- Published: November 10, 2022
- Updated: November 10, 2022
- Language: English
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Renaissance Italy was at the centre of what can be determined as a period of ‘ rebirth’ between the early 14th and late 16th Centuries. Essentially, the renaissance was ‘ the age of reason and enlightenment’ and this was reflected in the emergence of art as an intellectual pursuit.
The Italian Renaissance was a budding period, unveiling the notion of reason and thus producing some of the most intellectually advanced artwork in the world. The output in Renaissance Italy was monumental, whether it was philosophy, mathematics, art or science; some of the most important discoveries were made enabling Europe to move out of the middle Ages and into modern times. Voltaire stated the Italian Renaissance was a great age of cultural achievement in the arts, philosophy and politics, possibly matched by no other. The new availability of ancient Greek and Roman texts is often attributed entirely to the renaissance’s ‘ rebirth’ in art, philosophy and science. The re-introduction of ancient scriptures and opening of libraries spread ancient philosophy, literature and science.
With this came a realisation of what had been achieved by the Greek and Classical past, creating a great ambition to develop ancient theories. ‘ The classical ideal became a stimulus, a challenge, a model. ‘ 1 It wasn’t long before the Italian Renaissance surpassed a mere revival of antiquity and developed past ideals to suit modern standards. Reason enabled the emergence of some of the most important discoveries in history: Philosophy moved away from its previous formal methods of thought. Science had disoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Newton. Art had the revival of classical architecture and development of new painting styles.
However, ultimately reason can also be held responsible for the reformation under Martin Luther, marking the end of the Renaissance. Renaissance values embraced the rise of the individual, scientific enquiry and diminishment of church and feudal systems of the middle Ages. The concept of reason was central to renaissance values and the rise of Art, as it was responsible for the ‘ rebirth’ of the individual in society. The most important achievement of art in renaissance Italy was the materialization of the artist as a ‘ creator’, often famous for their work as opposed to an anonymous craftsman.
This encouraged the development of their own styles – Leonardo tried many! Another factor was the rise of powerful independent city-states and the new merchant class in competition with each other over wealth, beauty and intelligence, since all three could be appropriately shown off in the visual arts a perfect foundation was laid for the artists to work as ‘ creators’. Wealth was expressed through expensive materials and ambitious projects. Beauty was shown in new techniques, naturalism, humanism and the Platonic conception of truth equals wisdom equals beauty. Intelligence was explored in artistic interpretations of ancient philosophies and mythological allegories to Christianity, for example Botticelli’s ‘ Primavera’ whose subject matter is still disputed today.
Florence, Venice and Rome were among the most influential city-states and supplied much of the economic support and competitive climate for renaissance artists. With art rapidly becoming an expression of Italy’s newly found freedom, a new era in the history of art was started: Abolished were nai?? ve, flat church paintings and with reason a new intellectual and innovative approach to art was explored. Although the renaissance symbolised ‘ rebirth’ of the individual it must not be overlooked that it was in no way the age of the common man, and its ways were designed for wealthy individuals. Reality contradicts reason since the true renaissance was an elitist society founded upon one’s education, stature and wealth; therefore, the Neo-Platonist movement was neither widespread nor popular. Humanism created self-importance and the belief that one’s soul was a reflection of God therefore all individuals were equal. Humanists were deeply critical of the ‘ dark side of the renaissance’, which was corrupted by greed, warfare and violence hidden behind the facade of wealth and art.
They strived for a classless, communal society without the dominance of the church, as described in Sir Thomas Moore’s ‘ Utopia’. At the forefront of rediscovery were the philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, which for the first time after a period of ‘ darkness’ offered a period of ‘ enlightenment’, Plato enabled the Italians to discover the notion of beauty alongside wisdom and truth – an idea shunned by the middle Ages. Thus, a rebellion against intellectual sterility and scholasticism of the medieval ages and a lust for intellectual freedom was underway. With such unleashed freedom, the renaissance grew a passion for cultural greatness and the pagan world, which were best expressed through art, evident in works from Giotto to Leonardo to Michealangelo. Direct observation and study of the natural world were also encouraged as opposed to the conceptual art of the middle ages.
