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17-1. Paolo Uccello. The Battle of San Romano. 1438–40. Tempera on wood panel, approx. 6¿ * 10¿7– (1.83 * 3.23 m).
National Gallery, London. Reproduced by courtesy of the Trustees.
EARLY RENAISSANCE
ART IN EUROPE
HE FEROCIOUS BUT BLOODLESS battle we see at left (fig. 17-1) could take place
only in our dreams. Under an elegantly fluttering banner, the Florentine general Niccolò da Tolentino leads his men against the Sienese at the Battle of San Romano,
which took place June 1, 1432, near Pisa, in Italy. Niccolò holds aloft his baton of command, a sign
of his absolute authority and obedience. His gesture, together with his white horse and fashionable
gold damask hat, ensure that Niccolò dominates the scene. The general’s knights charge into the
fray, and when they fall, like the soldier at the lower left, they join the many broken lances on the
ground—all arranged in conformity with the new mathematical depiction of space, one-point
(also called linear) perspective.
The battle rages across a shallow stage, defined by the debris of warfare arranged in a neat pattern on the pink ground and backed by a tapestry-like hedge of blooming orange trees and rose
bushes. In the cultivated hills beyond, crossbowmen prepare their lethal bolts. An eccentric painter
nicknamed Paolo Uccello (“Paul of the Birds”) (c. 1397–1475) created this panel painting, housed in
London’s National Gallery. Uccello also painted two others like it, which reside in major museums
in Florence and Paris.
The strange history of these paintings has only recently come to light. Lionardo Bartolini Salimbeni
(1404–79), who headed the Florentine Council of Ten during the war against Lucca and Siena, probably commissioned the paintings. Uccello’s remarkable accuracy when depicting armor from the
1430s, heraldic banners, and even fashionable fabrics and crests would appeal to civic pride. The
hedges of oranges, roses, and pomegranates—all ancient fertility symbols—suggest that Lionardo
might have commissioned the paintings at the time of his wedding, in 1438. He and his wife Maddalena had six sons, two of whom inherited the paintings. According to a complaint brought by one of
the heirs, Damiano, Lorenzo de’ Medici “forcibly removed” the paintings from his house. The paintings were never returned to Damiano, and Uccello’s masterpieces are recorded in a 1492 inventory as
hanging in Lorenzo’s private chamber in the Medici Palace. Perhaps Lorenzo, who was called “the
Magnificent,” saw Uccello’s heroic pageant as a trophy worthy of a Medici merchant prince.
In the sixteenth century the artist, courtier, and historian Giorgio Vasari devoted a chapter to Paolo
Uccello (whose real name was Paolo di Dono) in his book, The Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Architects, Painters, and Sculptors. He described Uccello as a man so obsessed with the study of perspective
that he neglected his painting, his family, and even his beloved birds, until he finally became “solitary,
eccentric, melancholy, and impoverished.” (Vasari, p. 79). His wife “used to declare that Paolo stayed
at his desk all night, searching for the vanishing points of perspective, and when she called him to
bed, he dawdled, saying: ‘Oh, what a sweet thing this perspective is!’ ” (Vasari, p. 83).
(translation by J.C. and P. Bondanella, Oxford, 1911)
577
1400
▼
1420
▼
1440
▼
▲ 1417 GREAT SCHISM ENDS
1445 GUTENBERG ▲
PRINTS FIRST BOOK
▲ 1430s ALBERTI WRITES
ON ARCHITECTURE;
PUBLISHED IN 1485
TIMELINE 17-1. Early Renaissance Europe.
The fifteenth century in Europe was an intense period of transformation, aided by the
introduction of printing, the growth of cities, and a rapid secularization of whole societies.
OC
Map 17-1.
Early
Renaissance
Europe.
The
Renaissance
flourished first
in northern
Europe, then in
Italy.
Lake
NORTH
A
Milan
Garda
Pavia Mantua Padua Venice
SE
Po R.
SEA
ADRIATIC
SEA
L
T
IC
Bologna
Faenza
LIGURIAN
SEA
Arn oAR.
Florence
B
Siena
ENGLAND
Urbino
Arezzo
TUSCANY
ITALY
ATLANTIC
Haarlem
The Hague
Antwerp
Bruges
Gelders
GERMANY
Cologne
Ghent
English Channel
Maaseik
Tournai
Louvain
Arras
Rouen
Flémalle
Brussels
NO
Mainz
RMAN D
London
50
50
100 Miles
Rome
100 Kilometers
Y
0
R.
