“In the late fifteenth century, Florence had more woodcarvers than butchers, suggesting that art, even more than meat, was a necessity of life . . . . Most commissions were for religious works. Many banking families, for example, viewed the funding of altarpieces and chapels as a kind of penance for usury (moneylending at interest), which was condemned by the church but inherent to their profession. As the 1400s progressed, however, patrons became increasingly interested in personal fame and worldly prestige. Lavish, even ostentatious, public display became more common, even as the fortunes of the city declined. New subjects from mythology found eager audiences impressed by such evidence of learning. And, by the end of the century—for the first time since antiquity—some art was being made simply “for art’s sake.”
Patrons and Artists in Late 15th-Century Florence (NGA)
Prosperous Florentines built lavish palaces, such as this one designed by Michelozzo for the Medici family. Based on classical Roman architecture, the building advertised the owner’s great wealth, as well as his Humanist learning (the classical sources of the architecture would have publicized the owner’s knowledge of and appreciation for Greek and Roman culture). The interior courtyard was one of the first of its kind, and provided a splendid setting for the display of commissioned works of art. This is where Donatello’s statue of David once stood, and the family’s coat of arms can be seen carved on the walls above the arches.
Wealthy Florentines also commissioned works of art to decorate their homes, and the private setting enabled artists to explore secular (i.e. non-religious) themes:
“The manufacture of secular art objects, usually for the purpose of commemoration, personalized these lavish Italian Renaissance interiors. Because childbirth and marriage were richly celebrated, a number of objects were made in honor of these rituals. The wooden birth tray, or desco da parto, played a utilitarian as well as celebratory role in commemorating a child’s birth . . . A desco da parto was usually painted with mythological, classical, or literary themes, as well as scenes of domesticity. The reverse often displayed a family crest.”
Domestic Art in Renaissance Italy
This childbirth tray was created to commemorate the birth of Lorenzo de Medici, and depicts men on horseback pledging allegiance to an allegorical figure of Fame, who stands atop a globe holding a sword and statuette of Cupid. The back of the tray is decorated with the Medici and Tornabuoni family coats of arms. This use of art to commemorate personal achievements, devoid of religious justification, would have been unthinkable in the Middle Ages.
This panel once decorated a cassone (a wooden chest used for storage), or a spaliere (the decorative headboard of a bed). The scene depicts the story of Jason and the Argonauts, a Greek epic that would have been familiar to educated Humanists. Stories from Greek and Roman mythology became popular alternatives to the biblical themes that had served as the only source of imagery in the Middle Ages. In addition to providing visual and narrative delight, the stories would have also advertised the patron’s learning (“Hey, I can read, and I’m knowledgeable about Classical mythology!”)
The context of private patronage can help us understand one of the most extraordinary paintings of the Renaissance — Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. The painting was commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de Medici, probably to celebrate a marriage. The subject was based on a poem by the humanist scholar Angelo Poliziano, a member of the Neoplatonic Academy housed at the palace of Lorenzo de Medici in Florence. This group of Humanist scholars sought to reconcile the Greek philosophy of Plato with Christian theology, and the complex iconography of Botticelli’s picture may reflect the influence of their ideas.
One of the revolutionary features of Botticelli’s painting is the fact that Venus is nude. Botticelli based his figure on Greek statues of the nude Aphrodite (just as Donatello used Greek sculpture as the inspiration for his David). But Botticelli did not merely adapt the Greek style to a Christian subject; instead, he presented the pagan goddess herself, and the story of her birth as recounted in classical mythology. Born from the sea, Venus is wafted to shore by personifications of the wind and the breeze, while a figure of Spring greets her with a mantle.
In the Middle Ages, a painting of Venus would have been considered blasphemous, but we must remember that this work was made for a private home, not a church! The subject matter is often interpreted as an expression of the Neoplatonic theory of “divine love.” The Neoplatonics theorized that there were two kinds of love: terrestrial love (which might be equated with “sex”), and platonic love, which was a higher form of love inspired by God (even today, we refer to relationships as “platonic,” which often means that there is no sex involved). From this, the Neoplatonics concluded that beauty can be understood as a reflection of divine beauty, and can therefore bring us closer to God by stimulating a higher form of “love.” In this view, Botticelli’s Venus can be interpreted as an allegory of “divine beauty,” whose purity inspires not the base form of terrestrial love (this was not supposed to be pornography), but a higher form of platonic love. Through her beauty we glimpse the divine beauty and perfection of God!
Botticelli’s style was influenced by the linear grace of his teacher, Fra Filippo Lippi, and reflects little of the scientific naturalism that was pioneered by Masaccio. His figures are weightless and ethereal, set against a background that lacks any sense of depth, due to the absence of atmospheric perspective. The picture evokes a fantasy world, rather than the earthly reality of Masaccio, and appealed to the rarefied tastes of the Medici and their Humanist circle of friends.
Botticelli, The Birth of Venus, 1483-85, tempera on panel, 68 x 109 5/8″ (172.5 x 278.5 cm), Uffizi, Florence Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris & Dr. Steven Zucker
This work by Botticelli depicts the Goddess of Love with Mars, the God of War, in a scene suggestive of post-coital bliss. Mischievous Satyrs play with the God’s discarded armor, to convey the message that love conquers war. The shape of the picture suggests it was made to decorate the backboard of a chest or bed, and was probably given as a present to celebrate a marriage. The erotic tone of the scene indicates how far we have come from Medieval attitudes towards “sins of the flesh”!
