The Classical Contribution to 15th Century Italian Renaissance Art

1. Introduction

The roots of the Renaissance lie embedded in the soil of the middle-ages. In 14th century Italy there grew a steady interest amongst men of letters for the classical past. They searched monastic libraries and studied the manuscripts of ancient Latin authors and studied the surviving monuments of the Roman past. Even so, antiquity was not a closed book for the earlier middle ages because the works of Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Cicero and Livy were well known. What was new was the attitude of these Renaissance scholars to the ancient world.

Italian humanism was in existence therefore long before Petrarch and Boccacio. Rather it was the natural result of classical studies followed at medieval universities and within monastic institutions. Medieval Platonism and Aristotelianism were crucial to Renaissance philosophical thought. Renaissance counterparts of the medieval scholars adored the ancients whilst condemning the middle ages as barbaric. The Renaissance humanists thus proceeded to describe their own age as one of light and the rebirth of their classical heritage. The idea of humanism in the Renaissance was a break therefore with medieval tradition even though it was in truth indebted to medieval precedents. It was within the scriptoria of medieval monasteries that the works of Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, Seneca and others, had been preserved. However, Renaissance humanists studied and valued classical texts on their own terms, for their own work. They strove for a synthesis, a syncretism of ancient classical philosophy with the prevailing Christian outlook. Thus ‘Renaissance humanists in the fifteenth century again strove to make a synthesis of Platonic and Christian ideas, and some of the ways this was reflected in art.’ (1)

The study of recovered classics led to a decisive break with medieval tradition that included the invention of linear perspective and the possibility of representing three-dimensional space on flat surfaces – techniques represented by the works of the architect Brunelleschi, the painter Matiskio, and Donatello, who is considered the founder of modem sculpture. Donate lots bronze David illustrates that from the mid-15th century onwards classical form was rejoined with classical subject matter. Similarly the earlier works of Botticelli show mythological motifs that were derived from literary sources. This particular period style of developing Renaissance art showed certain hallmarks that included ‘…references to Roman anti eek monuments or themes, and the development of techniques such as linear perspective, which allowed the construction of geometrically convincing illusions of the natural world.’ (2).

An important, but not necessarily unique role was played by Tuscan artists during this period and it was they who initiated the ‘…dissemination of classical
formulas and mathematical interests…’ and it is for this reason that ‘…traditional discussions of Renaissance art have tended to focus on this geographical area.’ (3). With this mind it is important to bear in mind the classicising motifs of Pisan and Sienese sculpture exemplified by the Pisani – Nicola (active 1258-84) and Giovanni (active 1265-1319), the work of the Florentine painter Giotto (active 1301-1307), and the Sienese brothers Ambiogio and Pietro Lorenzetti (active 1319-48). Portraits of notable figures that emphagised characteristics of individuals were painted by Piero della Francesca, Andrea Mantegna and the Renaissance ideal of harmony and proportion eventually led to the works of Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo in the 16th century.

By the 15th century Renaissance scholars and artists had/achieved a more sophisticated view of antiquity, of all’antica, due to their study of Latin and Greek classics, ancient art and archaeology. They provided the model of the many sided universal man – two exemplary examples being Leon Battista Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci. The model that descibes the progression of classical awareness and its relation to Renaissance art is described as the ‘…perspective of triumphant progression…’ (4). (Renaissance humanism became therefore the major intellectual movement of the period and its achievements became permanent. The model perceives a sequential process from Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Masaccio (active 1401-1408) and Donatello (1386-1466) that culminated in the works of Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelemelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520).  It is intended to outline the humanist and classicist influences that gave impetus to the works of Masaccio (his Trinity), Donatello (his bronze David), and Botticelli (his La Primavera).

2. Italian Renaissance classicism and humanism.

The Renaissance revival of Platonism was the characteristic intellectual feature of the age (5). Humanism is a term of 19th century coinage that describes a programme of studies, thought and expression but which was known from the late 15th century as the province of the umanista – the teacher of studia humanitatis – which came to include Latin, Greek, grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy (6). Italian Renaissance humanism was thus an educational and philosophical outlook that emphasised the personal worth of the individual and the central importance of human valuestas opposed to religious beliefThis outlook was influenced by the study of ancient Greek and Latin literature and philosophy. Humanism thus began as an educational programme called the humanities, which inculcated those ancient secular /values which were consistent with Christian teachings. Renaissance humanists were ‘often devout Christians but they promoted secular values and love of pagan antiquity. Interest in this new appreciation was observed in Padua, Verona and Naples during the first third of the 14th century – thus there arose the vision and ‘…sensitiveness to quality and purpose, an apprehension of personality and historical distance, an itch to restore the original quality of classical works by editing them, and to discover others that had lain neglected or forgotten…’ (6) that had been mainly neglected by monastic libraries.

