European culture of the late fourteenth century experienced a kind of rebirth after having lain dormant since the fall of the Roman Empire. Such a rebirth or renaissance, as it is more commonly called, signaled a new emphasis on individuality and social reform, and changed the culture focus onto the humanistic interests rather than devotion to God. This marked a dramatic shift in European civilization after the dominance of religious ideals of self-denial of the medieval period, and left a legacy of learning and humanism, of which the visual arts are perhaps its greatest manifestation.
To better understand how the art of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries reflects the advent of humanism and its significance for civilization advancement this paper presents an insight into key art novelties in such art forms as painting, architecture and sculpture. The rise of Renaissance culture was predetermined by the assortment of disparate events and ideas surfacing during the end of the fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries. The most important concept to come out of all the innovative developments of the late fourteenth century was a renewed belief in the power and the majesty of the human being.
An interest to individuality was a line of demarcation between the medieval period, where God was the center, and the epoch of Renaissance. The Renaissance seems to have liberated many of the pious from much of the restrictive dogma of the medieval period, thanks in part to economic considerations. The success of commerce and trade guilds afforded a better standard of living. As well, it was the rich who could afford to engage in variety of cultural activities. It was through the donation of the art patrons that many a cathedral obtained its art.
The human figure was to embody many of the traits implicit within the new social order. For instance, the human nude makes an undeniable resurgence in the fifteenth century after being absent from Western art since antiquity. The reason for this seems clear: the human body was intrinsically connected with pleasure during the medieval age. Buy the middle of the fifteenth century, this chaste outlook began to give way to a more natural and perhaps more realistic point of view and subsequently, the issue of a body as a symbol of sexuality became equated no so much with sin as with nature.
Humanism basic role was to “help men break free from the mental strictures imposed by religious orthodoxy”, to provoke critical response and free inquiry, and to assure a man in his new abilities and “possibilities of human thought and creations” Giotto di Bondone (1266 – 1337) is always cited as the artist who initiated the new, or if to be more precise, renewed style of the visual arts known as Renaissance. To get a better idea of the nature of Giotto’s achievement it is useful to compare his work with contemporary representations of the same theme –take, for example, the Madonna Enthroned.
First we consider the Madonna Enthroned by Cimabue painted between 1280 and 1290. In this painting there is an obvious adherence to the Byzantine tradition of flattening of the space. Nevertheless, the painting has some departures from the Byzantine conventions. Though the space is shallow, the painting nonetheless attempts to situate its figures within a constructed depth of field. This illusion of three-dimensional space is accentuated in the drapery that wraps the body of the Virgin which corresponds to the implied volume of the figure.
Considering Giotto’s version of the Madonna Enthroned we can see that the painter has placed much greater emphasis on the description of volume. The most common way to produce an illusion of volume is to make the viewer believe that elements within the scene exist in light and shadow. Giotto’s use of light as a tool in the modeling of items enabled the inner space of the painting effectively to recede. Such way of painting makes figures be considerably different from flat, embedded design of Byzantine.
According to Vasari it was Giotto who first attempted the device of foreshortening to produce an illusionistic space within the plane of painting. This technique mimics everyday perception as things closer to us appear larger than those in the distance and such technique results in highly naturalistic image. More than that, Giotto was the first to express emotions in his works, in which we can recognize to some extent fear, hope, anger, and love; as Vasari affirmed “he brought a softness into his style lacking in earlier paintings, which were coarse and rough.
” The depiction of human emotions was a new attainment of humanistic ideas of the fourteenth century. After Giotto’s preliminary excursions into the field of illusionistic space, many artists began to utilize the technique with greater freedom and skill. Vasari claims that the system of linear perspective was reinvented by the painter-sculptor-architect Brunelleschi (1377 – 1446). Brunelleschi’s discovery of “vanishing point” placed increased emphasis on the viewer’s gaze, though his achievements in architecture were even more revolutionary.
At the time of Brunelleschi the Florence Cathedral posed the problem as how to successfully bridge the enormous area of central tower without the use of flying buttresses, which were out of question because of their obvious incompatibility with the beautiful Romanesque marble exterior. Brunelleschi studied many ancient building projects in Rome such a Parthenon and suggested that a dome could in fact be built without the visual distraction created by buttressing. His answer was the implementation of classical vaulting techniques.
