The Renaissance was a time in European history in which the culture and vision of Classical Greek and Roman Antiquity was reassessed and – in varying degrees – reassimilated into artistic and intellectual life during the Late Middle Ages. Europe in the Middle Ages following the political fragmentation of the Western Roman Empire after 476 AD, underwent major cultural and institutional changes. These included the breakdown of the Senatorial Aristocracy whose shared literary culture and erudition characterised elite Roman Society and the rise of a new, landed, military aristocracy whose wealth and influence was not supported by an Imperial Hierarchy but rather on proximity to a monarch. Another Important change after the Fall of 476 was the breakdown of the Imperial tax network and that of the Roman Military system; both of which brought the entire Empire, which spanned from Hadrian’s Wall to the Euphrates into fiscal, military and cultural unity.
With the Fall of the Roman Empire in Late Antiquity, and the concomitant breakdown of the above institutions, Europe underwent an epoch of both continuity with the Roman past but also one of remarkable transition. Perhaps most important for maintaining a direct cultural link with the literary, philosophical and artistic heritage of Greco-Roman Hellenism, was the Senatorial Aristocracy of the Roman Empire. Hellenism is the culture of the Ancient Greeks and the underlying Greek influence on subsequent cultures including that of the Greco-Roman Hellenic sphere and even the core of Western culture to this day. With the breakdown of the Roman Imperial System and subsequent breakup of the Senatorial Elite, this erudite political aristocracy was eventually replaced by a class of landowning military families who would form the nobility of the Middle Ages. This particular culture rupture contributed to the break of direct continuity with Hellenic culture in the Middle Ages because of the different characteristics and values of the aristocracy which replaced the Roman Senatorial class. It can be said at this early stage of our enquiry into what the Renaissance in Italy was that the spirit, memory and character of Hellenism and the Hellenic vision in moral, artistic, intellectual and spiritual terms that was reawakened, reassessed and reassimilated into European culture. At the core of Renaissance values is the ancient spirit of Hellenism.
While the reception of Ancient art and philosophy was not at all absent from the Middle Ages, The Renaissance was a time in which the reception of the Hellenic past was reevaluated. Throughout the Middle Ages there had been the Romanesque and Gothic art which sought to continue with Roman monumentality with a degree of naturalism. There was also the fact that the Roman institution which survived the Fall of 476, the Church, had assimilated stands of Late Antique thought into its Theology and Orthodox practice. Moreover, the Church together with the rise of the Medieval University utilised the works of Ancient Greek and Roman thinkers such as Galen and Aristotle to frame their studies of the Natural World, Medicine, and both secular and canon law. Medieval art and intellectual culture, however, channelled the resources derived from Greek and Roman antiquity into a vision which was synchronised with Christian belief. This means that the Romanesque and Italo-Byzantine art of the Middle Ages is Formal in character. This means that rather than depicting the figures of Saints and other divine prototypes in naturalistic postures and with naturalistic proportions, Medieval art implies the transcendence of such figures by situating them in celestial settings rather than in a space rendered with linear perspective, and in the static, stylised description of their features.
While scholars of the Middle Ages were familiar with some ancient thinkers, especially Aristotle, their understanding of ancient philosophy and the ideas of ancient thinkers was reliant on commentaries and translations. This meant that the reception of ancient thought throughout the Middle Ages was influenced by successive commentaries of Medieval scholars rather than the reading of Ancient texts in the original language and format. Consequently, the Medieval understanding of the ancient world and the thought of ancient thinkers was framed more by Medieval scholars than by ancient texts. The primary intellectual movement of the Middle Ages is that of Scholasticism which was the attempt to synthesise Aristotelian logic and cosmology with Christian doctrines regarding the Creation of the world and the nature of causation. The main problem with Scholasticism is that the Medieval practices of scholars did not rely on a reading of the original texts of Ancient Greek Authors and that the Medieval use of Latin was different from Ancient Roman Latin. This, as well as the lack of availability of ancient texts meant that the thought and intentions and true character of the Hellenic World and the ideas of its philosophers was obscured.
Humanism in Italy was an intellectual movement which sought to revive the understanding of ancient languages – especially Latin and Greek and to a lesser extent, Hebrew – and challenge Scholastic intellectual practices. Renaissance Humanists criticised the Scholastic use of Medieval commentaries which were seen to distort and misrepresent ancient ideas, and aimed to place the study of the ancient past on a new footing by studying ancient texts in the languages in which they were written. Humanists like Petrarch (1304 – 1374) in the Late Middle Ages became sensitive to how the culture, intellectual flourishing and artistic brilliance of the Ancient Greco-Roman world of the Hellenic past had ebbed away into the obscurity of history, and as a consequence the Europe of the Middle Ages lacked the moral, cultural and artistic excellence of antiquity. Petrarch was the first to envision his own day as a “Dark Age” and one in which the afterglow of the Ancient World had all but extinguished. The will to revive the culture of the Roman Empire and that of the Ancient Greeks gained momentum and is a defining feature of the period we know as The Renaissance. The Renaissance was a time in which Humanism played an enormous role in Europe’s rediscovery of the ancient ideas which had shaped its culture and identity from antiquity onwards. This literary and intellectual revival took place because of the discovery of ancient manuscripts and the influx of Greek texts from Byzantium. The Renaissance was a time in which the expansion of the urban sphere led to the unearthing of the material culture of the Ancient World with sculptures, sarcophagi and architectural ruins being excavated. It was a time in which the character, complection and creativity of the Hellenic Spirit was channelled back into the life of the European World.
