Prato Duomo

Lucca "The Ascension" by the school of Berlinghieri:13th century

Siena Duomo

TheUfizzi, you may already be aware, was where Cosimo (Pater) de Medici decided to gather his accumulated treasures; the massive collection created gravity and later pulled in a much larger collection of renaissance and other art.

The Renaissance and All That

Dang, but if you don't have to get into history—and particularly the history of art—if you visit Florence. One is transported back to the renaissance, a period thick with intrigues, puzzles, strange characters and brilliant solutions. At first Lynda and I found ourselves swept along in a spring flood of paintings and buildings, characters and dates, without any kind of compass. But as we went, read and looked the whole began to take on some sense.

Herewith, as much for our interest in recording this in a way that makes sense to us, as to provide other readers with a framework, is a pinch of history and some dirt on the lives of the painters and artists themselves.


As you know, the Greeks were big from about 700 BC to 300 BC and invented the Classical Age. Then the Romans took over and ruled the known world until about 400 AD. But the Romans were different from the Greeks. The Greeks were, well eventually, a cultured people: they wrote plays, invented philosophy, science, politics and so on. The Romans were...well, not to put too fine a point on it: army types. This isn't to say that they didn't have a few deep thinkers but bloodshed and mayhem were their best events. Yet the Romans were insightful enough to realize this and made up for it somewhat by borrowing much of what the Greeks did and calling it their own.

The Etruscans play a small part in the history of Tuscany. They were the original settlers of the region, arriving probably from Asia Minor, and living here until about 300 BC. But then the Romans heard of them and they disappeared, leaving only a few pots and walls.

Religion...well, Christianity at least

The Christian thing is important because of the art.

Christianity got its start as a minor Jewish sect. Frankly it wasn't doing well locally until Paul took it international. Even here there were problems at first. The Romans were nervous about this new God rattling the cages of Zeus et al and did their best to put an end to things with traditional Roman finesse: bloodshed. This might have worked had not the Greeks got into it and tried to defeat these Christians with debate. They would have won too had not one of their own--the neo-Platonist Origen-- saved the Christians from their own knotted mythology by a solution even more arcane and estoteric that everyone was overawed. The Romans, who didn't get any of it, did an about-face and announced in about 300 AD that they would sponsor Christianty, taking it to two major centres: Rome and Constantinople.

The Romans had done well until about 200 AD but then the wheels began to fall off the empire, and by 400 AD, the "Western Empire", centred in Rome, had all but buckled to Northern threats; only the Byzantine Empire, centred in Constantinople, remained solid.

But then a funny things happened: in the North, the barbarians began to settle and get couth, combing their dreadlocks and—among other things—learning Christianity. The lamp of Art in the west at least was dimmed. Art requires wealth and wealth requires power. Rome was too politically weak to be a centre of political power but none of the northern tribes were individually strong enough to dominate either.

Yet Rome somehow remained the center of religious...and intellectual power. Christianity was in no hurry to re-open that nasty intellectual debate again and the best way to do that was to sweep all "thinking" under the skirts of religion and declare the matter closed. Greek culture in general, being of a inherently secular kind, was verboten and all but disappeared. Northerners, who were still struggling with the finer points of grunting were not in a position to dispute this.

Art too disappeared from outside the church: all art became religious art, sponsored by the wealth of the Church. There's nothing like a church the size of a football stadium filled with massive gold-embossed paintings to impress the bejasus out of some poor working stiff who lives in a hovel on the outskirts of town.

This period is known as the Dark Ages. But that is a Euro-centred term. In about 600 AD, Islam arose in Araby, and the Arab world, thus ignited, erupted outwards. The Arabs conquered all of North Africa and flowed up into Europe on both sides of the Mediterranean. With this military conquest came wealth and with wealth came art and intellectual debate. Arabian scholars—often Jews with Arabic patronage—even got interested in Greek ideas.

By about 700AD there were no less than three pretenders to the head of the Church: the Pope in Rome, the Pope in Constantinople and the Holy Roman Emperor. which prospered because the major works of art created a sense of awe for the poor stiffs who worshipped on the wo main centres of the Christian world, and also of the cultural world, largely by dint of its power as a religious centre and due to its inheritance.


There was no coherent "Italy" or "France" yet; there were only regions usually dominated by large centers, such as Rome, Milan, Pisa, Venice.


