Introduction to the beginnings of the Renaissance

The House of Crescentius (Casa dei Crescenzi, via di Ponte Rotto & Piazza della Bocca della Verità, Rome). The part of the building still standing is from the 11th Century (between 1040-1065). Although the building was contemporary with Norman and Romanesque architecture, its style shows much more influences of Classical ancient Rome.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the peoples of western Europe retained blurred memories from its classical antiquity: Theodoric, Charlemagne and the Germanic emperors (Otto I, II and III, as well as Henry VII and Frederick II) dreamed of restoring the Roman Empire and building the prestige of their authority on the basis of its past glories. Charlemagne tried with sincere enthusiasm to begin a true revival of Latin literature and knowledge. However, after so many centuries of darkness, there was an erroneous and incomplete knowledge of antiquity. The works of Homer, for example, were read in a counterfeit excerpt of his writings called the Dictys cretensis and the Dares Phrygius, where Hector and Achilles appeared to challenge each other as if they were the Tristan or the Lancelot of cavalry books. Virgil’s works were known and copied a thousand times, but above all with the purpose of learning how to properly versify. Virgil was mainly imagined as a magician, a kind of prophet. Trajan became a Christian prince, with his own place in glory.

Pictured above and below: Castel del Monte (Lit.: “Castle of the Mountain”) is a 13th-century citadel and castle in Andria in the Apulia region of southeast Italy. It was built during the 1240s by the Emperor Frederick II. Its decorative elements on the facade doors and in the interior capitals (here showing a Faun’s head) show clear influences borrowed from ancient Roman art.


It wouldn’t be until the middle of the 14th century that the first humanist arose in Western Europe, Petrarch (July 20, 1304-July 18/19, 1374), who knew and understood the Homeric poems. Boccaccio (16 June 1313-21 December 1375) was almost a Hellenist; he and Petrarch formed a violent contrast with Dante (ca. 1265-1321), who still had a medieval interpretation of antiquity. Finally, almost in the mid-15th century (between 1431-1449, before the threat of the Turkish attack over Constantinople), the Council of Florence  met attended by the Eastern Emperor and his prelates and ministers. Some of them, like Basilius Bessarion (1403-1472, a Roman Catholic cardinal bishop and the titular Latin Patriarch of Constantinople, one of the Greek scholars who contributed to the great revival of letters in the 15th century) converted to Romanism and settled in Italy. People like him were responsible of bringing most of the Greek manuscripts nowadays kept in the Vatican and Florence, as well as those of the then recently founded Messina’s library, some of which later passed to the Monastery of El Escorial in Spain.

The castle of Lucera (municipality of Lucera, province of Foggia, southern Italy) built in 1233 by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor. Today only remnants of the castle and its walls are left. The castle lies in the same place of the acropolis of the ancient Roman city.

Ignorance ran rampart, not only in relation to art and poetry, but also regarding the scientific knowledge acquired during Classical antiquity. Until the middle of the 13th century, Aristotle was only known through his Arab commentators and Plato was known only by scattered excerpts, the full text of his Dialogues was not known until the 15th century.

The Castle of Trani (seaport of Apulia, southern Italy) from the 13th century.

As for the fine arts of antiquity the confusion was greater, since there was no means of understanding or imitating them. Upon the discover of ancient statues and buildings, the Church sometimes manifested some suspicion because they were images and temples of the ancient gods identified with pagan cults, with the Devil and demons. Only some of the Olympian gods were seen as benevolent spirits since the monks of the Middle Ages continued to represent them in their manuscripts, for example the images of the planets, or of the Sun and the Moon. Others were, without possible error, evil beings. The Church sensed the great enemy hiding in these characters and in the marvelous marbles that were discovered during excavations. Sometimes ancient statues were sacrificed or destroyed to remove evil spells or the menace of the plague, and the marbles of the reliefs were often used as raw materials for new constructions. Such was the case of the reliefs of the cathedral of Orvieto which were sculpted on the back of other ancient reliefs now boarded up by the wall in which they are embedded.

