The Classical Idea in the Visual Arts: Greek, Roman, Italian Renaissance, and Neo-Classical Greek Classicism Greek Civilization

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Italian Renaissance Art

Reviving classical values.

Rediscovery of ancient texts in Greek and Latin, and their re-editing.

Use the wisdom of antiquity as a guide in creating a new one.

During the Renaissance there was little or no distinction made between Greek and Roman art; only in later centuries did historians work to differentiate the “Greco” from the “Roman.”
Florentines believed that they were the inheritors of the Classical tradition, a “New Athens.” While Florence had in fact been carved out of a malarial swamp by Roman legions in the distant past, many of the supposed links between Florence and the Classical era were historically inaccurate. For example, many Florentines thought that their baptistery had been built in antiquity, when it fact it was a more recent medieval structure. Regardless, during the fifteenth century, patrons of the arts were determined to remake Florence in imitiation of the Classical past.
Intellectual Trends: Humanism and Neoplatonism

One major aspect of Renaissance culture was its embrace of “humanism.” This term applied to a philosophical outlook according to which human values have greater significance than religious belief. In contrast to the medieval period’s focus on the divine, thinkers during the Renaissance emphasized the important accomplishments of philosophers, poets, mathematicians, scientists, and other learned peoples. The development of humanism provided an intellectual environment in which artists could justify higher social status than before; by training in the humanities, artists sought to put themselves on the same intellectual level as their wealthy patrons, and to separate the visual arts from their history as menial crafts.

A major part of the humanist’s tradition was a revival of Greek and Roman scholarship. Intellectuals naturally turned to Plato (427-347 BCE), the foremost philosopher of the ancient Greek world. Plato dealt with nearly every major question surrounding human existence and had developed a systematic philosophy of the “art of living.” The study of Plato’s work by Renaissance scholars was called “Neoplatonism.”
Rebirth” of Italian Culture

In western Europe, many of the developments of the late Middle Ages, such as urbanization, intellectualism, and vigorous artistic patronage, reached a maturity in the 15th century. Underlying these changes was the economic growth in the late 14th century that gave rise to a prosperous middle class of bankers and merchants. Unlike the hereditary aristocracy that had dominated society through the late Middle Ages, these business people had attained their place in the world through personal achievement. In the early 15-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 14th-century scholars like the great humanist and poet Petrarch. Petrarch looked back at the 1000 years extending from the collapse of the Roman Empire to his own time and determined that history fell into 3 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. It was a time when human beings, their deeds, and their belief had primary importance.

Humanism, a 19th-century term, is used narrowly to designate the revival of classical learning and literature. More generally, in 14th- and 15th century 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.
Humanism also fostered a belief in individual potential and encouraged individual achievement. Whereas people in medieval society had relinquished any attempt to change the course of their lives, attributing events to divine will, those in Renaissance Italy adopted a more secular stance. Humanists not only encouraged individual improvement but also rewarded excellence with fame and honor. Achieving and excelling through hard work became moral imperatives.
Good citizens

Despite the emphasis on individualism, humanism also had a civic dimension. Citizen participation in the social, political and economic life of their communities was obligatory. The intersection of art with humanist doctrines during the Renaissance can be seen in the popularity of subjects selected from classical history or mythology, in the increased concern with developing perspectival systems and depicting anatomy accurately, in the revival of portraiture and other self-aggrandizing forms of patronage, and in citizens’ extensive participation in civic and religious art commissions.

Wealth and Power

Constant fluctuations in Italy’s political and economic spheres contributed to these developments in Renaissance art as well. The shifting power relations among the numerous city-states fostered the rise of princely courts and control of cities by despots. Condottieri (military leaders) with large numbers of mercenary troops at their disposal played a major role in the ongoing struggle for power. Princely courts , such as those in Urbino and Mantua, emerged as cultural and artistic centers. Certainly, high-level patronage required significant accumulated wealth, so, during the 15th century, individuals and families who had managed to prosper economically came to the fore. Among the best known was the Medici family, which acquired its vast fortune from banking. Not only did this money allow the Medici to wield great power, but it also permitted them to commission art and architecture on a scale rarely seen, then or since. Such lavish patrons of art and learning were the Medici that, to this day, the term “Medici” is widely used to refer to a generous patron of the fine arts.
The Medici, along with many other art patrons, princes, popes, and despots, expressed more than a passing interest in humanism. The association of humanism with education and culture appealed to accomplished individuals of high status.
The historical context that gave rise to this “rebirth” and the importance of patronage account for the character of Renaissance art. In addition, the sheer serendipity of the abundance of exceedingly talented artists also must be considered. Renaissance Italy experienced major shifts in artistic models. In part, these shifts were due to a unique artistic environment where skilled artists, through industriousness and dialogue with others, forever changed the direction and perception of art.