When things go "Dark" religion gets to be more important, and that was certainly so in Europe. Having the kick-start was big and Rome in particular, claiming to be the center of the Catholic world (although there was contention from Constantinople) continued to promote art.

But by the thirteenth century Florence was beginning to boom because of its textile industry; the one thing that everyone in a suit of armour appreciates is good underwear. Florence was unique in another respect. Where other centres of power had simply followed tradition and become ruled by the might of some duke or king (and suffered the usual consequences), Florence had deferred power to an elected body of officials.

This body, the Signoria, was naturally subject to the manipulations of powerful families in the area, and there was no more powerful or rich family than the Albizzi's. The family, while ruthless in their exertion of influence over the Signoria had kept at bay the unrest of the populace by ensuring that Florence's prosperity boomed under their rule.

A certain Giovanni di Bicci of the Medici family although a member of the wool guild was primarily a banker, and as a banker anxious to avoid the kind of attention that makes banker's clients nervous. Giovanni achieved success through careful maintenance of certain Roman connections. He had become banker for the Pope, a business that was to prove highly profitable, and make Giovanni a rich man. Eventually, Giovanni passed the family fortunes onto perhaps the greatest of the Medici's, his son, Cosimo. Cosimo had even more talent for developing both influence and wealth than his father and the Medicis prospered. Cosimo would have preferred to stay under the radar but by now the Medici's power had roused the suspicions of the Albizzi and other rich families in Florence. After a series of convoluted plots, Cosimo came out on top, banished the Albizzis from Florence. Realizing that remaining shy was not a winning strategy for the rich Cosimo became almost as ruthless in crushing opposition to his progress as they had been.

But Cosimo did much more than make money and win influence. He spent huge sums of money on the arts. And he had a particular whim. Cosimo believed that the Classical age—that of the Greeks—had been neglected, and he spent large amounts of money onrecovering and reviving interest in things Greek.

The Renaissance

The renaissance is a well-known term but few people really understood what exactly was "renaitted": who did it, and when. The term is actually 19th century term that implied a rebirth of art and classicism—interest in the original Greek works of Plato, Aristotle and others. Interest in the Greeks had been waned by the Church and Cosimo in particular financed a "re-awakening" of this interest, sending researchers to Greece and elsewhere to bring back and save these lost works. But renaissance as a term to define the revolution in art that took place is not helpful.

What actually took place in art was change and Florentines changed it. Until that time, art was chiefly sponsored by the church, and thus all "art" was religious. Likely as a result of this, the figures represented remained symbolic: wooden and other-wordly. They did not have human emotions. In the course of a hundred years, Florentine artists introduced and generally greater "reality" into painting and sculpture: perspective, human feelings, anatomical accuracy and eventually, the portrayal of themes other than religious ones, including portrayal of classical battles and figures, portraits, and other worldly scenes.

How did it happen?

There are two parts to this. The Medicis sponsored—provided the wherewithal, the money, for artists to explore new areas and encouraged new ideas. And the fact that such a small community was such crucible for so much artistic activity probably contributed an unusual degree of cross-pollination of ideas. For example, it is clear that the 14th century artists Giotto (art) and Pisano (sculpture) began creating more lifelike figures and it is to these two that Vasari, writing in 1550, credits the beginning of a revolution yet to be named). Alberti, writing almost a century before Vasari, suggests More recently historians have But lately it is Alberti, writing a century earlier, whose but the trend didn't take off. The old ways continued. It was the outrageous queen, Donatello who, under Cosimo's patronage produced statues that were "sensuous" to a degree unheard of until then, and it was the architect, Bruneleschi, who is thought to have hit on the means for introducing perspective into drawings, and passed it on to Masaccio. Some claim that it was Masaccio, who in the frescoe at Cappella Brancacci of Santa Maria della Carmine was the first to fully capture the full bounty of this new striving, and that others who worked with Masaccio, such as Fra Filippo Lippi, Botticelli and others in Florence, were to take this new approach as a given in their own later works. It took less than fifty years for this new approach to progress from this beginning to the full flight of new art in the high renaissance of artists such as Leonardo, Michaelangelo and Raphaello. Rubens, Botticelli, Raphael, and others that you've perhaps never heard of but that seem scarcely less talented. /body>