The Renaissance: Myth & Reality of Rebirth

~ by Adrian M. McGlinchey || Re-posted from original dated: August 4, 2018.

Image: Botticelli (c.1490-1510) “The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli, tempera on canvas, 175.5 x 278.5 cm (67.9 x 109.6 in) Italian Renaissance Art.com. https://www.italian-renaissance-art.com/birth-of-venus.html. Accessed July 15-2018.

This essay is comprised of a discussion of four Renaissance works of art. Informed by the scholarly texts of Burke (1987), Long (2008), and Murray (1976), the discussion contextualises the four works in relationship to their emergence from the Middle Ages, and to point out where the Renaissance scholars omitted to recognise the earlier developments of the Early Christian and Medieval Eras. Seen from this broader perspective, we can understand that the Renaissance was a revival, more than a rebirth, of classical values from ancient Greek and Roman culture, even though this rebirth did owe a debt to the Early Christian and Medieval eras, but this debt was often overlooked by Renaissance scholars and theorists in their strong desire to have direct continuity with the classicism of the ancient world.

The desire for independence and free will over religious dogma was a driving force behind the Renaissance. Burke (1987) describes how the merchant oligarchies and ruling groups of the newly formed city states of Northern Italy wished to be independent of the popes and emperors. As the ruling groups of merchants were not all born of emperors and popes, they needed some way to validate their rise to power and influence. Some noble families “claimed literal descent from the Romans” (Burke 1987, Pp. 22-23). Scholars, such as Giorgio Vasari, Francesco Petrarca (AKA Petrarch), and Baldassare Castiglione, helped create a sense of direct cultural lineage with classical Rome, while dismissing any association with the Middle Ages. Burke (ibid) further adds that the Renaissance was “a movement” of “gradual development” as “individuals became” increasingly “dissatisfied with […] elements of […] late medieval culture, and more […] attracted to the classical past”. Therefore, this cultural myth unfolded slowly as scholars and artists developed their new philosophy and a theory of art that would vindicate the ruling oligarchies as self-made men of prosperity, education and culture.

Renaissance scholars tended to dismiss the value of Early Christian art, thus ignoring the contributions of the Dark Ages and the Middle Ages. They saw the Middle Ages as a kind of barbaric aberration of history and preferred to embrace a restoration of the classical values of ancient Greece and especially Rome with a sense of direct continuity. Renaissance artist and theorist, Giorgio Vasari, was so repulsed by Medieval architecture and ornamentation that he labelled this style of architecture as barbaric and “debased”, applying the term “maniera dei Goti”; meaning in “the style of the Goths” (Chapuis 2002; Kunst Und Kultur n.d). The Goths were considered by Vasari and his peers as mere uncouth barbarians when compared to the artists and intellectuals of classical antiquity. Renaissance scholars did not wish to be associated with the barbaric interlude of their more recent past, and so invented a mythology of uninterrupted continuity with classical antiquity.

Historical periods usually emerge out of what has happened previously: they do not just appear as a set of snap shots that seem to pop up whenever historians decide to compartmentalise the narrative. We can clearly see an overlap of Medieval and early Renaissance art in the works of Jheronimus Bosch, exemplified in Figure 1: The Garden of Earthly Delights (1490-1510). While there is some attempt at rendering light and shade, the figures are almost flat in appearance, with sharp delineation of edges to define shape. As with most medieval paintings and stained-glass works, Bosch’s paintings have a hierarchic order to them; mortal humans are grounded, while higher beings hover in the air above, in order of importance. The Garden of Earthly Delights also has a surreal aspect of fantastical objects floating in the air. This may be surrealism before its time but this interesting topic is unfortunately out of the scope of the present thesis. We can also see in Bosch’s work, aspects of aerial and linear perspective, which was still developing throughout the Renaissance. Burke (1987, P. 25) informs us that “Petrarch, (Italian scholar poet) belonged to late medieval culture, even [though] he was coming to reject some aspects of it”.  Like Petrarch, Bosch was also a man of changing times spanning late Medieval era through to early Renaissance, and these influences can be observed in Bosch’s work, as previously mentioned.

Figure 1: Jheronimus Bosch (1490-1510) The Garden of Earthly Delights N.d. oil on oak panels, 220 cm × 389 cm (87 in × 153 in), Museo del Prado, Madrid. https://tuinderlusten-jheronimusbosch.ntr.nl/, accessed July 15, 2018.

