At the end of 1417, Martin V, a Roman patrician of the Colonna family and Pope elected in Basel, decided to move the Pontifical Court from Avignon to Rome. Once in Rome (he entered the city in September 1420), he set to work to restore the dilapidated capital including churches, palaces, bridges, and other public structures. To this endeavor, he commissioned famous masters of the Tuscan school and as an indirect consequence helped instigate the Roman Renaissance. This transcendental event made of Italy the central point of the coming renaissance of humanism in Italy, whose progress was delayed during the time Popes were in Avignon due to tensions between the Italian and the French Gothic culture. After Martin V was elected Pope on November 11, 1417, he first went to Mantua and then to Florence, where he lingered waiting for the right moment to enter the ancient capital of the Papacy. But Rome, so long abandoned to the discords of its patrician families, wasn’t in an adequate state to host a lavish court like the one that was then coming from Avignon. The first two Popes that reigned after the return of the Pontifical Court to Rome, Martin V and Eugene IV, only managed to restore their power and secure their authority over the capital: the Lazio territory continued under the hands of feudal barons. This situation was the norm for successive Popes throughout the 15th century. It would be only until the emergence of the energetic audacity heralded by Alexander VI, the second Pope of the Borja family, that it was possible to put an end over the tyranny of the Roman families that constantly challenged the Papacy. This is why Rome during the 15th century occupied a secondary place in the history of the origins of the Renaissance, though would be later destined to become the center of Italian art.
All the glory of having accepted and promoted for over a century the great spiritual and intellectual wave of the Renaissance went almost exclusively to Florence. At the beginning of the 15th century, this city had managed to impose its hegemony over all of Tuscany, from the high valley of Casentino, bathed by the Arno river, to Pisa its former rival then subdued, and Siena, also defeated, together with the cities of Arezzo, Cortona, Prato, Lucca and Pistoia, that became like spiritual suburbs of Florence. In Florence there was an artistic school in full evolution, even since Arnolfo Di Cambio brought to his homeland the tradition of the Pisan sculptors. We have seen in a past essay that it was Florence that kept victorious over the other city-states and was from Florence that the new sculptural style spread to Naples and northern Italy. In painting, Sienese art, refined and aristocratic, was an important episode; instead, the Florentine disciples of Giotto continued to progress uninterruptedly, inspired by the forms they observed in nature.
However, architecture resisted innovations; it kept being Gothic in essence, the hybrid Gothic style that Giovanni Pisano had used in the Camposanto Monumentale of Pisa, but only Gothic for the forms of its elements, though clad in marbles and ordered with other proportions different from those of the French Gothic style dominant throughout Europe.
The most important construction work that was being executed in Florence at that time was the cathedral, previously dedicated to Saint Reparata, but that would be devoted later to the Mother of God with the title of Saint Mary of the Flower (Santa Maria del Fiore). The cathedral of Florence, if it weren’t for its dome by Brunelleschi which we will talk about later, would be just a vast and grandiose building, gray and cold inside, with a rich marble decoration on its exterior facades. What a difference if we compare it with the great artistry showed in the cathedral of Pisa with its rhythmic arcades. In the cathedral of Florence you can mostly see squares and more squares drawn on its huge walls a thousand times subdivided. Only on its lateral doors the first sculptors of a Florentine-style school carved graceful reliefs on the high tympana over the singular ogives. Perhaps the most beautiful of these doors is the so-called “door of the Mandorla” (Porta dellaMandorla) sculpted, among others, by Nanni di Banco in 1421.
Next to the cathedral stands the campanile, or bell tower, also completely built in marble, still showing ogival Gothic forms in its windows divided with mullions. The campanile project was commissioned to Giotto in 1334 and it’s known that its foundations were laid that same year (19 July 1334), his design was in harmony with the polychromy of the cathedral giving the tower a view as if it was painted: white marble from Carrara, green marble from Prato and red marble from Siena. Tradition assumes that the great painter carved some of the reliefs from the base in which his style is certainly seen. But the campanile of Florence is a work that took many years to complete and occupied several masters, and it seems very doubtful that Giotto, who died three years after its construction was begun and that -at the time- was also occupied with other multiple commissions, could do more than to trace and design such an important construction. Following Giotto’s death in 1337, he was succeeded as Master of the Works in 1343 by Andrea Pisano, famous already for sculpting the South Doors of the Baptistery. He continued the construction of the bell tower, faithfully following Giotto’s design. Construction was interrupted in 1348, year of the disastrous Black Death plague. Andrea Pisano was then replaced by Francesco Talenti who built the top three levels, completing the bell tower in 1359.
