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
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.
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
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
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.
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 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:
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.