Iconography drew on classical sources as well as biblical. Ancient ruins of buildings and art works inspired new artistic techniques and ambitious architectural projects, such as the florentine Duomo. However, Plato’s philosophy meets a contradiction with art. According to Plato art was of lesser importance as it was a copy form a copy and therefore below humanitas.
The renaissance reasoned nevertheless against Plato’s view since they argued that through art one could achieve the concept of ideal beauty and if the artist had reflected intelligently on the subject then surely it was just a form of interpretation of the ‘ higher reality’. The Italian’s were also encouraged by the ancient Egyptian use of Art to express their wisdom. According to Plotinus the Egyptians ‘ carved one picture for each thing in their temples..
. thus each picture was a kind of understanding and wisdom and substance, given all at once, and not discursive reasoning and deliberation’. Therefore, Plotinus valued the Egyptian depictions of art almost above reason. In spite of this, Plato’s ideas concerning art inspired a competition known as paragone amongst artists whether painting or sculpture were superior since reason would imply sculpture is superior given that it is closer to an ideal in its three-dimensionality form. Painters’ responded by including sculptures within a painting attempting to show their intellectual superiority by including both at the same time or abstracting a sculpture. This can be seen in Titian’s La Schiavona (c.
1510). Since reason is personal thought, definitions vary, for example Decartes attempted to link faith and reason claiming he had proof of God’s existence. His reasoning for God’s existence is explained in his meditations, which claim a subject will find God when they reach self-actualisation. Leibniz defined three functions of reason: to comprehend, to prove and to answer doubt.
Marsilio Ficino, an influential Florentine Philosopher of the Medici camp, defined reason as an abstract notion. ‘ The nether parts of our soul link us with the world of the body and its senses; the exalted region of the mind partakes of the Divine; and human reason, which is man’s own prerogative, stands in between. ‘ 2 Yet reason takes many forms and according to Montaigne, ‘ Reason hath so many shapes that we know not which to take hold of. ‘ 3 Plato valued reason highly and believed it was the highest mode of knowledge available to man, thus coming above experience from our senses since this is just opinion.
Central to Italian renaissance ‘ reason’ was the encouragement of individual intellectual thought. However, reason implies personal interpretation since its foundations lie in personal thought. Reason states that in order to uncover the truth one must question everything, (apart from one’s existence since one’s existence is through one’s thought). Therefore, Reason highlights the potential ambiguity of religion through evidence of science, hence the establishment of tension between faith and reason.
Religion took a back seat against a backdrop of reason, which created thoughts of practicality. Thus, Art was allowed to explore new iconographies without being criticised for impiety. The inclusion of moral philosophy or ‘ reason’ and rhetoric ; poetry, referred together as the ‘ Liberal Arts’, to the Florentine Stadium proved the importance of reason. Bruni stated that ‘ The liberal arts owe their name to the fact that they liberate man and make him master of himself in a free world of free spirit. ‘ 4 Therefore, liberating the Art of Italian renaissance.
Reason in art can be seen as early as Giotto in his Arena chapel frescos which are seen as a water-shed for artistic development. It was the first example when art attempted to move away from the confines of medieval art, typified in elongated, rigid figures with delicate patterned lines. The introduction of reason encouraged imaginative iconography and the development of perspective as art became an intellectual persuit no longer a vehicle for telling stories to the illiterate. Reason in architecture took the shape in striving for the ‘ perfect’ form. Antiquity had stressed an emphasis on harmony through mathematical calculations of proportion and thus reasoning the structure of a building. Brunelleschi and Alberti designed their buildings around rigid modus operandi and proportions in order to create such harmony, differentiating from the Gothic architectural ideals of decoration and audacity.
For example, Brunelleschi’s Capella Pazzi in Florence is split into carefully structured units against its blank white walls, which conveys not only classical order, but also intellectual reasoning for its structure. Reason and rational enquiry lead to the development of perspective, as it was necessary to depict reality. Brunelleschi was responsible for the mathematical equation of perspective, yet another example of the marriage between art and reason. A by-product of reason in the art world was the development of humanism in the high renaissance.
