An explanation of a major turning point in Western art and culture
Beginning in the early 15th century, Western culture underwent a major turning point, characterised by a new confidence in the possibilities of human thought and creativity. It was a moment in time when art became intellectualised, and artists and architects began to establish themselves as individuals with singular talents.
That turning point was the Renaissance.
What does it mean?
The word Renaissance is a familiar term in the history of art. It is a French word that comes from the Italian rinascimento, meaning “rebirth”.
In other words: there was once a birth of cultural excellence, and now, from around 1400 onwards, there emerged a rebirth of the same excellence. But a rebirth of what exactly?
The simple answer is a rebirth of the values relating to ancient culture, most especially the Classical cultures of ancient Greece and Rome.
The Renaissance centred largely around Italy, where a profound interest in classical antiquity was spurred on by the rediscovery of old texts by authors like Aristotle and Archimedes, and by the recovery of ancient sculptures that were presumed lost. Admirers of the ancient world saw the Classical past as a time of rational thought, prescient philosophical enquiry, and the emergence of human-centred systems of understanding.
With new ideas spreading, the arts began to flourish under a concentration of commissions from influential patrons, most notably the powerful Medici family which ruled Florence for more than 60 years. Many of these patrons wished to link their own status with the eminence of the ancient world and the creativity of the present one. Painters and sculptors were were in demand like never before.
In short, ancient Greece and Rome became idealised as high-points in human civilisation. To be influenced by them and to draw on their philosophies was therefore seen as the very best sign of good taste and learning.
Old books rediscovered
Several things spurred on this interest in the classical past. One of them was the rediscovery of old texts.
An example is the writings of Pliny the Elder, a Roman author who wrote an enormous encyclopaedia covering the full breadth of ancient knowledge. It is from his Natural History, published in around 77 AD, that scholars were able to read about ancient painters like Apelles and Zeuxis, whose works were praised by Pliny for their high levels of naturalism. In one story told by Pliny, Zeuxis entered a painting contest with a rival artist; when he unveiled his painting of a bunch of grapes, birds flew down to peck at the fruit, so lifelike was their appearance.
Stories like this gave the classical past a certain idealised character which artists wished to imitate and learn from.
In architecture and sculpture too, the vocabulary of antique forms and their a search for a perfect harmony of parts inspired the likes of Filippo Brunelleschi, who would go on to build the famous dome of Florence Cathedral. The rediscovery of Vitruvius’ The Ten Books of Architecture (written between 30 and 15 BC) meant that the architectural principles of antiquity could be observed and developed in detail.
People on the move
One of the key factors in the emergence of the Renaissance was the way ideas moved around the European continent as people travelled.
One major event was the conquest of Constantinople (now Istanbul) by Ottoman soldiers in 1453. Before this point, Constantinople had been the capital city of Byzantium, otherwise known as the Eastern Roman Empire — an extension of the Roman Empire into eastern territories that had lasted for a thousand years, even beyond the fall of the Western Roman Empire in Rome.
As a major city situated between Europe and the Middle East, Constantinople had become home to large numbers of ancient texts, many written in their original Greek. When the attacking Ottoman army overtook the city, refugees made their escape and travelled west. Along with their personal possessions, they took with them valuable items relating to their culture and community, including numerous Greek texts.
Humanism in Italy
In numerous respects, Italy was ripe for the seeds of ancient learning to take root. It was one of the most prosperous countries in Europe thanks to extensive trade routes throughout the Mediterranean. Florence, above all, was extremely wealthy and supported a strata of diplomats and scholars who were well-versed in Latin and Greek.
Within this fertile setting, a new movement known as humanism began to emerge. Humanism promoted the idea that man was the centre of his own universe, and that the achievements of literature, art, rational thought and science should begin to rival the dominancy of the Christian worldview.
One such individual central to the humanist movement was Leonardo Bruni (1370-1444). With careful reading of ancient texts, Bruni came up with his own version of how society should be organised, based on ideals of civic virtue and the forms of government found in ancient Athens and the Roman Republic.
Bruni exemplified the Renaissance concept of humanism, a belief in the potential of human beings to order themselves more wisely and to live more fairly and prosperously. Bruni’s translations of Aristotle’s Politics and Nicomachean Ethics were widely distributed in manuscript and in print.
