"Our century, like a golden age, restored to light the liberal arts that were nearly extinct: grammar, poetry, rhetoric, painting, sculpture, architecture, music, the ancient performance of songs with the Orphic lyre..." - Marsilio Ficino
In recent years Michelangelo's magnificent paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel have undergone what some have applauded as a well-deserved cleaning and others have denounced as wanton destruction. The controversy was loud and bitter. It centered on the question of whether Michelangelo applied the varnish that gave the works a dark and somber tone, or whether such varnish was applied later in an effort to preserve the work. Using electron microscopy and other techniques, supporters of the cleanin g effort set out to prove that the varnish was indeed put on at a later time. Thus, our assumptions about Michelangelo's vision must change to encompass what we now see as an exuberant, colorful, yet no less powerful work of art.
Our perception of the Italian Renaissance is, in many ways, as monochromatically colored as has been our perception of the Sistine Chapel. While the years from 1300 to 1500 have traditionally been viewed as a cohesively developing era of greatness, closer examination reveals dips and surges, fragments and dissimilarities in the overall pattern. This disunity is apparent in both the sacred and secular world, from the church, through the secular intellectual humanist movement, even to that bastion of Renais sance greatness, its art.
The history of the church throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is tumultuous. The turmoil between the church and the empire of the thirteenth century gave way to even greater difficulties in the fourteenth. The contest for power between the c hurch and the rising nation states burst into flame when Boniface VIII proclaimed the church's superiority in his bull Unam sanctam. Unfortunately for him and for Rome, he did not have the power or support to back up his claims. It is generally agr eed that the resulting establishment of the papal see at Avignon, the so-called "Babylonian Captivity" should not be considered as French control of the papacy . However, there is no doubt that that removal had profound consequences on Italy and western e uropean civilization. Rome, the rock of St. Peter, was the proper home of the Pope by tradition and by Holy Decree. On the purely secular level, the Papal States, never very stable to begin with, were even more chaotic during this period.
The period between 1305 and 1378 was marked by reasonably competent French popes attempting to consolidate the administration of the church and build up its treasury in the face of increased pressure from the secular leaders. The plague years, beginning i n 1348, made this all the more difficult. The bulk of the church's income was derived from the land, more specifically from the agricultural products grown on the land. The post-plague fall in prices for these products was a serious blow to an organizatio n that was in the process of expanding.
The church had not begun to recover from this blow when it stumbled into what many have considered its lowest point. With growing pressure to return the papacy to Rome, and with a Pope dying in Rome itself, the cardinals found themselves in a position whe re the election of an Italian pope was in their immediate best interests. Once away from Rome they quickly reversed their decision, which would have been upsetting but not disastrous had their original choice, Urban VI, meekly acquiesced. He did not. Inst ead, he denounced and excommunicated not only the cardinals' second choice, the French Clement VI, but all the cardinals who elected him as well. Thus the Christian world found itself with two supreme heads and the Great Schism began.
The next forty years could in no way be labeled a golden Renaissance for the church. These years were marked by all manner of moral and ethical abuses within the clergy. In addition to personal abuses were abuses sanctioned by, even relied upon by the chu rch proper to help offset loss of revenue, in particular the sale of indulgences. It is no wonder that several groups condemning the church arose, or that a central focus of these groups was interest in "bypassing" the church and dealing directly with the Scriptures and their Divine Originator. It is surprising, or perhaps it is an indication of the central place of the church in the lives of the populace, that these condemnations took another hundred years to coalesce into widespread rebellion.
The rise of a conciliarist movement within the church hierarchy aimed at curbing the power of the pope and dealing with abuses and heresy, the struggles and internal wrangling resulting in the election of three popes and finally one pope, in Rome, are wel l documented. It is almost with a sigh of relief that one moves on to the post-Schism or Renaissance church.
Does this mark the beginning of a Golden Age for the papacy? As is so often the case when dealing with a large institution over a great expanse of years, the answer is both yes and no. Yes, the Renaissance popes did accomplish their goals. They raised mon ey, restored some semblance of order to the Papal States, rebuilt crumbling Rome, limited the power of the conciliarists, and even became patrons of the arts. However, the money they raised might be seen as tainted if one considers the sources, the order to the Papal States was short-lived, Rome would shortly be sacked, the fall of the conciliarists meant less checks on papal authority (even though these checks were very limited in nature and did nothing to curb the worst abuses), and the patronage of the arts, that glorification of the physical church, would later symbolize to many the abuses and failures of the church as an institution supposedly ministering to the spiritual needs of its people.
The course of the church through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, then, cannot be considered one of growing and evolving glory. But what of the secular world? Is it here that we can find an evolutionary model of the Renaissance? The conventional de finition of Renaissance as the re-birth of the classical, or renewed interest in classical Roman and Greek literature and thought is again misleading. As with church history of this time, closer examination reveals a more variegated and complex pattern. T he model of Petrarch rediscovering Cicero and passing that discovery on to succeeding generations who used it to eloquently elevate man is simplistic or even simply inaccurate.
While there are certainly general themes of interest, the content, methods and purpose of intellectual attainment varied throughout this period. Even before Petrarch scholars such as Jeremiah of Montagnone and Albert Mussato were reexamining the classics and using them to give relevance to contemporary themes. The men associated with the library of Verona approached the classics from the viewpoint of textual criticism, analyzing and studying not as a means to an end but as an end in itself. Petrarch, so-c alled "father of humanism," followed neither of these models. According to Wilcox, he pursued the classics because "they were sources of morality and virtue. They could teach men how to be more fully human." (p. 61)
Both the content and the method for studying it changed during this period. As mentioned, Petrarch's early fascination with Cicero was just one example of interest in classical Roman works. This period saw a veritable frenzy of scholars rummaging about ol d monastery libraries seeking out dusty and forgotten works from antiquity, in an effort to renew acquaintance with the originals, to go back to the source. The infusion of Greek scholarship by such men as Manuel Chrysoloras after 1397 gave scholars a new direction. Realizing that much of Roman literature and society was founded on Greek ideas, the study of Greek became a way to further the study of Rome, as well as an interesting subject in its own right. Later humanists turned their attention not to the collection of manuscripts but to the close analysis and scrutiny of those manuscripts. For example, Valla, in 1440, used these methods of textual criticism to prove that the document whereby Constantine handed over a large portion of his empire to the ch urch could not have been written in Constantine's time.