Built along two generations (it was finished in 1359), the Florentine campanile is one of humanity’s jewels; everything in it is wisely placed to achieve its visual effect of grace and beauty. The beautiful square tower is divided with a harmonic plan of horizontal zones: the first is a lower base with reliefs; on top it’s another wider area adorned with sculptures; this is followed by a level with windows; higher still, there are other higher windows, and finally the last level, with a single very airy window and topped with a cornice. There is nothing new or extraordinary, however, it is not easy to describe the visual effect caused by this tower: its measures are so regular and it has such elegant proportions in each of the zones that subdivide this 84.7-meter-high marble mole. Through his Campanile, Giotto became, together with Brunelleschi (the designer and builder of the Cathedral’s dome) and Alberti (with his treatise De re aedificatoria from 1450), one of the founding fathers of Italian Renaissance architecture.
The window shapes are still Gothic in the campanile. On the other hand, in the famous portico-museum called the Loggia dei Lanzi, which is in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, and built between 1376 and 1382 by Benci di Cione and Simone di Francesco Talenti, we can see the semicircular arches supported on apparent Corinthian capitals and Classical entablature. Despite its unique beauty, this hybrid art didn’t please at first the high spirits of the peoples of central Italy devoted to the study and imitation of Greek and Roman antiquity while they were discovering new ancient manuscripts. Back then, scholars were so interested in Classical history and mythology that they studied and translated Greek for the first time after so many centuries of ignorance in Western Europe.
This movement that dragged scholars, writers, philosophers, politicians and artists, called Renaissance, in reality had deep social roots. Just as the Gothic style reflected the sensitivity and conception of the world of the inhabitants of the cities of northern France under the direction of their powerful bishops, the Renaissance had as its social base the group of rich merchants and bankers from Florence. The Medici, the Pitti, the Rucellai, the Strozzi and so many others were the promoters of the new style and its good taste. Especially the Medici who had branches of their businesses in London, Bruges, Ghent, Lyon, Avignon and Venice and who for decades had been the heads of the Guelph or popular party. Cosimo de’Medici, called the Elder, managed for him and his descendants throughout the 15th century, to retain power in Florence without ever holding any official title. His ability was to match his particular interests with the convenience of most Florentine citizens. Cosme the Elder and his grandson Lorenzo, called the Magnificent (Lorenzo il Magnifico), were men of cultured spirits and exquisite taste who created in their house a cradle for philosophers and artists passionate about ancient Greece and the philosophy of Plato.
The fascination that “antiquity” exerted on them (which they conceived as an arbitrary mixture of Greek and Roman knowledge and traditions) had not only aesthetic, but social motives. As the study of the Greek and Roman past was only accessible to the intellectual elite; painters, sculptors and architects, who until then had been considered anonymous artisans, at most members of a given guild who managed a trade at the same level as carpenters and shoemakers, also surrendered to the study of ancient art not only because they liked their forms but because it gave them social prestige and status. Indeed, it was from the Renaissance (and precisely in Florence) when important artists began to be filled with honors and considered intellectuals as were men of letters, instead of belonging to a manual trade or guild which was the social category in which they were framed throughout the Middle Ages. Probably, Cosimo de’Medici was the first to recognize the genius of a painter by calling him divine.
Inside the Medici circle, in the second half of the 15th century when the supposed date of Plato’s anniversary was celebrated, the humanist Marsilio Ficino tried to reconcile Platonism and Christianity, and his disciple Giovanni Pico della Mirandola rehabilitated paganism for its sense of beauty. When he was 23, in 1486, he proposed to defend 900 theses on religion, philosophy, natural philosophy, and magic, ideas that he developed in his Oration on the Dignity of Man based on Neoplatonic thinking, which has been called the “Manifesto of the Renaissance”, and a key text of Renaissance humanism. A mixture of Hellenism and Christianity was preached according to which the divine love drives us to passionately seek in other human beings the beauty of the body and that of the soul. At that time, Lorenzo the Magnificent wrote his famous poem Trionfo:
Youth is sweet and well
But doth speed away!
Let who will be gay,
To-morrow, none can tell.
It was an inspired adaptation of the old carpe diem Latin aphorism from the Book 1 of the Roman poet Horace’s work Odes from 23 BCE.