“It is hard to imagine a world without images of living people, but in western Europe portraiture had essentially disappeared with the collapse of Roman civilization. Only such figures as saints, the Virgin and child, and angels—or devils and the anonymous damned—were depicted in paint (although rulers, in imitation of Roman and Byzantine emperors, might put a generic profile on coins). It has been suggested that physical appearance was not a particularly important element of self-image or even a primary means of identification in the Middle Ages. Station in life, family and local affiliations, occupation—these were how people knew themselves and others. But by the time these paintings were made between about 1450 and 1500, a thousand years after the fall of ancient Rome, notions about identity and the individual had changed.”
Portrait Painting in Florence in the Later 1400s (NGA)
“The earliest portraits had appeared in altarpieces, where tiny donors knelt in prayer to a central image of the Virgin or other holy personage. Independent portraits, however, would have to await the man-centered worldview of the Renaissance. Men and women now sought “speaking likenesses” for a range of purposes for the first time since antiquity. Portraits became part of the dynastic business of kingdoms and were deployed as statements of wealth and status. Portraits of prospective brides were reviewed by rulers contemplating marriage. Many aristocratic couples were “introduced” through images. Likenesses were also commissioned, as they are most often today, as a way to immortalize loved ones.”
Portrait Painting in Florence in the Later 1400s (NGA)
The only “portraits” that had existed in the past were the profile portraits of Roman Emperors that appeared on coins — so Early Renaissance portraits were derived from this format. The portraits were meant to convey social status, rather than personality, and emphasized external signs of wealth, such as clothing, coats of arms, or palatial settings. Portraits of women, in particular, emphasized virtue and chastity, and were usually placed in an enclosed setting to signify woman’s place in the home.
This portrait depicts Giovanna Tornabuoni, daughter of one of the wealthiest men in Florence. She is dressed in a rich brocade dress and wears an expensive necklace around her neck; another piece of jewelry is placed strategically on the ledge, and testifies to the wealth of her family and the large dowry that a marriage would bring. Red coral rosary beads hang from a shelf behind her, and a well-used prayer book rests upon the ledge — emblems of her piety and chastity. An inscription tacked to the wall extolls her beauty and virtue.
Seen from the side, we get little sense of who Giovanna is, or what she might be thinking. Prim and proper in demeanor, the painting emphasizes the young woman’s social status, rather than her personality. The portrait was probably used to negotiate a marriage, and poor Giovanna would probably have had little say in the matter!
This portrait shows a richly dressed woman in an interior, with a male figure gazing through the window. Scholars believe the picture was made to commemorate a marriage. Wedding portraits were often used in arranged marriages, where a painted portrait was given to the prospective spouse for consideration. Artists were therefore encouraged to make their sitters look glamorous to ensure a successful transaction.
Fra Fillippo Lippi, Portrait of a Man and Woman at a Casement, tempera on wood, c. 1440 (Metropolitan Museum of Art) Speakers: Dr. David Drogin, Dr. Beth Harris For more: http://smarthistory.org/lippis-portrait-of-a-man-and-woman-at-a-casement.html
Comparison of Flemish and Italian Portraits
Portraiture was popular in both Flanders and Italy, but the style of the two regions was very different. Flemish portraits typically portray the sitter in a ¾ pose (turned just slightly, so the pose is neither frontal or profile), and include the hands, while Italian portraits were usually in profile, and were cut off at the bust. Flemish portraits are generally less flattering than their Italian counterparts, and emphasize the sitter’s piety rather than their beauty. Italian artists idealized their subjects (i.e. made them appear “glamorous”), and emphasized their worldly accomplishments and possessions. Finally, Flemish portraits are characterized by scrupulous attention to detail (made possible by the oil medium), while Italian portraits — usually painted in tempera, rather than oil — focus on broad areas of sculptural form, rather than details, due to the limitations of the tempera medium.
Before leaving Florence, I want to look at one more painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio, because it illustrates so well the dramatic changes that took place during the Renaissance. The painting was part of a large cycle of frescoes commissioned by the Tornabuoni family to decorate their private chapel in Santa Maria Novella (the same church that Masaccio painted the Trinity Altarpiece for). Each of the scenes depicts an episode from the life of the Virgin or Saint John the Baptist, and members of the Tornabuoni family play a prominent role in each.
In this scene, we see the Birth of the Virgin taking place in a sumptuous interior, with the kind of classicizing decor that became fashionable in Florence at the time (wealthy patron all had their palaces decorated to look like Ancient Roman villas). Anne reclines on a bed, while well-dressed servants attend to the newborn Virgin Mary (only the wealthiest could afford such luxury!). In the center of the picture, Ludovica Tornabuoni (daughter of the patron, and sister of Giovanna, whose portrait we looked at earlier) enters the room, with a train of “ladies in waiting” behind her. Dressed in the latest Florentine fashion, she practically steals the show!
Domestic Art in Renaissance Italy
The Renaissance Portrait from Donatello to Bellini, Metropolitan Museum
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