Art History Everyone Should Know: How The Renaissance probably Began in Florence

Renaissance Art Intro to Florence I want to introduce you to the class and to the concepts of the Renaissance, by first discussing some of the social and economic events that led up to the Italian Renaissance.  Now, for me the beginning of the Renaissance starts around 1300 other teachers will probably argue that it's a little bit later, but the Italian Renaissance for me starts with an artist named Giotto.  Let’s take a look at first what happened during the Middle Ages and then how it led up to Florence being the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance.  This is just one theory so you might have another professor who discusses it in a different way.
Charlemagne's Empire, A.D. 800. This map shows Charlemagne's empire at its height in A.D. 800. The empire extended from central Italy north to Denmark, and from eastern Germany west to the Atlantic Ocean.
To start with Charlemagne, who lived around 800 A.D.   Some professors will say "CE" for the common era instead of AD (anno domini "in the year of our lord"). Charlemagne is this King who unifies Europe during the so-called Middle Ages and this would be also a period that sometimes referred to as the Romanesque.  When he dies he leaves behind territory that is according to the law of the day ( descending from German and Norse traditions) needs to be divided up equally between all of his sons. Charlemagne did not work under the traditional primogeniture that we associate with kings.
When Charlemagne died, his empire did not entirely survive with him. Instead it was divided among this three sons: Charles, Lothair, and Louis. These divisions would impact the eventual political divisions in Europe, in particular the division between France and Germany.
pri·mo·gen·i·ture \-"ch?r, -ch?r, -"ty?r, -"t?r\ n [LL primogenitura, fr. L primus + genitura birth, fr. genitus, pp. of gignere] (1602) 1: the state of being the firstborn of the children of the same parents 2: an exclusive right of inheritance belonging to the eldest son

Charlemagne had three sons, Charles, Lothar, and Louis.  Lothar who is the most powerful got the central territory. My theory behind this and some other constraints have suggested that this might be the cases that is because he is the most powerful king of the three.  Since he was most powerful he inherited where the trade routes run through in Europe that it's contains part of northern Italy and then it is cushioned on either side by his brothers, but it wasn't a friendly relationship between his two brothers.