It is not surprising that the purpose of intellectual development followed the pendulum of political and social change, and it is here that we see the biggest changes in humanism as an intellectual movement. Again we turn to Petrarch, who spent much of hi s life arguing between the contemplative and civically active life. In a statement quoted by Jensen, Petrarch says "I will pull myself together and collect my scattered wits, and make a great endeavor to possess my soul in patience. But even while we spea k, a crowd of important affairs, though only of the world, is awaiting my attention." This conflict between affairs that are "important" but consigned to unimportance as being "only of this world" is seen again. He again puts forth this view in "Few Busy Men Are Worthily Employed" where, though he honors men who are employed in serving their fellow man, he still concludes that "every busy man is unhappy, and the man who is employed in the service of another is doubly unhappy." In other words, true happine ss, the true "repose of the soul" lies in the contemplative life.
Compare this with the advice given by Coluccio Salutati to his friend Peregrino Zambeccari less than fifty years later, when he uses several convincing arguments to justify the opposite point of view. Nor is this unexpected. Salutati, as Chancellor of Flo rence, a humanist very much in the public life, is representative of scholars in Italy at this time. Humanism as an intellectual movement developed primarily outside that bastion of scholarly endeavor, the church, where scholasticism, even at this time, s till reigned supreme. As a more secular movement it spread through the wealthy Italian families, those already engaged in business and government. This civic humanism stressed those areas of study that were necessary to the public life: rhetoric, oratory, and the need to persuade.
As the political pendulum swung from broad based republic to the concentration of power in a small number of families, so too did the focus of humanism swing from an intellectual pursuit put to use for the state back to an emphasis on the contemplative li fe. Scholars moved from oratory and rhetoric, or outward-facing studies, to the inward-facing studies of philosophy and metaphysics. Thus the scholars that Cosimo de' Medici brought together in his Platonic Academy of Florence, devoted themselves to the s tudy of Plato and its themes of "emphasis on soul and spirit,...on reality transcending the senses...the continuation of the essence of life after death...[and] the stress on the value and immortality of the human soul." (Jensen, p. 132)
Like the humanist movement, art from 1300 to 1500 showed greater variation than is supposed. While it generally acknowledged that Giotto, in his frescoes, portrays a naturalism and expression not seen in earlier medieval art and far surpassing some glimme r of the same by his contemporaries Cimabue and Duccio, or by the sculptors Niccolò and Giovanni Pisano, the development of this aspect of art was not seen again for the entire fourteenth century.
We reach the fifteenth century with almost an air of relief. "Ah" we say, "here at last is the true Renaissance, the great rebirth of a cohesive art." But even this century holds some surprises. While all the painters, sculptors, and architects are concer ned with naturalism, or the rendering of objects in a way that mirrors reality, and while they use balance and perspective to further these aims, the rendering of the natural and the focus of it undergo several changes.
For Masaccio, this naturalness meant depicting the figures in his painting as real people, people with discernible character and emotion. His Adam and Eve in flight from the garden of Eden express their grief in both their faces and their posture. While M asaccio's depiction of the natural was expressed in the emotion of his characters, Paolo Ucello's was expressed in their environment, with his consuming desire to perfect the depiction of linear perspective. By contrast, Giovanni Bellini, while competent using perspective, relies more on color and balanced composition to set the tone in his works.
Botticelli, in the mid to late fifteenth century represents yet another aspect of Renaissance art. His compositions rely less on "photographic" depiction of the natural world and more on the symbolic, almost whimsical. His subjects, too, are drawn from a wide variety of non-Biblical sources, representing subjects of interest to the late humanists. In many ways his work stands outside the two dominant strains practiced by his contemporaries, the Monumental and the International School.
Again, naturalism was important to both these groups, though it was used in different ways. For the monumentalists, nature was something to be slavishly copied. The depth of perspective and the details of anatomy were all captured. On the other hand, the Internationalists were more interested in the symbolic, and, influenced by the works of northern europeans, strove to include a wealth of detail in their work.
The representatives of what we most often think of when we consider Renaissance art, actually fall just outside the period we have been discussing. Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo represent what has been dubbed the High Renaissance. These three incorp orate all the work of the previous century. Leonardo weds a fantastical version of the natural with complex detail of the Internationalists, yet still creates characters with great expression. Raphael combines the grace of Botticelli with the sweetness of Fra Filippo Lippi's works and the effective landscapes reminiscent of Bellini. Michelangelo, bows to the natural with such attention to anatomical detail as the veins in the hands of his David, yet gives those hands an unnatural size to express man's cap abilities. This same manipulation of reality can be seen in his early pieta where the anatomical, in its minute detail, is exact, but in its overall proportion is altered to further the expression he is portraying.
In these three areas of religious, intellectual, and art history, we see high points and low, in effect, reality. The attempts to paint the Renaissance with a broad and golden brush do not make this era more appealing, rather they do a disservice to the fascinating complexities of the period. The less appealing features of the Italian Renaissance added to the more familiar "Golden Age" aspects, without the encumbrance of historical varnish, provide a picture as rich, colorful, and exuberant as Michelang elo's ceiling.