Thursday, April 2, 2015



“Renaissance” in French means "rebirth" and from the French word we get our word "Renaissance" in English.  During the 19th century the English term “Renaissance” was first used to describe certain historical periods, the 15th-16th centuries in Italy, and the 16-17th centuries in England.  The French word, however, originally came from the ITALIAN word for rebirth, which is RINASCITA. The first time the Italian word RINASCITA shows up in a text that characterizes art is in Giorgio Vasari's Preface for his Lives of the Artists, a huge work written in 1550, revised in 1568.  Vasari says, among other things in the Preface, that art after ancient times fell into a period of decline in which the figures that were represented by artists and the scenes were "rozze e brutte" (roughly defined and ugly).

Then, he says, referring to the beginning of the 15th century, the arts experienced a RINASCITA, "una rinascita delle arti" ("there was a rebirth of the arts"-trans.mine), he says.
         "Rinascita" for him is a rebirth of the greatness of ancient art, the techniques of ancient art, and the subjects of ancient art. For him the rebirth means that artists once again are interested in anatomy and beauty as ancient artists once were; once again painters and sculptors care about verisimilitude as ancient artists did, want to show the natural body as in antiquity, want to show natural light falling on objects and people in painting, want to copy nature in all its forms, but are also interested in idealizing life as artists did in ancient times. The rebirth of the arts in Vasari's eyes implies that art of the ancient world, from 800 B.C.E. to 300 C.E., is more interesting than medieval art from 300-1400 C.E., and should be used as a model.
      After Vasari uses "rinascita" to describes the art produced in Italy in the 15th through the 16th centuries, the term "Renaissance" is applied to art from the 15th to the 16th centuries in our modern art histories. As scholars have examined the art of the Renaissance period, they have further refined their descriptive terminology. Because most of Italian art of the Trecento or 14th century is considered Gothic, the Renaissance for most scholars only begins in the 15th century or Quattrocento (1400's), with the invention of one-point perspective and a return to interest in classical architecture and classical anatomy. The same interests of the Quattrocento continue on into the Cinquecento, the 16th century, the 1500's.  The "rebirth" also means:
1) A renewed interest in pagan subject matter for painting and sculpture: In the Middle Ages in Europe Christian stories are the ones being produced in art, in painting and sculpture. In the Renaissance the tales of the Greek and Roman gods are again told in art along with Christian ones. The Conference of the Greek and Roman churches in 1439 in Florence is a meeting of two branches of the Catholic Church, but it is also a meeting of intellects. The curious Florentines are interested in learning Greek and reading Greek and Latin texts in their original language; many of those texts are not Christian but pagan. Florentines are introduced in this period to writers such as Plato, Sophocles, Euripedes, Heraclitus, Aristotle, Herodotus, Lucretius, Pliny, interesting minds who never knew about Christ. Consequently, Florentines want to know what these writers thought about and what they wrote about. The subjects of these authors are frequently pagan; educated patrons in Italy then demand of artists classical subjects in paint and statuary.

  2) A renewed interest in Greek and Roman architectural forms
Vitruvius, the 1st century B.C. architect, who wrote a treatise on architecture, is read again by Italians like Brunelleschi or Alberti.

Brunelleschi visits Rome and looks at Roman architectural models like the Pantheon and the Arch of Constantine to get ideas for his own buildings such as the Florentine Cathedral dome or his Hospital of the Innocents. He takes the same rounded arches and Ionic and Corinthian capitals that he saw in ancient architecture and applies them to his own buildings,copying the same forms that were used in ancient times.

And when Alberti comes to design the facade for Santa Maria Novella in 1470 in Florence, he adapts Roman elements throughout.

 3) A renewed interest in accurate anatomy in sculpture and painting,  and space, color, and light in painting; the classical desire to imitate nature is revived in the 1400’s and carried over into the 1500’s. An emphasis in sculpture on actual muscles and proportionate bodies, an emphasis in painting on showing the effects of  gravity on accurate muscles and bones underneath the drapery make the artists try to rival ancient art. Because they study accurate anatomy and classical sculpture, they produce realistic-looking human beings.

4) A renewed interest in portraiture, realistic portrayals of actual human beings in paint and stone. Classical artists, especially Roman sculptors, were very concerned with accurate portraits of their ancestors since they would carry images of dead members of the family with them in funerary processions; the features of these ancestors needed to be realistic so that the people could be recognized (see the example of a portrait head held by Republican Senator, 1st cent. B.C.)

Alberti in 1436 says that painting can make the “dead seem alive.”  Renaissance sculptors and painters reproduce the actual features of living and dead people to immortalize them in art.

Is this interest in portraiture a renewed interest in human beings as opposed to divine beings? Christian subjects do not go away, but they exist side by side with human witnesses and great emphasis is given to the human nature of the holy figures.                                                                             

5) The rebirth of the ancient propensity to credit individual artists for their contributions to culture; as a result, the status of artists grows in proportion to their talent. Vasari's own writings are testament to the increased appreciation of artistic worth in Italian society. Self-portraits and signatures are added to art works more frequently. One example: Michelangelo signs the strap of the Virgin of his Pieta with his own name, "Michelangelus Bonarotus Florentini Facebat" (Michelangelo Buonaroti the Florentine made this")because he wants the credit for his artistic achievement.

6) With the increased appreciation for ancient art comes the desire to compete with and surpass ancient artists. Several Italian artists mentioned by Vasari create art works purposely to compete with well-known ancient artists:
Botticelli’s Calumny of Apelles (c.1494) competing with a famous painting by same name by Apelles described by Lucian (not extant - original 4th cent. B.C.)
 Michelangelo’s David (1501-04) competing with the Doryphorus of Polykleitos (Roman copy of Greek original of 5th cent. B.C.)

 Brunelleschi's Cathedral dome (1420-1436) competing with Hadrian's Pantheon dome (126 A.D):


Art in Vasari's era, according to Vasari, needed to rival the greatness of ancient art and artists needed to reach "la perfezzione." (perfection) But because of certain great artists, like Brunelleschi, Leonardo, and Michelangelo, Vasari sees his own period as keeping up with, and surpassing the great works produced during the time of the Greeks and Romans. Michelangelo and Brunelleschi are "perfezzione" to Vasari. Vasari himself was a painter and architect, and his own models and mentors are not medieval but rather both classical and contemporary.
A review of the main ideas in the REBIRTH that is the RENAISSANCE:
1) pagan subject matter for painting and sculpture
2) Greek and Roman architectural forms
3) accurate anatomy in sculpture and painting,  and space, color, and light in painting
4) portraiture
5) individual artists get credit for works with self-portraits and signatures
6) competition to make art more refined and beautiful


a) Though ancient painters can paint space that appears to recede, as in this Villa of the Mysteries fresco in Pompeii (50 A.D.), we have no extant example of the use of 1-point perspective in ancient times, so their painted images are not mirroring space in the same way that Renaissance images are; Vasari understands that 1-point perspective is an addition that makes Renaissance artists even greater than their classical counterpoints. 1-point perspective is a painting technique where all the diagonal lines in the painting meet at one point.

b) In addition, a consistent natural light source in painting is an element that goes beyond medieval and classical examples as well.
These two NEW CONCEPTS in painting are RENAISSANCE concepts but not ancient: one-point perspective and a consistent natural light source.

The term "rinascimento" (also Renaissance)is still applied to an era where the ancients are treasured but where the artists produce works which stand on their own right in a new era to be emulated.
The "REBIRTH" becomes a "NEW BIRTH" in sculpture, painting, and architecture.

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