If you look at the trade routes between Italy and Constantinople and the Middle East what you can  see is that Italy is at the heart or the center of the known world.  At that point in time in the center of the economic world and so it would be the place that would have the most goods running through it and what I want to suggest in some ways is that it's the beginning of the stock exchange or the stock market and that Italian merchants specifically on the coast like Genoa and Venice were able to do things.  For instance they would get a shipment of spices, let's say pepper, which would be used to preserve meat in the North and it was an essential item for people living in the especially the northern areas.
Italian merchants were the middle men.  They would buy that barrel spice for the equivalent of let's say hundred dollars of our money than they would take that spice and sell it at a higher cost to another merchant.  Let's say a French merchant would come down or they might ship it up to Paris and then sell off smaller portions of it for a much higher price.  Let’s say one hundred dollars a quarter barrel.
What both the Italian and French merchants are doing is they're realizing their investment by buying and speculating on the market for pepper and so they become stock exchange or stock traders in a way they make a lot of money.  Now this is this is been going on for quite a while and one of the other things that defines the Italian merchant as opposed to a lot of the northern peoples in the northern cities.  This excess in wealth might have caused some of the economic events and prosperity that allowed the Italian merchants in Florence to buy luxury items such as books and art therefore causing a market that led to the Renaissance.
  • Black Plague (Bubonic and Neumonic Plagues)
  • Decline in population
  • Food surplus leads to low prices.
  • Low production of goods throughout Northern Europe.
  • City states on the Italian Coast do better.
One of the other things that seems to be the cause of the Italian Renaissance happens to be the Black Death. The Black Death comes in two forms.  It's the bubonic and the pneumonic plague.  The plague is bacterial infection that in the bubonic version causes these black swellings that dissolve the body from the inside out and that's spread by fleas.  The pneumonic plague is  an aerosolized version of it, which means that when you sneeze or cough people would get the bacteria and it was really toxic.  It killed a lot of people on some of the numbers that I've looked at it seems like it killed off anywhere up to 80% of Europe.
Now you can also see that the bubonic pneumonic plague's spread through the trade routes. Some sources suggested that it came through Constantinople.  It ended up on a ship that landed on the Italian coast and although the ship was quarantined unfortunately the rats came in and carried the fleas that spread the disease.  From that point on it, it rats were the major cause of the spread of the plague and I've also heard that because people didn’t like cats in the Middle Ages that might've been one of the reasons why it also got out of hand.
You can see from this map that it really went and decimated most of Europe during the 14th century during the 1300s and it didn’t stop after the 1300s.  It would come back occasionally just it just spring up here and there.  Some scholars suggest that there were side effects: a surplus of some foods and that lowered costs throughout Europe and allowed for some money to be distributed.  I don't think that's necessarily true.  I think there was food production was very low, it does affect the economy and one of the things that really does affect the economy significantly in is that there's a low production of goods and people just don't show up to work.
The rising cost of produced goods in Europe and the fact that Italy is really the wealthiest region because it is the center of “stock exchange” produced a climate where Italian cities like Florence can charge a lot for these things.  What happens is they become really the prime economic force throughout Europe.
The Italians are so wealthy they are able to invest their money in other things, for instance, art and literature, but there also some other kinds of things that are going on in Italian cities that relate to this kind of stuff.   If you recall I mentioned before that one of the things that was going on in the Italian cities is the fact that there really weren't people who were aristocrats and there was a new generation of people who became a aristocratic class.  These new aristocrats were the political rulers of cities and you may recognize some names appear the especially de Medici who were in Florence, so that's kind of an important thing.  What seems to happen is because there are no aristocrats and the cities are founded on a Republic basis, which means their semi-Democratic that some of the decisions are made by counsel, and by popular vote. There's this idea that it's very important that people become educated and get a liberal arts education.
Italians (especially Florentines) during the 1300s felt that everyone needed to be educated in order for them to be good citizens.  It’s an idea that Italians took from the Roman Empire.  What happens then is, there's this popularity for classical learning, for looking at how the Greek and Roman cultures lived and how the governments worked.  At the forefront of this were some of the banking families, the Medici and friends of the Lorenzo the Magnificent.
You can see that he had a son who became a Pope. Catherine de Medici became queen of France.  We also have other popes are in the family that's a really important because forward to what we’re seeing is that these banking families who made their money by  loaning money and also getting favors become the controlling force in Florentine government.  What they also do is invest a lot of their money in the arts at this point in time we also see a couple authors names Boccaccio who really just wrote a a semi-dirty book called the Decameron and Dante Alighieri, and whose the author of the Divine Comedy.  Dante is probably one of the other really important figures that explain why some things about Florence that makes it so important and explain why it became the birthplace of the Renaissance.
  • Cosimo de Medici 1389-1464
    • Lorenzo de Medici 1449-1492
      • Giovanni (Pope Leo X) 1475-1521
      • Catherine (Queen of France) 1519-1589
    • Giuliano 1453-1478
      • Giulio (Pope Clement VII) 1478-1534
  • Giovanni Bocaccio 1313-1375 (Author of the Decameron)
  • Dante Alighieri 1265-1320 (Author of the Divine Comedy)
Dante is this guy who is studying the classics and he's brought up in this humanist tradition in which people are being educated to read the Roman and Greek classics.  Latin had become a semi-dead language and was now was becoming alive again. Dante is an important Florentine and he is active in the government and he is in one of these political parties that is  against having the Pope’s control of Florence.  Dante and his party believed that the Pope is just attempting to become another type of king and evens so; there was no clear line of succession for who was legally the pope.

