When we discussed the new style of painting that arose in Flanders
about 1420, we avoided
suggesting why this revolution took place at that particular time and in
that particular area. This does not mean, however, that no explanation
is possible. Unless we believe in sheer fate or chance, we find it
difficult to place the entire burden of responsibility on the Master of
Flemalle and the brothers Van Eyck. There must, we feel, be some link
between their accomplishment and the social, political, and cultural
setting in which they worked, but it is not yet well understood. We have
more insight into the special circumstances that help to explain why the
Early Renaissance was born in Florence at the beginning of the fifteenth
century, rather than elsewhere or at some other time.
In the years around 1400,
Florence faced an acute threat to its independence from
the powerful duke of Milan, who was trying to bring all of Italy under
his rule. He had already subjugated the Lombard plain and most of the
Central Italian city-states. Florence remained the only serious obstacle
to his ambition. The city put up a vigorous and successful defense on
the military, diplomatic, and intellectual fronts. Of these three, the
intellectual was by no means the least important. The duke had eloquent
support as a new Caesar, bringing peace and order to the country.
Florence, in turn, rallied public opinion by proclaiming itself as the
champion of freedom against unchecked tyranny.
This propaganda war was waged on both sides by humanists, the heirs
of Petrarch and Boccaccio, but the Florentines gave by far the better
account of themselves. Their writings, such as Praise of the City of
Florence (1402-3) by
Leonardo Bruni (see fig. 616),
give renewed focus to the Petrarchan ideal of a
rebirth of the Classics. The humanist, speaking as the citizen of a free
republic, asks why, among all the states of Italy, Florence alone had
been able to defy the superior power of Milan. He finds the answer in
her institutions, her cultural achievements, her geographical situation,
the spirit of her people, and her descent from the city-states of
ancient Etruria. Florence, he concludes, assumes the same role of
political and intellectual leadership as that of Athens at the time of
the Persian Wars.
The patriotic pride, the call to greatness, implicit in this image of
Florence as the "new Athens" must have aroused a deep response
throughout the city, for just when the forces of Milan threatened to
engulf them, the Florentines embarked on an ambitious campaign to finish
the great artistic enterprises begun a century before at the time of
Giotto. Following the competition of 1401-2
for the bronze doors of the Baptistery,
another extensive program continued the
sculptural decoration of Florence Cathedral and other churches, while
deliberations were resumed on how to build the dome of the Cathedral,
the largest and most difficult project of all. The campaign lasted more
than 30 years; it
gradually petered out after the completion of the dome in
1436. Although difficult to
express in present-day financial terms, its total cost was comparable to
the cost of rebuilding the Acropolis in Athens.
The huge investment was itself not a guarantee of
artistic quality, but, stirred by such civic enthusiasm, it provided a
splendid opportunity for the emergence of creative talent and the
coining of a new style worthy of the "new Athens."
From the start, the visual arts were considered essential to the
resurgence of the Florentine spirit. Throughout antiquity and the Middle
Ages, they had been classed with the crafts, or "mechanical arts." It
cannot be by chance that the first explicit statement claiming a place
for them among the liberal arts occurs around
1400 in the writings of the Florentine chronicler
Filippo Villani. A century later, this claim was to win general
acceptance throughout most of the Western world. What does it imply? The
liberal arts were defined by a tradition going back to Plato and
comprised the intellectual disciplines necessary for a "gentleman's"
education: mathematics (including musical theory), dialectics, grammar,
rhetoric, and philosophy. The fine arts were excluded because they were
"handiwork" lacking a theoretical basis. Thus when artists gained
admission to this select group, the nature of their work had to be
redefined. They were acknowledged as people of ideas, rather than mere
manipulators of materials, and works of art came to be viewed more and
more as the visible records of their creative minds. This meant that
works of art need not—
indeed, should not—be
judged by fixed standards of craftsmanship. Soon everything that bore
the imprint of a great master was eagerly collected, regardless of its
incompleteness: drawings, sketches, fragments, unfinished pieces.
