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Antiquity in Renaissance Art

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Rachel Craft

FA231

Museum Exhibition Proposal

11/02/08

 

            The role of antiquity in Renaissance art is undeniable. A major focus in the Renaissance is one of return to and elaboration upon the past. Yet, there are some works and artists, especially in the early Renaissance, that have a clear, direct link to antiquity. These works will be featured in a multidisciplinary exhibit: The Reality of Antiquity 1200-1500. This exhibit will highlight the varied masterpieces of the early Renaissance, viewed through the lens of antiquity. The focus on the past, upon ancient works and forms, allows the art’s innovation to be fully realized. Within the exhibition, three subdivisions further refine the works. Antiquity is highlighted within architectural forms, human forms and mythology.

                        The shift in Italian populations towards cities catalyzed a building boom that was to last for several centuries. New people brought new wealth, subsequently providing the support and patronage for new centers of religious and civic faith. The increase in construction forced artists to seek inspiration in the architecture of classical buildings. This exhibition would draw directly from Italian buildings of the period. Leone Battista Alberti’s multiple Florentine façades of the period provide clear evidence of antiquity.[1] Also, The Church of San Lorenzo and Old Sacristy in Florence, as designed by Brunelleschi, explicitly references antique architectural elements. The renovation of the Church and Sacristy was funded by Giovanni Medici, for whom “the ancient world provided symbols of timeless stability.”[2] The influence of classical architecture can be seen in two-dimensional art as well, in Andrea Mantegna’s St James Before Herod, circa 1454. Mantegna drew directly upon his studies of ancient Roman ruins to create a sense of accurate space within his works. The “arch shown in the background is based upon the Arco dei Gavo at Verona.”[3] Architecture provides a lasting tie to the past.

             The Byzantine treatment of the human form was iconic and lacked naturalism. As the fourteenth century dawned, artists and sculptors began to directly reference the realistic figure. Works that highlight the influence of antiquity include the sculpted saints along the exterior of Orsanmichele in Florence.[4] Donatello, among others, created saints that were clear descendants of ancient war heroes; “classical figures…assumed a new, modern vitality that embodied the principles of a culture secure of its position within the world.”[5] A key work for an antiquity exhibition would be Antonio Pallaiuolo’s Battle of Nudes, a late fifteenth century Italian engraving. His exaggerated details created “an almost Baroque muscular rhetoric.”[6] Pallaiuolo’s influence and depiction of form extended throughout Europe. Finally, Severo Calzetta da Ravenna and his workshop created the small bronze desk ornament Kneeling Satyr (c. 1500).[7] This sculpture is essential to any study of antiquity as it has a clear connection to the classical and Etruscan models. The human form shouldered the burden of emotional connection in early Renaissance art.

            Finally, there was a conscious revival of mythology within the focus on antiquity. An exhibition that centers upon the idea of Renaissance connections to antiquity must explore the way the Renaissance artist approached and reconciled the Greek tradition. Although Botticelli often marks the beginning of the period referred to as High Renaissance, his works provide some of the clearest mythological references of the period. In congruence with Botticelli’s paintings, this exhibition would include works by the Master of the Apollo and Daphne Legend such as Daphne Found Asleep by Apollo and Daphne Fleeing from Apollo, both of the Florentine School, circa 1500.[8] The symbol of the Phoenix manifests itself in a bronze finial from a firedog (Unknown, Phoenix Rising from the Flames, North Italian, c. 1500), representing both the mythological canon and the Christian concept of resurrection.[9] Another important work is an early engraving of The Death of Orpheus (Unknown, North Italian), which provided the inspiration for Durer’s later examination of mythology.[10] The mythology reexamined in early Renaissance art displays a direct connection to antiquity.

            The early Italian Renaissance centered upon a rise in naturalism and a shift away from iconic, Byzantine forms. Antique forms were used as both inspiration and example; saints were depicted as war heroes, buildings were highlighted with classic columns and antique arches. Antiquity represented the strength of the past and the Roman republic, while also supporting the move towards naturalistic art with a human connection. The “Italians hoped to best the ancients by leavening their revival of classical elegance in art, writing and manners with the revelations of Christian faith.”[11] The Italian peninsula sought wealth, prestige and cultural touchstones; the study of antiquity provided a centering influence.



[1] John T. Paoletti and Gary M. Radke, Art in Renaissance Italy, 3rd ed., ed. Richard Masson (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, 2005), 280.

[2] Ingrid D. Rowland, The Place of the Antique in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art The University of Chicago, 1999), 3.

[3] C.F. Black et al., Cultural Atlas of the Renaissance (New York: Prentice Hall General Reference, 1993), 26.

[4] John T. Paoletti and Gary M. Radke, Art in Renaissance Italy, 3rd ed., ed. Richard Masson (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, 2005), 234.

[5]Ingrid D. Rowland, The Place of the Antique in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art The University of Chicago, 1999), 13.

[6] Aby Warburg, The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity, ed. Steven Lindberg, trans. David Britt (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1999), 271.

[7] Ingrid D. Rowland, The Place of the Antique in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art The University of Chicago, 1999), 21.

[8] Ingrid D. Rowland, The Place of the Antique in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art The University of Chicago, 1999), 18-19.

[9] Ingrid D. Rowland, The Place of the Antique in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art The University of Chicago, 1999), 10.

[10] Aby Warburg, The Renewal of Pagan Antiquity, ed. Steven Lindberg, trans. David Britt (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1999), 559.

[11] Ingrid D. Rowland, The Place of the Antique in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art The University of Chicago, 1999), 1.

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