Art and Civic Pride in Florence

The Renaissance began in Florence in the 15th century.  Breaking with the feudal traditions of the past, Florence had a progressive form of government:   instead of being governed by a Duke or a King, Florence was an independent commune governed by elected leaders drawn from the city’s leading merchant guilds (guilds were trade organizations, similar to unions).  So it was a democracy, and Florentines were fiercely proud of their independence.

Florence was also a center of Humanist learning, and a thriving commercial capital.  It was therefore home to a wealthy merchant class that was educated, and eager to advertise their status, learning, and civic pride through commissioned works of art.

Agnolo Bronzino: Portrait of Cosimo il Vecchio

The Medici as Patrons
There were many wealthy families in Florence that patronized art to decorate their homes and private chapels, or to celebrate weddings and births.   But the most influential family was the Medici, whose fortunes were made through banking.  Cosimo de Medici began the family’s tradition of Humanist scholarship and patronage of the arts:

“Cosimo spent a considerably part of his huge wealth on charitable acts, live simply, and cultivated literature and the arts. He amassed the largest library in Europe, brought in many Greek sources, including the works of Plato, from Constantinople, founded the Platonic Academy and patronized Marsilio Ficino, who later issued the first Latin edition of the collected works of Plato. The artists supported by Cosimo included Ghiberti, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Alberti, Fra Angelico, and Ucello. During his rule and that of his sons and grandson, Florence became the cultural center of Europe and the cradle of the new Humanism.”
The Medici Family @ The Galileo Project 

The Rediscovery of Classical Antiquity
Fueling all of this innovation was the rediscovery of the Classical past, which inspired Florentines to consider themselves to be the heirs of the great civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome:

“The remains of Greco-Roman antiquity—coins, gems, sculpture, buildings, and the classics of Greek and Latin literature—fascinated the thinking men and women of the Italian Renaissance. The arts and the humanities, they reasoned, had declined during the “middle ages” that stretched between the end of antiquity and their own time, but by emulating the exemplary works of the ancients, even striving to surpass them, contemporary artists and writers might restore the arts and letters to their former grandeur. In Renaissance Italy, the desire to know and to match the excellence of the ancients often engendered passionate endeavor.”
The Rediscovery of Classical Antiquity

The Florentine Baptistry, with the Duomo behind it

The Competition for the Baptistry Doors
The story of the Florentine Renaissance begins in 1401 with a public competition for the design of a new set of doors for the Florentine Baptistry, a small octagonal building in front of the Cathedral (duomo in Italian).  The sponsor for the competition was the Arte de Calimala, one of the city’s leading merchant guilds, rather than the church.  The theme selected was the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac, and two of the competition panels by Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi have survived.

Filippo Brunelleschi, Sacrifice of Isaac, competition panel for the east doors of the Baptistry of Florence, 1401-1402

Lorenzo Ghiberti, Sacrifice of Isaac, competition panel for the east doors of the Baptistry of Florence, 1401-1402

Although the doors were for a religious building, it is significant that the patron was not the church.  Florence was an independent Republic, and the guilds were responsible for maintaining the city’s public buildings, including the Cathedral and the Baptistry.  At the time of the competition, Florentine liberties were under attack from the Duke of Milan, and the guilds responded by commissioning a series of public sculptures to rally public spirit.  This is probably why the story of Abraham and Isaac was chosen for the competition:  God asked Abraham to sacrifice his own son, only to be stopped at the last moment by an angel.

Patriotism or Faith?
One of the interesting features of this story is how it blurs the boundaries between religion and politics.   It took courage and self-sacrifice for Abraham to obey the Lord’s command, but he was rewarded in the end for his faith.   The Florentine’s were similarly called upon to make sacrifices, and to remain steadfast in their faith in democracy.  They were rewarded when the Duke died unexpectedly while his armies prepared for battle, and the threat of invasion miraculously disappeared.  So the Old Testament story would have had special meaning for the Florentines, who would have found their both their faith and their patriotism confirmed.  In the context of Renaissance Florence, the story had both religious and secular connotations.  For although the story of Abraham and Isaac comes from the Bible, its meaning in 15th century Florence had more to do with patriotism and civic pride than with faith and God.  This shift from a preoccupation with religion to a concern with the affairs of everyday life is, in many ways, the essence of the new Humanism of the Renaissance!

Detail; Lorenzo Ghiberti, Sacrifice of Isaac, competition panel for the east doors of the Baptistry of Florence, 1401-1402
Detail; Lorenzo Ghiberti, Sacrifice of Isaac, competition panel for the east doors of the Baptistry of Florence, 1401-1402
Statue of Diadoumenos , c. 69-96 AD; Roman copy of a Greek bronze statue by Polykleitos
Statue of Diadoumenos , c. 69-96 AD; Roman copy of a Greek bronze statue by Polykleitos

The Classical Body
Both panels also indicate that the artists abandoned the unnaturalistic proportions and elongated style of the Middle Ages in favor of a more naturalistic style based on a study of Greek and Roman sculpture.  This can be seen in the meticulously rendered drapery, which shows a convincing sense of the naturally proportioned bodies underneath, and in the ideal nudity of Isaac in both panels, recalling Greek statues of male youths.  It is as if both artists were saying “we want nothing to do with the art of medieval Europe; we are now the descendants of ancient Greece and Rome!”  That is how the Forentines saw themselves, and the classically influenced style of the reliefs (made for a religious building!) confirmed this new self-image.

Brunelleschi & Ghiberti, Sacrifice of Isaac, competition panels for the second set of bronze doors for the Florence Baptistery, 1401-2 Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris
Lorenzo Ghiberti, east doors (Gates of Paradise), Baptistry of Florence, 1425-1452. Modern copy of original panels now in the Museo dell’Opero del Duomo, Florence

Winners and Losers
The other interesting feature of this story is the outcome:  Lorenzo Ghiberti won the competition, and after completing his first set of doors he was called back to complete a second set of bronze doors that were so magnificent Michelangelo nicknamed them “the Gates of Paradise.”

But the loser of the competition was Brunelleschi, who was so disheartened by the setback he left Florence and went to Rome to study architecture.  When he returned he became the leading architect in Florence and one of the greatest architects of the Renaissance (you might want to remember this story the next time you face a setback!)

Brunelleschi’s Dome
When Brunelleschi returned from Rome he entered another competition, this time for the design of the dome for the Florentine Cathedral (the duomo).   The building had been designed back in Giotto’s day (in fact, Giotto designed the Bell Tower), but when construction began nobody knew how to build a dome large enough to cover the 140’ crossing.  Apparently city leaders had “faith” that somebody would figure it out, and as it turns out Brunelleschi was that “somebody.”

The solution Brunelleschi devised was ingenious:  he designed a thin double shell to lighten the weight of the structure, and used a herringbone pattern in the brickwork to make it self-supporting.  When the dome was completed, it was the second largest dome in Europe (first place going to the Roman Pantheon), and Florence became known as the “city of the dome.”

What makes this story emblematic of the Renaissance is that although the Florentine Cathedral was a religious building, the meaning of the dome had little to do with God.  Instead, it became a symbol of Florence, and a testament to human ingenuity:  who needs a miracle when man is capable of engineering his own marvels?

The Renaissance: Was it a Thing? – Crash Course World History #22

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