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Art and Cultural Rebirth

The Cross-Cultural History of Renaissance Art

The European Renaissance is divided into Early, High, and Late periods in order to suggest a continuing evolution of culture. Renaissance art demonstrates the evolution in shifting style, form, and subject that coincides with a re-emergence of classical values based on the revival of knowledge from antiquity. In addition, a new humanism developed that focused on concerns of the individual’s experience and intuition, without displacing spiritual concerns. However, nineteenth-century Swiss philosopher Jacob Burckhardt was, perhaps, the first scholar to raise the question of whether a clear divide between the Middle Ages and a so-called Renaissance could really be identified.

Becoming the Renaissance

The intellectual atmosphere, particularly in the wealthy city-state of Florence, was the perfect setting for the principles of humanism to emerge. Individuals who embodied those principles have become time-honored emblems of the Renaissance genius: the universal man, or l’uomo universale. As a period of transition, the Renaissance harbored an astonishing amount of interrelated scientific and artistic innovation. Most notably, Leonardo da Vinci embodied the model humanist by engaging in a broad array of experimentation that contributed to the brief period of the High Renaissance, which was exemplified by dignified, stable, and often majestic art that “unifie[d] and balance[d] the conflicting experiences of an entire culture” (Tansey and Kleiner 1996).

Early Muslim Influence

Centuries before Renaissance men such as da Vinci experimented with light, optics, or even aeronautics, Muslim thinkers across the extensive Arab Empire developed the foundations of technology that in some instances wouldn’t be explored or fulfilled again until the twentieth century. Muslim thinking and innovation throughout the Arab Empire was, in many ways, a strong foundation of the Renaissance in Europe, via cultural, ambassadorial, and commercial routes across the continent and beginning with Italy. Italy was particularly receptive to such thinking as it entered into the period of classical revival that looked to the knowledge of the Roman Empire for inspiration. The Renaissance throughout Europe would closely resemble Italy, but Italy would ultimately prove to be in the ideal geographical position to welcome the imported Muslim culture.

The remarkable innovations of Muslim thinkers such as Ibn al-Haytham and Abbas ibn Firnas are startling for their time. In A.D. 875 in Córdoba, at the farthest extent of the Arab Empire in present-day Spain, ibn Firnas successfully experimented with a wood, silk, and feather flying apparatus and was airborne for a number of minutes. Ibn Firnas had further experimented in mechanics, time, and, astronomy but, like much of the scientific exploration of the early Muslims, such “intellectual heresy” was often lost to history (Morgan 2007). Ibn al-Haytham, however, was one who published volumes of his work that would eventually be translated into Latin in the thirteenth century. These translations would become readily available to scholars in Italy. For al-Haytham, the world could not be understood philosophically, but it could be measured. Remarkably, he nearly determined the thickness of the earth’s atmosphere and almost articulated the physical concept of gravity. Moreover, he identified the linear quality of light and built an object very much like a camera obscura to help demonstrate it. It would be more than five centuries before the likes of da Vinci, Galileo, and Newton would replicate and then build upon al-Haytham’s foundational work (Morgan 2007). Renaissance revisionist historians, on the heels of European fear of the Arab Empire, easily rewrote the Renaissance without acknowledging the golden ages of Muslim power, religion, and intellect. Yet, their indelible impression cannot be overlooked. (Morgan 2007).

The Byzantine Empire

The cultural exchange with the Byzantine Empire of Greece and Asia Minor (also simply known as Byzantium) would further work to spur a Renaissance. A millennium of scholarly and artistic achievement would become readily available to Italy (Wright 2006). Diplomatic exchange came about by the interaction of ambassadors in foreign lands. Such individuals became increasingly autonomous over the centuries, a model that would find a home in the rising Italian city-states, particularly in the coastal cities nearest trade routes with Byzantium. The focus on Italy, then, has much to do with geography. The legacy of the Byzantine Empire that flourished for the better part of a thousand years was centered in Constantinople, a city that had safeguarded innumerable early Christian relics. Such relics also became available to Europe as Byzantium declined and they were plundered by crusaders from its churches.

The powerful city-state that centered in the port city of Venice coexisted with Byzantium in diplomatic exchanges of education, intelligence, and commerce despite omnipresent tension. In the thirteenth century, Byzantium still regarded Italy as uncultured and corrupt while Venice viewed Byzantium as arrogant and overblown—so much so that in 1204 Constantinople was sacked by the visiting crusaders of the Fourth Crusade en route to Jerusalem (Wright 2006). But by the time Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, a deep impression had been left on the West. In particular, centuries of artistic influence of Byzantine forms and iconography, including golden elements inlaid linearly, appeared in late Gothic art in Italy, giving way to light-to-dark shading that imparted the appearance of three dimensions. Linear elements and basic three-dimensional rendering evolved into a scientific, geometrical perspective to give the impression of depth on a flat surface (Davies et al. 2007).