The founder of Renaissance humanism was Petrarch (1304-1374), an Italian poet and man of letters who attempted to apply the values and lessons of antiquity to questions of Christian faith and morals in his own day. A pivotal figure in humanist culture (7) who made available neglected texts – particularly Cicero’s Pro Archie, found at Liege in 1338, Cicero’s letters found at Verona in 1345 – as well as collections of his own letters, notably Familiars and Seniles, as well as biographies of famous Romans in his De viris ifiustribus. Key in ensuring the permanence of humanism after Petrarch’s initial success was the Florentine chancellor Coluccio Salutati (1331-1406), who wrote many learned treatises and kept up a massive correspondence with literary contemporaries. Salutati, together with to younger follower Leonardo Bruni (1369-1444) used the studia humanitatis as a basis for a life of active service to state and society. Bruni in particular created a new definition of the republican traditions of Florence.

Petrarch favoured Aristotle over Plato as an authority and set the tone for the Renaissance revival of interest in Plato – though the real revival of Platonic interest began in Constatinople around 1400 after when Gree4k manuscripts arrived in Italy (5). The 14th century humanists had relied mainly on Latin. In the early 15th century, however, classical Greek became a major study, providing scholars with a fuller and more accurate knowledge of ancient civilisation. Gemistus Pletho (1355-1452), also known as Plethon, was a leading Byzantine thinker who had a crucial influence on the Italian Renaissance (8) and who also made a profound impression on the humanists and possibly inspired Cosimo de’Medici’s passionate desire to promote translations of Plato. Plethon attended the Council of Florence in 1438 where he helped stimulate the study of Plato and thereby paved the way for the development of Renaissance Platonism. Janos Argyropoulos (1415-87) was also a Byzantine scholar who played a prominent role in the revived study of Greek philosophy in Italy (9) where he influenced, in Florence, the world of Platonism and the generation of Lorenzo de’Medici, Poliziano, and Ficino.

The founding, around 1450, of the Platonic Academy in Florence by Cosimo de’Medici signalled a shift in humanist values from political and social concerns to speculation about the nature of humankind and the cosmos. Scholars such as Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola used their knowledge of Greek and Hebrew to reconcile Platonic teachings with Judaic mysticism, the hermetic tradtion, gnostic ideas, magic and cabbalism with Christian orthodoxy in their search for the philosophia perennia (a philosophy that would always be true). Another Florentine humanist within the Medici circle was Cristoforo Landino (1424-1492) where he purportedly recorded his discussions with Lorenzo de’Medici, Alberti, and Ficino (10). Poliziano (1454-1494) also known as Politian, was appointed by Cosimo de’Medici as tutor to his son Piero in 1475. During this period he was closely associated with Argyropoulos, Ficino and Landino and was regarded as the greatest neo-Platonist textual scholar of his age (11). One of the most important founders of Italian Renaissance neo-Platonism was Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) who took up the study of Greek after a humanist education and from 1462 was heavily patronised by Cosimo de’Medici (12). Ficino produced translations of Plato’s Dialogues as well as substantial philosophical treatises of his own and became a leading spirit of the Medicean circle in the Platonic Academy in Florence. Ficino saw the universe as a hierarchy of being and developed the concept of Platonic love as well as attempting various conflations of pagan and Christian ideas (12) in addition to regarding contemplation as the supreme human activity. In essence Ficino’s philosophy was one illustrating well the syncretic nature of Renaissance humanism.

3. Donatello and the bronze David.

The bronze David (1430-1435) of Donatello (1386-1466) is a fine example of classical influence in Italian early Renaissance sculpture. Cast in bronze and only 185 cm in height it was probably commissioned by the Medici family. It was the first free standing nude figure since classical antiquity and became Donatello’s most celebrated work because it was so unusual and striking as an image.


Donatello.  David (1430-35).

