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Rome 2.0, or how the Renaissance rediscovered antiquity

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Statue of Antinous
Statue of Antinous, 130 CE, Vatican Museums | Illustration licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

When the Germanic leader Odoacer dethroned the minor emperor Romulus Augustus in 476, the Roman Empire effectively ceased to exist. With this event, many achievements of antiquity were lost – some irretrievably, others fell into oblivion for hundreds of years. It was only with the advent of the Renaissance that changes in European communities were so serious that they returned to the achievements of the ancient Romans on a larger scale. So what were the causes and consequences of the Renaissance?

In the depths of history

The fall of the Western Roman Empire brought a change of order throughout Western Europe, and these changes, in turn, affected neighboring lands and even wider areas. There was greater or less chaos in various parts of the continent, which resulted in a general regression in various areas of functioning of individuals and entire societies – administration, law, art and architecture, education, and even the style of ordinary, everyday life – it was difficult to make progress when the unifying element was everything, i.e. the Roman Empire, ceased to exist.

Over the centuries, the cultural gap was filled by Christianity, and the Church and the Papacy based in the city of Rome emerged as the informal successor and continuator of the Roman legacy. The entire medieval Europe was built around the Church, the official language was Latin, which was taught in church schools in various countries, it was the Pope who crowned kings through his bishops, the calendar of Christian holidays defined the rhythm of individuals’ lives and finally it was the Church that subsidized initiatives from the world of culture, having an influence on for example, the development of medieval art.

The same Church that stimulated some areas of life also inhibited others, or at least stopped certain directions of development in these areas. The dominant (and actually the only valid at that time) trends in philosophy and architecture were cultivated with the blessing of the Church and without this blessing they had no right to exist. First, Romanism and later Gothic dominated throughout Western Europe, focusing mainly on sacred architecture, and art, which was fully developing at the end of the 14th century, even gained the name of the international style, which shows how similar ideas accompanied creators in England, in Italy or Germany.

The city of Rome itself has lost its former glory over the years. Under the rule of the first emperor, Octavian Augustus, the capital of the Empire was inhabited by over a million inhabitants, and a thousand years later, when Sylvester II sat on the papal throne, this number is estimated at around thirty thousand. The Eternal City was therefore a shadow of itself. However, the inhabitants of Italy must have been aware of the former power, especially in the capital of the former Empire, living among the ruins of imperial buildings.

At the end of the Middle Ages, the role of the Church was losing some of its importance, which created space for a certain relaxation in art and philosophy. Growing wealthy urban centers, especially in northern Italy, focused on crafts and merchants, were able to independently finance various ventures. Italian artists looked east, towards the Eastern Roman Empire, which, although it had followed its own path for centuries resulting from its separation from the Church, was a kind of bridge between the present and antiquity – Byzantine libraries kept numerous Greek and Roman writings and treaties, and the local artists in art, at least in their own way, they used ancient solutions, whether in building chiaroscuro or using foreshortening, which was unknown in Western European painting. This bridge was rather tenuous, as at the end of the Middle Ages the Eastern Roman Empire was also at the end of its existence. It gradually lost influence and power not only because of internal crises, but also largely due to the pressure of peoples from the east; It is worth mentioning here the Arab invasions of the 7th century, which deprived Byzantium of many lands. Nevertheless, many Roman and Greek ideas were still preserved there, and close contacts with the cities of northern Italy were still maintained. Moreover, they developed even on the wave of the Crusades, which allowed the lands in the north of the Apennine Peninsula to become richer.

Dream about the past

It should be mentioned here that significant contributions, especially in the field of painting, were made by an Italian artist working at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries, Giotto di Bodone, who, although he was under the influence of Byzantine masters, successfully searched for new solutions and moved away from the schematic, which dominated in medieval painting. The achievements of Giotto, who came from Florence, inspired artists who created after him to draw from his work and seek their own solutions. The people of that time attributed him to the level of ancient masters and, in the wake of general changes, they began to see more clearly that they lived in a country that used to be the center of the civilized world. A world destroyed by tribes of Germans, Goths and Vandals.

Italians were more and more willing to refer to the old era, which they called classical, and began to dream of the revival of Rome’s power. Soon, the times after the fall of the Empire, the transitional period to the expected renewal began to be called the intermediate ages, which were only an interlude between the classical era and the expected era of revival. We still use the name “Middle Ages” today, and the same applies to Gothic art – this is how the Italians named the art that dominated the Middle Ages as a trend belonging to the people who were responsible for the fall of the Empire. Art, in their understanding, was barbaric, just as barbaric were the tribes that destroyed Rome. Today we know that this connection is not entirely accurate, because Gothic style emerged only a few centuries after the fall of the Empire, but this view well reflects the mood that prevailed in Italy at that time.