Dante Alighieri 1265-132 (Author of the Divine Comedy)
You might've heard of the Babylonian Captivity where there were several popes scattered around Europe each one claiming to be the legitimate one.  So nobody's really sure who the Pope is at this point in time.  You also have a certain cynicism that's been brought out by the plague in the Black Death.
Dante is middle-aged when he and his party lose the battle.  Dante is exiled out of Florence and when he moves out of Florence he becomes this figure who is looking back at his life.   This crisis in his life created a change for him in which he took a hard look at his life.  What he does is he writes a poem in the common Florentine dialect (the language of Italian.)  Now that's important because mostly all of the scholarly books were written in Latin before this point in time.  Dante writes an epic poem called the Divine Comedy.
The Divine Comedy is divided into three sections which symbolically links it to Catholic iconography such as the idea of the Trinity. Each section is divided into 33 cantos (Italian for “songs)” and the poem he writes is written in the common language of the day.
It describes him in his middle-aged losing his path these on a dark path, and these monsters kind of uher him down into the lower depths of the underworld (borrowed from the imagery of Hades of the classical world). Virgil the Roman poet who wrote the Aeneid (an epic Roman poem that describes the founding of Rome) is his tour guide through Purgatory, Hell  and Heaven.
Domenico Di Michelino
Dante and the Three Kingdoms 1465 The painting was made in 1465 to commemorate
Dante's 200th birthday
We can see that all laid out in this painting by Domenico Di Michelino.  What it shows in the right-hand side is Florence’s Duomo. On the left-hand side, is Dante's conception of Heaven and Hell, represented as a kind of stepped mountain, and at the top are what looks like Adam and Eve and the Original Sin.  Dante is showing you his book.  We know what he looked like because there were death masks (molds made of his face) made of him.
His journey in this in this Divine Comedy is a discussion of how he has lost his way and he goes through these different levels of Heaven and Hell and he meets up with people who were that he knows from Florence.   Some of them are people that he likes and some of the people that he hates.  The fact that he includes both people he likes and hates in Heaven and Hell and in Purgatory, is kind of democratic.  Through the tour he takes of these realms and the stories of peoples’ damnation and or ascension to heaven his journey is one of reawakening of self-awareness.  What he really learns about himself is that he has lost his way and he needs to become a moral leader.  Now that also ties in with kind of education that the Italians during the Renaissance are an option meant they believe that people should have that they should have a moral education as well as an intellectual education.   They really thought that if you developed your intellect you would automatically become a moral person.
We will study Dante a bit more depth later on the semester, but I wanted to introduce you to him and his Divine Comedy and the fact that it was written in a common tongue. At that point time that represents a radical change.  The last idea about Dante is that he's the guy who came up with our idea our schema of what Heaven, Purgatory and Hell look like.  This vision is not described in the Bible when you when you read the old and new Testaments.  It's not laid out the way Dante has laid it out.  But yet we popularly believe that Dante's version is how the cosmos is constructed.
One of the buildings that's built in Florence at this point in time, which  started in 1296 is the Cathedral and often what you'll hear is Italian buildings are referred to as the Duomo, which just means the dome and so if you go to any city bill refer to the Cathedral and cathedra is in Latin means the seat, which means the seat of the Bishop and usually there's a dome over the center of the church and we have here is a dome that they couldn't build in 1296 when it was begun by Arnolfo di Cambio, Francesco Talenti,  Andrea Orcagna and others. They just couldn't figure out how to build it.  The dome was this big open space and it was it was an embarrassment to the city’s pride.  By the 1400s Brunelleschi comes along and he comes up with a revolutionary concept of how to design a dome and he's not using the same concepts that we will be studying in an earlier classical building called the Pantheon.
Florence Cathedral (The Duomo)
Arnolfo di Cambio, Francesco Talenti, 
Andrea Orcagna and others. Begun 1296, redesigned 1357 and 1366.
Drum and dome by Brunelleschi 1420-36
campinalle by Giotto, Andrea Pisano 
and Francesco Talenti, c 1334-50
Overall plan is Romanesque
Interior Vaulting is Gothic
Dome is Renaissance
Facade is 19th Century
Brunelleschi uses some really radical technology.  This is probably because his and the other Florentines who hired him had open minds. Brunelleschi was willing to think critically and look at classical architecture.  The Duomo has become a monument that expresses Florentine intellectual thought during the Renaissance and the rebirth of classicism.
The Duomo’s Baptistery at Florence Cathedral, has a set of monumental bronze doors which Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti competed for the right to decorate.   The way that most art historians talk about it is that Brunelleschi lost the lost the commission Ghiberti won, although in some books have come across they were both awarded it equally that they had to share the commission.  In any event Ghiberti won by default because Brunelleschi was a sore loser didn't want to work with him.