Understanding Humanism

It was with the decline of Constantinople that refugees from Byzantium began flooding into Europe. Many brought with them knowledge of Greek and access to additional ancient texts. Contemporary humanist pursuits eagerly took up and translated into the vernacular literature that had been ignored or lost during the Middle Ages. Humanism was emerging from the impulse to unearth everything that had made classical civilization—especially Rome—so great, and scholars sought the fame of intellectual accomplishment and service to the state.

Fourteenth-century poets Petrarch and Boccaccio were early proponents of the individualistic ideals of humanism. Petrarch, in particular, was able to reconcile the secular (that is to say, pagan) society of Rome with modern Christianity to inspire the kind of Renaissance thinking that championed “the importance of the creative individual” (Tansey and Kleiner 1996). When another poet, Dante Alighieri, published his Commedia in Italian, he not only helped standardize the vernacular but also made available to the general populace a poem of timeless moral significance. The religious atmosphere had been established early in the thirteenth century by the Roman Catholic friar Francis of Assisi. His attention to a personal relationship with God and the beauty of nature worked to humanize medieval religion and promote experience and experiment. Out of this complex backdrop emerged the new intellectual artist in the Renaissance, appreciated for talent as well as as for aptitude in scientific inquiry, as exemplified by Filippo Brunelleschi, an early innovator in geometric perspective, and da Vinci.

Rebirth of Classical Antiquity

While it may seem counterintuitive to think of a culture isolated from its own history, much of the cornerstone of emerging humanist ideology centered on classical antiquity, including both ancient texts and the naturalistic representation of life in art. Were it not for the expansive Muslim and Byzantine empires, it would appear as if the thousand-year period between the fourth and fourteenth centuries had been simply eclipsed. The Renaissance consciousness of a “rebirth” of antiquity naturally attempted to distance itself from the so-called “dark age” that directly preceded it. The distinction made today is that medieval scholars could not have identified their presence within the period now referred to as the “Middle Ages,” yet Renaissance thinkers were often hyper-aware of their unique place in history and of their new era (Davies et al. 2007). The art that resulted clearly employed updated techniques though it prominently retained elements and themes of the immediate past.

In Pursuit of Great Art

An example of this “updated art that retained the past” is Giotto di Bondone’s work (especially his murals in the Padua, Italy, Arena Chapel). His work is recognized for its innovations in painting that help define the cultural transition of medieval Europe into the new era. At the onset of the fourteenth century, since it wasn’t self-evident that a new era had begun, the multifarious influences of the Middle Ages resonated strongly in Giotto’s frescoes (paintings on plaster). He managed to surpass the feeling of isolation in episodes of the art of the previous century, though his stage was often limited spatially with simple settings to heighten the dramatic stories of Christian Redemption. His innovations in light and sculptural depth and weight on a flat surface have helped define him as a key figure in the forthcoming artistic rebirth. Interestingly, his The Lamentation (1305-1306) depicts a story with origins in Byzantine art from the end of the Middle Ages rather than in the Bible (Davies et al. 2007).

Nearly two centuries later, Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is a quintessential image of the early Renaissance. Painted in tempera on panel, it seems all at once to combine pagan mythological imagery with Neo-Platonic philosophy that approaches a kind of Christian allegory representing the human soul. A student of Fra Filippo Lippi, Botticelli would become known as “one of the great masters of line,” and he fully refined his art in an atmosphere of humanism, Neo-Platonism, and Christianity, all within the powerful Medici circle in Florence, for whom he often painted. His Venus demonstrates Botticelli’s competence with realistic representation though not so much so that the medieval influence is absent. The subject matter seems secular with its overt references to the past, and yet it is thematically Christian. It is about the pursuit of understanding oneself and obtaining a vision of God, a theme that reflects Dante’s Commedia. The painting renders allegorically the Renaissance humanist drive toward the attainment of a perfected soul (Davies et al. 2007).

Early Renaissance art bears the marks of a number of intersecting currents of culture, from the early Christian and artistic influence of Byzantium to the intellectual and scientific underpinnings of the Muslim golden ages to the revival of classical antiquity. While it was impossible to identify oneself within a distinctively “middle” age, for all these reasons, the Renaissance felt uniquely different, and remains today a landmark of artistic achievement.

-- Posted December 8, 2007


Davies, Penelope J.E., Walter B. Denny, Frima Fox Hofrichter, Joseph Jacobs, Ann M. Roberts, David L. Simon, H.W. Janson, and Anthony F. Janson. 2007. Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition. 7th Ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Morgan, Michael Hamilton. 2007. Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists. Washington, DC: National Geographic.

Tansey, Richard G. and Fred S. Kleiner. 1996. Gardner’s Art through the Ages. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Wright, Jonathan. 2006. The Ambassadors. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc.