Early Renaissance: Competition and Collaboration

by Dave

The early Renaissance saw the rise of many great artists. You may not know that competition between some of these artists led to new styles of work. Also, large-scale public works required the collaboration of many artists. Learn about two examples of this phenomenon in Early Renaissance Florence.

Consider the role of competitions and collaboration in the light of the great architectura. Also consider sculptural projects of Early Renaissance Florence (Orsanmichele, Baptistery, Duomo, cantore). To what degree did competition provide the impetus behind the development of new forms? Or was the driving force instead, the rare preponderance of genius in early Renaissance Florence? The presence of Brunelleschi, Ghiberti, Donatello, and Masaccio highlight this.

There were many great projects in the Quattrocento in Florence. From our reminiscing perspective, we characterize this time as “early Renaissance”. However the people of the time would of course have no idea of the great art to come after them. They did not have the notion of the “genius artists” like Michelangelo. It’s also important to contextualize that during the Quattrocento the artists were getting more name recognition. However they were still producing art in workshops. This means the hand of the master is not in every aspect of the work.

This means the final product, maybe called the work of “genius”, is in fact a product of many hands. This would include those with no documented name or genius. However, the workshop does not disprove the idea of single individuals inventing new forms isolated from each other. Instead we see that the evidence of changing artistic styles in specific places greatly emphasizes the collaborative and competitive forces needed to spur the transition and innovation of artistic style.

Style Competition Between Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi

The most outright competition between artists was the bronze Sacrifice of Isaac reliefs. This was for the Florence Baptistry doors and was between Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi. Ghiberti won the competition, merging “all elements into a consistent and unified atmosphere”. This was likely because he was more experienced with bronze than Brunelleschi. In contrast, Brunelleschi’s piece was both “awkward and intriguing”, however that did not appeal to the jury. The jury did not give Brunelleschi’s new forms the attention of Ghiberti’s more traditional means of Classicism.

However, even though Brunelleschi lost, he became very famous especially because of his innovative building of the Florence Duomo’s dome from observation of what few domes existed (Pantheon and Florence Baptistry), which only came about because of the lost competition. Ghiberti won the competition and afterwards began the North and East Doors of the Florence Baptistry, however, he did not utilize the same style from his competition relief. This is because during the intervening years, changes in painting styles influenced Ghiberti. The new technique of a much lower relief, like Donatello’s St. George predella captured Ghiberti’s attention. The Baptistry doors and the Duomo dome are in a sense both an intersection between the outright competition of reliefs in the earlier years and the subtler collaboration that filled its place.

Exterior of Orsanmichele in Early Renaissance Florence

An example of such collaboration is on the exterior of Orsanmichele in Florence. Each guild required sculptors to fill each niche by 1416. This led to a surge in sculpting all around the same time. While each artist did work in their own workshop, there was significant influence from them all to each other. This led to a shifting in style. Analysts call this new style the “Speaking Statues”. This is because they appear to “break out from the niches”. This space was very public, because Orsanmichele borders a major street in Florence, the major shrine inside. So guilds used the niches to be public advertisements for their services. As such, so many guilds in such a small space would lead to competition, even with the artists as intermediaries for that competitive attitude.

Ghiberti, as a very successful sculptor, produced three niches. During his first two, Donatello was also working, in marble. The evidence for collaboration is Ghiberti’s third statue, which transitioned into a more classicizing form. We can see this in the enhanced contrapposto form of St. Matthew contrasting to the flowing International Gothic form of the earlier St. John the Baptist. After this, Donatello learned bronze sculpting from Ghiberti, who as we have seen was quite proficient. The niches at Orsanmichele are a microcosm of the transition between the “waning Gothic versus the new Renaissance”, and was brought about by both collaboration and competition.

Difference in Their Style

As clear documentation is continually a problem for researchers, it is still debated exactly how many projects Masolino and Masaccio collaborated on and what their professional relationship entailed. However, we can classify their styles from what we do know. We find that Masaccio was very realistic and Masolino was very flat and iconic. However, neither of these is inherently “better than the other”, no matter what Vasari might say. In the opinion of Masaccio, Masolino, and perhaps their patrons, there were times and places for both styles.

This can be seen in the artists collaboration in the Brancacci Chapel in 1424 Florence. The difference in their style is easily compared here as they each did one wall. However, upon closer inspection of the underdrawings, it may even be the Masolino could have painted the face of Jesus on both walls, because of how Byzantine they are in style, while the innovation of the decoration of the entire Chapel is more Masaccio’s “artistic personality”. An iconicly painted Christ would add impressiveness to any scene, and this was known at the time, as artists would deliberately paint in the older style.

Continuation in Style Construction

Outside of these interactions, the art seems to imply they worked together amiably in a “grand duet”, agreeing on a light source and palette. The collaboration of these two on this project and others is in line with the work style of the time: workshops and partnerships. The difficulty in imagining this comes from their difference in styles, what modern audiences would call “Renaissance” for Masaccio and “Gothic” for Masolino. Again these two styles are being developed and used near, in some cases directly on top of, each other. Also again, this evolution is through collaboration.

The pattern shown here through these small number of examples belies a more general theme: that new styles of art do not appear suddenly, with no influence from the older styles. The period of transition between different forms is rife with interesting mixing of many different ideas. This is why the early Renaissance is so complex and worth study.