Humanism and the Arts

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Humanism and the Arts



Rebirth. Beginning in the mid fourteenth century, many scholars and writers began to be concerned with the decline of the arts and the corruption of the Latin language after the barbarian invasions of the fourth and fifth centuries. Italian poet Francesco Petrarch (1304-1374), often considered the father of humanism, called upon his contemporaries to engage in new initiatives in the arts and education that would enable future generations to walk out of “the slumber of forgetfulness into the pure radiance of the past.” Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Italian scholars were most keenly aware of the distinctive juncture between the ancient world and medieval society, and they saw themselves as apostles of a new golden age that would usher in the rinascilá (rebirth) of civilization by restoring the literary and artistic standards of classical society. These scholars vehemently attacked the relentless rationalism of scholasticism that dominated medieval universities and became ardent champions of a new educational program or curriculum that focused on the studia humanitatis (study of humanistic disciplines), such as grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy.


Consider this, dear guests; imagine Diotima addressing Socrates thus,

“No body is completely beautiful, O Socrates, For it is either attractive in this part and ugly in that, or attractive today, arid at other times not, or is thought beautiful by one person and ugly by another. Therefore, the beauty of the body, contaminated by the contagion of ugliness, cannot be the pure, true, and first beauty. In addition no one ever supposes beauty itself to be ugly, just as one does not suppose wisdom to be foolish, but we do consider the arrange of bodies sometimes beautiful and sometimes ugly. And at any one time different people have different opinions about it. Therefore the first and true beauty is not in bodies. Add the fact that many different bodies have the same family name, ’the beautiful.' Therefore there must be one common quality of beauty in many bodies, by virtue of which they are alike called ’beautiful.' Therefore the single beauty of many bodies derives from some single incorporeal maker. The one maker of all things is God, who through the Angels and the Souls every day renders all the Matter of the world beautiful. Therefore it must be concluded that the true Reason of beauty is to be found in God and in His ministers rather than in the Body of the World....

The beauty of bodies is a light; the beauty of the soul is also a light. The light of the soul is truth, which is the only thing which your friend Plato seems to ask of God in his Prayers: Grant to me, O God he Says, that my soul may become beautiful, and that those things which pertain to the body may not impair the beauty of the soul, and that I may think only the wise man rich. In this prayer Plato says that the beauty of the soul consists in truth and wisdom, and that it is given to men by God, Truth, which is given to use by God single and uniform, through its various effects acquires the names of various virtues. Insofar as it deals with divine things, it is called Wisdom (which Plato asked of God above all else); insofar as it deals with natural things, it is called Knowledge; with human things, Prudence, Insofar as it makes men equal, it is called Justice; insofar as it makes them invincible, Courage; and tranquil, Temperance.”

Source: Marsilio Ficino, Commentary on Plato’s Symposium on Love, translated by Sears Jayne (Dallas: Spring Publications, 1985), pp. 141-145, as cited in Kenneth R. Bartlett, The Civilization of the Italian Renaissance; Sources in Modern History (Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1992), pp. 120-123.

Civic Humanism and Public Art. The broad educational program advocated by fourteenth- and fifteenth-century humanists emphasized the moral responsibility of the educated elite to engage in civic service. This politics of engagement was particularly suited to the republican city-states of central Italy, where skilled humanists played a pivotal role in government. As chancellors, secretaries, and diplomats, humanists carried out extensive administrative duties as well as defended the republican ideals of the city-states they served, writing epic poems and patriotic histories, often in an eloquent Latin style accessible only to other members of the ruling elite. Scholars have paid particular attention to the links between the arts and politics in fifteenth-century Florence, where the ruling elite commissioned artists such as Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello, and Filippo Brunelleschi—working in the new vocabulary of classicism—to create visual monuments to republican idealism and civic pride throughout the city. By 1430 the construction or renovation of some important civic sites, such as the cathedral, Palazzo della Signoria (town hall), and Foundling Hospital testified to Florentines’

willingness to shoulder expensive public-works projects that radically transformed the urban fabric of the city. Private citizens and guilds also commissioned artists to renovate parish churches, private chapels, and palatial residences in the latest style.

Family Commissions. Humanist treatises, such as Leon Battista Alberti’s Della famiglia (On the Family, 1433), which defended marriage, the acquisition of wealth, and the pursuit of fame as fundamental to the survival of the republic, encouraged patrician families to erect permanent monuments to their family’s power and status. To mark their political ascendancy in Florence, for example, the Medicis engaged in many building projects, including the renovation of the parish church of San Lorenzo. In 1442 Cosimo de’ Medici agreed to assume the entire cost of renovating the church. In return for this generous gesture he demanded legal control of the main altar, the most sacred space in the church, and stipulated that no other family’s coat of arms could appear in any guise in the building. Cosimo and his brother Lorenzo assured the imprimatur of their patronage would be prominently displayed in other ways, hiring artists such as Donatello to design impressive funerary monuments for their parents and stucco reliefs of their own patron saints, Lawrence and Cosmas.