0
er
OCEAN
Tib
CORSICA
TYRRHENIAN
SEA
FRANCE
Champmol
Dijon
Beaune
R.
N
Rhi
ne
.
BERRY
R.
ine B U RG U N D Y
Tours
Bourges
Se
se R
Meu
Paris
Loire R
.
Dan
u
BAVARIA
Basel
Vienna
be
R.
AUSTRIA
SWITZERLAND
S
L P
A
Lake
G ar
Geneva Geneva
on
ne
Avignon
Florence
ES
ARAGÓN
PO
S PA I N
A
I
RT
R
Lisbon
NE
D
UG
RE
A
AL
R.
PY
CASTILE
MALLORCA
CORSICA
See inset
ITALY
C
SE
A
Rome
Naples
SARDINIA
GRANADA
TI
M E D I T E R R A
N E
A N
S E
A
0
0
250
250
500 Kilometers
In western Europe, many of
the developments of the
late Middle Ages, such as
urbanization, intellectualism, and vigorous artistic
patronage, reached maturity in the fifteenth century. Underlying these changes was the economic growth in the
late fourteenth century that gave rise to a prosperous
middle class of merchants and bankers. Unlike the hereditary aristocracy that had dominated society through the
THE
RENAISSANCE
AND HUMANISM
578
CHAPTER 17
SICLIY
500 Miles
Early Renaissance Art in Europe
late Middle Ages, these businesspeople had attained their
place in the world through personal achievement. In the
early fifteenth century, the newly rich middle class supported scholarship, literature, and the arts. Their generous patronage resulted in the explosion of learning and
creativity known as the Renaissance. Artists and patrons,
especially in Italy, began to appreciate classical thought
and art, as well as the natural world.
The characterization of the period as a renaissance
(from the French word for “rebirth”) originated with
1460
▼
▲ 1452 HAPSBURGS BEGIN RULE
OF HOLY ROMAN EMPIRE
1500
▼
1480
▼
▲ 1469–92 LORENZO DE’ MEDICI
RULES FLORENCE
▲ 1453 HUNDRED YEARS’ WAR ENDS
fourteenth-century scholars like the great humanist and
poet Petrarch. Petrarch looked back at the thousand
years extending from the collapse of the Roman Empire
to his own time and determined that history fell into
three distinct periods: The ancient classical world, a
time of high human achievement, was followed by a decline during the Middle Ages, or “dark ages.” The third
period was the modern world—his own era—a revival, a
rebirth, a renaissance, when humanity began to emerge
from an intellectual and cultural stagnation and scholars again appreciated the achievements of the ancients.
For all our differences, we still live in Petrarch’s modern
period—a time when human beings, their deeds, and
their beliefs have primary importance. But today, we
view the past differently. Unlike fourteenth-century
scholars, we understand history as a gradual unfolding
of events, changing over time. We can see now that the
modern worldview that emerged during the fourteenth
century was based on continuity and change through
the preceding centuries.
Humanism, a nineteenth-century term, is used narrowly to designate the revival of classical learning and
literature. More generally, in fourteenth- and fifteenthcentury western Europe, humanism embodied a worldview that focused on human beings; an education that
perfected individuals through the study of past models
of civic and personal virtue; a value system that emphasized personal effort and responsibility; and a physically
or intellectually active life that was directed at a common good as well as individual nobility. To this end, the
Greek and Latin languages had to be mastered so that
classical literature—history, biography, poetry, letters,
orations—could be studied.
For Petrarch and his contemporaries in Italy, the
defining element of the age was an appreciation of
Greek and Roman writers. In fact, throughout the Middle
Ages, classical texts had been essential for scholars—
from the monks in Charlemagne’s eighth-century
monasteries, who preserved the books, to the students
who mastered them in the universities that arose in the
twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Italy, France, and
England. Especially important to the Renaissance was
the balance of faith and reason addressed by philosophers in the twelfth century and achieved by the
Scholasticist Thomas Aquinas in the Summa theologica
of 1267–73, which still forms the basis of Roman
Catholic philosophy. Scholasticism underlay such literary works as the Divine Comedy of Dante—who with
literary figures like Petrarch and Boccaccio and the
artists Cimabue (active c. 1272–1302), Duccio (active
1278–1318), and Giotto (1266/7–1337) fueled the cultural explosion of fourteenth-century Italy.