The outlook of artists, too, underwent important changes as well. Now
in the company of scholars and poets, they themselves often became
learned and literary. They might write poems, autobiographies, or
theoretical treatises. As another consequence of their new social
status, artists tended to develop into one of two contrasting
personality types: the person of the world, self-controlled, polished,
at ease in aristocratic society: or the solitary genius, secretive,
idiosyncratic, subject to fits of melancholy, and likely to be in
conflict with patrons. It is remarkable how soon this modern view of art
and artists became a living reality in the Florence ol the Early
Renaissance. However, such an attitude did not take immediate hold
everywhere, nor did it apply equally to all artists. England, for
example, was slow to grant them special status, and women in general
were denied the professional training and opportunities available to
The first half of the fifteenth century became the heroic age of the
Early Renaissance. Florentine art, dominated by the original creators of
the new style, retained the undisputed leadership of the movement. To
trace its beginnings, we must discuss sculpture first, for the sculptors
had earlier and more plentiful opportunities than the architects and
painters to meet the challenge of the "new Athens."
The artistic campaign had opened with the competition for the
Baptistery doors, and for some time it consisted mainly of sculptural
projects. Ghiberti's trial relief, we recall, does not differ
significantly from the International Gothic (see fig.
nor do the completed Baptistery doors, even though their
execution took another 20
years. Only in the trial panel can Ghiberti's admiration for ancient
art, as demonstrated by the torso of Isaac, be linked with the
classicism of the Florentine humanists around
Similar instances occur in other Florentine sculpture at that time. But
such quotations of ancient sculpture, isolated and small in scale,
merely recapture what Nicola Pisano had done a century before (see
four saints, called the Quattro Coronati (fig.
566), which he made
about 1410-14 for one of
the niches on the exterior of the church of Or San Michele, demand to be
compared not with the work of Nicola Pisano but with the Reims
Visitation (see fig. 489).
The figures in both groups are approximately
lifesize, yet Nanni's give the impression of being a good deal larger
than those at Reims. Their quality of mass and monumentality was quite
beyond the range of medieval sculpture, even though Nanni depended less
directly on ancient models than had the sculptor of the Visitation
Pisano. Only the heads of the second and third of
the Coronati directly recall examples of Roman sculpture,
specifically those memorable portrait heads of the third century A.D.
568). Nanni was obviously
impressed by their realism and their agonized expressions. His ability
to retain the essence of both these qualities indicates a new attitude
toward ancient art, which unites classical form and content, instead of
separating them as medieval classicists had done.
NANNI DI BANCO.
A decade after the trial relief, we find that this limited medieval
classicism has been surpassed by a somewhat younger artist, Nanni di
Nanni di Banco
Nanni di Banco, (born 1384/90?, Florence [Italy]—died 1421,
Florence), Florentine sculptor whose works exemplify the
stylistic transition from the Gothic to the Renaissance that
occurred in Italy in the early 15th century.
Nanni was trained by his father, Antonio
di Banco, a sculptor who worked with Niccolò d’Arezzo on the
Cathedral of Florence. It is not surprising, therefore, that
Nanni’s first important work, a life-size marble statue of
the prophet Isaiah, was commissioned for the cathedral.
Installed on the cathedral’s western facade, this figure is
more Gothic in feeling than his later, more classical works
for the guilds of the Or San Michele in Florence. Of the
latter, the “Quattro Coronati” (“Four Crowned Saints”; c.
1411–13) is considered his masterpiece. Influenced by
antique art, the four saints are dressed in firmly modeled
Roman togas and have heads that strongly resemble the
ancient portrait busts of Roman senators that Nanni had
studied. The group of figures is bound together by the
spatial relation of each to the other and by a kind of mute
conversation in which they all seem to be engaged.
A relief of the Assumption of the Virgin
Mary that was placed above the Mandorla Gate (Porta della
Mandorla) was begun about 1414. This was his last major work
and was probably finished posthumously by Luca della Robbia,
who is generally thought to have been Nanni’s student.
Four Saints (Quattro Coronati).
Marble, about lifesize.
Or San Michele, Florence
567. Four Saints (Quattro Coronati),
head of second figure from left (fig. 566)
568. Portrait of a Roman. Early
3rd century A.D.
Marble, lifesize. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen, Berlin
NANNI DI BANCO. Quattro Santi Coronati. 1408-13. Marble,
height: c. 185 cm. Orsanmichele, Florence
NANNI DI BANCO. Sculptors at work. c. 1416. Marble. Orsanmichele,
NANNI DI BANCO. Porta della Mandorla. 1414-21. Marble. Duomo, Florence
NANNI DI BANCO. Assumption of the Virgin. 1414-21. Marble. Duomo,
NANNI DI BANCO. Esaias. 1408. Marble, height: 193 cm
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence
NANNI DI BANCO. St. Luke. 1408-15. Marble, height: 208 cm.
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Florence