The figure clearly demonstrates its inspiration from antique sculpture. The sensuously posed youth looks beautiful yet vulnerable at the same time and controversially exhibits characteristics of both sexes – it is androgynous. The antique inspiration for the figure can be discussed on a number of counts. Both Greek and Roman classical elements can be discerned in David for the following reasons: (a) the figure is realistic in the Roman sense; (b) it is idealised in perfection of form in the Greek sense; (c) it was revolutionary for its time and thus a product of the Renaissance in the true sense; (d) in Renaissance humanist terms it derives from the past to create for the future; (e) the figure is not a muscular warrior; (f) the figure presents as a dreamy, romantic figure, one in a pensive pose; (g) the work expresses a contemplative mood and appears reflective, and: (h) as a figure of a gracile youth, the combination of Greek idealisation with Roman realism gives it an impression of androgyny, an epicene character.

The youthful David wears a crown of leaves identified as amaranth, a plant – symbolising the undying fate of heroes in classical antiquity. Yet, he has a sensitive face, not that of an idealised hero. This is a poet’s face, a dreaming mask of contemplation. It is in sharp contrast to the size and aspect of the sword he is holding. There is a combination of both (a) nudity as an expression of the Christian ideal of purity, virtue and innocence with (by the nude heroes of antiquity expressing the warrior-heroic ethos and aestheticism of mythic thought (13). Essentially David reflects the position of Florentine Renaissance humanism. A humanism underpinned by neo-Platonism and a curious blend, a synthesis, of the Christian religion with the pagan. This outlook, which would have surrounded Donatello, was an eclectic which reflected the ideological disputes that emerged during the Renaissance, an attempt to reach a compromise between the Christianity emerging out of medieval scholasticism and humanism based upon the renewal and rediscovery of classical antiquity. In many respects the figure of Donatello’s David expresses the best of both worlds – it has its roots in the past but also points to the future as an expression of the Renaissance ideal.

Donatello was the first Renaissance sculptor indebted to the classical tradition. One of the first to study the heritage of antiquity – the result of a Roman sojourn with Brunelleschi – and indeed the sculpture ‘…of Donatello and the painting of Masaccio, in the decade from 1420 to 1430, portrayed human beings and the natural space in which they lived more nearly as they appeared to the common sense observer.’ (14). Moreover, the Medici’s cultivated circle of literary humanists and the particular revolution in artistic expression in early 15th century art ‘…was chiefly the work of two artists, Donatello and Masaccio, and which appears to be closely connected with the intellectual innovations of the literary humanists.’ (14).

4. Masaccio and the Trinity

Masaccio, born near Florence in 1401, and dead in Rome in 1428, was admitted to the Florentine Guild at the age of 22. His achievement was within six or seven years and thus he ‘…laid the foundations for the entire Quattrocento in a space of scarcely five years.’ (20). From Brunelleschi he acquired his sense of mathematical proportion and understanding of perspective. From Donatello he drew knowledge of classical art forms. Yet his painting style owed little to other masters except the work of Giotto (1267/77-1337). The humanism and emotion in Masaccio’s painting are his own achievement and is why he can be justly described as the first great painter of the Renaissance and the inaugurator of the modem painting era. For Masaccio, as no p.classical painting ‘…had survived to be admired and imitated, he was influenced by antiquity even less than the sculptor Donatello.’ (15).

Masaccio’s fresco in Sta. Maria Novella in Florence, painted around 1425, and known as The Trinity, can be regarded as the benchmark of Renaissance has been said of Masaccio that he was ‘…the first to exploit the new science of perspective…notably in a fresco of the Tmity in S. Maria Novella.’ (18). It is one of his two surviving masterpieces in Florence (16) and has been described as a work of ‘…elaborate and brilliant space construction…’ (17). Known for its use of golden light and soft shadows the work used full perspective in Western art for the first time. What is most significant about The Trinity ‘…is the exploration in paint of space, and the painted architectural construction…is probably the nearest thing to a surviving painting (by Brunelleschi.’ (19). The use of classical architectural themes shows the influence of Brunelleschi and the growing revival of the antique – thus the fresco shows ‘…architectural forms as classical in motif as those of the St. Louis niche at the Orsanmichele, on which Donatello was working in the same years.’ (21).


Masaccio.  The Trinity (circa 1425).

