posted on 26/09/22
They take place every Tuesday from 24th January to 28th February at 4.30pm (GMT) and, including Q&A, will probably last an hour. They are available for viewing for eight weeks after the last episode is streamed (25th April 2023).
Why is a French word used in English for what was originally an Italian historical phenomenon? The use of the word “Renaissance” began in the 19th-century but its central idea of a “rebirth” has its roots in the period itself. It then meant the revival of the cultural glories of the ancient world after the supposedly barbarous interlude of the “Middle Ages”. Vasari applied this notion in his Lives of the Artists, first published in 1550, and his model of artistic development still applies. Should it be further reconsidered or refined?
All the states in early modern Italy professed Christianity and the Church continued to hold a central place in everyone’s life. Most art continued to be religious in subject-matter and took the form of altarpieces, statues and frescoes for churches, or objects used in private devotion. The central innovations in renaissance art occurred within this traditional framework of belief, whether in the representation of space, human anatomy, light or the natural world in general. Changing approaches towards depicting the divine had a vital impact on the emergence of the new “realism”.
The pagan gods did not disappear with the triumph of Christianity but took on different guises. They continued to dominate the heavens in the planets and constellations, while Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ perpetuated their earthly myths (if accompanied by a moralising gloss). Depicted in fashionable medieval attire, the concentrated study of ancient sculpture enabled renaissance artists to again reunite classical subject-matter with classical form. Mythology thus became the vehicle for the erotic genre of the female nude while Jupiter and his fellow-gods were enlisted in the propaganda of princely rulers and republics.
Few terms are so misused when applied to the Renaissance as “humanism”. It is wrongly taken to mean a renewed focus on man as opposed to God. The term “umanista” then designated a man engaged in the “studia humanitatis”, a curriculum of ancient grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy. This intellectual élite devised esoteric iconography for renaissance patrons. Few painters or sculptors, including Leonardo or Michelangelo, had Latin and none of them can be described as professional humanists. What was their mutual relationship in forging artworks?
Artists like Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael and Titian were very famous in their own time and continue to be so. They achieved a status such that the most powerful men and women of their era begged for their services. Especially at court, the artist could achieve a status that rivalled that of poets and humanists. But this elevated rank was afforded only to a very few superstars, while the majority of painters and sculptors continued to be treated as menial craftsmen. What circumstances allowed the privileged few to rise to these new heights?
Many of the most advanced tendencies in Italian art and architecture coalesced in Rome in the first two decades of the 16th century in the “High Renaissance”. For Pope Julius II Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel and Raphael his ‘School of Athens’. The death of Raphael in 1520 and the Sack of Rome seven years later by Lutheran mercenaries brought this Golden Age to end. Or did it? The style called “mannerism” can be viewed as its elegant extension, and the cult of the antique lasted until the modern age.
Mixes scholarship with accessible discourse, wit with reasoned opinion, and is highly sought-after as an art history lecturer. He has lectured for New York University (London campus) and is an Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London, specialising primarily in 16th-century Italian art and architecture. He studied at the Courtauld and Birkbeck College and lived in Rome for several years. He has written articles for Arte Veneta, Burlington Magazine and the Journal of the Warburg & Courtauld Institutes.
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