In literature Petrarch was a towering figure of
change, a poet whose love lyrics were written not in
Latin but for the first time in the spoken language of his
1492–98 COLUMBUS DISCOVERS THE ▲
WEST INDIES AND SOUTH AMERICA
1498 SAVANAROLA EXECUTED ▲
own time. A similar role was played in painting by the
Florentine Giotto di Bondone, who observed the people
around him and captured their gestures and emotions in
deeply moving mural paintings. Essentially a Gothic
artist, Giotto created massive three-dimensional figures,
modeled by a natural and consistent light and depicted
in a shallow yet clearly defined space. One of art’s great
storytellers, Giotto made biblical events and their theological implications immediately understandable to the
new patrons of art in northern Italy—merchants and
bankers like Enrico Scrovegni of Padua, who commissioned Giotto to decorate a chapel dedicated in 1305 to
the Virgin of Charity and the Virgin of the Annunciation
(fig. 17-2, page 580). As viewers look toward the altar
they see the story of Mary and Joseph unfolding before
them in a series of rectangular panels.
Both Giotto’s narrative skills and his awareness of
the medieval tradition of typology—in which earlier Old
Testament events foreshadow the New Testament—are
apparent in the paintings of the chapel (fig. 17-3,
page 581). The life of the Virgin Mary begins the series.
Events in the life and ministry of Jesus circle the chapel
in the middle register, or layer of space, while scenes of
the Passion (the arrest, trial, and Crucifixion of Jesus) fill
the lowest register. Thus, the first miracle, when Jesus
changes water to wine during the wedding feast at Cana
(recalling that his blood will become the wine of the Eucharist, or Communion), is followed by the raising of
Lazarus (a reference to his own Resurrection). Below,
the Lamentation over the body of Jesus by those closest
to him leads to the Resurrection, indicated by angels at
the empty tomb and his appearance to Mary Magdalen
in the Noli Me Tangere (“Do not touch me”). The juxtaposition of dead and live trees in the two scenes becomes
a telling detail of death and resurrection. Giotto used
only a few large figures and essential props in settings
that never distract by their intricate detail. The scenes
are reminiscent of the tableaux vivants (“living pictures,”
in which people dressed in costume re-created poses
from familiar works of art) that were played out in the
piazza in front of the chapel in Padua.
Outside Italy, interest in the natural world manifested itself in the detailed observation and recording of nature. Artists depicted birds, plants, and animals with
breath-taking accuracy. They observed that the sky is
more colorful straight above than at the horizon, and
they painted it that way and so developed aerial perspective. They, like Giotto, emphasized threedimensional modeling of forms with light and shadow.
Along with the desire for accurate depiction came a
new interest in individual personalities. Fifteenthcentury portraits have an astonishingly lifelike quality,
combining careful—sometimes even unflattering—
description with an uncanny sense of vitality. In a number of religious paintings, even the saints and angels
CHAPTER 17
Early Renaissance Art in Europe
579
17-2. Giotto di Bondone. Frescoes, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua. 1305–6. View toward east wall
seem to be portraits. Indeed, individuality became important in every sphere. More names of artists survive
from the fifteenth century, for example, than in the entire span from the beginning of the Common Era to the
year 1400. A similar observation might be made in nearly every other field.
580
CHAPTER 17
Early Renaissance Art in Europe
One reason for this new emphasis on individuality
was the humanist interest not only in antiquity but also
in people. Humanists sought the physical and literary
records of the ancient world—assembling libraries,
collecting sculpture and fragments of architecture,
and beginning archaeological investigations of ancient
17-3. Giotto di Bondone. Marriage at Cana, Raising of Lazarus, Resurrection and Noli Me Tangere and
Lamentation (clockwise from upper left), frescoes on north wall of Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua. 1305–6
Rome—so that they could understand an imagined golden age in order to achieve personal freedom and dignity
for everyone in their own time. Their aim was to live a
rich, noble, and productive life within the framework of
Christianity. Needless to say, the humanist ideal was seldom achieved. Nevertheless, these people extended education to the laity, investigated the natural world, and
subjected philosophical and theological positions to logical scrutiny. They constantly invented new ways to extend humans’ intellectual and physical reach.