Humanism’s sense of enjoyment from natural beauty and truth was such a contrast from the medieval church’s rejection of beauty. However, renaissance humanism was not a result of Classical philosophy but more a union of Christian and Classical thought. Alberti embodied this union and exemplified the relationship of art and reason, being a philosopher, artist, architect and mathematician all at once. This marriage of intellect and art was allowed by the concept of reason, since thought was attainable to all levels of class. His personal humanistic faith combined Christianity with the wisdom of the ancients and rationality: the very essence of reason. Alberti drew his notions of beauty from Plato’s classical theories, thus accepting that truth equals beauty equals wisdom and beauty has an objective actuality, as opposed to a subjective opinion.
Alberti took a firm stand on reason and refused to use theoretical speculation in his ideas. Alberti once stated, ‘ Everything is attributed to reason, to method, to imitation, to measurement, nothing to the creative faculty. ‘ 5 However, Alberti’s concepts did not reflect popular ideas of reason in Italy and towards the end of the 15th Century; his rational philosophies of art became unpopular and were replaced by a mystical interpretation of antiquity. For example, Alberti interpreted Plato’s theories on love as its social function but later on the Neo-Platonist school explained Plato’s love theories as a contemplation of divine beauty. Art allowed intellectual messages to be transposed into a visual form as in Botticelli’s Primavera. Thus, through one’s perception of an Idea one can create art of intellectual superiority.
Reason allowed art to be interpreted personally by one’s own thoughts since one must question everything for oneself. According to Gombrich, the renaissance thinkers reasoned that ‘ those who dwell in the world above are not imprisoned in the body; they see what we can only reason out. Thus, seeing becomes by virtue of its speed and immediacy a favoured symbol of higher knowledge. Most ideologies of the renaissance came under the umbrella of reason, since this was the only dominating theme uniting all philosophies. However, one of the intellectual aims of the renaissance was to find common ground between the ancient philosophical traditions and amalgamate these into one, finding one agreement for the notion of truth, beauty and wisdom. Neo-Platonism came about with the work of Plotinus’ Enneads which combined the pilosophical theorizing of the Genesis creation and the cosmology of Plato’s Timaeus.
Neo-Platonic ideas were converted into art in the form of allegorical and symbolic works, mostly in pre-Christian mythologies. Art portrayed Neo-Platonism through its reasoning of Platonic ideas into concepts of beauty, wisdom and truth, depicted in art. Botticelli was most renowned for his mythologies, which became more complex and intellectually capable in time yet they can all be allegorised to Christianity. The intellectual Marsilio Ficino of the Medici court was the leader of Neo-Platonism in Florence and was very influential in Botticelli’s iconography. Botticelli’s Venus and Mars (c.
485) is entirely depicted from an interpretation of Plato’s work by Ficino which claims ‘ Mars is outstanding in strength… because he makes men stronger, but Venus masters him Mars can never master Venus…
‘ 7 The painting depicts a comatosed, almost naked, Mars whilst satyrs play with his armour and Venus looks over him. Without the obvious mythological meaning, the painting can be interpreted as a celebration of love’s (Venus) victory over war. Botticelli’s Primavera also depicts love as its central theme, although its iconography is often disputed due to its potential level of intense intellectuality. The eight figures can all be identified as characters form Classical mythology, for example the three graces and Venus. Zephyr, Chloris and Flora, on the right of the painting, symbolise the coming of spring and depict beauty of the natural world. The three Graces on the left represent refined pleasures of life and Mercury represents ‘ reason’.
Venus’ prominent position in the middle symbolizes the joining of Natural and Spiritual ideologies. This masterpiece manages to create a visual equation for what Neo-Platonism stood for: Nature plus Grace equals the Human Ideal. Reason in art’s depictions are endless, Leonardo typified the ‘ artist as a scientist’, ignoring the concept of absolute beauty. ‘ Provided he can make his figures real, individual, and living it will not matter I they do not conform to some absolute standard of beauty. ‘ 8 Raphael exhibited a more formal approach and can be viewed as the ‘ artist as a scholar’, thus Neo-Platonist art without its soppiness. Raphael’s Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican represents the fusion of Classical and Christian cultures or pagan philosophy of the renaissance since the frescos depict the school of Athens, Poetry, Theology and Justice.