Ancient artefacts reconsidered
The Belvedere Torso was a fragmentary statue carved sometime around the 1st century BC. It was rediscovered at the beginning of the 15th century in Rome, most likely excavated from among the ancient ruins. Over the course of the next hundred years, the marble sculpture gained admirers and went on to become a significant point of reference for Michelangelo and many other artists working in Renaissance Italy.
The Belvedere Torso was one of many works whose style and technique were thought to express the perfection of the ancient past. After its discovery, the statue slowly began to attract the attention of artists and scholars, many of whom made detailed drawings of the object.
For the artist Michelangelo especially, the life-likeness of the sculpture, combined with the way it idealises the male form, was symbolic of the sculptor’s powers of creation. He admired the contorted pose of the torso, how it twists around on itself to bring out the muscularity of the whole body. It indicated to him how an artist can mirror nature and even transcend it to become an independent and creative force through his own endeavour.
It’s not surprising, therefore, to see the influence of the Belvedere Torso in Michelangelo’s own art, some of which have gone on to become the most famous images ever made.
In the scene of The Creation of Adam painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in around 1511, Adam’s body is reminiscent of the ancient statue. The muscular definition of Adam’s torso and the way that the upper and lower halves of the body are turned to allow Michelangelo to delineate the structure of the muscles, have their roots in the Belvedere sculpture.
Similarly, in The Last Judgement fresco, painted on the end wall of the Sistine Chapel, the figure identified as Saint Bartholomew — who, rather morbidly, is seen holding the knife of his martyrdom and his flayed skin — assumes a posture that is clearly drawn from the Belvedere model.
Most noticeably is the arrangement of the Saint’s legs, which sit astride the cloud. Michelangelo used variations of this posture in several of his sculptures as well as in his paintings. The marble statue of Victory (c.1519) and the Rebellious Slave (1513) both adopt a similarly turn-twist motion, with the legs askew and the upper body turned to one side.
The Belvedere Torso remained popular with artists across the centuries that followed. In the 17th century, the painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) made sketches of the statue, whose monumental energy can clearly be seen in his overall painting style.
Later, in the 18th century, Antonio Canova (1757–1822) continued to draw inspiration from the torso for his Neo-classical sculptures. And in the 19th century, the sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840–1917) is thought to have used the Belvedere statue as inspiration for his work The Thinker.
And so it’s possible to trace the chain of influence — from a lost ancient Greek sculpture, to a Roman copy made by Apollonius, itself lost until its rediscovery in Renaissance Rome, through the various artworks made by subsequent generations of painters and sculptors. In this way, the Belvedere Torso helps us to understand how ancient Classical art was venerated by European artists, and how its influence helped shape the art of the last 500 years.
The effect of historians
It is perhaps easy to imagine that the events which we now call the Renaissance were somehow a triumphant revolution in intellectual life.
Yet many modern historians have begun to reconsider this idea, arguing that the so-called “Dark Ages” or Middle Ages out of which the Renaissance emerged were not quite as dark as once supposed. An example might be the soaring gothic cathedrals of the High and Late Middle Ages, hugely impressive achievements that went out of favour in the mid-15th century.
Likewise, the Islamic Golden Age that occurred across North Africa and the Middle East, as mentioned above, was a period of cultural and scientific flourishing, traditionally dated from the 8th century to the 14th century.
In fact, it would take several influential historians to make it seem as if the Renaissance was a more radical break with the past than the evidence suggests. As such, we have to except that to some degree the Renaissance was an invention of historians as much as a reality.
Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) remained the principle guide for late 19th century students of the subject and provides one of the defining accounts of the Renaissance. Through his in-depth study of the individual components of the Italian state, Burckhardt established the Italian Renaissance as a period of world-historical significance, a homogenous moment delivered on a national scale — and with it, a sharp break from the Middle Ages that came before.
There is no doubt that the Renaissance was a profound cultural movement that affected European life in all intellectual spheres. What is disputed is the exact beginnings and ending of the movement, and to what extent it was an Italian phenomena or if it was continent-wide.
Terms like the Northern Renaissance capture important intellectual events that were taking place north of the Alps, from Netherlandish painting to Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the first movable-type printing press. The idea of a Renaissance in the north counterbalances the Italy-centric view of the period.
Nevertheless, the term Renaissance remains a widely recognised label for the multifaceted period that came before the modern era. With far-reaching developments in science and astronomy, and most especially art, alongside the decline of the feudal system and the growth of commerce, the Renaissance must be understood as a vital cornerstone of Western history