Rewriting the Renaissance

by Mark Calderwood

The most sordid story of medievalism, money and manipulation never told.

For well over a century, august art historians have presented the story of renaissance art as a kind of cultural big bang, an ex novo burst of glory that rescued civilisation from medieval darkness. And indeed, almost every text on the art of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy rings with words like innovation, individualism, moralism, rationalism, genius– a smug teleology for the modern era.

The idea of the era as a cultural rebirth isn’t a new one. In 1344, the poet Francesco Petrarca (better known as Petrarch) declared his age as a break with the ignorant, benighted ‘middle ages’ that had occured between the glorious civilisations of Antiquity, and Antiquity reborn. This was accepted at face value by nineteenth-century art historians who have co-opted the Renaissance- and its implicit legacies of rational intellectualism and cultural evolution- as the cornerstones of contemporary Western culture. As such, renaissance art is habitually discussed in terms of elevated intellectual and philosophical ideals, moralising beauty and virtue.

Yet such sententious interpretations fail to take into account the myriad roles that art played in renaissance society, the ability of its artists to articulate layers of meaning or the ability of its citizenry to participate, both consciously and actively, in the art that defined and reshaped their culture. Nor does it recognise that during these centuries, conditions for art were rapidly changing as access to material wealth and a growing perception of art as the ultimate luxury commodity afforded greater scope both for expression and conspicuous consumption. Given this a wealthier and better educated population, the need naturally arose for rulers to find mew ways to promote their civic interests and exercise social control. And they did so by making canny use of the layered yet clearly directed messages that only art could convey.

Without discounting the leaps in thought that took place at the time, or the play of symbolism and allegory that is an art historian’s delight, art in Italy during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries can be rewritten pragmatically as a sordidly story of medievalism, money and manipulation.

Many historians have regarded medieval culture as something that had to expire before a new phase of history could take its place. Yet this overlook the reality that many of the hallmarks of the renaissance actually flourished before the twelfth century: artists revived Antique styles and re-used ancient decorative materials, and a vigorous strain of humanism is evident. Medieval literature and documents reveals a sense of self-awareness and perception no less complex than today, rendering the Burckhardtian assertion that medieval man was ‘conscious of himself only as a race, people, party, family or corporation- only through some general category’ as unsupportable as it is ridiculous. Fortunately, recent scholarship has favoured a transitional model that emphasises the slow synthesis and transformation of medieval society and its continuity with the post-1300 era

This medieval continuity is demonstrated in the patronage of the Florentine oligarch Cosimo dei’ Medici, who garnered social influence and support for Medici domination through astute image management. Cosimo’s restoration of the convent church of San Marco around 1434, for example, was informed by a characteristically medieval mix of personal and civic concerns that did not make modern distinctions between public and private, secular and spiritual, individual and corporate: in the quattrocento these purposes were not absolutes, but served simultaneously.

In addition to public piety, this act of ecclesiastical charity served as restitution for Cosimo’s sins of usury: the concern for salvation remained unchanged from earlier centuries, and permeated the daily lives of even worldly renaissance Christians. Although Medici arms proudly proclaim the patron’s largesse, rebuilding the church rather than founding a new one neatly avoids the appearance of presumption, and retains charitable humility for the patron.

The image of intercession depicted in the San Marco altarpiece by Fra Angelico reflects a uniquely Florentine worldly ordering, relating civic and spiritual authority. As patrons acted as protector-intercessors for their clients, so by charitable works the patron earned saintly patronage and intercession on their own and their client’s behalf. Popular identification of the Medici with Saints Cosmas and Damian is echoed in the personal association with the saints by Cosimo and his deceased twin, Damiano. The altarpiece combines both aspects: the saints’ role as intercessors bridging this world and the next assumes a human dimension in their resemblance to the brothers, and their traditional placement supporting the triangular composition signals their namesake’s support of the Church. The altarpiece presents a complex assertion that entwines secular wealth and power with public charity and personal devotion.

Similarly, the ouvre of the artist who practically defines the renaissance is  can be reassessed as persistently medieval. Leonardo da Vinci is universally regarded as the ultimate innovator, although scant attention is paid to the gracefully articulated late medieval elements that underpin his work. His Annunciation (1475-1480), for example, echoing the decorative qualities of Botticelli’s Primavera in its stylised trees, floral carpet and clearly delineated figures, also evokes the millefleur textiles of the middle ages. The sole Antique element is the Virgin’s marble table: the background belongs to the Flemish tradition, and glows in the same way as gilded religious panels; the figures themselves in their fluttering draperies display the gestural artificiality more usually associated with international gothic art than the naturalism of the renaissance.

