Early Renaissance Art History (Reviews of 6 Articles)

by Dave

The early Renaissance was a time of significant change in culture and art. The six scholarly papers reviewed in this article give a varied look at the multiple changes during this time and the connections to the past, as seen in art style and culture.

The early Renaissance was a time of great change in culture and art, even if it is often overshadowed by the giants in the Renaissance. These articles give a varied look at the multiple changes during this time as well as the connections to the past as seen in art style and culture.

Bruce Cole, Old in New in the Early Trecento

In his article “Old in New in the Early Trecento, Bruce Cole presents examples of early Renaissance art works that use Duecento motifs and styles. Cole argues that in the 14th century, artists begin to realize that the art styles are new and different. This caused them to feel a nostalgia for the past they have moved beyond. These feelings present themselves in the works.

The great examples of this rupture from past styles are the works of Giotto and Duccio. By the end of the Trecento there was a “full awareness” of the style changes that had taken place. The remodeling that was done shows us evidence of this. For example in Siena the altarpiece Our Lady of Grace was removed to make way for the new Maestà, and the Madonna in the Palazzo Pubblico was repainted in the early Trecento despite being only 30 years old at the time. Cole even goes on to argue that the Sienese were no longer satisfied with these “old fashioned figures”. Together, this gives us an idea how impactful contemporary style was to patrons and artists.

Cole then presents some major examples of complex paintings that were painted after the introduction of the new styles yet allude or outright copy the older Byzantine style. These include Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Vico l’Abate Madonna, and the double sided panel depicting St. Agatha by a follower of Jacopo del Casentino. Cole argues that the former, painted in the trecento but in the older style, has evidence of Lorenzetti consciously understanding the differences in style between the two centuries, and utilizing them to convincingly bring forward only the parts of the style of early Renaissance art he wanted to in his contemporary piece.

Nonlinear Early Renaissance Art Styles

Cole goes into great detail picking apart the newer stylistic influences hidden underneath the greater Byzantine overall structure of the obvious rectangular frame, the bulky body and front facing position of the Virgin. The most obvious modern characteristics are baby Jesus not in blessing or upright front facing, but softer, squalling, and more naturalistic. Also the face of the Virgin not tilted and oblong as in so many other Madonna and Child works. This uncommon blend of old and early Renaissance art styles presents Cole’s arguments of early Renaissance art rather well.

The latter, St. Agatha, was a direct copy of the earlier St. Agatha on the other side of the panel, but done in contemporary style. While the author was careful to copy directly the motifs of the earlier work, he did not copy the style, meaning that the figure is only a recognizable copy because they are in the same position. So Cole argues that the painter had no sense of stylistic history and that for him, the older style was “alive and unbroken”. This shows the divide between early Renaissance art styles and that everyone did not know of the transition.

Pensive and Melancholy for the Past

The reasoning behind these flashes of the past, Cole argues, is that a number of painters wanted to reach back into the old sacred typologies with the early Renaissance art visual language as they now found themselves cut off from that same “dead past”. However, Cole maintains that it is wrong to think this type of yearning for the past is unique to this time period. Tuscan art during the Trecento was too complex to characterize it neatly, or for it to aligning within a linear frame. However much, though, stylistic communities may circle back to the past, they will never return completely. Instead they move onward, in this case directly into the Renaissance.

Building Brunelleschi’s Dome

For years the elements ravaged the Florence Duomo until Brunelleschi built the dome. The dome of the Duomo in Florence is amazing because it was built as a self-supporting structure. Also Brunelleschi left no writings or drawings to show his work. This leaves a large mystery around the dome and its building. Jones argues that Brunelleschi did not attempt to build the dome as if it were circular instead of octagonal. Jones also argues that Brunelleschi used a radial system to build and design the dome.

