The start of the Renaissance

In a recent post (here) I said that one date which had been advanced as the start of the Renaissance was 1401 when Ghiberti presented his competition panel for the second door of the Baptistry of the Duomo in Florence. Since then I have received comments suggesting that the start of the Renaissance must surely be dated earlier than that. And realistically, it must.

Some scholars of course, dislike any attempt to compartmentalise the past into discrete episodes or periods, arguing that real life is much more messy than that. And in many ways they are right. But the episodic view of history and culture persist, and such a view helps us to collect, organise and communicate our thoughts. The Renaissance is particularly difficult in this regard because it refers at a minimum to a period in history, a period in art history and a period in the history of a philosophy. And while these episodes clearly relate closely to each other, they don’t necessarily start or end at the same time.

In terms of the history of philosophy, the start of the Renaissance is generally considered to align with the life of Francesco Petrarch (Petrarch) (1304-74), sometimes referred to as the Father of Humanism. Petrarch was one of the great thinkers and writers who initiated the Renaissance. In particular, he was an avid collector and student of classical texts, many of which had lain unread for centuries, and through that study became a student of human thought and action. He championed the importance of individuals being able to fulfil their own potential – intellectually and actively – and saw no conflict between religious faith and human self-realisation. That focus on the individual was a fundamental building block of the Renaissance.

In terms of the history of art, the artist who perhaps represents the first key figure in the development of the Renaissance is Giotto di Bondone (Giotto) (1266-1337). His contemporary Giovanni Villani wrote that Giotto was the “sovereign master of painting in his time, who drew all his figures and their postures according to nature”. Much later, Giorgio Vasari describes Giotto as making the decisive break with the medieval style, particularly “introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years”. This of course, was also about putting humanity back in the centre of art, capturing individuals with their individual characteristics, rather than painting people as symbols with pre-defined forms. As part of this, Giotto also recognised the importance of volume and perspective, painting pictures which created a three-dimensional view of the subject.

So, given the consensus view that the Renaissance starts sometime in the C14, why is 1401 also put forward as the ‘start’ of the Renaissance. The reason, I think, is that Ghiberti’s work in particular was a very example of incorporating classical imagery into contemporary work, particularly in the figure of Isaac, derived from a Roman copy of a Greek statue of a centaur.