3. Back to the Future


Italian Humanists recover the classical past

Donatello George ancient statue

          Donatello St. George, detail               Ancient Roman bust of the Emperor Augustus

When Renaissance artists looked for inspiration in the great works of classical antiquity,

they were essentially going “back to the future.”

Donatello’s St. George in the Bargello Museum

This passion for the ancient world began with the humanists, scholars who rejected Medieval scholastic curriculum.

In Medieval universities students learned the “trivium” of grammar, rhetoric and logic

and the “quadrivium” of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy

“History” and “literature” were not part of the traditional curriculum.

Bologna university
Europe’s oldest university was founded in the city of Bologna


Humanists wanted to get into direct contact with the texts of antiquity, reading them in the original, and without the mediation of scholastic interpretations.

When medieval people thought of the ancients they often envisioned them as very similar to themselves:
Virgil ARTSTOR_103_41822000537058
Carving of the ancient Roman poet Virgil, Piazza Broletto, Mantua, 13th century


During the Renaissance, humanists began to see the ancient world differently.

petrarch's virgilA page of a volume of Virgil’s poetry illustrated by Simone Martini in 1340.  It once belonged to Petrarch.

Petrarch was one of the early humanists, who tried to imagine the ancient world in its historical context.

Petrarch Ritratto altichiero,_1376_circa,_padova
This is said to be a portrait of Petrarch, painted in 1376

One of Petrarch’s most renowned writings is his “Ascent of Mt. Ventoux.”

Mont_VentouxPhotograph of Mt. Ventoux

Here is a letter in Latin, written in his hand:
petrarch autograph


Writers were not the only ones to be attracted by the ancient world

donatellosaintmarkDonatello St.Mark  Museum of Orsanmichele, Florence

Donatello’s work broke new ground; he introduced innovations in sculpture such as the contrapposto stance, inspired by ancient models:

                                                                                                Polykleitos Doryphoros 2nd cent B.C.E. Roman copy

Compared with works created by his contemporaries, Donatello’s naturalism stands out.
Donat Ghib Nanni compared
Lorenzo Ghiberti St. John  1412-16    Donatello St. Mark 1411-16      Nanni di Banco, Isaiah,1408

When Donatello first carved the statue of St. George for the Armorers’ and Sword-makers’ Guild it was displayed on the facade of the Church of Orsanmichele where this copy stands today:

Located in the bustling center of the city, these statues were only some of the many works of public sculpture that Renaissance Florentines saw every day as they went about their business past the Duomo and the Piazza della Signoria.

Across from the Duomo is the Baptistry of San Giovanni, with Lorenzo Ghiberti’s two sets of gilt bronze doors.

Though Ghiberti won the competition, there were many contenders for the prestigious prize.

Here is a site that compares two competition panels, Ghiberti’s and Brunelleschi’s versions of the Sacrifice of Isaac story

Lorenzo Ghiberti The Creation of Adam and Eve, panel of Baptistry door

Ghiberti also included this self-portrait on his Doors of Paradise:

Brunelleschi lost the competition for the bronze doors but he got the much more massive commission of building the cupola atop Florence’s Duomo

To this day, it is a monument that dominates the Florentine horizon:

Duomo from fiesole

Florence as viewed from Fiesole

Brunelleschi also designed the following quintessentially Renaissance buildings in Florence:

Ospedale_degli_InnocentiThe Ospedale degli Innocenti


The interior of the Church of Santo Spirito


The Basilica of San Lorenzo


Pazzi Chapel, exterior


Pazzi Chapel, interior

Brunelleschi is renowned for the invention of single-point perspective, applied with mastery in the painting below, by his friend Masaccio:
Masaccio trinityMasaccio, The Trinity

A diagram of Masaccio’s use of perspective in that work:
Masaccio Trinityperspect

Masaccio’s frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria delle Carmine broke new ground with their raw, expressive emotion:
Masaccio adam eve

…his naturalistic portrayal of the human body…

masac baptism

…the use of lights and shadows (chiaroscuro), and perspective technique

These paintings by Masaccio would be studied by Leonardo, Michelangelo, and virtually all artists of the Renaissance.

Though only twenty-seven at the time of his death, Masaccio revolutionized art.
Masaccio Peter shadow
Masaccio, Saint Peter Healing with His Shadow

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