Art In The Italian Renaissance

IT Is interesting to inquire, for a moment, why the art of the Renaissance has assumed such proportions in the public eye as to dwarf its other claims to glory. Why is it that the influence of Italian studies on Harvey’s announcement of the circulation of the blood or the precedence of Italian students in the investigations of political economy is less prominent in the public mind than the frescoes of the Vatican or the tombs of the Medici ?

One obvious answer is that modern science and modern civilization at large have far outstripped their first beginnings so far, that these beginnings are forgotten in the magnitude and wonders of later and recent discoveries; whereas the absolute superiority of Italian art in the early sixteenth century to our own art of the nineteenth century is still uncontested and incontestable. No critic has ever claimed that the art of the nineteenth century rivals the Italian art of the early sixteenth century that we have produced anything to compare with the color of Venetian paintings, with the figure composition of Raphael, or with the colossal genius which reveals itself in the ceiling decoration of the Sistine Chapel.

In other words, modern civilization has gone forward as a whole, but in its later art it has neither surpassed nor equaled its earliest achievements. The verdict of the modern artist and the modern critic still awards the palm to Ghiberti or to Titian, while the man of science who stands on the shoulders of Galileo possibly forgets him in the marvels of his own discoveries.

One task, therefore, of the art critic and the art historian is to explain the reasons why art and science have so far parted company; to show the peculiar position of art in the Renaissance period, the special causes of its special excellence and the reasons for its later relative decline; but without forgetting to point out that the excellence of Renaissance art was only one phase of a general culture which otherwise has culminated in the triumph of later civilization.

Some further points regarding the relations of art to the public and social life of early Italy have been mentioned in my “Roman and Medieval Art,” in matter relating to the Italian paintings of the fourteenth century, the late Gothic period of Italy.

If we again turn to our question why is it that the art of the Renaissance has assumed such proportions in the public eye as to dwarf its other claims to glory ?—we shall find another obvious answer waiting for us.

The paintings of Raphael and the statues of Michael Angelo can be seen. Every traveler in Italy makes acquaintance with them. The beauties of Italian art are familiar to every picture gallery of Europe. Engravings and photographs and casts and copies have spread the knowledge of this art wherever modern civilization has made its way. It is quite a different matter to laboriously search for the principles of law, of governmental science, for the connections of literary influence, to trace out the history of inventions and industries, to follow the course of social life, the history of music or of medicine, of diplomacy or manners. These studies are among the most laborious known to man. They demand the patience and the talents of a specialist, either to make them at first hand or to study them when they have been made. It is partly be-cause buildings, pictures, statues, and decorations last and are visible to every eye, that Italian art holds a place in the history of art which only the specialist is able to concede to Italy in the history of civilization.

But we have still a reason why Renaissance art has been exalted at the expense of the Renaissance civilization which produced it. Italy as a country did not long hold the pre-eminence which belonged to her in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Other nations profited by her advance and took her place. In successive order Spain, France, England, and Germany have filled the place which she once took in science, art, and letters. Italian paintings of the seventeenth century are not superior to those produced by Spain or Flanders at the same time. English artists in the eighteenth century and French and American artists in the nineteenth century have far out-stripped the Italians of these same centuries; and what holds of art holds also of letters and of science when we compare the place taken among nations by the Italy of to-day with the place taken among nations by the Italy of 1500. Of all contrasts, that would be most striking, which should compare the Netherlands of the seventeenth century with the Italy of the same time, as related with a similar comparison for two centuries before.

In other words, special nations have controlled the field of history in intellectual and moral force at certain times. Civilization radiated from the Netherlands in the seventeenth century to England and America * as it radiated from Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries to the Netherlands, Spain, France, and Germany.

In our estimate of Renaissance civilization we are bound, therefore, to consider the backwardness of other countries at the given time as compared with Italy, but in our account of the reasons why Italian civilization has been eclipsed by its own triumph over other nations, we are bound to consider that these other nations have become in their turn superior. The payment of a debt of gratitude to the past is easily overlooked when the wheel of history has made another turn.

Probably, therefore, there is no matter of more immediate importance to our subject than to understand the causes which led to the relative decline of Italy after the first quarter of the sixteenth century, which was the zenith of the Renaissance. A natural skepticism of the human mind often asserts itself above the verdict of the critic. The greatness of the Old Masters ” has been often called in doubt, although never overthrown. Two things appear essential to a reasonable philosophy of their greatness, to show not only what produced it, but to show also why it did not last.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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