Art – The Dawn Of The Renaissance

THE monkish robe of the Middle Age is like that rough brown pupa which hides in its heart the folded wings of the butterfly; for the Middle Age is the chrysalis of the Renaissance and the origins of that great unfolding of the spirit of men lie deep within it. The Renaissance is but the flowering, on soil congenial to it and under circumstances of felicitous concurrence, of seed long sown. In France and in Italy, in the poetry of Provence and the poetry of Dante, in the spirit of the Communes of both countries, that Lay Spirit which reared the cathedrals of the Middle Age, we find it shadowed forth. It is merely the continuance of the long process of restoration to man of his rightful intellectual inheritance, temporarily abated by the blight that followed the hoof of the Hun.

Who shall be bold enough to say of the mind or soul of man that one impulse is purely religious, another purely intellectual, deny everything but a blind and somewhat stupid religiosity to the man of the Middle Age and deny everything but a cold and cynical intellectuality to the men of the Renaissance ? That is not the way men are made.

They are compact of many interwoven strands of thought and feeling. Read the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, that fiery braggart and murderer, exquisite artificer in gold and enamels; read of his passion for work, his worship of beauty, his devout and naif religion. He draws his own portrait with the utmost simplicity, in black and white with no intermediate gradations, and we see, incarnate in him, the conflicting promptings of the spirit of his day in a light that illumines the whole period for us. In the Middle Age man found God and when he had found him, secure and serene in his faith, applied his energies to the recovery of the germs of political freedom, liberty of thought and of con-science, and his lost intellectual birthright. The history of man is but the story of his long struggle upward through the ages toward Liberty. The Church had strayed far from the simple teaching of the Carpenter of Nazareth, abuses had grown up within it, and the Throne of Grace was obscured by a vast company of intercessionary saints. In the many prayers Cellini offers up in the course of his life it is observable that he addresses them directly to the Deity and never calls upon any saint to act as intermediary. This seems indicative of a generally prevalent state of mind—of which there are many confirmations—in which a plentiful cynicism is felt toward the Church and its inventions but in which the Christian faith remains unshaken. The Church was one of the dominant factors in personal and political life, and had become worldly, unspiritual, devoured by mundane political ambitions, corrupt and unscrupulous; and the Renaissance cannot be clearly understood unless these facts are recognized with all their consequences and implications.

As Greece had been a group of little city-states, constantly at odds with each other and changing sides as their temporary advantage pointed, so was Italy in the Middle Age. The Papacy was endeavoring to add supremacy in the political world to her domination in the spiritual. The shadow of the Roman Empire, with a shadowy Emperor of German birth at its apex, lay upon the Western world. The Pope claimed that as the Vicar of Christ and therefore the superior of all other earthly sovereigns, he must crown the Emperor; the Emperor demurred; both potentates were constantly seeking to encroach upon the rights and authority, real or assumed, of the other, and the bitter feud between them and their adherents, the Guelph and Ghibelline parties, entangled all Italy and much of Europe in the meshes of a thousand political intrigues, plots, and counterplots. This miserable struggle exhausted all factions including the burgher class, which had gradually learned to reap the advantage of all these quarrels, as the Communes of France had done, and had acquired the real balance of power; and the little republics of Italy sought refuge from conflict and its responsibilities under the banners of the Despots.