Leonardo da Vinci

Vitruvian Man

c. 1490

Ink, 13 1/2 x 9 5/8”

Artists throughout history have turned to geometric shapes and mathematical proportions to see the ideal representation of the human form.

Leonardo and before him, Vitruvius, equated the ideal man with both circle and square.

Ancient Egyptian artists laid out square grids as aids to design. Medieval artists adapted a variety of figures, from triangles to pentagrams. The Byzantines used circles swung from the bridge of the nose to create face, head, and halo.

The first-century BCE Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius, in his 10-volume De architectura (On Architecture), wrote: “For if a man be placed flat on his back, with his hands and feet extended, and a pair of compasses centered at his navel, the fingers and toes of his two hand and feet will touch the circumference of a circle described therefrom. And just as the human body yields a circular outline, so too a square figure may be found. For if we measure the distance from the soles of the feet to the top of the head, and then apply that measure to the outstretched arms, the breadth will be found to be the same as the height.” [Book III, Chapter 1, Section 2).
Vitruvius determined that the body should be 8 heads high. (Think of Lysippos’s Apoxyomenos [The Scraper].)
Leonardo added his own observations in the reversed writing he always used for his notebooks when he created his well-known diagram for the ideal male figure, called the Vitruvian Man.
“Beauty, which is a form of truth, must depend on some system of measurement and proportion” as Plato explained in the Timaeus; artists working from classical models made it their business to rediscover such a system in the worked of art and buildings of Antiquity.
Such an emphasis on measurement, allied to reason, is summarized in the Leonardo’s Virtuvian Man:

Expresses the concurrence between beauty, mathematics and Man.

For the renaissance artist, Man, within the circle of God, is the measure of all things and he rules himself and his affairs by the application of reason. Antique art, centered on the depiction of a noble mind and an ideal body, provides convincing models for imitation.



c. 1428-1432/Early Italian Renaissance

bronze, 5’ 2 1/4” high
First free-standing—sculptured in the round, not attached to architecture—life-size nude since antiquity.
Donatello reintroduced the concept of contrapposto.
Received patronage of Medici.

Most likely David was created for the Palazzo Medici courtyard.

The nude, as such, proscribed in the Christian Middle Ages as both indecent and idolatrous, had been shown rarely—and then only in biblical or moralizing contexts, such as the story of Adam and Eve or descriptions of sinners in Hell.
Donatello reinvented the classical nude, even though his subject is not a pagan god, hero, or athlete but the biblical David, the young slayer of Goliath and the symbol of the independent Florentine republic.

Likely the helmet is a reference to the dukes of Milan, who were again warring against Florence in the mid-1420s.

The statue is thus a patriotic public monument identifying David—weak but favored by God and with Florence, and Goliath with Milan.
Donatello chose to model an adolescent boy, not a full-grown youth like the athletes of Greece, so that the figure lacks their swelling muscles.
David possess both the relaxed classical contrapposto stance and proportions and sensuous beauty of Greek Praxitelean gods.

The expression of David is also classical.

The lowered gaze signifies humility, which triumphs over the sinful pride of Goliath.

David was inspired by classical examples, which equate with modesty and virtue.

The invoking of classical poses and formats appealed to the humanist Medici.



1501-1504/High Italian Renaissance

marble, 13’ 5”
Faith in the human image as the supreme vehicle of expression gave him a sense of kinship with Classical sculpture closer than any other Renaissance artist.
Conceptually paralleling Plato’s ideas, Michelangelo believed that the image the artist’s hand produces must come from the idea in the artist’s mind. The idea, then is the reality that the artist’s genius has to bring forth. But artists are not the creators of the ideas they conceive. Rather they find their ideas in the natural world, reflecting the absolute idea, which, for the artist, is beauty. In this way, the strongly Platonic strain of the Renaissance theory of imitating nature makes it a revelation of the high truths hidden within nature.
One of the Michelangelo’s best know observations about sculpture is that the artist must proceed by finding the idea—the image locked in the stone, as it were—so, by removing the excess stone, the sculptor extricates the idea, like Pygmalion bringing forth the living form.
Michelangelo did break strongly from the lessons of his predecessors and contemporaries in one important aspect: he mistrusted the application of mathematical methods as guarantees of beauty in proportion. Measure and proportion, he believed, should be “kept in the eyes.”
David is symbol, the defiant hero of the Florentine republic,

a champion of a just cause.

To Michelangelo, David embodied the virtue, Fortitude, but here the figure has a civic rather than a moral significance.

Vibrant with pent-up energy, he faces the world.

The style of the sculpture proclaims an ideal very different from the wiry slenderness of Donatello’s youthful David.

Michelangelo had just spent several years in Rome, where he had been deeply impressed with the emotion-charged, muscular bodies of Hellenistic sculpture (Ex. Laocoön and His Sons, early first century CE/Hellenistic.).