A further example of transitional art between the two eras of Medieval and Renaissance is Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, which also displays the Medieval characteristics of limited depth and reliance on linear detail. Long (2008) tells us that “The figures are kept firmly in the foreground, action takes place side to side with little movement into depth”. Long (ibid) also states that “While sexuality was nearly always a negative human trait in Christian culture, from the outset Christian leaders expressed a conflicted attitude towards nudity”. This observation is indicative of the changing attitudes toward nudity form the Christian ethic and the emerging humanist liberal perspectives. Long, in her article, also discusses the shift from representing Christian iconography to the portrayal of the gods and goddesses of Roman antiquity. In Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus we can see the development of Renaissance ideals grounded in the ideal human form of ancient classical times, even though there are some remaining traces left of Medieval painting technique, which represents a transitioning between Medieval and ancient classical values.

Figure 2: Botticelli (c.1490-1510) The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli N.d. tempera on canvas, 175.5 x 278.5 cm (67.9 x 109.6 in) Italian Renaissance Art.Com. https://www.italian-renaissance-art.com/Birth-of-Venus.html, accessed July 15, 2018.

According to Honour and Fleming (2016a Pp. 481-482), Raphael was among the few artists who respond[ed] to the impact of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling in a way that “assimilate[s] it without compromising his [Raphael’s] own artistic integrity”. We can see in Raphael’s The Transfiguration (1517-1518), the compositional arrangement still harks back to the Medieval concept of a hierarchy that places heavenly and human figures in order of importance. This spiritual order of things is described in the web article The Transfiguration – by Raphael (2011): At the top of the scene we see Jesus Christ hovering in the clouds above Mount Tabor. Christ is accompanied by Moses and Elijah, floating slightly below Him. Christ’s disciples are on the ground to the lower left. The possessed boy and his family are on the lower right. Raphael’s last great work, the Transfiguration was “less overpowering” than Michelangelo’s vision, but it was “more painterly and dramatic in its rendering of […] light” (ibid). We see Jesus (at the top) bathed in an eerie “supernatural light”, as the humans huddle in the earthly “shadows below” (Honour and Fleming 2016a P. 481-482). While Raphael’s The Transfiguration borrows heavily from early Christian ideas on pictorial composition, it abundantly demonstrates the great advances that Renaissance artists made in colour theory, human proportion, and perspective, both linear and aerial. This level of richness of hue, intensity and tonality is something seldom, if ever, seen in pre-Renaissance art.

Figure 3: Raphael 1517 The Transfiguration. Oil on wood. http://www.raphaelpaintings.org/the-transfiguration.jsp, accessed July 29, 2018.

Titian’s work, Venus and Adonis (1555-1560) represents the culmination of a well-developed art theory of the High Renaissance, and his paintings display “a greater richness of colour and depth of tone” (Murray 1976, Pp. 276-278) than those of his [Titian’s] masters Bellini and Giorgione. Titian, like Giorgione, painted for well-educated men who were “able to appreciate a picture for its own sake (ibid)”, simply for its beauty as well as its content. In Titian, Christian iconography and the supernatural have given way to a naturalistic representation of classical human form, with emphasis on themes from ancient classical mythology.

Figure 4: Titian (c. 1555-1560) Venus and Adonis (Getty Museum) N.d. 161.9 × 198.4 cm (63 3/4 × 78 1/8 in.) The J. Paul Getty in Los Angeles. http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/846/titian-tiziano-vecellio-venus-and-adonis-italian-about-1555-1560/, accessed July 15, 2018.

The Dark and Middle Ages may not have been as dark as we modern people presume. The timeline in Chapter 7: Early Christian and Byzantine Art (Honour and Fleming 2016b, P. 288) outlines the achievements of early Christianity, punctuated by the split of the Roman Empire between Rome and Constantinople, and the incursions of barbarian invaders. By 800 CE “Charlemagne [was] crowned Emperor [of] the Holy Roman Empire” (ibid, P. 326). In the scholarly circles of Charlemagne’s court “the word renovatio” became a favoured Carolingian terminology, which “implied the renovation of surviving tradition rather than a rebirth of one that had died out” (ibid). This sounds remarkably similar to what the artists and scholars of the Renaissance were trying to achieve in reviving the culture of times gone by. Even if the intelligentsia of the Carolingian Renovatio may not have quite achieved the intellectual heights of the Renaissance humanist scholars and artists, all knowledge of the classical world may have been lost had it not been for the scholar monks preserving the classical literature and architectural achievements of ancient Rome and Greece.