In the Italian Urban centres of the Late Middle Ages, a Renaissance of Ancient Roman art and culture was beginning to occur. A now lesser known artist to the general public, Nicola Pisano (c. 1220 – c. 1284) was a craftsman working during the dominance of the Romanesque style of the Middle Ages. Pisano’s life and career coincided with the accelerated rediscovery of ancient artworks which had been buried for many centuries during the Middle Ages. The appearance of the naturalistic visual language of Roman art inspired Pisano to introduce a greater degree of naturalism and narrative expression in his sculpture. Roman sarcophagi depicting human figures in the nude intermingled in an expressive narrative transformed the artistic vision of Pisano and he began to infuse his work with Hellenic Spirit. His remarkable pulpit in the Baptistry at Pisa shows how in such a Hellenised and naturalistic manner he was able to tell New Testament stories in relief carving. This shows the dramatic impact that the rediscovery had on this pioneering sculptor of the Late Middle Ages and the earliest dawn of The Renaissance. His unique vision infuses Hellenic naturalism with Gothic structure and Christian narrative and ushers in a new era of Naturalism in the art of Europe.
While Roman culture, civilisation and imagery had been a foundational aspect of Medieval European political and spiritual life, the Renaissance in Italy saw a renewed interaction with ancient European culture. From the time of Charlemagne and the inauguration of the Holy Roman Empire in the Central Middle Ages, monarchs and aristocrats had sought to buttress their authority with the imagery of Imperial Rome. Frederic II (d. 1250) was one such Holy Roman Emperor who aimed to revive the aesthetic of the Roman Empire. The reign on Frederic II coincided with the formative years of the career of Nicola Pisano and would have contributed to the widening of interest of Classical Roman art in Italy prior to the Renaissance proper. While Italian artists, intellectuals and kings of the Late Middle Ages were increasingly reassimilating Ancient Roman artistic ideas into their output, the Byzantine Empire, which was the Eastern half of the Roman Empire until the Fall of the Western Roman Empire maintained an unbroken continuity with Greco-Roman Hellenic culture throughout its existence. The events of 1453 which saw the overthrow of the Byzantine Empire with the Islamic conquest of Constantinople mark the true end of the Roman Empire albeit the Greek-speaking Orthodox culture of Medieval Byzantium.
[Platonism as formative of Christian Thought owing to Augustine (so Hellenic ideas if ancient pagan thinkers a part of Christian Europe in the Middle Ages) – Charlemagne interested in Augustine – ]
The dawn of the Renaissance in Italy was a new consciousness of the Ancient European World being a mysterious and magnificent past. The Renaissance was a time in which the obscurity of Europes ancient Hellenic cultural identity was rediscovered and it was acknowledged as being something ancient – something that had been obscured or had become culturally and morally remote – from the culture and art of the Middle Ages. Thinkers and writers like Petrarch felt as though a return to Roman virtus, or excellence would reconnect Europe to the ancient culture which was the source of its authentic identity. The Ancient intellectual resources at the disposal of Medieval scholars had been put to use to maintain a robust synthesis between philosophy and Christian doctrine, but as mentioned above, the Humanists who can be considered one of the chief causes of the Renaissance sought to study ancient writings and uncover their original meaning and the intent of the ancient minds who conceived them. Partnered with the rediscovery of ancient texts which were absent from the Medieval canon, as well as new translations and manuscripts of otherwise unknown – to Latin speaking European scholars of the Middle Ages – Greek and Roman texts brought to Italy via Byzantium, the Humanists of the Renaissance in Italy were able to realise a far deeper vision of the Hellenic World and come more to understand its philosophical, cultural and artistic nature.
The naturalism of roman relief sculpture such as the Phaedra Sarcophagus had so inspired Pisano that his own relief carvings for the Pisa Baptistry took on a naturalistic and narrative depth unseen in European art not seen since the Late Roman Empire. Just as the reassimilation of Roman culture made an impact on Pisano and his sculpture, it also transformed the manner of painting. Painters like Cimabue and in the following generation Giotto, started to paint with a greater degree of naturalistic modelling of their painted figures, a more human sense of emotion, and a greater sense of proportion and spacial depth. This was a monumental departure from the formalism of the imagery of the Middle Ages. Italy’s painting and image-making, prior to the reapplication of naturalistic ideas by Cimabue and Giotto in the 13th and 14th centuries had been dominated by the theocentric, iconographic, Italo-Byzantine approach. The Roman Empire had consolidated Christian Orthodox practice and belief in the 4th century AD and from then onwards, Christian art throughout the Middle Ages had a theological purpose and this transformed the style of figurative representation from the naturalism and anthropocentrism of Hellenic Antiquity into the formalism and theocentrism of Medieval Christendom. Greek icons are paintings of figures of spiritual importance such as Christ or saints which depict them as remote from the natural order.
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