The rise of humanism did not signify a decline in the
importance of Christian belief. In fact, an intense Christian spirituality continued to inspire and pervade most
European art through the fifteenth century and long
after. But despite the enormous importance of Christian
faith, the established Western Church was plagued with
problems in the fifteenth century. Its hierarchy was bitterly criticized for a number of practices, including a
perceived indifference to the needs of common people.
These strains within the Western Church exemplified the
skepticism of the Renaissance mind. In the next century,
they would give birth to the Protestant Reformation.
While wealthy and sophisticated men in the highest
ranks of the clergy—bishops, cardinals, and the pope
himself—and the royal and aristocratic courts continued
to play major roles in the support of the arts, increasingly the urban lay public sought to express personal and
civic pride by sponsoring secular architecture, sculpted
monuments, and paintings directed toward the community, as well as town houses, fine furnishings, and portraits of family members. The commonsense values of
the merchants formed a solid underpinning for humanist theories and enthusiasms.
Two ideal cities, as seen through contemporary
eyes, exemplify the fifteenth-century view as it emerged
in northern and southern Europe. In Robert Campin’s
Mérode Altarpiece (see fig. 17-11), windows in Joseph’s
carpentry shop open onto a view of a prosperous Flemish city (fig. 17-4, page 582). Tall, well-kept houses
crowd around churches, whose towers dominate the
skyline. People gather in the open market square, walk
up a major thoroughfare, and enter the shops, whose
open doors and windows suggest security as well as
commercial activity. The tall, narrow buildings recall the
CHAPTER 17
Early Renaissance Art in Europe
581
RENAISSANCE
PERSPECTIVE SYSTEMS
The humanists’ scientific study of the
natural world and their belief that
“man is the measure of all things” led
to the invention of a mathematical
system enabling artists to represent
the visible world in a convincingly illusionistic way. This system—known
variously as mathematical, linear,
or one-point perspective—was
first demonstrated by the architect
Filippo Brunelleschi about 1420. In
1435 Leon Battista Alberti codified
mathematical perspective in his treatise De pictura (On Painting), making
a standardized, somewhat simplified
method available to a larger number
of draftspeople, painters, and relief
sculptors. One artist, Paolo Uccello
(1397–1475), devoted his life to the
study of perspective (see fig. 17-1).
These artists considered the picture’s surface a flat plane that intersected the viewer’s field of vision at
a right angle. In Alberti’s highly artificial system, a one-eyed viewer was
to stand at a prescribed distance
from a work, dead center. From this
fixed vantage point everything in a
picture appeared to recede into the
distance at the same rate, following
imaginary lines called orthogonals
that met at a single vanishing point
on the horizon. Using orthogonals
as a guide, artists could distort—or
Benozzo Gozzoli. Saint Augustine Reading Rhetoric in Rome, fresco in the
choir of the Church of Sant’Agostino, San Gimignano, Italy. 1464–5
In the 1460s Benozzo Gozzoli (1421–97) began to paint scenes from the life of Saint Augustine for the church dedicated to him in the Tuscan hill town of San Gimignano. In this
painting, he shows his debt to Alberti’s theories of perspective, from the coffered ceiling
to the tiled floor. Gozzoli’s use of strict one-point perspective here also suggests the orderliness and rationality of Augustine’s thought. Distant views flank the thronelike seat
of the professor-saint, while rows of solemn students at either side of Augustine’s desk
fill a foreground space that is carefully defined by classical columns and friezes. Only the
small dog at the saint’s feet breaks the driving force of one-point perspective in the pattern of the floor tiles.
of linear perspective. One has a warm picturesqueness,
while the other suggests a cool, balanced, unachievable
ideal. To explore how these two images were forged, we
will begin in the powerful courts of French royalty,
whose patronage supported and in fact spread the early
Renaissance style in northern Europe.
foreshorten—objects, replicating
the optical illusion that things appear smaller and closer together the
farther away they are from us. Despite its limitations, mathematical
perspective extends pictorial space
into real space, providing the viewer
with a direct, almost physical connection to the picture. It creates a
compelling, even exaggerated sense
of depth.
Early Renaissance artists following Alberti’s system relied on a number of mechanical methods. Many
constructed devices with peepholes
through which they sighted the figure or object to be represented. They
used mathematical formulas to
translate three-dimensional forms
onto the picture plane, which they
overlaid with a grid to provide reference points, or emphasized the orthogonals by including linear forms,
such as tiled floors and buildings, in
the composition. As Italian artists became more comfortable with mathematical perspective over the course
of the fifteenth century, they came to
rely less on peepholes, formulas, and
linear forms. Many artists adopted
multiple vanishing points, which
gave their work a more relaxed, less
tunnel-like feeling.