Where renaissance artists created a brave, bright world of reflected light and rational clarit, da Vinci’s later works in particular made sophisticated use of gothic patterns of light and murky darkness. Leonardo’s chiaroscuro is undeniably more complex than its antecedents, but his luminous textures and dark foregrounds nonetheless recall the natural play of light found in the burnished gold of medieval religious works. His softly-limned figures similarly suggest the delicacy of the international gothic that flourished in the early to middle quattrocentro, rather then hard, stony technique described by Vasari as used by painters such as Mantegna and Lippi.  This delicacy is taken to incredible heights in his masterful portrait of Lisa del Gioconda, where the astonishingly motile figure is deeply veiled in shadow, silhouetted against a luminous background. The fantastic rocky landscape itself, like Madonna Lisa’s smile, gives fresh currency to medieval formulae; the portrait’s exploration of man as a microcosm of the world derives from Ristoro’s thirteenth-century cosmology. More than any other renaissance artist, da Vinci drew heavily upon the gothic tradition and gave it vibrant new life, becoming genuinely progressive by looking backward.

In Venice, medieval artistic traditions endured unabated, and were pressed into service even more overtly. As much as the Tuscan capital, the maritime republic gloried in fine appearances and outward show, and was perhaps even more successful at adapting to its own purposes the political potential of the visual arts.

Italian city-republics had, since the twelfth century, used art to promulgate their political virtues and civic concord, often couched in allegory. Alone among these, Venice remained true to the medieval civic tradition, avoiding complex neoclassical allegories in favour of works that directly communicated its own social myths- the untrammeled liberty, steadfast religiosity, social harmony and political unification that characterised La Serenissima in contrast to the faction-ridden despotism and public brawling of other turbulent city-states.

In this pursuit, Venice uniquely drew on its Byzantine rather than Roman heritage, co-opting and adapting the iconographia of the Eastern church to build its own civic cults and legitimise itself as heir to the New Rome. One of the best examples of this is the small portrait of San Bernardino by Jacopo Bellini. Bellini harnesses the timeless qualities of a religious icon at the same time he imbues the figure with a gaunt, ravaged physicality that recalls medieval mortuary sculpture, and a psychological narrative that is equally intense. The timeless, otherworldly gilded space behind the figure has become a shimmering green-gold fabric, influenced by Netherlandish canopies as well as Venice’s material trade, placing the saint in a more immediately temporal surrounding. The points of light on his homespun robe, suggesting the shimmer of light on the Venetian canals, is likewise infused with an ecstatic, eternal quality, transmitting the easily recognised qualities of a religious painting to the physical environment of the city.

This same tradition informs Saint Mark, painted by Paduan-Venetian artist Andrea Mantegna around 1448 (top). The painting aggressively promotes the Venetian of St Mark and the story of the praedestinatio as a form of civic hagiography, reinforcing the divinely-favoured status of the city. Mantegna depicts the saint leaning out from a marble casement, recalling the intimacy of fifteenth-century ‘bedroom icons’ designed for a domestic setting. While they seem contemporary at first glance, the saint’s clothes are actually the semi-antique garments familiar from medieval manuscript painting; the symbolic attributes of the book and fruit on the ledge are similarly medieval, and belie the fashionable embellishments of the coloured marbles and Italic cornucopia. The costly, richly coloured pigments and the sail canvas substrate specifically reference- and lend evangelical sanction to- the expanding mileu of Venetian trade.

Giovanni Bellini’s penetrating portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan completes the evolution from religious to secular icon. Just like St Mark, the doge is realistic yet timelessly remote, at once immediate yet distilled, with even more subtlety, to an Eastern icon. The ruler of Venice is portrayed with- and indeed needs- no other attribute than his traditional mantle and corno ducale. In the quasi-religious context of the painting these take on the air of saintly trappings, the gilded band of his distinctive headdress subtly taking the place of a halo. The reflected light from a gilt background is here echoed in the more subtle waver of light on water that illuminates the ducal countenance, its division into light and shadow indicating the harmonious union of public and private spheres. The portrait reeks of the prosperity of trade: the doge’s robes are of brocade silk imported from the Levant, and the sea-blue background is painted with glowing ultramarine, a pigment even more costly than the gold leaf used in traditional religious panels. The entire painting is a precious object, itself as much an icon of Venice as the shrewd ruler it depicts, afire with the saintly glow of civic zeal.

Renaissance people were acutely aware not only of the persistence of medieval elements in their art, but that the key to redefining their society lay in the energetic new ways to engage with, articulate and innovate upon those same elements, balancing cultural change and with continuity. That story is only beginning to be told.