The fresco of The Trinity is a representation of the crucifixion where ‘…the surrounding figures are disposed symmetrically under a classical, coffered, barrel vault…’ (18). Two donors kneel outside the illusory chapel – the chapel ‘…as a whole is calculated to offer a coherent optical illusion to a viewer standing beneath…’ (21) and which creates an ‘…optical break through the wall…’ (20). The illusory chapel itself contains God, the Holy Ghost as a hovering dove above the crucified Christ who is flanked by the Virgin and St. John (21), the statuesque power of the figures recalls Giotto, the articulation of bodies and draperies shows the strong influence of Donatello, and the whole indicates Masaccio’s direct affinities to classical sculpture (20). Masaccio’s Trinity fresco shows his unity of style and content and avoidance of details that would detract from his narrative.  By avoiding the style of the International Gothic Masaccio strove for homogeneity not just in narrative terms but also for the spatial framework within which his theme is portrayed.

5. Botticelli and La Primavera.

The most famous works of Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), those which define his style, are his mythological paintings executed in the 1470’s and 1480’s. For the
purpose of this essay attention will be paid to La Primavera (1485). Painted as allegories of the family Botticelli’s mythological series celebrate the Medici family. La Primavera, as with the others, is laden with neo-Platonic symbolism. The picture is ‘…not a straight forward narrative scene from myths but an artificial arrangement of various figures…’ (22) and is derived from various literary sources that include Ovid, Horace, Seneca and Botticelli’s contemporary Angelo Poliziano (23).


Sandro Botticelli.  La Primavera (1485).

Turner (23) describes the picture as unfolding from left to right. Zephyr (the wind deity of early spring) on the right seizes Chloris the nymph who metamorphoses into a flower bedecked Flora. Venus stands centrally below Cupid armed with his arrow of love.  Venus welcomes all whilst the Three Graces dance around to her side. Mercury as god of may and the end of spring dispels the clouds with his caduceus, turning as he does so to look at aproaching summer. The scene has been described as ‘…a Christian interpretation, esoteric and elaborated though it may be…’ (24), though it definitely contains ‘…layers of philosophical and literary meaning…the Primavera is like a tapestry…’ (25). Certainly, as Baxandall (26) says of Venus ‘…inviting us with her hand and glance into her kingdom. We miss the point of the picture if westake the gesture.’

La Primavera is probably the most famous mythological painting of all time. The central figure, Venus, probably modelled on Simonietta Vespucci, is as much a Christian virgin as a character from antiquity. Thus for Botticelli La Primavera, in common with his Birth of Venus (1485), is a ‘…kind of allegory of civilized living, with Venus as a sort of pagan Madonna…who should lift up Man’s mind to the contemplation of that beauty which is Divine in origin.’ (27). Within the picture the classical grouping of the Three Graces reflects the neo-Platonist synthesis, expressed by Botticelli with as much Gothic as antique linear sensitivity. The picture shows Botticelli’s own Ovidean inspiration and thus illustrates Horace’s view of ut picture poesisPlatonic.

Platonic in the sense that the theme is to do with love and that was central to Ficino’s humanist circle in the Medicean Academy.  The breezy female figures in la Primavera reflect a mythic ritual, seasonally oriented with a strong feeling for the ancient mythology of matriarchy – the Three Graces reflecting the Earth Goddess in one of her trinities. Again, as Hall says, the ‘…preferred interpretations of the Primavera are the ones that reflect the ideas of Ficino and his group…’ (22), and he goes on to say that the themes and symbols in La Primavera, including the Three Graces ‘…were a favourite vehicle for allegory among Renaissance neo-Platonists.’ Indeed, Ficino extolled Venus particularly as the very personification of humanitas.

Finally, another humanist and contemporary of Botticelli, may have had some contribution to the theme of La Primavera (29) and he is Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494). Friendly with the Florentine Platonists he was not a pupil of Ficino and differed from the Medicean circle on a number of points. Mirandola developed an eclectic that embraced Greek, Arab, and Judaic ideas and was very much an exponent of religious and philosophical syncretism. It was Mirandola, who apart from his interest in hermetic writings and the cabbala, promoted the allegorical interpretation of the Greek myths. Again, it was Mirandola who promoted a classification of all things in three categories and may indicate why the mystic use of three, whether trinity or Graces, is a recurring theme in humanist inspired Renaissance painting.

6. Summary and conclusion.

The rediscovery of classical culture in the 15th century became the basis of Renaissance thought which created a new awareness of man himself as the centre and measure of all things, this rebirth, or Renaissance, was therefore a cultural movement which restored to life the culture and values of antiquity. It was thus that sculptors, architects and painters looked to the ancients for inspiration.
Humanism became therefore the engine whereby the classical past became a source for Renaissance artists and the scientific advances in art that came in the train of the revitalised interest in the classical list. The philosophical outlook of humanism stressed the importance of human values and achievement. This view emphasised objective enquiry guided by human reason and history became a record of human aspiration and a synthesis that attempted to reconcile the classical view of human potential with Christian belief.

