Art in The Age of The Renaissance
|Art - History of Art|
The Birth of Venus heralds an increased interest in man and in the civilization of Ancient Greece and Rome. The painting expresses a renewed interest in the physical senses, in the human body, and in nature. Lorenzo Valla, a famous Renaissance philosopher, wrote: "Would that man had fifty senses, since five give such delight . . . . ".
In Italy, the Greek and Roman past had never fully disappeared. But the shadows of the Middle Ages dimmed the art and ideas of classical Greece and Rome. By the fifteenth century, the classical past emerged once again to reflect its meanings in the sunlight of a new age.
During the Middle Ages, man sent his imagination soaring up into the infinite vaults of his cathedrals. His aim was heavenward, into the spiritual world. Renaissance man did not lose sight of God. But, with Christopher Columbus, he had more self-confidence and believed more strongly in the world around him than did his medieval ancestors. He embarked in ships and sailed outward, beyond the horizon. He explored this world, not the next. The medieval nave was a spiritual ship which transported souls upward, toward Heaven. The Santa Maria was a real ship that carried an Italian adventurer outward on the search for a new trade route.
With the great increase in commerce and trade, the principle aim of Western man became fame, success, and fortune. Man still prayed before the Bible, but now his richly embroidered purse was at his waist. He pursued the good things of this life, like fine music and good food. He dressed splendidly, in cloth of red and gold and in rich brocades. The middle class grew in power and importance by accumulating fortunes from banking and trade. Money became an important foundation for individual power. This is Lorenzo de Medici, a member of one of the most wealthy and powerful families of Renaissance Italy.
The popes increased their holdings until they were among the richest men in Europe. Pope Leo X was father of Lorenzo de Medici whose portrait you have just seen. Renaissance man, full of pride, commissioned artists to preserve his face for posterity. Such portraits were an expensive display of wealth and power.
For the new, wealthy and powerful classes of the Renaissance, life itself had become a work of art. With the coming of the Renaissance, art was filled suddenly with portraits of individual people, a subject matter absent since the ancient Romans. A gallery of unique faces.
A favourite subject for Renaissance artists was the young David, popular because he represented the youthful vitality of the Renaissance. Renaissance artists frequently used as models the people and things familiar to them, even when their subjects, like David, were Biblical. Donatello, the sculptor, gave us a David who is actually an Italian shepherd boy. He is wearing a hat, which was common in Florence in the fifteenth century. His body is a study of the soft, youthful awkwardness of early adolescence. The boy stands with one hip pushed to the side in a classical manner, which reminds us of Greek and Roman models.
As time passed, the growing confidence of Renaissance man was reflected in the changing forms of his art. A generation after the creation of Donatello's David, Verrocchio of Florence also cast a young David. Now there is swagger and self-assurance in the hard, tough young body. Michelangelo's David, still later, is no longer a boy, but a self-confident man. Towering 18 feet from the floor, his perfectly developed body and piercing, intelligent gaze hold the world within their power. Michelangelo's David represents Renaissance man's high regard for human dignity and worth.
By the 15th century, man wanted to be more than a soul to be saved or condemned in the afterlife. Most names of the builders of the medieval cathedrals have been lost to history. But the Renaissance artist wanted to be more than an anonymous craftsman in the service of God. He was a proud genius who sought fame and recognition, like Titian of Venice, or the haughty Durer or Lorenzo Ghiberti, the sculptor, or Raphael of Urbino. Surely a self-portrait is a good measure of man's self-esteem.
Here is Botticelli standing at the far right in his painting Adoration of the Kings. The Biblical kings are actually portraits of Botticelli's employers, the Medici family. Obviously, man has become more important. He meets God face to face in this classical ruin. A traditional religious subject has become a portrait of contemporary man.
The Renaissance artist was respectful, but scarcely humble in his relationship to the Holy Virgin. He did not hesitate to sit in the same room with her and draw her portrait. The Renaissance idea of Christ had also changed from that of the Middle Ages. Pictured as a miniature adult in this painting from the Middle Ages Christ has become a realistic baby in this Renaissance painting. It was a youthful age. Children assumed a new importance in art.
The world of nature held a new-found fascination for the men of the Renaissance. St. Francis, a monk of the Middle Ages, had marvelled at the world of plants and animals. For that reason he became an important figure to the Renaissance. Here is St. Francis preaching to the birds. Monks of the Renaissance left their cloisters and preached in the outside world of man and nature.
To the medieval imagination, the natural world was make believe or unimportant. This medieval painting of the Flight into Egypt places the figures in a toy landscape, with tiny stone mountains, rounded trees, and a gold sky. In this Renaissance painting of the Flight into Egypt, the figures follow a rustic garden path which winds through a landscape of rolling hills spotted with trees. As these Renaissance works show, artists became scientific observers of nature. This painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds includes some of the elements of the Renaissance which we have discussed: individualism, youth and nature. The painting is a clear expression of the Renaissance artist's love of life and of his new-found fascination with all aspects of the world around him.