Brunelleschi faced many problems when building his dome, including its height off the ground, the width of the octagonal drums, and the limited methods available at the time. Nevertheless, Brunelleschi did complete the dome, and he did not use full centering or scaffolding. He completed it in 16 years. Building the dome also including building all of the associated worker’s structures, including the Platform Base, which held all the assorted stones, workers, and machinery. This also served as a fixed reference point for measuring out the rest of the structure.

Architecture in Early Renaissance Art

In between the shells of the dome are 24 ribs not shown on the outside of either shell. The white marble “ribs” on the external shell are not part of these 24 ribs, and they do not serve the same purpose. Jones argues that the value of having a model to test the practicality of the methods as used by Brunelleschi delivers validation to his arguments. Brunelleschi used herringbone brickwork, in Italian spina pesce, to prevent bricks from sliding off. The interlocking pattern helped support each successive layer without a lot of scaffolding. The arc that generates the corda blanda arch could have been either circular or conchoid, because practically either would result in the same dome. It was the corda blanda that provided enough compression to make the dome self-sufficient.

Adding to the mystery of the dome is deceptive brickwork that upon further inspection is either unnecessary or flat-out confusing. These include a corda blanda running straight through a minor rib, and brickwork appearing in an impossible place. No doubt Brunelleschi delighted in imagining the bewildering faces of his competitors trying to figure out what he did. One such competitor was Gherardo, who submitted accusations against Brunelleschi saying that he had broken contract by not “aligning his brickwork with the center of the dome”. This was true because the octagon was not perfect. A drawing of Gherardo’s do illustrate this accusation survives, and Jones argues it shows validation to the theory of Brunelleschi’s radial method. Brunelleschi responded to Gherardo with a sarcastic sonnet, and in the end nothing came of his accusations.

Cosimo’s Religious Commissions: The Old Sacristy

Cosimo’s father Giovanni di Bicci gave the commission to Brunelleschi and he was alive at its completion is 1428. Afterwards, Cosimo and his brother Lorenzo had full authority. Kent argues that all of the components decorating the interior are of a single early Renaissance art theme. Specifically one that necessitated communication between patron, architect, and sculptor. This included Cosimo’s father’s burial chapel, and Kent argues this was adorned even more than most Medici works.

Before the sacristy at San Lorenzo there were the Strozzi sacristy and the Barbadori chapel. Parts of the sacristy invoke other Christian monuments, from the Florence baptistry to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Kent argues this is because the people of the Middle Ages had a drive to associate themselves with Christ’s life and death. Also there is evidence of influence from Christian texts in Cosimo’s plans for work in San Lorenzo.

Kent agrees with other historians that the patrons during this time expressed their power and wealth through paying for lavish art and architecture. However, Kent argues that this display does not mean politically what it does socially; displaying a family’s power was not a challenge to the authority of the central government of Florence. The “private chapels” show this. The wealthy families have the right to decorate the chapels, but the Church owns the actual land. This division and balance of power is what gives the whole system its subtly and power.

Religious Trecento Art

The altar in San Lorenzo contained Brunelleschi’s competition panel Sacrifice of Isaac, and the bronze complements Donatello’s bronze doors. These doors show martyrs and the apostles, with more active figures than usual. On the ceiling of the chapel above the altar is painted a night sky with astrological signs whose configuration indicates a particular date, thought to be either July 1442, during which René of Anjou visited Florence, or July 1439, the Day of Union. However there is still uncertainty around these, and Kent believes the question may never be answered.

The importance of the council to bring union between the Western and Eastern Christianity to Florence, and so to the Medici, cannot be understated. Because Cosimo was on the council, Kent argues it may have influenced the works of his patronage in San Lorenzo, as proof of his “personal commitment to the defense of the Church”. Naturally due to the importance of the Medici family, many of the works in the Sacristy have been emulated. It is certainly true that however they affected art during the Renaissance, the Medici did it in a big way.

Donatello’s “David” and “Judith” as Metaphors of Medici Rule in Florence

In this article, McHam argues that the Medici purposefully used these statues as symbols of their power in Florence’s republic. This was contrary to public opinion at the time that the Medici family power was draining that of the city.

