Much of the ancient art known in the renaissance was not excavated but already part of the visual environment.
A life-size youth, naked except for a shepherd’s hat and sandals, stands triumphant, one foot resting upon his foe’s severed head. The hand near his supporting leg holds a massive sword, while his other hand, placed at his hip, clasps a stone, presumably the one used to defeat the hulking warrior at his feet. This androgynous figure—cast in bronze by Donatello in the 1440s—is the adolescent King David, ancestor of Christ and hero of the Hebrew Bible. David famously defeated the giant Goliath, liberating his people armed only with a sling-shot and the grace of God. His story was a popular subject for renaissance artists. David’s triumph of faith over brawn communicated anti-tyrannical political themes and epitomized the Christian message that God’s chosen people would inevitably prevail.
While the subject is Judeo-Christian, the form of this figure communicates a different set of visual interests. Nowhere in the bible is David described as stripping down to his bare body to wage battle. David’s sensual nudity and his contrapposto pose reflect the forms of ancient Greek and Roman pagan sculpture rather than those of the medieval era. The work is fully free-standing and, like an ancient sculpture, was originally displayed upon an elevated column. This placement, as well as the scale and bronze medium, are also characteristic of ancient Greco-Roman art.
Donatello’s David is an example of humanist interests crossing over into the realm of visual art: beginning in the thirteenth century, Italian buildings, sculptures, and paintings began to look increasingly like they did in the ancient Greco-Roman world, even if the subject matter, contexts, and functions were vastly different. Eager to serve the interests of their classically inclined patrons and to demonstrate their own ingenuity, visual artists explored new approaches to form inspired by surviving art and architecture from antiquity as well as ancient authors’ discussions of them. (See this essay for a detailed discussion of humanism and its origins in literature.)
Humanism can be understood as an educational program rooted in the writings of ancient Greek and Latin authors that extolled the active life of the citizen and praised humanity’s capacity to achieve greatness through knowledge and free will. Humanism looked to antiquity for inspiration in reforming society and had a tremendous impact on all aspects of life in renaissance Italy—and Europe more broadly—from government to the arts.
What Did They See?
The Roman Emperor Nero built his Domus Aurea (Latin for “Golden House”), an extravagant palace in the heart of Rome, after the great fire of 64 C.E. which had destroyed a large part of the city. The palace was considered embarrassingly decadent, and was ultimately dismantled and built over by his successors.
Few ancient paintings survived for renaissance people to see. Excavations of Nero’s Golden House in the 1480s did reveal fanciful paintings of animals, plants, people, architecture, and hybrids of these, which came to be called “grotesques”. However, the main repositories of Roman painting known to us, such as the extensive decorations at Pompeii, were not excavated until long after the renaissance and no painting from ancient Greece was known to have survived.
Although the term “grotesque” has negative connotations in modern English, the origin of the word is the Italian “grotto,” or cave. When Nero’s Golden House was discovered underground in late fifteenth century Rome, it was thought to be a cave. The inventive and highly decorative painted forms there were thus called “grottesche.”
Archeological pursuits went hand-in-hand with humanist scholarship. Perhaps the most famous example is the Laocoön, a 1st century C.E. marble sculpture described by the ancient author Pliny as the greatest of all works of art. Excavated in 1506, the sculpture was discovered in the ruins of the palace of the Roman Emperor Titus—just where Pliny said it would be.
Much of the ancient art known in the renaissance, however, was not excavated but already part of the visual environment: buildings and sculptures, mostly in a ruinous or fragmented state. Roman sarcophagi were used as tombs, fountains, and other forms of decoration. Massive structures like the Pantheon and Colosseum, numerous friezes and bronzes, triumphal arches, and scores of ancient coins had never ceased to be part of the Italian visual world. Still, until the rise of humanism in the late medieval period, interest in these works was sporadic.