Humanism, an important cultural force of the Renaissance, meant a renewed interest in man, his environment, and in the values and forms of classical Greece and Rome. A famous Renaissance humanist wrote about man: "He is a little world in which we may discern a body mingled of earthly elements, and ethereal breath, and the vegetable life of plants, and the senses of the lower animals, and reason and the intelligence of angels, and a likeness to God. "
The most concrete expression of an interest in man is the Renaissance artist's rediscovery of anatomy. To appreciate this we must make a comparison. This is an early medieval crucifixion. The torso is emaciated and flat and the arms are mechanically attached. The artist ignored the body to achieve a symbol of the soul. This Renaissance crucifixion portrays Christ with scientifically detailed anatomy. These saints from a medieval cathedral seem to have no body beneath their clothing.
By the time of the Renaissance, the nude body had become a prime vehicle for artistic expression. Renaissance artists dissected cadavers and carefully recorded their observations in their notebooks. This was the beginning of anatomy as a science. For Renaissance man, as for the men of ancient Greece and Rome, man's body was the symbol of humanism, and of his awareness of and pride in himself.
The Renaissance artist imposed reason and order upon his world through the use of perspective. This is a geometric method of creating the illusion of space upon a flat surface. Thus, perspective was the conquest of space in art, in the same way and achieved at the same moment in history when the explorer conquered space as he sailed to unknown shores. This is the way the Renaissance artist learned about perspective, by making elaborate drawings, using the tools of perspective. These tools are the vanishing point, the horizon line, and disappearing lines.
Architectural backgrounds for his subjects were the artist's excuse for creating illusions of space. Piero della Francesca's painting of the Flagellation of Christ uses a classical architectural setting. The most prominent figures in the painting stand in the foreground. Christ is not among them. In fact, these figures are indifferent to the tragic event behind them. Christ stands insignificantly in the background. The scene should be charged with emotion. Instead, it is calm and reasonable. The explanation for this is the dominance of the architecture and linear perspective. They have become the real subject of this work. Occasionally, anatomy and perspective were joined to become the subject of a painting. In the Dead Christ by Mantegna, the muscular body of Christ is viewed as if we were standing near his feet.
Classicism was an important element of Renaissance life, thought, and art. Greek and Roman statues were plentiful and provided inspiration for Italian artists. Both the architecture and the sculpture of pagan antiquity provided the models, even though they were converted into Christian subject matter.
This is the Martyrdom of St. Sebastian. In this painting, the Renaissance artist gives his impression of the home of the gods, Parnassus. Here the muses dance to the music of Apollo's lyre, while Mars and Venus look on from above. Vulcan, the god of fire, is at his forge where he shapes the armour for the gods. And, to the right stands the winged horse, Pegasus. In this Renaissance painting, Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, is placing a laurel wreath on the head of a centaur, a mythological beast that has the body of a horse and the torso and head of a man. This typical Roman triumphal arch became the setting for this Renaissance painting and for this fresco, also of the 15th century. Here again, in this fresco by Raphael, triumphal arches frame the figures below.
This painting, called The School of Athens, pays the highest homage to the greatness of classical Greece. To the men of the Renaissance, these two, Plato and Aristotle, were the greatest philosophers of Western civilization. Plato, on the left, points upward toward the world of ideas, while Aristotle, on the right, gestures earthward, referring to the importance of the physical world. Thus, spirit and body are reunited, as they were in classical antiquity.
The men of the Renaissance had a new faith in learning and scientific experiment. Scholars believed that man could solve all problems through the use of his reasoning powers. This man, Luca Pacioli, a monk and teacher, wrote several important books on mathematics. He seems to have paused here in his explanation of Euclid's theories of geometry.
Renaissance man liked to be portrayed holding a book or in the intellectual discussions with friends and fellow scholars. The man who best embodied the many ideals of the Renaissance was Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo was the universal man, for whom painting was only one of many interests. He was an artist, architect, musician, engineer, scientist, inventor, and diplomat. His notebooks are filled with designs, schemes, and inventions, which suggest his confidence that man could control his environment, the world around him, through his intelligence and skill.
Leonardo designed machines of war as well as of peace. He observed and noted the movements of man and facial characteristics. He was one of the first artists to sketch out-of-doors, directly from nature. This famous drawing by Leonardo shows man in the centre of two perfect geometric forms, a circle and a square. Man, thus, is at the centre of a rational world order.
In this Renaissance painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds, you will find a summary of the aspects of the Renaissance, which we have observed. Anatomy, perspective, classicism, and an interest in learning. The painting also illustrates Renaissance man's love of nature, his youthfulness, and his pride and individualism.
Lorenzo de Medici, the great patron of the arts, summed up the spirit of the Renaissance with these lyrics:
"Fair is youth and free of sorrow,
Perhaps the best summation of Renaissance philosophy comes from its greatest poet, Shakespeare, who said:
"This goodly frame, the earth,
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