For example Botticelli’s La Primavera was the ‘…first work of the Renaissance to treat pagan gods on the grand scale previously reserved for religious art.’ (22). Again, with regard to Masaccio’s Trinity we have for the ‘…first time in painting since the decline of late antiquity, the third dimension has been successfully reproduced on a flat surface by means of accurately calculated perspective.’ (20). Masaccio’s achievement stands somewhat separate from direct classical inspiration because as Hall (18) points out “Masaccio certainly borrowed from antiquity but apparently secondhand. His classical vault is more likely to have come from notebooks made by Brunelleschi while he was in Rome…’ The classical inspiration of the Renaissance certainly paved the way for revolutionary developments in artistic style but the process was a developmental one. Alongside the new there still continued other styles such as the International Gothic and residues of the Byzantine. But men such as Donatello, Masaccio, Brunelleschi, Alberti, and their humanist contemporaries and patrons functioned as a watershed from which there was no looking back – they only cast there eyes to the classical past in order to progress forward into the future.

1. Hall, James. A History of Ideas and Images in Italian Art. John Murray, London, 1995. p.228.
2. Welch, Evelyn. Art and Society in Italy 1350-1500. Oxford UP, 1997. p.10.
3. Welch, Evelyn. 1995, Op cit. p.10.
4. Welch, Evelyn. 1995, Op cit. p.11.
5. Schmitt, Charles, Warburg Institute, University of London. Contribution Platonism in Hale, J.R (Ed), Dictionary of the Italian Renaissance. Thames & Hudson, London, 1995.
6. Hale, J.R. Head of Dept of Italian, UCL. Contribution Humanism in Hale, J.R. (Ed). Dictionary of the Italian Renaissance, Thames & Hudson, London,1995.
7. Hainsworth, Peter. Lecturer in Italian, University of Oxford. Contribution Petrarch in Hale, J.R. bid, 1995.
8. Holmes, George. All Souls College, Oxford. Contribution Plethon in Hale, J.R. Ibid. 1995.
9. Holmes, George. All Souls College, Oxford. Contribution Argyropoulos in Hale,
J.R. Ibid, 1995.
10. Holmes, George. All Souls College, Oxford. Contribution Landino in Hale, J.R. Ibid, 1995.
11. Hainsworth, Peter. Conribution Poliziano in Hale, J.R. Ibid. 1995.
12 Holmes, George. All Souls College, Oxford. Contribution Ficino in Hale, J.R. Ibid. 1995.
13. Olson, Roberta J. Italian Renaissance Sculpture. Thames & Hudson, London. 1992.
14. Holmes, George. The Florentine Enlightenment, 1400-1450. Oxford, 1969.
15. Schevill, Ferdinand. Medieval and Renaissance Florence. Vol II: The Coming of Humanism and the Age of the Medici. Harper, NY. 1963. p.335.
16. Baxandall, M. Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy. OUP, Oxford, 1988. p.119.
17. Murray, Peter & Linda. The Art of the Renaissance. Thames & Hudson, London, 1995. p.45.
18. Hall, J. 1995. Ibid. p.244.
19. Levey, M. A History of Western Art. Thames & Hudson, London, 1974. p136.
20. Wuldrum, M. The Renaissance. The Herbert Press, London, 1972. p.136.
21. Turner, R.J. The Renaissance in Florence. Everyman, London, 1997. p.100.
22. Hall, J. 1995. Ibid. p.264.
23. Turner, R.J. 1997. Ibid. p151.
24. Murray, Peter & Linda. 1995. Ibid. p10.
25. Levey, M. From Giotto to Cezanne. Thames & Hudson, London, 1994. p.10.
26. Baxandall, M. 1988. Ibid. p.70.
27. Murray, P & L. 1995. Ibid. p.217.
28. Turner, R.J. 1997. Ibid. p.153.
29. Holmes, G. Contribution on Mirandola in Hale, J.R. !bid, 1995.

Other sources consulted
Stangos, Nikos (Ed). Dictionary of Art and Artists. Thames & Hudson. London, 1994. Janson, W.C. The Sculpture of Donatello. Princeton, 1979.

Illustrations used all in the public domain.


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