According to Jean Seznec “ The disciplined ordering of all the elements in the ensemble … is instantly and strikingly apparent. In this realm, peopled by images in which two worlds come face to face ..
. it is not the clash of two armies which we hear, but the harmony of a choir. “ 9 The school of Athens (1510) epitomises reason. Its very subject is an index to classical philosophy; Plato points to heaven signifying universal ideals and Aristotle characterizes the practical view of the earth.
The monumental drawing almost summarises the renaissance with its contemporary portraits of Leonardo and Michealangelo to depict ancient philosophers. Thus, the stanza demonstrates the amalgamation of Classical and Renaissance cultures. However, it was not long before this union was broken with a darker cloud that descended across Europe towards the end of the sixteenth century, such transition is depicted over the thirty years (1508-41) it took Michealangelo to paint the Sistine chapel. Perhaps it was inevitable that a period of such splendour would have to come to a dramatic end; this came about with the Reformation signifying the end of the Italian renaissance.
In 1508 Michealangelo epitomised all that the renaissance stood for and the successful marriage between art and reason. Michealangelo embraced Neo-Platonism to the full, ‘ as a metaphysical justification of his own self. ’10 Michelangelo’s depiction of Adam and Eve depicts the beauty of the material world in every way. Michelangelo reveals this notion in his poetry as well, referring to the ‘ divine origin of beauty’, yet over time, he was to perform a u-turn in his ideologies of world beauty.
Clearly influence by the reformations beliefs of solemn goodness reduced of all excesses and concepts of beauty. His abolished ideas of beauty can be seen in his completion of the Sistine chapel the fresco of the Last Judgement. Instead, Michelangelo’s figures lack grace and beauty but ruggedly personify violent motion a struggle. Michelangelo’s change in philosophy indicates the end of the Renaissance.
Michelangelo’s sonnets reveal this change in perception of beauty. Beauty was no longer for the sake of itself but a product of excesses of the renaissance. Michealangelo stated ‘ Thus I now know how fraught with error was the fond imagination which makes Art my idol and my king, and how mistaken that earthly love which all men seek in their own despite… no brush, no chisel will quieten the soul.
11 Thus, the period of artistic ‘ indulgence’ ended with the burning of all ‘ vanities’ under Savonarola and strict Christianity returned. Although reason still resided over the modern world, its relationship with art, and thus its elevated stature, ended. The infiltration of Classical influence at the beginning of the 14th century had started the renaissance, when this interest died, so did the renaissance. Ficino once blamed reason for making man ‘ restless and tormented’.
However, this ‘ restlessness and torment’ certainly provided the right ambience for such a splendid era of art. Ultimately, it was the unlikely union between ancient philosophies and Christian theologies that created the ‘ rebirth’ of the renaissance, inspiring such greatness. Burckhardt claims that the rise of the individual was instrumental in the renaissances development: ‘ individualism was the period’s greatest problem and greatest asset’. 12 Through individualism came the ‘ universal man’ who reasoned with his ‘ universal’ knowledge of the arts, sciences, politics and philosophy. Hence, art could become an expression of oneself and one’s feelings, for example the journey of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescos. According to Leonardo, ‘ every painter paints himself’13.
Reason allowed freedom of iconography, since the concept of more existing other than God had arisen through scientific rationalism. The very fact that Vasari kept account of renaissance artists in his book ‘ The lives of Artists’ prove their elevated status. Reason is epitomised in the very fact that artists ceased to tell stories and instead, used art as a means of studying and recording nature, anatomy and expression, often in an intellectually challenging way. The development of perspective, oils, realism and humanism can all be viewed as products of reason. However, what the renaissance did to exceed the ancients in art was to apply lessons in science and maths, therefore reason, to art, this was especially evident in Leonardo and Brunelleschi’s work. Reason allowed renaissance art in Italy to take a huge step forward, after a millennium of darkness and create some of the most monumental works of art known to man.