roots of the hair, is a tenth part of the whole height; the open hand from the wrist to the tip of the middle finger is just the same; the head from the chin to the crown is an eighth, and with the neck and shoulder from the top of the breast to the lowest roots of the hair is a sixth; from the middle of the breast to the summit of the crown is a fourth. If we take the height of the face itself, the distance from the bottom of the chin to the under side of the nostrils is one third of it; the nose from the under side of the nostrils to a line between the eyebrows is the same; from there to the lowest roots of the hair is also a third, comprising the forehead. The length of the foot is one sixth of the height of the body; of the forearm, one fourth; and the breadth of the breast is also one fourth. The other members, too, have their own symmetrical proportions, and it was by employing them that the famous painters and sculptors of antiquity attained to great and endless renown.]
‘For the essence of humanism is that… nothing which has ever interested living men and women can wholly lose its vitality — no language they have spoken, nor oracle by which they have hushed their voices, no dream which has once been entertained by actual human minds, nothing about which they have ever been passionate or expended time and zeal.’ (Pater, Walter H, Studies in the History of the Renaissance, London, Macmillan & Co., 1873, at 38)
The philosophical underpinning of the Renaissance was humanism which, in very broad terms, is an approach to life that places man’s concerns at the centre of living... a position occupied, in medieval Europe, by religious doctrine. It is an approach that glorifies man to an extent bordering on atheism. It expresses confidence in our ability to comprehend the natural world around us and to regulate our social affairs. It is feeling; it expresses compassion for our earthly lot. And, not surprisingly, it engendered a strong individualism and republicanism, the latter a distinguishing characteristic of the Italian peninsula after the death of Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1250.
The art before the Renaissance had, as its subject, religious themes. But the figures therein were idealized almost to the point of abstraction. The notables were partly individuals and partly symbols. They were icons. But by the time of Fra Angelico (c. 1400 - 1455) the figures were so obviously human, they were thought to be portraits. Fra Angelico, who was born as Guido di Pietro, became a Dominican friar around 1420 – 22. An extraordinary churchman who refused the post of Archbishop of Florence, his exemplary moral life earned him the Fra Angelico (Angelic Brother) title.
The most singular aspect of renaissance art painting is its fascination with the human condition, the human figure and human emotion. Just as in antiquity, Renaissance man stood in awe of homo sapiens. He might have said as a later poet did: ‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!’
Renaissance renditions of human figures were driven by sheer appreciation of this beautiful thing but just as much as by curiosity about the mechanics of its movement and internal biological structure.
[Above: In van Eyck's portrayal of Jesus being baptised by John, there is much more going on besides the baptism. This is an attempt to give the symbolic event a place in every day life.]
Man, and woman, is portrayed as realistically as possible. Take Albrecht Dürer’s portraiture of a young Venetian woman. She may have lived almost 500 years ago but we can still recognise the sensibility in her features. This is a feeling creature – human – not a symbol of some idea… not an abstract. Figures in medieval paintings were more symbolic. How could they not be… in depicting individuals, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the disciples, whose lives were so cosmic? So, in the art painting of the Middle Ages, there is nothing comparable to the fine portraits of Botticelli, Bellini, or Andrea del Verrocchio. The concept of portraiture was not possible in a milieu that left man prostrate at the feet of the heavenly host. It could only evolve in a society that had elevated man… saw him standing Promethean-like as something of a rebel. As that great art historian Jacob Burkhardt (1818 – 1897) has remarked: fifteenth-century Italy was ‘the place where the notion of the individual was born’. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Renaissance Portrait: from Donatello to Bellini, Yale University Press)
[ A remarkable example of portraiture in Dürer's Young Venetian Woman. It has been suggested that the sitter is a twenty-one-year-old named Sophia Sartor. But the evidence supporting that notion is slim.]
The subject matter of art painting evolved from the purely religious to the purely secular as the Renaissance progressed. Medieval art painting depicted heavenly figures in a heavenly setting. In such a panorama, the artist could paint the backdrop in brilliant colours of gold or blue, both of which came to symbolize the light of heaven. And one artist’s vision of heaven was just as acceptable as another’s. But with an earthly rather than a heavenly background, the craftsman now had concrete objects to represent. The actors in such a drama were still religious figures but now they were on earth and, increasingly, were shown interacting with a few fortunate personages. Thus the change in setting required a shift from allegory to realism. Later still, the tableaux were of earthly figures in an earthly setting.
An interesting example of the secular and the religious combined is The Adoration of the Magi by Sandro Botticelli. This tempera on panel work pays homage to the Medici family by portraying several members. The Magus kneeling before Mary is Cosimo. His two sons, Piero (red cloak) and Giovanni (white trimmed with gold), kneel in the centre. Giuliano, or perhaps, Lorenzo is on the far left next to the horse. The figure at far right in brown is thought to be a likeness of Botticelli himself.
An aspect of the new naturalism that Renaissance art painters strove for involved a greater awareness of a startling paradox: that the world as we saw it was really quite different from the way it was in reality. That meant painting in a rather counter-intuitive way by, for example, portraying figures that were close larger than figures that were further away. An example of this is illustrated by a fresco on the north wall of the Sistine chapel that shows Jesus delivering to St. Peter the gold and silver keys of the Kingdom of Heaven (above left). This is The Charge to St. Peter painted sometime between 1481 and 1482 by Pietro Perugino (1446/1450 - 1523) who was at one time the teacher of Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael). The mathematics is even more obvious in Perugino’s The Marriage of the Virgin (above right, c.1504, Oil on wood. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Caen). The figures in the background are much smaller just as they would appear in a modern photograph.
This aspect of naturalism, we know now, as perspective. In summary, it is that lines of vision tend to converge to a point, referred to as a vanishing point. The concept was not unknown in antiquity. In an illuminating piece in Found in Antiquity, Carla Schodde examines the use of perspective in the frescoes at the villa of Publius Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale (above) in which the artist, apparently, employs several vanishing points. The single vanishing point concept appears, however, to be a Renaissance development. And the artist credited with its genesis, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 – 1446), most likely saw it as an improvement on the methods of antiquity. But as Ms. Schodde points out, there are very compelling reasons for using more than one vanshing point.
Although an engineer and architect (he designed the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore), Brunelleschi had two panels painted of the city of Florence that showed his understanding of perspective. His ideas were published, in 1435 – 36, in a tome by Leon Battista Alberti dedicated to him entitled Della Pittura (On Painting). [Della Pittura trans. by John R Spencer at Alberti 'On Painting'.]
Jan van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Robert Campin
Oils became the preferred binder after Northern European artists like Robert Campin (1378 – 1444), Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400 – 1464) and, particularly, Jan van Eyck (1395 – 1441, above left) made use of them. The vibrancy that van Eyck’s colours conveyed inspired the Italians to abandon their traditional egg tempera. The essential difference between the two paints can be seen from their names: oil paints are a suspension of pigments in oil; tempera paints are a suspension of pigments in egg yolk. Oil paints take rather much longer to dry, both on canvas and off, than tempera. An artist may be able to mix paint for days of work. Not so with tempera. Left overnight, it will degenerate into a gluey mess. But tempera work is hardly ever complete in the short time that its fast-drying action suggests since many coats of paint are usually applied and it will take around six months before the paint is cured. But, once matured, unlike oils, tempera will not darken with age. Generally, oil will produce a glossy finish while tempera gives a matte surface. Yet many modern artists, like the New Mexican Peter Hurd for instance who did a portrait of LBJ (above right), prefer tempera because of ‘its inherent luminosity’.