The Belvedere Torso, for example, a fragmentary work from the 1st century B.C.E., is the epitome of an ancient sculpture that inspired renaissance artists such as Michelangelo, who adapted it for his famed ignudi on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The work was likely unearthed for at least a century before anyone paid much attention to it. And, while Greco-Roman antiquity was revered, its material remains had not always been treated with reverence. Renaissance artists not only drew inspiration from ancient works, they also played an important role in preserving it. Raphael famously pleaded with Pope Leo X to preserve ancient sites in Rome and protect them from pillaging.
Artists also drew inspiration from written descriptions of art from antiquity. The detailed descriptions (ekphrases), of art by ancient authors like Pliny, Lucian, and Philostratus were influential on renaissance visual culture. Botticelli’s Calumny of Apelles is perhaps the most famous example; the artist re-creates a work described by Lucian (whose text was widely translated in the fifteenth century) by the Greek artist, Apelles. In his 1435/6 treatise On Painting, Leon Battista Alberti specifically singles out this ancient image—known only through verbal description—as a worthy source for artists and a model for narrative art.
While it is helpful for a broad overview such as this, to use a blanket term like “Antique” to designate cultural production of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds is misleading as it suggests there was a single artistic tradition, passed from Greece to Rome, that constituted art before the Christian era. In fact, what we designate as “ancient art” includes a vast range of subjects and styles. Renaissance artists responded to different facets of ancient art at different times, often due to their own or their patron’s interests or to broader stylistic trends. Donatello, for example, drew upon Etruscan, Early Christian, Neo-Attic, as well as ancient Greek and Roman art forms from various periods throughout his career.
Scholars note that artists gravitated to those ancient art forms that best aligned with their personal or regional world view. Venice, for instance, with its deep ties to the Byzantine visual tradition and nostalgia for terra firma, embraced the world of romantic, erotic landscapes evoked by ancient pastoral poetry and realized in works like Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus.
Venice has very different topography from her land-locked peers like Florence and Rome. Floating in the waves of the Adriatic sea, Venice is a cluster of islands connected by bridges and canals. While the Republic of Venice held vast mainland territories, the capital city was completely detached from the terra firma, the mainland of the Italian peninsula, and accessible only by boat until the nineteenth century. Many scholars attribute the early interest in landscape, sensuous beauty, and inventive color technique of Venetian painting to the city’s placement among the waves.
Old Forms, New Meaning
Greco-Roman art comprised a rich language of gestures and symbols to visually communicate to broad audiences, and it was adapted to new contexts. Architects designed buildings that re-used the vocabulary of ancient structures. Michelozzo’s inventive designs for the Medici Palace in Florence (begun 1444) combine ancient and modern (medieval) forms in entirely novel ways. Topped with a massive overhanging cornice (classical), the structure’s second and third stories display round-arched (classical) and biforate windows (medieval), while the heavy rustication of the ground floor recalls the Palazzo dei Priori, Florence’s (medieval) town hall.
Christian spaces, like the church of Sant’Andrea in Mantua (begun 1470) designed by Alberti, creatively combines the form of an ancient triumphal arch—like the Arch of Titus—with that of a temple front—like the Pantheon—while the flanking colossal Corinthian pilasters recall the ancient Roman arches of Septimius Severus and Constantine in the Roman Forum. These architectural forms are given new meaning by being re-used in a renaissance context. This hybrid of classical forms is ultimately new and not found in antiquity—these are old forms translated to new forms and given new meanings. At Sant’Andrea, the massive arch, a structure used to celebrate military triumph in ancient Rome, becomes a symbol of Christian triumph.
Bodies, Bodies Everywhere
The idealized nude bodies of ancient figures, with their careful rendering of anatomical detail, appealed to renaissance Christians who understood humanity to be created in the image of God. Brunelleschi’s polychromed wooden crucifix in Santa Maria Novella shows Christ’s life-sized body rendered with anatomical precision comparable to that of ancient sculptures, giving powerful physical presence to the Christian savior. This kind of palpable realism aligned with the new, urban religiosity of the early renaissance that promoted physically and emotionally charged piety. The reality of Christ’s suffering body would have encouraged sympathy and compassion in worshipers. Anatomical specificity, like that demonstrated in Brunellschi’s crucifix, reminded viewers of the reality of Christ’s humanity just as it conjured the idealized anatomy of ancient art.