The sculptors placed the statues in the Medici family palace together in a public area. They remained there for around 30 years. McHam argues that Donatello’s “David” was one of the first depictions of David as a warrior rather than as a king.

McHam argues that the significance of the Medici commissioning a David defeating a tyrant was no mistake. Rather it was a purposeful decision to counteract the rumors going around that the Medici family had taken over Florence and become the new tyrants. They were using their family wealth to advertise to everyone that they disapproved of tyranny. Ironically, the appropriation of a major patriotic symbol by a wealthy family also sent a message. The source of true power resided with the Medici.

“Judith” Analysis

The bronze “Judith and Holofernes” by Donatello continues the usual early Renaissance art themes of depiction of Judith; that she represents Chastity, and is very demure compared to the drunk and wicked Holofernes. However, unique to this statue is the intimacy between the bodies of the two; showing Judith mid-blow with the torn canopy of Holofernes’ bed wrapping around and draping over them both.

The inscription on the base, “Kingdoms fall through sin, cities rise through virtues. Behold the neck of pride severed by the hand of humility”, is super cool. However not a very humble declaration. But it matches the extremely tough and awesome figure of sweet Judith, as she is mid-swing in decapitating a guy with a gleaming golden sword. Another, more patriotic description echoes the one on the base of the “David”. This ties them together with, as McHam argues, the Medici’s reason for displaying them; as propaganda for their self-portrayal as heroes against tyranny.

Other Trecento Art Sculptures

The Renaissance is full of other examples of monuments who depicted anti-tyranny heroes. The most famous would be the Tyrannicides, statues in Athens depicting two heroes. They attempted to begin the Athenian democracy by killing the previous tyrant of the city. These statues were famous in the ancient world, including Rome. It is certainly clear to see the connection with the “David”. It is a free-standing large bronze sculpture depicting an in-action nude figure, just like countless Classical pieces.

The rest of the decoration in the courtyard continues the theme created by the Medici. There are three roundels, usually attributed to Donatello, that contain scenes from Classical myths. The centaur, which represents pridefulness. Icarus, who is a symbol of the divine state after death, and his nude stance echoes the “David”. The third roundel is the “Triumph of Bacchus” who brings liberty. Together, these three repeat the theme of pride, liberty, and classicism. This makes the Medici integral to the current Renaissance style and also the political power in Florence.

The people of Florence both sought after and demonized the enormous wealth like that of the Medici family during this time. By painting themselves as the protectors of Florence (sometimes literally), the Medici had much to gain. McHam argues that the Medici did this purposefully. They used the traditions of imagery in the “David” and the “Judith” to suit their needs of establishing the family’s political agenda.

The Evangelists from the Cathedral in Florence: A Renaissance Arrangement Recovered

Four seated sculptures of the Evangelists are above the doors of the Duomo facade in Florence. Nanni di Banco, Donatello, Bernardo Cuiffagni, and Niccolo Lamberti created them. The Church removed The facade in 1587. The identities and placement of the figures were lost until the nineteenth century. Even today there is some uncertainty over the order of the figures on the facade. In this article, Robert Munman presents the placement of the figures and their important in the Duomo of Florence.

Very few documents describe the placement of the figures. Even less that includes descriptions of all four. The figure that is most consistently placed is Donatello’s St. John, described as in a niche above the main door of the Duomo. Munman concludes St. John was located to the right of the main door. Scholars interprete the descriptions in the manuscript “Libro di Antonio Billi” in different ways. Vasari gives more exact placements for the St. Luke by Nanni and Lamberti’s St. Mark.

