The Revival of Greek and Roman Culture in the Renaissance: Humanism and the Arts

World History History 100 October 9, 2010 Prof. Re

Jamiline Marie C. Lebrilla

The Renaissance meant rebirth, a time of transcendence for Europe. It was a transformation from a restricted collection of traditions and values to something … freer. It was filled with rampant energy. Some would call it a singularity point; wherein for a short number of years, the Europeans achieved more advances in all fields, than they did for centuries. It was a time when they were gluttonous, as if starving and finally freed, they fell like a pack of wolves, unto a sea banquets. And this is no false picture, for what were the Dark Ages but a starvation of the mind. Knowledge was restricted to monasteries and private collections. The church was a frightening specter of fear and violence. At a time when plagues, like the Black Death fell upon man again and again, when death was found in every corner, and where themes of morality and the end of times figured well in poetry and literature, where else could men find solace but in God? But the starving time did end, and the banquet began. The Church lost power as the corruption within it grew more entrenched. No doubt its lowest point came when papal power was broken and there were not two, but three popes all claiming that they had received divine direction from God and were the “genuine” heirs to St. Peter’s throne. Kings grew more powerful as they realized they need not depend on their lords and knights. An elite merchant class appeared that opened doors of opportunity for themselves, only once reserved for the nobles and royalty.

It was a time rife for discovery, when men were rich, and too much money allowed men to have the leisure to look for something more. They searched, and they found it, inspiration in the form of art, culture, and literature from the past…the long dead civilizations of Ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire. They found something awe-worthy, in the remnants of the old. From the teachings of several Greek and Roman scholars such as Aristotle and Cicero, came the philosophy of Humanism. From the sculptures of Grecian gods and goddesses, came a desire to copy the human form in the natural way. From their buildings, came a new understanding of the importance of symmetry and style. From Grecian myths grew inspiration for fantasylike reaches of the imagination not limited to religious iconography. Roman stories brought new heroes and villains to the fore, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. Grecian and Roman cultures were a treasure trove of new ideas, but nowhere were they more visible than in the many objects of art which painters, sculptors, and architects created during the Renaissance. For this reason, the paper only limits itself to the concepts and ideas related to the areas of painting, sculpting, and architecture. Through humanism, one will see the importance of Greek and Roman culture to the transformation of human identity, and how the exploration and research through dusty old tracts of ancient manuscripts have led humanity to realize the full maximum of possibilities available to the entire race.

Humanism was the impetus of the cultural revolution of the Renaissance. It strove to resurrect and emulate the literature and art of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The greatest characteristic of humanism was its strong belief in the idea of individualism and the great potential of human beings. It’s content largely rejected Aristotelian views and medieval scholasticism in favor of Roman authors such as Cicero, Livy, Virgil and Quinitilian. It also drew much of its material from Greek writings, especially Plato. You could say that…“antiquity provided the humanists not only with certain forms of thought, literary expression and action, but with new norms for determining the suitability and rightness of the content of thought, word, and deed. The humanists were concerned with humaniora, or the human studies. The concept of the studia humanitatis, the liberal arts, was taken over from Cicero, who believed that the poet or orator as best suited to communicate humane learning. These liberal arts embraced grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy” (Spitz, 1987) Humanists went into a fervor of studying ancient languages. Initially, Latin of ancient Rome was the main focus, however, after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, there was a revival of Greek culture and the language came to be studied extensively. Petrarch and Boccaccio began what was to become a favorite sport, the search for ancient manuscripts. They went to great lengths, visiting different libraries and

private collections, ransacking monasteries, discovering and preserving old manuscripts, all for the sake of their aesthetic value as well as importance for literary and historical documentation. By 1500, virtually all of the significant ancient Roman and Greek texts that have been rediscovered were translated and printed. Humanism invaded all aspects of Renaissance life, and was even intensified further when there came about a strong focus on educational theory. Humanists believed in a liberal arts educational program that included grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, politics and moral philosophy. Civic Humanism believed that education should prepare leaders who would be active in civic affairs. This attention on education involving arts and letters, only reinforces further more the importance of the individual and the potential heights that man could reach through his effort and creativity.

Humanisms influence was represented when their came an increasing change in the content of paintings from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. In the Renaissance, there was a focus on the individual. Self-portraits came into being. Sculptures and paintings were produced which showed the ordinary individual. Noblemen, Royalty, even wealthy merchants and their families were depicted in these paintings. This is so revolutionary because during the Middle Ages, paintings were done strictly for religious purposes. By painting or sculpting an object or an entity, the artist signifies that such an object or entity is deserving of being preserved for all eternity. During the Middle Ages, preservation of religious people and symbols, was seen as worship for the greater glory of God. With the coming of the Renaissance, religious content was replaced by the individual because humanism taught that man is worthy of being respected and remembered. Humanism induced individuals to have a high opinion of their selves, which brought about a yearning on their part to leave some symbol of their lives for all eternity.

Between the artists in the Renaissance and the artists during the Middle Ages, the most significant difference was on how they were treated. Anonymity is the word one can

best use to describe the life of an artist during the Middle Ages. Painters, sculptors, and architects were mere craftsmen. They were talented servants, but servants nonetheless, seen as no different from farmers, carpenters, and other livelihoods having to deal with the use of one’s hands. In direct contrast to this, people’s reaction to artists in the Renaissance was entirely different. They were like rock stars. They weren’t mere craftsmen anymore; they were geniuses, men of a class apart. They were respected because their unique creativity to produce objects that no ordinary individual could create. During the Renaissance, there snobbery still occurred when people of the noble class met members of society who did labor in order to earn money. Artists, however, were exempt from this snobbery because what they did wasn’t seen as labor, it was something unique in which only they could do. Some even say that their talent was a gift from God.