However, the city of Rome itself remained on the margins of history at the end of the 14th century. Lazio and the southern regions were less wealthy, even clearly poorer, than the northern part of Italy, and it is not without reason that cities such as Florence or Venice, and not Rome, were the cradle of the Renaissance. Moreover, the 14th century was also the time of the so-called the Avignon captivity while the popes resided in southern France, thus further diminishing the importance of Rome itself. Only in the 15th century, when the still young Renaissance culture was already established in Italian society and the papacy had returned to the Tiber for good, the humanist popes, starting with Nicholas V, made efforts to raise the Eternal City from the ruins.

Renaissance fathers

However, before this happened, exactly forty years after Giotto’s death, another Florentine entered the scene of history – the architect Filippo Brunelleschi. Educated in Florentine workshops, he also tried to break away from medieval patterns. For this purpose, he carefully studied Roman architecture during his stays in the former capital. He took measurements and made numerous sketches, which he later analyzed carefully. However, he did not do this for the purpose of empty copying. Brunelleschi left behind many impressive buildings that were a development of old techniques and ideas. He creatively used ancient motifs and solutions, and his works were characterized by the harmony typical of Roman buildings.

A lot of space can be devoted to describing Brunelleschi’s achievements. One of his breakthrough achievements, which seems obvious to us today, was the first correct delineation of linear perspective, which opened new paths, among others, in painting. The second great, figuratively and literally, work of this architect was the construction of a huge dome that covered the impressive Florentine cathedral. The building itself was supposed to be a demonstration of the city’s greatness, especially in relation to Venice, with which it competed for primacy in the region, but for many years the Florentines did not find a way to enclose the huge space in the central point of the cathedral. It was Brunelleschi who successfully undertook this task, combining Roman, Byzantine and Gothic solutions in a bold design.

Brunelleschi’s achievements have left a lasting mark on history. Until the 20th century, architects in Europe, and soon also in America, developed his ideas, which he extracted from Roman ruins. Classic columns, pediments, and even cornices, as reinvented by Brunelleschi, can be found today in many places in the Western world, and the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is permanently inscribed in the panorama of Florence.

In the years in which Brunelleschi was creating, there was also another great artist, the sculptor Donatello. He, like his predecessors, broke with the Gothic tradition and turned to ancient patterns. Like the ancient Greeks and Romans, he studied the structure of the human body with great care, not omitting any details or using any abbreviations found in medieval sculptures. And also, like Brunelleschi, he spent a lot of time in Rome, where he studied ancient works. Using his talent and the achievements of ancient masters, he set new directions in sculpture, becoming a model for artists working many years after him. As an example, it is worth mentioning one of his works, although not entirely obvious – an impressive bas-relief, Herod’s Feast, which he created using the perspective drawn by Brunelleschi, and which today can be seen in the cathedral in the Italian city of Siena. This is a perfect example of using ancient achievements and expanding them with new solutions.

Unfortunately for Donatello, the famous ancient sculpture, the Laocoon Group, was discovered in Rome exactly half a century after his death. We can only speculate how much more Donatello could have developed his talents if he had had the opportunity to admire this impressive statue, which still today makes a huge impression on visitors to the Vatican Museums where it is exhibited. However, another Renaissance creator was present when the sculpture was discovered – Michelangelo Buonarotti, known as Michelangelo. This artist from the Florence area received classical education in the city in the studio of another renowned artist, Domenico Ghirlandaio. However, Michelangelo did not want to imitate his teacher, as was usually done at that time. Instead, he admired the works of Giotto, Donatello, and Masaccio and carefully studied ancient works, marveling at their anatomical accuracy, finally achieving mastery in the art of sculpture or painting himself. Like the ancients, it was not enough for him to look at existing works of art – he independently performed autopsies, examining muscles, tendons and skeletons.

Buonarotti’s fame grew rapidly and he soon received a commission from the Pope himself, Julius II. Originally, the artist was to prepare the papal tomb from marble. And although the cooperation between the Pope and Michelangelo tells a completely different story, and the tomb was finally completed many years later, Buonarotti first undertook to paint the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel next to the new Basilica of St. Peter, and the effect of this intense four-year work is still astonishing today. Above all, this work put the artist on a pedestal during his lifetime and gave him fame that no living artist had ever experienced before. This resulted in many commissions from wealthy patrons, which allowed Buonarotti to leave numerous works, including the Pieta and the excellent, over five-meter sculpture of David, which was the first marble figure of colossal size created since the classical era.