The Problem With Lacking Documents

However, Munman argues Vasari’s use of “to the left” is not a relative description and Vasari appears less dependable because he doesn’t actually name either Evangelist. Of the images of the facade remaining, there are not many that are detailed enough to give necessary direction to the placement of the statues. In the case of the Bernardino Poccetti fresco and drawing, Munman argues that while they are sketchy, they are much more accurate than others. The placement of the hands and legs lends Munman to confirm that the immediate right Evangelist is St. John. Also, only one saint, St. Mark, has a raised arm. So restorationists place it consistently in the niche to the far right. This leads to conflict with descriptions with Vasari, but Munman argues that Vasari may not even have known the names of the Evangelicals he was describing.

Other Early Renaissance Art Gives the Solution

Using a combination of description from the “Billi” and the Pocetti drawing, Munman argues that St. Luke was in the leftmost niche. This means that contrary to some sources, St. Matthew was to the innermost left of the door. Munman also admits that the Pocetti drawing does have some ambiguities. Namely details that are in none of the Evangelicals, or multiple details of aspects that are in only one sculpture. For example, showing two statues with the flowy beard that is only present in the St. John. The only explanation, if we are to believe that this drawing is accurate, is that at one point the Opera placed a different series of statues in the niches, which would bring up more problems than it solves.

In the generally accepted configuration, the figures face away from each other, and away from the audience entering the Duomo. However in the placement proposed by Munman to be the “correct position”, the Evangelists present an “impression of greater unity”. This positioning is visually more satisfying, and even more so for having been configured from sources and not from aesthetics at all. Munman argues that the placements are important because the intentions of the sculptors would be visible relative to the other figures and within their position in the facade. This symmetry and unity within the culture of competition of artists in Florence during this time leads to a new understanding of the lives of these great artists.

Speaking Statues

The idea of “speaking” statues is not new, though it was widespread during the Renaissance. This led to a new kind of style of sculpture, designed to jump out of their niches and join in dialogue with their audience. A direct part of street life were the statues on the exterior of Orsanmichele. As they were lifesize and just above the eyeline, these statues definitely existed in a dialogue with passers-by. Turner argues that the various sculptures, most notably Ghiberti and Donatello, existed in competition with each other, but also learned from the others, and this led to the mix of styles that reached out and fascinated the audience.

Ghiberti began at Orsanmichele in 1412 with a late Gothic style bronze St. John the Baptist for the Calimala Guild. Donatello used marble to do St. Mark for the Linaiuoli Guild in 1412. The overlap of their work is surprising due to their divergent styles. In contrast to Ghiberti’s St. John, St. Mark stands with all his weight on one foot, the drapery reveals his body. Donatello turned his body to show St. Mark‘s face, which conveys energy and “psychological vivacity”. A scholar could see this as a triumph of the new Renaissance over the older Gothic. However Turner argues the audience of the time wouldn’t have seen it as such. Rather, they would have seen both as excellent, neither style better than the other.

Another Example in the Early Renaissance

Another sculptor working in Orsanmichele around this time was Nanni di Banco. His Four Crowned Saints are four ancient Roman Christians. Officials beheaded them after they refused to carve a pagan image. With a historical sense, Nanni has the figures in ancient togas, and their heads are reminiscent of Roman busts and portraits. The emotion portrayed in their faces tells their story, with resignation and defiance. This became a metaphor for responsible citizenship.

McHam argues that the significance of the Medici commissioning a David defeating a tyrant was no mistake, rather a purposeful decision to counteract the rumors going around that the Medici family had taken over Florence and become the new tyrants. They were using their family wealth to advertise to everyone that they disapproved of tyranny. Ironically, the appropriation of a major patriotic symbol by a wealthy family also told the people that the source of true power resided with the Medici.

Turner emphasizes that these innovations happened decades before their conterparts in painting, and happened publically in the civic meetingplace of Orsanmichele. These changes are caused by a mix of external causes and internal artistic innovation. The economic surge after the plague caused an wave of commissions, and also the close-cut war with Milan at the turn of the century caused Florence to celebrate with the remaining adrenaline. Turner argues that some times and places are simply blessed, as Florence was in the early 1400s, with “a congregation of artistic genius”.