Private Collections. The Renaissance mania for collecting and even replicating ancient manuscripts, works of art, coins, and other artifacts was a natural outgrowth of the humanist reverence for antiquity. In the burgeoning and competitive market for antiquities, renowned artists such as Donatello were called upon to appraise the authenticity and value of newly discovered works. Skilled artists such as Michelangelo participated in the growing traffic in reproductions and forgeries that were created with and without the complicity of their clients. In some ways the antique coins, jewelry, and small objets d’art that comprised the collections of Renaissance princes and the wealthy elite were remarkably similar in composition to collections amassed by princely connoisseurs such as the duke of Berry a century earlier, but the essential spirit behind the enterprise was profoundly different. By surrounding themselves with classical artifacts and reproductions, humanists, wealthy collectors, and princely connoisseurs strove to form a clearer conception of the civilization whose ideals they wanted to reclaim and re-create in their private and public lives.

A Golden Age. By the late fifteenth century the artists and humanist scholars who gathered at the court of Lorenzo de’ Medici were perpetuating a timeless and essentially romantic vision of antiquity. The idealized frescoes of a young golden-haired Lorenzo as one of the Magi, painted by Benozzo di Lese Gozzoli (circa 1421-1497) for the family’s private chapel in Florence; the large-scale mythological works of Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510); and the Vitruvian villa that Guiliano da Sangallo (circa 1443-1516) built for Lorenzo at Poggio a Caino in the 1480s, employed a language that was strikingly different from the naturalistic and narrative conventions embraced by artists of the early fifteenth century. Even the Neoplatonic love poetry written by Lorenzo and his close associates reflects the emergence of a new courtly style consonant with his princely ambitions.

Neoplatonism and Human Creativity. While Renaissance humanists and artists admired and imitated ancient models closely, many of the works they produced were cultural hybrids that strongly reflected their Christian training and orientation. Late-fifteenth-century humanist scholars, such as Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and his disciples at the Florentine Platonic Academy, were strongly drawn to study Plato and second-century Neoplatonic philosophers in part because their writings upheld the superiority of the spiritual world over the material. His most famous works, Platonic Theology (1482) and On Christian Religion (1474), reflected his desire to synthesize pagan philosophy with Christianity. Like his most famous disciple, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), Ficino attributed superhuman potential to human beings, made in God’s image with the unique capacity to mediate spiritual reality. Through the study of ancient and arcane texts Ficino believed that scholars could uncover the hidden sympathies that existed between the spiritual and corporeal worlds and learn to command all created beings, even the celestial intelligence or stars, to do their bidding. For Ficino the creative powers harnessed by the scholar-magician, through the study of arcane texts, belonged naturally to artists, who were gifted with the divine vision to replicate beauty and thus approach the very mind of God. In his Commentaries on Plato, Ficino described how physical images of beauty directed the human mind and spirit toward the revelation of True Beauty or God. Not surprisingly, Michelangelo, Botticelli, and other fifteenth-century artists were drawn to Neoplatonism and its reverence for the creative powers of artistic genius.

Christian Humanism. By the 1500s the term “humanism” described an increasingly ambitious enterprise to reform the fundamental features of medieval society, including the Church itself. Northern scholars were deeply attracted to the Neoplatonic studies of Ficino and his circle which corresponded to their own interests in spiritual reform. The literary efforts of Northern humanists such as Jacques LeFebvre d’Etaples (1450-1536) in France, Desiderius Erasmus (circa 1466-1536) in the Netherlands, and Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (1436-1517) in Spain were largely directed toward biblical scholarship, religious reform, and education. Like the Italian humanists, many northern humanists envisioned the rebirth of a golden age, but one that was profoundly Christian: a pax Christiana where justice, peace, and civility would transform civil society. The artistic and literary program of transalpine humanism also proved useful to the political and cultural agenda of the princely elite in the north, where humanists serving as royal secretaries, historiographers, and librarians became architects of royal power and the new culture of courtliness and civility.


Charles G. Nauert Jr., Humanism and the Culture of the Renaissance (Cambridge Sc New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

John T. Paoletti and Gary M. Radke, Art in Renaissance Italy (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1997).

Donald J. Wilcox, In Search of God and Self: Renaissance and Reformation Thought (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975).

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