This essay has analysed the relationship between the classical rebirth of the Renaissance and its roots in the Middle Ages preceding it. An appraisal of the four paintings from the Renaissance clearly demonstrates that the Renaissance was not an abrupt departure from the past. On the contrary, it emerged from Medieval Europe as people became dissatisfied with their early Christian roots and hungered for a direct connection with classical Roman values. Renaissance artists and scholars certainly did achieve their goal of reviving the classical values of antiquity, but more as an evolutionary transition from the knowledge base of the Middle Ages than as a sudden “rebirth” of something that had completely died out. Seen from the Renaissance perspective, however, the literati of the time preferred to disown any link to the intervening period of the Dark Ages through to the Middle Ages.

Reference List

Burke, Peter 1987 2 Italy: Revival and Innovation. In The Renaissance Pp. 7–26. https://link.library.curtin.edu.au/ereserve/DC60268997/0?display=1, accessed March 7, 2018.

Chapuis, Julien 2002 Gothic Art | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mgot/hd_mgot.htm, accessed July 17, 2018.

Honour, Hugh, and John Fleming 2016a Chapter 11: The Sixteenth Century in Europe. In A World History of Art. 7th edition. Laurence King Publishing.

_2016b Chapter 7: Early Christian and Byzintine Art. In A World History of Art. 7th edition. Laurence King Publishing.

Kunst Und Kultur n.d. http://www.vaginamuseum.at/KUNSTundKULTUR/arthistory-gothic, accessed July 17, 2018.

Long, Jane C. 2008 Botticelli’s Birth of Venus as Wedding Painting. Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art (Annual 2008) 9. https://www.questia.com/read/1G1-191476253/botticelli-s-birth-of-venus-as-wedding-painting, accessed September 7, 2018.

Murray, Peter & Linda 1976 Chapter 10: The Beginnings of the High Renaissance. In The Art of the Renaissance Pp. 267–268. London: Thames and Hudson. https://link.library.curtin.edu.au/ereserve/DC60209931/0?display=1, accessed February 7, 2018.

The Transfiguration – by Raphael 2011. http://www.raphaelpaintings.org/the-transfiguration.jsp, accessed July 29, 2018.

Bibliography

Burke, Peter 1987 2 Italy: Revival and Innovation. In The Renaissance Pp. 7–26. https://link.library.curtin.edu.au/ereserve/DC60268997/0?display=1, accessed March 7, 2018.

Chapuis, Julien 2002 Gothic Art | Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mgot/hd_mgot.htm, accessed July 17, 2018.

Honour, Hugh, and John Fleming 2016 Chapter 7: Early Christian and Byzintine Art. In A World History of Art. 7th edition. Laurence King Publishing.

_ 2016 Chapter 9: Medieval Christendom. In A World History of Art. 7th edition. Laurence King Publishing.

_ 2016 Chapter 10: The Fifteenth Century in Europe. In A World History of Art. 7th edition. Laurence King Publishing.

_2016 Chapter 11: The Sixteenth Century in Europe. In A World History of Art. 7th edition. Laurence King Publishing.

Italian Renaissance Art  N.d. http://www.artyfactory.com/art_appreciation/art_movements/italian-renaissance/italian-renaissance-art.html, accessed July 28, 2018.

Kunst und Kultur – Art History Gothic N.d. http://www.vaginamuseum.at/KUNSTundKULTUR/arthistory-gothic, accessed July 17, 2018.

Long, Jane C. 2008 Botticelli’s Birth of Venus as Wedding Painting. Aurora, The Journal of the History of Art (Annual 2008) 9. https://www.questia.com/read/1G1-191476253/botticelli-s-birth-of-venus-as-wedding-painting, accessed September 7, 2018.

Murray, Peter & Linda 1976 Chapter 10: The Beginnings of the High Renaissance. In The Art of the Renaissance Pp. 267–268. London: Thames and Hudson. https://link.library.curtin.edu.au/ereserve/DC60209931/0?display=1, accessed February 7, 2018.

The Transfiguration – by Raphael 2011. http://www.raphaelpaintings.org/the-transfiguration.jsp, accessed July 29, 2018.

Renaissance Art – Facts & Summary N.d. HISTORY.Com. http://www.history.com/topics/renaissance-art, accessed July 28, 2018.

The School of Life N.d. HISTORY OF IDEAS – The Renaissance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fI1OeMmwYjU, accessed July 28, 2018.

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