But here the dome again deserves special recognition – this time the one in St. Peter’s Basilica. Peter. The new version of the basilica itself was rebuilt according to the designs of Bramante, who was inspired by the Roman Pantheon with its huge dome. Bramante did not have time to complete the construction, so the project was changed and the implementation was entrusted to other architects, including Rafael Santi, who died young and also left the building unfinished. Soon it was Michelangelo who crowned this work with an even larger vault than the one in Florence. And so the pearl of Roman architecture became the foundation of the most impressive Renaissance building, the Basilica of St. Peter, which draws the best of classical Roman designs with its columns, cornices, arches and pediments.

Buonarotti, at the ripe old age of eighty-eight, died in splendor, but earlier, in his youth, he created in the shadow of Leonardo da Vinci, probably the greatest Renaissance creator and an unrivaled master in many fields.

Da Vinci, like Michelangelo, was also very interested in the human body and, apart from admiring ancient works, he himself carried out numerous autopsies of corpses in his studio. However, while Buonarotti focused mainly on the human body, Leonardo went further and carefully examined nature and other aspects of the surrounding world in a broader perspective, looking at birds, insects and plant growth. Here we can mention, for example, his drawing, which is an illustration of a treaty from the 1st century BC. written by the Roman architect Vitruvius. This drawing, known as the “Vitruvian Man”, develops the proportions of the human body described in Book III of the treatise, and the treatise itself, entitled “On the Architecture of Ten Books”, is an invaluable source of knowledge about the building arts and architecture of ancient Greeks and Romans and was an inspiration for many Renaissance creators.

Da Vinci studied with another master of the time, Andrea del Verrocchio, and, like Michelangelo, he quickly outgrew his teacher. He introduced new techniques in painting, such as sfumato, and developed aerial perspective, the first attempts of which can be seen already in antiquity on wall paintings in Pompeii, but it was Leonardo who perfected this technique to such an extent that it became a model for later painters. He also made numerous discoveries in the fields of mathematics, engineering and hydrodynamics.

Legacy of the Renaissance

Much could be written about the new directions set by the Renaissance and the related discoveries of ancient works. For example, the invention of printing enabled the dissemination of the works of ancient philosophers, orators and poets, such as Cicero, Virgil, and Horace, whose works were eagerly studied anew under the influence of Renaissance trends. The Renaissance poet Petrarch, inspired by the works of Livy, created a poem in Latin called “Africa”, dealing with the Second Punic War, but he did not have time to complete his epic before his death.

Another contemporary of Livy’s work, Ovid, had a huge influence on Petrarch’s work. Echoes of Ovid’s works can be found in the Italian sonnets, also known as the Petrarch Sonnets. This form emerged in Italian literature during the Renaissance, and Petrarch took part in its creation. Another outstanding poet, although no longer Italian, William Shakespeare, the creator of the English sonnet and, above all, an outstanding English playwright, who lived more than two centuries after Petrarch, was also influenced by Ovid.

Thanks to Petrarch, another Italian writer, Giovanni Boccacio, came closer to ancient literature, whose works, such as The Decameron, developed under the influence of, among others, Tacitus and Livy, laid the foundation for modern prose.

The influence of the Italian Renaissance quickly spread throughout Europe, bringing changes to the thinking and culture of European life. It took almost a thousand years, counting from the fall of Rome, for Romanesque ideas to shine again in full force. The importance of these changes is emphasized by the words of a German philosopher from Morąg, Johann Gottfried Herder, who wrote in the 18th century:

Finally, as we say, the breakup came. The long, eternal night turned into morning. The Reformation came, a revival of art, science and ethics. The bonds fell and our thought, culture and philosophy emerged. We began to think then as we think today. We were no longer barbarians.

– source of quote: Michael N. Forster, Herder: Philosophical Writings (own translation)

Of course, Herder calls the Middle Ages the long night, but he also equates people living in the Renaissance and his contemporaries. The name “Renaissance” itself, coming from the French language, was popularized in Europe only in the 19th century, but the importance of this trend was appreciated much earlier.

In Italy itself, the beginnings of the disappearance of the Renaissance can be seen already at the end of the 15th century, when, with the outbreak of the Italian Wars, the period of stability and peaceful development came to an end. However, before the Italian Renaissance lost its momentum, its ideas had already spread to other important European centers, such as London, Paris, Bruges, Cologne, and Krakow, and soon they lived their own life there, everywhere, however, bringing the same revival and development of ancient ideas that had previously grew under the wings of the Roman Empire. Together with these ideas, curiosity about the world was reawakened, which pushed humanity to make further discoveries and further development, which continues to this day.

Author: Michał Gosk (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Peter Heather, Upadek Cesarstwa Rzymskiego, Poznań 2006
  • Ernst Gombrich, O sztuce, Poznań 1997
  • Adrian Goldsworthy, Pax Romana, Poznań 2018
  • Michael N. Forster, Herder: Philosophical Writings, Cambridge 2002
  • Jacob Burckhard, Kultura odrodzenia we Włoszech, Warszawa 1991

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