In his David, Michelangelo, without strictly imitating the antique style, captured the tension of Lysippian athletes and the psychological insight and emotionalism of Hellenistic statuary.

This David differs from those of Donatello and Verrocchio in much the same way later Hellenistic statues departed from their Classical predecessors.

Their heroic scale, their superhuman beauty and power, and the swelling volumes of their forms became part of Michelangelo’s own style and, through him, of Renaissance art in general.

Michelangelo invested his efforts in presenting towering pent-up emotion rather than calm ideal beauty. He transferred his own doubts, frustrations, and passions into the great figures he created or planned.

Michelangelo was the spiritual heir not of Polykleitos and Pheidias, but of the masters of the Laocoön group.

Ex. Donatello

Gattamelata (Equestrian statue of Erasmo da Narni)

Padua, Italy

c. 1445-1450/Early Italian Renaissance

bronze, approximately 11’ c 13’

Condottiere Erasmo da Narni, nicknamed Gattamelata (“honeyed cat)
Although equestrian statues occasionally had been set up in Italy in the late Middle Ages, Donatello’s Gattamelata is the first to rival the grandeur of the mounted portraits of antiquity, such as that of Marcus Aurelius, which the artist must have seen while visiting Rome.
Donatello’s contemporaries, one of whom described Gattamelata as sitting “there with great magnificence like a triumphant Caesar,” recognized this reference to antiquity.
Gattamelata’s face is set in a mask of dauntless resolution and unshakable will—the very portrait of the male Renaissance individualist. Such a man—intelligent, courageous, ambitious, and frequently of humble origin—could, by his own resourcefulness and on his own merits, rise to a commanding position in the world.

Sandro Botticelli

The Birth of Venus

c. 1484-1486/Early Italian Renaissance

tempera on canvas, 5’ 8” x 9’ 1 7/8”
Botticelli produced works for the Medici.
Botticelli’s Venus is derived from a variant of The subject itself is was inspired by the Homeric “Hymn to Aphrodite.”
Botticelli’s nude presentation of the Venus figure was in itself innovative.

The nude, especially the female nude, had been proscribed during the Middle Ages. Its appearance on such a scale and the artist’s use of an ancient Venus statue of the Venus pudica (modest Venus) type---a Hellenistic variant of Praxiteles’s famous Aphrodite form Knidos as a model could have been drawn the charge of paganism and infidelity. But in the more accommodating Renaissance culture and under the protection of the powerful Medici, the depiction went unchallenged.

Botticelli’s style is clearly distinct from the earnest search many other artists pursued to comprehend humanity, and the natural world through rational and empirical order. His elegant and beautiful style seems to have ignored all of the scientific knowledge experimental art had gained (e.g., in the areas of perspective and anatomy). His style paralleled the allegorical pageants staged in Florence as chivalric tournaments, but structured around allusions to classical mythology. Ultimately, Botticelli created a style of visual poetry, parallel to the Petrarchan love poetry that Lorenzo de’ Medici wrote. Botticelli’s paintings possess a lyricism and courtliness that appealed to cultured patrons such as the Medic.
The subject of The Birth of Venus is clearly meant to be serious, even solemn. By the mid-15th century an argument could be made for fusing the Christian faith with ancient mythology.

These Neoplatonists were strongly influenced by Greek philosopher Plato who enjoyed great prestige during the late 15th century and after.

Marsilio Ficino, a priest, believed that the life of the universe, including human life, was linked to God by a spiritual circuit continuously ascending and descending, so that all revelation—whether from the Bible, Plato or classical myths—was one. He also proclaimed that beauty, love and beatitude, being phases of the same circuit, were one. Thus Neoplatonists could speak of both the “celestial Venus (the nude Venus born of the sea as in our picture) and the Virgin Mary as sources of “divine love” (meaning the recognition of divine beauty).
The celestial Venus, according to Ficino, dwells purely in the sphere of the Mind.
Her twin, the ordinary Venus, gives rise to “human love.” Ficino wrote the Medici prince: “Venus…is a nymph of excellent comeliness, born of heaven, and more than others beloved by God all highest. Her soul and mind are Love and Charity, her eyes Dignity and Magnanimity, the hands Liberality and Magnificence. The whole, then, is Temperance and Honesty, Charm and Splendor. Oh, what exquisite beauty!.... a nymph of such nobility has been wholly given into your hands! If you were to unite with her in wedlock and claim her as yours she would make all your years sweet.”
Once we know that Botticelli’s painting has this quasi-religious meaning, it seems less surprising that the wind god Zephyr and the breeze goddess Aura on the left look so much like angels. It also makes sense that the Hora on the right, personifying Spring, who welcomes Venus ashore, recalls the relationship of St. John the Baptist to Christ in a baptismal scene.
As baptism is a “rebirth in God,” so the birth of Venus evokes the hope for “rebirth,” from which the Renaissance takes its name.
Ex. Raphael

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