The Castle of Bari or Castello Normanno-Svevo (Bari, Apulia, Italy). Built around 1132 by Norman king Roger II, then Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire, it was destroyed in 1156 by king William I of Sicily and rebuilt and reinforced in 1233 by the Holy Roman emperor Frederick II.

During the Middle Ages, only in Italy the enemies of the Church sought an alliance with pagan traditions. Without daring to renounce the Catholic faith, those people hostile to the ecclesiastical power clung to the ancient Greco-Roman tradition which they only vaguely knew. That was the case of Crescentius the Elder (died 7 July 984), the Roman patrician who, taking advantage of the residence of the Popes in Avignon, was proclaimed consul and built a house with marbles taken from the Forum Boarium. This house is still standing and represents an early exercise in a classical revival, a barbaric example of what could be achieved in those days trying to imitate antiquity. Arnold of Brescia (ca. 1090-June 1155), in the 12th century, proclaimed the need to rebuild the ancient Roman Capitol, and the famous tribune Cola di Rienzo (1313-8 October 1354) passed his free time copying ancient inscriptions.

The Angevin keep commonly called ¨the castle¨ is the largest and most resistant of the 28 towers located along the walls of the city of Bitonto (Bari, Apulia region Italy).

But the most famous rebel to ecclesiastical authority, and therefore an avid enthusiast of Classical antiquity, was Emperor Frederick II. In another previous chapter we learned that he lived as a true pagan in his residences in southern Italy, surrounded by more artists, jurists and writers than by clerics. For his castles of Castel del Monte, Lucera, Trani, Bari and Bitonto, he chose the French Gothic style dominant at that time for military architecture, with large stone vaults supported by arches (ribbed vaults) where the classical style was only shown in the decorative sculpture, in some heads used to top the arches and in the ornamentation of the facade doors.

A 19th century drawing of the triumphal arch of Frederick II at Capua (region of Campania, southern Italy).
Left: A model of the Triumphal Arch of Frederick II. Right: Two busts which decorated its lower part (Museo Provinciale Campano di Capua, Capua, Campania, Italy).
Busts of Pietro della Vigna (left) and Taddeo da Sessa (right) that used to decorate the Triumphal Arch of Frederick II (Museo Provinciale Campano di Capua, Capua, Campania, Italy).

In southern Italy, the Classical land par excellence, Frederick II himself gave impulse to the construction of other type of monuments that displayed a kind of art that was decidedly an effort to restore Classical antiquity, a kind of rebirth or “renaissance” of the Classical forms. Some reliefs found in pulpits in southern Italy prior to the Tuscan Renaissance demonstrate a vivid effort to imitate ancient art. The triumphal arch that Frederick II built in the city of Capua represented a monumental effort in where the Classical style was tried to be applied on a large scale. And also located in Capua was a fragment of the ancient Roman road (the Appian Way) that led to Brindisi by Apulia and Basilicata. The city was in fact the gateway to the emperor’s favorite region, and his triumphal arch was located at the head of the bridge over the Volturno River, a strategic place of great political significance. This arch was destroyed and only fragments of its decorative statues give a perfect idea of ​​the style of the artists surrounding the court of Frederick II. In spite of the mutilations suffered, the seated statue of the Emperor allows us to notice in his clothing the unmistakable style of the ancient marbles, the same as in the heads placed on the pinnacles and the representation of the city of Capua (a bust). The bust of the Emperor’s minister Pietro della Vigna (ca. 1190–1249) appeared crowned with laurel leaves, like that of a Roman consul, and in his beard and hair we can see an imitation of the curls casted by ancient Greek sculptors.

The marble bust of Pietro della Vigna from the Triumphal Arch of Frederick II, ca. 1239 (Museo Provinciale Campano di Capua, Capua, Campania, Italy).