Thus Brunelleschi’s innovative design provided further evidence of the new sensibility of Renaissance art. In 1420 Brunelleschi began to build the Cathedral dome, a vast octagonal structure crowned by an enormous lantern designed by Brunelleschi alone. His solution was to create a dome within a dome, which would further support the exterior weight effectively while removing the need for interior armatures or any other superfluous accessories that would distract from the simplicity of the construction. The outer dome was thus constructed as a light skin, exhibiting great visual authority over the Florence skyline.
Brunelleschi’s dome is by design a stable and symmetrical structure. It possesses attributes that visually mimic the emerging Renaissance humanistic ideas of harmony and equilibrium over the obedience and superstition that had marked the previous age. In this way, the innovative dome construction situates itself as a vivid reminder of the greatest influences its creator had in his time. Such painters as Masaccio followed the discoveries of Giotto during his artistic activity and went on to produce even more spectacular results.
One of the results of the perspectival rendering was the further development of volume in painting. It was Masaccio (1401 – 1428) who assimilated the complementary notions of volume and perspective. The best known Masaccio’s fresco is The Holy Trinity of 1428. In this work the important innovations of Giotto are assimilated into a more rigorous and rational depiction of space, clarified through a steadfast insistence on symmetrical composition. Masaccio was one of the first to capture the relationship between volume and perspective which produces a convincing presentation of space.
The artist’s use of linear perspective in rendering the surrounding architectural framework effectively creates a deep central space, suggesting area both in front and behind the Christ figure. Masaccio then intensifies this space by modeling his figure in light and shadow which reaffirms the viewer’s anticipation of space in the work. Thus in The Holy Trinity each device relies on the other to produce a convincing illusion. In his fresco depicting the Tribute Money Masaccio used single-point perspective to focus attention on the head of Christ which is the center of both the fresco and human universe.
Thus Masaccio creates deeply humanistic plot what can be explained by his strong involvement with humanism movements popular at those days in Florence. His large brush strokes, heavily laden with paint, show with what assurance and speed the artist worked, setting dark against light tones to establish the solidity of his forms. In addition to deploying these technical means of manipulating the viewer’s perception of space and time, Masaccio introduced a mood of emotional intensity into scenes such as the Expulsion of Adam and Eve where Adam covers his eyes in shame while Eve raises an anguished face to heaven.
The sense of deep shame is very present in these figures and they suggest naturalism unparalleled at that time. Together idealism of perspective and naturalism of detail and expression formed the basis for much later Renaissance art theory. The sculpture of the fifteenth century underwent similarly radical changes determined by the epoch of humanism with its interest in the idea of universal laws which govern the natural world. One of the greatest sculptors of the age was Donato di Niccoloi Betto Bardi, better known to us as Donatello.
He was a prolific sculptor and his work allows us an insight into the state of sculpture in the middle of the fifteenth century. During the medieval age, sculptural projects were seen as simple extensions of architecture, and like in the painting of that time, emphasis was placed on legibility and decoration over naturalism, which was seen as vain attempt to duplicate the perfections of God. But the interest in the laws of nature brought the sculpture back toward more naturalistic, three-dimensional format.
Many historians consider the bronze sculpture of David to be Donatello’s most important work. Created with the intention of being seen from all sides, this figure is liberated from the confines of past decorum. In this work the gesture is dramatic – the swinging of the hip – the so-called contrapposto pose – gives the impression of deliberate confidence and grace, the feature that humanism was trying to impose on a new man. There is an undeniable celebration of the human figure implicit within this work.
It is also difficult to miss the provocative sexuality in this piece; it neatly parallels the steady decline of medieval prudery in favor of the body as the center of consciousness. During the period of High Renaissance the art center shifted from Florence to Rome and Venice. This period was identified with the quest for scientific precision and greater realism combined in the balance of harmony of Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo. The influence of humanism was then reflected in the increase of secular subjects.
The period between the mid-fourteenth and mid-sixteenth centuries is viewed as culmination of a general rebirth of humanistic pursuits and a freeing of the artist from the restrictive dogma of the medieval Church. The status of art, and indeed the artist, shifted significantly and our contemporary views on both are based very much on certain assumptions about the role of art in culture that were first developed during the age of Humanism. The effect of humanism upon the art was apparent first of all in the subject of art works, where a human nature in all possible manifestations and with the full range of emotions was a center of attention.
The second important effect of humanism was the focus on the dignity and confidence of man which was underlined by the works of art and architecture was not exception here. The exertion of human power over the enormous structure of Florentine Cathedral preserving the harmony and symmetry emphasized the confidence and strength of though of a man. This endeavor to exert human power serves as a definitive confirmation of traces of humanism, which searched for rebirth of human spirit and wisdom, present in artworks of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.