By the twelfth century the Germanic tongue of the descendants of the Barbarians, and of the Longobards who had been settled for hundreds of years in that wide plain of Lombardy to which they had given their name, was completely absorbed, and the Italian language, enriched by these foreign additions was, in spite of local dialectic differences that persist to this day in every village and province, a flexible, sonorous, and melodious vehicle of thought and feeling of a definitely Latin cast. Dante Alighieri, with whom not only culminates the Middle Age in Italy, but is inaugurated the new era, cast aside the Latin language of the scholar and wrote the Divine Comedy in the vulgar tongue with a medieval heart and a modern mind. For the first time a work of literature was accessible to the common people, who pointed out Dante on the streets as the man who had descended into Hell. In painting, the rising sap of mod-ern thought was first manifested in Dante’s friend Cimabue, who made a departure from the stiff and lifeless convention of the Byzantine tradition and drew the figure from life instead of repeating an established flat pattern as the custom had been; his picture of the Madonna was greeted as a miracle by the people of Florence and escorted by joyous crowds in a shower of flower petals to its place in the Church of Santa Maria Novella. His pupil Giotto, painter, sculptor, and architect, a broader man and a better artist, abandoned to a great extent the use of gold backgrounds, went to life for his inspiration, and introduced the element of landscape into his compositions. In sculpture, Niccola Pisano, through the study of antique Roman fragments of carving, opened a vista which led to the exquisite works of a galaxy of artists. And in architecture our first debt is to Filippo Brunelleschi for his examination of Roman buildings and the application of their constructive and decorative principles to his own work. Brunelleschi is a true link in architecture between the Middle Age and the Renaissance as Dante is in literature, although he came much later, for architecture responded last to the new impulse; in his lifetime printing was invented and the art of paper-making was introduced from China to work a revolution in the intellectual world by the rapid and cheap distribution of the classics of ancient literature. Seven years after his death in 1446 the Turks took Constantinople, and swarms of scholars and artists took refuge in Italy, bearing with them copies of many of the classic authors, Roman and Greek. A mad enthusiasm for this new-found culture of the ancients seized the strong intellects refreshed as it were by the long sleep of the Dark and Middle Ages. The monasteries of Europe were ransacked for classical manuscripts which had been kept from the world for ages by the ignorance, stupidity, or bigotry of the monks, or preserved by the loving care of the instructed. Scholars lectured everywhere and the universities overflowed with students from every corner of Europe who flocked starving to this feast of knowledge spread for all who would partake. The myths of Greece and Rome became familiar and soon the immortal stories of the pagan gods began to be portrayed in art often in strange association with Christian legend.

At a time when English noblemen and the French noblesse scorned the ability to read and write as being beneath the dignity of the man of blood and action, the aristocracy of Italy were eagerly absorbing all this learning; to their fresh and virile minds was given the knowledge of the past in the literature of humanism, and they entered into their restored heritage of mental freedom. As in the Athens of the Golden Age, the ground prepared, the seed sown, a harvest of vivid and versatile personalities far exceeding in number the con-temporaries of Pericles sprang up to make the period glorious. Like that other Golden Age the period was brief—from about 1400 in the youth of Brunelleschi to the death in 1564 of Michael Angelo, who had long mourned its decline. And the flood of this mental and spiritual rebirth bore on its bosom such argosies of beauty as only Athens ever sheltered or sent forth.

The stream of antique learning that poured into Italian minds so swiftly, filling them in so short a time with strange new beauties and stranger flowers of evil, swept away in its sudden and powerful rush many of the old spiritual props of an earlier and simpler age. Precious as the knowledge of good and evil is, man paid for it, as he has ever paid, a heavy price ; but who would not rather pay that price than dwell in darkness, half-souls, half-minds, half-men ! Dazzled at first by the light that beat upon their eyes. it seemed as though there must be two kinds of truth, the pagan and the Christian truth. But presently men like Pico della Mirandola, that keen intellect and fine spirit, endeavored to reconcile the newly acquired learning with the tenets of the Christian faith, dimly perceiving that all truth is one, that the instinct of man is to erect beyond the confines of his own soul an ideal of goodness and beauty immerging all the virtues he would fain himself possess.