In the early stages if Renaissance art artists studied the Greek and Roman techniques of light color and space. Because there was virtually no ancient painting as yet discovered during the Renaissance, the artists had to either emulate other classical painters, or copied Greek and Roman statues by reconstructing classical paintings from contemporary ancient descriptions, a complex discipline known as ekphrasis. The faces of subjects expressed more unique individual characteristics, embodying the Renaissance ideal of “individualism”. By contrast, medieval paintings tended to be lifeless and dull. A new concept of art came to be known which was called Realism. Artists shifted their focus from the painting of heavenly creatures to the painting of the human body. In this endeavor they went beyond mere suggestions of the human form as was done by medieval artists. Instead they studied the musculature of the body even going so far as to buying cadavers to dissect them.

Donatello – Saint Mark (1411-1413)

St. Mark is a prime example of the realism to which artists were going towards during the Renaissance. Master sculptors during that era focused much on the human form. It’s said that the technique artists’ employed during that time was to make a small clay figure of the body of their sculpture and then cover it with clothing. This is what makes the folds of cloth seem so fluid as if St. Mark would leave that niche in the wall any second now. Like Masaccio who painted religious themes, the sculptures of Donatello were also religious at times, but as seen in St. Mark, they are given natural
expressions, where common people’s clothes and are depicted to be carrying on with their ordinary day to day duties or activities.

This is also one of the first free-

standing statues created. It shows the Greek and

Roman influence of proportion and balance as the set of the shoulders and the position of the legs produces a statue which can stand on its own.

David - Donatello

Still by Donatello, this shows the study on musculature beneath the skin and dynamic posing. Cosimo de' Medici owned this statue and placed it in the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici in Florence, it is now in the Bargello.

Lorenzo Ghiberti - The story of Joseph, Gates of Paradise, Baptistery, Florence.

Experimentation on perspective among Renaissance artists produced such works of art as this. Ghiberti used high relief and lateral lines to show a gradual receding of space into the distance.

Michelangelo - Pieta

Michelangelo studied so much on the workings within the body that he even carved on the veins and tendons on his sculptures.

Bronzino – Portrait of a Young Man

This is an example of a Renaissance portrait. Renaissance artists always went for the elusive combination of beauty. Raphael once said, in a letter he wrote to his friend, Baldassare Castigilione, that in order to “paint a beautiful woman, I would have to see several beautiful women … but because there are so few … I make use of a certain idea which comes into my mind. Whether it carries any excellence of art I do not know, but I work hard to achieve it.’
Giogorne - Sleeping Venus (c. 1510) Gem ldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden

Giorgione Renaissance in



Italian painter of the High Venice. There are currently six

paintings attributed to him, and I have chosen this painting and the one below to show the Renaissance artists propensity to mimic Grecian freedom in sculpting and painting nude forms. In these paintings are shown further transition as they now show that not only is the figure given attention, but the scene as well. The attention given to the background of the painting Pastoral Concert is even more detailed compared to Sleeping Venus. Such paintings as these were the progenitors of landscape paintings.

Giorgione - Concert Champêtre (Pastoral Concert). Louvre, Paris.

After the discovery of De architectura, the only surviving treatise by Vitruvius, an ancient Roman architect, a new way of thinking about architectural techniques and principles was embraced. The beauty of the buildings that were designed encouraged churches, rulers, and other civic leaders to spend vast sums of money in constructing edifices that are esteemed as monuments the world over. Influence was taken heavily from the Greeks and Romans when it came to Renaissance architecture as architects utilized the ancient forms of Greek columns, Roman aches, and domes. An example of this is the Pantheon in Rome. The watchwords symmetry, were and simplicity,

balance, a far cry from the highly-ornamented their pointed arches. Of watchwords, the the three most gothic style of the middle ages with

important architectural principle was symmetry. Renaissance architects sought to achieve harmony in their works by integrating various parts of their structures while avoiding at the same time, mixtures of designs that did not fit well together. So saying, architects

generally sought to find a harmonious merging of different styles like Doric, Corinthian, Ionic, and Tuscan without losing the beauty of the symmetry the wanted to show.

Architects of this period were very fond of domes that could be seen from every point of a city when contructed. adorned Pilasters, or decorative columns that walls without providing any real support were also as a were favorite of Renaissance architects, traditional

Roman columns that did support the building. The rounded arch that was used in ancient Roman architecture was likewise incorporated into Renaissance design. St. Paul’s Cathedral (as shown above) is a perfect example of the use of pilasters, Roman columns, and a dome.

The Renaissance, represented here in the paintings, sculptures, and architecture, is an expression of human possibilities and human potential given form. Because of the freedom of thought and imagination which became possible through the lessening of the power and influence of the Church, and the rise of power and influence of the wealthy

merchant-class, art was not restricted only to certain areas. Art was given the full opportunity to blossom.

• • • • Weinstein, Donald. 1965. Renaissance and the Reformation: 1300 – 1600. Canada: The MacMillan Company. Spitz, Lewis W. 1987. The Renaissance and Reformation Movements: Volume I The Renaissance. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House. Stokstad, Marilyn. 1995. Art History Volume One. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Burckhardt, Jacob. 1956. “The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy” Home Course Appreciation. Classics Appreciation Society: Grolier Incorporated.

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