At Orsanmichele, a public grainery and shrine centrally located in Florence, the leading guilds of the city were tasked with providing large-scale sculptures of their patron saints to adorn the building’s exterior. Conscious of the high visibility of this site, these powerful institutions sought to one-up each other by commissioning the most avant-garde work from the city’s leading sculptors, including Nanni di Banco, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Donatello. Cutting edge here meant sculpture all’antica, or “after the antique.” Works were carved from marble or cast in bronze on a massive scale not common since the Roman era.
Ghiberti’s Saint John the Baptist, standing a looming 8’4” was the first monumental bronze figure of the renaissance. Created for the guild of cloth finishers and merchants in foreign cloth, this costly bronze statue advertised the wealth of the sponsoring guild. Ghiberti’s saint also marks the development towards free-standing figural sculpture, a tradition popular in the ancient world but largely unused in the medieval. While Saint John does occupy an architectural niche, the figure is rendered wholly in the round and stands within the space rather than being attached to the structure’s walls (see the figures on the portal of Chartres Cathedral for an example). This movement towards fully free-standing, or sculpture in-the-round, became a hallmark of the renaissance tradition, familiar to us in the David sculptures of Donatello and Michelangelo.
The new figurative style embraced by sculptors like Ghiberti and Donatello was also adopted by artist’s working in two dimensional media. In Masaccio’s cycle of frescoes dedicated to the life of Saint Peter in Florence’s Brancacci Chapel, the figures are modeled in light and shade to produce sculptural effects that suggest their three-dimensionality.
In the scene of the Tribute Money, the figures occupy a firm ground-line and their volumetric bodies cast regular shadows as though lit from a light source from the right. The figure types Masaccio develops for his apostles are relatable, rugged men of the street like Donatello’s Saint Mark at Orsanmichele and evoke the strong psychological presence found in images of Roman senators. Each figure is presented with a distinct human personality, responding to the unfolding scene through varied facial expressions.
Creating “Real” Space
The development of one-point linear perspective, a key invention of the early Italian renaissance, was also informed by humanism. Brunelleschi, the famed architect of the Florentine Duomo, is credited with devising this system, inspired by his careful study of ancient Roman monuments and medieval Arabic and Latin theories of optics. Brunelleschi’s theories were codified by Alberti in his treatise on painting, which gave detailed instructions for constructing mathematically defined space so that painters may create the appearance of three dimensions in their art. To give credibility to this type of contrived spatial construction, Alberti draws upon the writing of the ancient author Vitruvius whose widely read 1st century B.C.E. treatise, On Architecture, celebrated the illusionistic mathematical space of ancient Roman painting.
One of the critical developments of the fifteenth century was the transformation of the subjects of ancient mythology into large-scale imagery. Previously used primarily for religious subjects, renaissance artists employed the monumental scale for the gods and heroes of antiquity.
In the Hall of the Months at the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, the artists Francesco del Cossa, Cosme Tura, and Ercole de’ Roberti frescoed the walls of Duke Borso d’ Este’s pleasure palace with large-scale scenes that combined images of contemporary court life with pagan subjects. Divided into twelve sections, each set of images is separated by Corinthian columns, and includes at the lowest register a scene from Borso’s court—such as the duke dispensing justice or interacting with courtiers—above which is the zodiac sign for the month depicted and, at the highest register, a triumphal depiction of the pagan god associated with that month.
Throughout the imagery at Schifanoia are recognizable portrait likenesses of Duke Borso. While incorporated into a larger narrative, these likenesses do point to another key humanist-inspired development of the early renaissance: the genre of independent portraiture.