Throughout the Renaissance in Italy vice stalked abroad at virtue’s side, even in the very garments of virtue. With the simplicity and gravity of manners of the early Florentine republic is to be contrasted the wickedness of the Papal Court of the Borgias. Poison and piety, the poniard and the psaltery, the dungeon and the sunlit reaches of fair gardens, were contrasts that did not exclude a true and passionate love of the arts of design, of literature, of music, of poetry, a noble thirst for knowledge careless of its good or evil import be it but knowledge. The depravity of a Cesare Borgia, incestuous fratricide, is balanced by the virtues of a Girolamo Savonarola, priest and patriot, who held the hearts of Florence in his hands. Happy the ruler who, secure in the affections of his people and of his family, could dispense with the shirt of mail that for his fellow princes, worn secretly beneath their dress, on so many occasions blunted the dagger of the assassin. In the palaces of Venice, of Naples, of most Italian cities, the bravi who would cut you a throat like winking were accepted appurtenances of a noble house. A tolerance of these contrasts and the facts they represented. the acceptance of them as normal conditions, strange and amazing to present-day thought, pervaded Italian society. The versatility of the epoch, that showed itself in the artist who was goldsmith, painter, architect, engineer, sculptor, scientist, designer of pageants, poet, companion of savants and princes, was frequently manifested in the prince by the combination in him of the extreme of urbanity and amenity with a simple ruthlessness that takes one’s twentieth-century breath away.

Little by little the Italians became the bankers of Europe; the quays of Venice and Genoa, as those of Pisa and Amalfi had been in earlier times, were piled high with the carpets and tissues, the gold and jewels and ivory of the East; and with the wealth of the world that poured into the lap of Italy came the luxuries of a spacious life, luxuries that have always seemed in the history of the world to sap the foundations of civil life and bring decay of moral fibre, of civic virtue, in their train, leaving the people the prey of others whom soft living has not yet enfeebled. Two hundred years sufficed for Italy to pass through every phase from the utmost simplicity of manners to utter decadence. Men lived fast in those days and quickly exhausted every attainable sensation, exhausted themselves, their stock, and their nation.

In their fearless curiosity the men of the Renaissance explored every avenue of thought and feeling, made every political experiment—democracy in Florence, theocracy in Rome, aristocratic oligarchy in Venice, monarchy in Naples, tyranny in Milan; this diversity in their political institutions is but one sign of their mental activity and unrest, as Symonds points out. Variety and individuality are revealed in their arts as we should expect; and these are exemplified in a large way by the physiognomy of their cities, an individuality fostered by those conditions of climate, of situation, of wide horizons like Venice or of mountainous isolation like Siena or San Gimignano, with many other of the factors we indicated in an earlier chapter as contributing to the moulding of character, human or artistic. All these influences wrought upon the Italian artist, completely the child of his hour. After many centuries we are again able to identify the man with his work as we may in Greece. In Italy from Cimabue on, we know every artist of any significance whatever, the circumstances of his life and the number and quality of his works. The biographies and critical analyses and monographs on the Renaissance period are legion; and we must resist a temptation to develop the many fascinating and interlocking themes beyond the limits proper to so swift a summary as we are making here. The Renaissance is the time of personality, sharp cut, yet full of apparent contradictions which yield only to a long and thoughtful study of the period. These men must be apprehended as essentially simple, with a direct and simple outlook on their world. Their reactions to the stimuli of the moment are as many and diverse as the stimuli themselves, as diversified as the spirit of the time, and the reactions being direct and simple their sum produces the impression of a complexity of character they did not really possess. A modern man is a much more complex person. It was as though they kept their morality, their religion, their politics, their culture, in separate compartments of the brain so that they could not interact, and, for a modem mind in which all sorts of inhibitions and inter-actions are in conflict and make every action an affair of questioning and self-searching, it is difficult to find and maintain a sympathetic and understanding attitude—doubly difficult for a Protestant mind, against whose spiritual background the flames of hell-fire leap and flicker. The man of the Renaissance was relieved of all Protestant prohibitions and inhibitions and moved straight to his goal whatever that might be, through blood or tears.

It was in this atmosphere created by simple but conflicting elements that the artist of the Renaissance lived and worked. And the strange and naif commingling of simple Christian belief and piety with simple pagan behavior is his reaction to their stimuli. Simple as the Renaissance mind was compared with the modern mind, it was complex compared with the simplicity of Greek or Roman. The Christian religion had changed for good and all the outlook of Western civilization upon life and a whole new order of ideas, thoughts, emotions, had arisen for which the sculpture of Greece, the architecture of Rome or of the Communes were inadequate, and could only find a measure of expression in the art of painting, to rise in this epoch to heights undreamed.