In the north, artists such as Jan
van Eyck refined intuitive perspective to approximate the appearance of things growing smaller and
closer together in the distance, coupling it with atmospheric, or aerial,
perspective. This technique—applied to the landscape scenes that
were a northern specialty—was
based on the observation that haze
in the atmosphere causes distant elements to appear less distinct and
less colorful, the sky to become paler
as it nears the horizon, and the
distant landscape to turn to a bluish
gray. Among southern artists,
Leonardo da Vinci made extensive
use of atmospheric perspective,
while in the north, the German artist
Albrecht Dürer adopted the Italian
system of mathematical perspective
toward the end of the fifteenth century (Chapter 18).
ART OF THE
FRENCH
DUCAL
COURTS
In the late Middle Ages, French
kings, with their capital in Paris,
began to emerge as the powerful
rulers of a national state. Nevertheless, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, their royal
CHAPTER 17
Early Renaissance Art in Europe
583
THE FOUNDLING HOSPITAL
ecorated with blue-and-white medallions bearing images of swaddled babies, this ancient orphanage in
one of the world’s most beautiful public spaces, Florence’s
Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, echoes the long-ago
cries of children. Built in 1444, the Foundling Hospital, the
Ospedale degli Innocenti, was the first of its kind—although
the need to care for abandoned children went back to the
thirteenth century with the explosive growth of city populations and consequent social disruption.
Care of the helpless and destitute had been the responsibility of families, the village, and the Church. In
1410 a merchant of Prato, Francesco Datini, had left 1,000
florins to build a hospital. Then in 1419 the Guild of Silk
Manufacturers and Goldsmiths in Florence undertook an
unprecedented public service: It established a public orphanage and commissioned the brilliant young architect
Filippo Brunelleschi to build it (fig. 17-35) next to the
Church of the Santissima Annunizata (“Holiest Annunciation”), which housed a miracle-working painting of the
Annunciation.
Brunelleschi created a building that paid homage to traditional forms while introducing what came to be known as
Renaissance style. Traditionally, a charitable foundation’s
building had a portico open to the street to provide shelter.
Brunelleschi built an arcade of hitherto unimagined lightness and elegance, using smooth round columns and richly
carved Corinthianesque capitals—his own interpretation of
a classical order. The underlying mathematical basis for his
design creates a sense of classical harmony. Each bay of the
arcade encloses a cube of space defined by the 10-braccia
17-35. Filippo
Brunelleschi.
Foundling Hospital,
Florence, Italy.
Designed 1419; built
1421–44
614
CHAPTER 17
Early Renaissance Art in Europe
(20-foot) height of the columns and diameter of the arches.
Hemispherical pendentive domes, half again as high as
the columns, cover the cubes. The bays at the end of the arcade are slightly larger than the rest, creating a subtle frame
for the composition. Brunelleschi defined the perfect
squares and circles of his building with dark gray stone
( pietra serena) against plain white walls. His training as a
goldsmith and sculptor served him well as he led his artisans to carve crisp, elegantly detailed capitals and moldings
for the loggia, an open covered gallery.
A later addition to the building seems eminently suitable: Andrea della Robbia’s glazed terra-cotta medallions
in the spandrels of the arches. Brunelleschi may have intended to divide the triangular spaces with pilasters to create a pattern that would harmonize with the pedimented
windows above. If so, they were never executed. Instead,
about 1487 Andrea della Robbia, who had inherited the
family firm and its secret glazing formulas from his uncle
Luca, created blue-and-white glazed medallions that signified the building’s function. The babies in swaddling
clothes, one in each medallion, are among the most
beloved images of Florence.
The medallions seem to embody the human side of Renaissance humanism, reminding viewers that the city’s
wealthiest guild, led by its most powerful citizen, Cosimo
de’ Medici, cared for the most helpless members of society.
Perhaps the Foundling Hospital spoke to fifteenth-century
Florentines of an increased sense of social responsibility. Or
perhaps, by so publicly demonstrating social concerns, the
wealthy guild that sponsored it solicited the approval and
support of the lower classes in the cutthroat power politics
of the day.