Lorenzo Ghiberti The Gates of Paradise,
Jacob and Essau
Florence, Baptistry Eastern Door, 1425-52
These doors that we’re looking at on the baptistery have strong classical influences.   You can see these arches you can see classical orders being used on the top of the.   Some figures are standing in a pose that's called contrapposto, which is that there's shift of weight at the hips.  Other classical references are the wet drapery that shows the anatomy.  The Florentines of the 1300 and 1400s really believed that what they were doing was bringing back the classical world.  The classical arts of Rome and Greek and it was a time of rebirth in which they were bringing these classical humanistic ideas and integrating them with Christian ideas.
One of the major Florentine artists that will be studying also in depth is Masaccio. Masaccio is a painter who probably died during one of the incarnations of the plague because he disappears right after he paints this.  We have no real record of what or where he ended up so there's an assumption that he died and it's kind of interesting because this fresco that were looking at a fresco.  Fresco is a kind of paint that is watercolor mixed with the mineral lime and then applied to damp plaster walls that soaks in permanent stains the wall.  This Trinity with Donors is a major work from Florence that expresses a lot of the ideas that were in a be looking at and why Florence would be the capital of the Renaissance and the birthplace of the Renaissance first vote you can see here is you have this Roman triumphal arch which is not a Christian structure.  It's a pagan structure yet they are using it for a Christian purpose.
MASACCIO 1401-1428
Trinity with Donors c1428
S.Maria Novella 
16' tall 
fresco What I am you will become what I was you are.
memento mori
The iconography or symbolism is of the classical world, so we see this Roman triumphal arch with these coffers inside that look a bit like the Pantheon we have God the Father with an elliptical Halo or over his head.  The halo’s shape also shows the birth of what's called linear perspective.  In the center of the arches the is the Holy Trinity, the father the son and the Holy Spirit which is a dove that also looks like the collar of God the Father.  We see John the evangelist down at the base of the scene on the right just inside the arch. Mary is opposite him on the left gesturing towards her son.  Both John and Mary stand at just above eye level. We literally look up to them.
If you are standing in front of the fresco the lintel or shelf on which the two patron’s stand is at eyelevel.  We as viewers stand underneath even the two patrons who paid for the fresco.  Along with us at our level is a skeleton.  Above the skeleton, inscribed in Italian, is a phrase that roughly translates into,
“What I am, you will become. What I was you are.”
What they're saying is you better get right with God because we all eventually die and are judged.  Probably that is reflected in some ways the attitude that the Black Plague brought about and it also is this integration of the idea that the human experience can also lead you to understand more spiritual things.  We call this “reminder of death” a memento mori and it's a way of reminding you that one day we will all die will go the way of all flesh.  God is the only eternal thing.  Florentines believed that by integrating this classical philosophy with a Christian Catholic theology one could be saved and even live a better life.
Two major sculptors were heroic and not just because they were members of the Mutant Ninja Turtles were Donatello and Michelangelo.  Both made sculptures that look an awful lot like a classical Greek sculpture called the Doryphoros by a sculptor named Polycleitus in from around 450 BCE.  The Doryphoros is standing in a similar pose called contrapposto. They are nude, which could be almost anti-Christian because the idea of a nude figure refers to carnality and physical pleasure or hedonism.

David 1440 CE
Florence, Italy
Renaissance Period
David  1501-1504 CE
Florence, Italy
Renaissance Period

Doryphoros 450 BCE
Athens, Greece
Classical Period
Michelangelo and Donatello were working in the classical mode and we will study the sculptures in depth and analyze how they relate to the earlier classical tradition especially from ancient Greece, as its translated through classical Rome up through the Renaissance.  One of the main ideas behind the Renaissance is that human experience, which we sometimes call humanism or classical humanism, can lead you to understand a higher spiritual calling a platonic way of being or a Christian way of being.  The ancient world's ideology, even though pagan and not Christian, was and is not necessarily at odds with Christian theology.  The human experience, “man is the measure of all things” can lead us to understand how to become better moral people.
Another one of the Mutant Ninja Turtles is Leonardo da Vinci.  Leonardo da Vinci is not just an artist.  He's really a scientist as well and where we get a lot of the ideas of the so-called Renaissance man.  The Renaissance man is a person who is schooled in all different forms of philosophy and rhetoric, which means you the ability to argue things well.  The Renaissance man would also be a person who understood physical sciences often was someone who had read the classics and was also physically fit physically able.  He usually was a warrior and often is also even described as being handsome.
Leonardo da Vinci 
Vitruvian Man, 
Study of proportions,
from Vitruvius's 
De Architectura
1492 Pen and ink, 
34.3 x 24.5 cm
In this page out of Leonardo's sketchbook, he's referring to an earlier architect Vitruvius writings from the first century.  Vitruvius’s book De Architectura (On Architecture) is a treatise (a comprehensive work on architecture) discusses how “man is the measure of all things.”  Vitruvius believed that the human proportion and symmetry of the human body should be the basis for architecture.  Notice how Leonardo illustrates these ideas, human proportion is symmetrical.  The arms are equal to the height of the body.  It is symmetrical but also a radially symmetrical figure.
Look at the text below the drawing, it is written backwards.  Leonardo uses mirror writing in his sketchbooks. (More on that later.)  His sketchbooks are really scientific studies and a kind of treatise on human anatomy and the mechanics of the human body.
In conclusion what I'd like to suggest to you is that Florence is really the beginning of all the Renaissance because of some of the economic things that happen there, because of the plague that swept across Europe, and the fact that the Florentines were also independent of a aristocratic or Royal class.  They were really self-made people and that they believe that if you educated yourself you could pull yourself up by your by your own bootstraps can become a self-created individual or “Renaissance Man.”

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