Living Sinners Depicted in Art
While popular in ancient Greece and Rome, portraiture had all but disappeared in European art until the fifteenth century. The many surviving portrait busts of Roman senators and the heads of emperors on imperial coins fascinated renaissance audiences and provided ready models for the rising genre. Initially used to record the features of the ruling class, portraiture spread in popularity and became a key form of commemoration for the rising merchant and artisan classes.
An early example is Pisanello’s portraits of Leonello d’Este which show the Ferrarese ruler in profile and bust-length, an approach drawn from the tradition of imperial profile portraits on ancient coinage. By the late fifteenth century the profile view was largely displaced by the three-quarter view (initially popular in northern Europe), seen in Botticelli’s Portrait of a Man with a Medal of Cosimo de’Medici. Turning the sitter towards the viewer encouraged a new kind of viewing experience, one that suggested a reciprocity with the audience—the viewer looks upon the sitter who appears to look back.
Humanism and the Rising Status of the Artist
Humanist interests informed another key development of the renaissance: the rising social status of the visual artist. The authors of antiquity celebrated the creations of their own leading artists and described the honors paid to them, giving renaissance patrons reason to encourage artistic ingenuity and artists worthy models to emulate.
Traditionally seen as humble craftsmen and valued as manual workers (however skillful), visual artists became increasingly appreciated for their intellectual abilities during the early renaissance. Artists commanded ever greater social prestige so that by the sixteenth century it meant something to own a work by Raphael, Michelangelo, or Mantenga. Works of art were seen as expressions of individual ingenuity, valued for the virtues attributed to their creators.
Renaissance Italy and Beyond
Humanism and its reflection in contemporaneous art was certainly not confined to the Italian world. Artists north of the Alps and beyond Europe also responded to the forms of ancient art, but as in the Italian peninsula, they did so in ways that reflected their personal and regional interests. There is no single renaissance style inspired by the “Antique” anymore than there was a single antique world.
Much the same can be said for our own, modern-day artistic engagements with the Greek and Roman past. The whitewashed world of the 1959 movie Ben Hur or the heavily muscled hunks of the 2006 epic 300 say much more about us than they do the ancient past. Such was always the case.
- Leonard Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism (New Haven, Yale UP, 1990).
- Leonard Barkan, Unearthing the Past: Archeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture (New Haven: Yale UP, 1999).
- Phyllis Pray Bober and Ruth Rubinstein, Renaissance Artists and Antique Sculpture: A Handbook of Sources, 2nd revised edition (London: Harvey Miller Publishers, 2010).
- Patrick Baker, Italian Renaissance Humanism in the Mirror (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015).
- Malcolm Bull, The Mirror of the Gods: How Renaissance Artists Rediscovered Pagan Gods (London: Oxford UP, 2005).
- Stephen J. Campbell, The Cabinet of Eros: Renaissance Mythological Painting and the Studiolo of Isabella d’Este (New Haven: Yale UP, 2004).
- Rebekah Compton, Venus and the Portrayal of Love in Renaissance Florence (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2021).
- Charles Dempsey, The Portrayal of Love: Botticelli’s Primavera and Humanist Culture at the Time of Lorenzo the Magnificent (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP: 1992).
- Luba Freedman, The Revival of the Olympian Gods in Renaissance Art (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003).
- Luba Freedman, Classical Myths in Italian Renaissance Painting (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011).
- Kristen Lippincott, The Frescoes of the Salone dei Mesi in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara: Style, Iconography and Cultural Context. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Chicago, 1987.
- Sarah Blake McHam, “Donatello’s Bronze “David” and “Judith” as Metaphors of Medici Rule in Florence,” The Art Bulletin 83, no. 1 (2001), pp. 32-47.
- Jean Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972)
- Robert Weiss, The Renaissance Discovery of Classical Antiquity (London: Oxford UP, 1988)
Originally published by Smarthistory, 08.01.2021, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.