Founded on the ideals of Italian scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca during the late fourteenth century, Renaissance humanism centered itself on humanity’s potential for achievement. Although God is credited for creating the universe, human beings are the ones credited for developing and sustaining it. The shift was away from understanding the world through faith and towards a broader intellectual and scientific understanding of it. A humanist, in this context, was simply a teacher whose curriculum focused on the liberal arts.
By the mid-fifteenth century, this curriculum evolved to include rhetoric, grammar, poetry, history and moral philosophy (or ethics). Together these individual disciplines comprised the core of humanistic studies. But the ideas introduced were not altogether new. Humanists relied on primary sources such as the classical literature of Greece and Rome. What is remarkable, however, are the great lengths to which the movement sought to recover and reintroduce old ideas to the present times.
It is remarkable when considering that after the fall of Rome in the fifth century much of the texts housing ideas central to humanistic thought were virtually lost or buried in obscurity. Ancient ideas within these classical texts were considered crucial because humanists considered the ancient world the pinnacle of human achievement and thought its human accomplishments should serve as the model for contemporary Europe. After the fall of Rome, human progress and achievement slowed to a trickle.
Western civilization became mired in a period of cultural decline that the Renaissance mind considered a “dark age” in human history. The only way out was a return to the ideas propelling the ancient world forward. It was, in essence, a trip back to the future. Humanism profoundly affected the artistic community and how artists themselves were perceived. The medieval mind viewed artists as humble servants whose talent and ability were meant to honor God. This is evident in the work of medieval artists adorning churches and cathedrals.
Renaissance artists, in contrast, were trained intellectuals – well versed in the classics and mathematical principles. And the art that they created reflected this newfound perspective. The Renaissance also gave birth to a new class in the social order – the merchant class which closely resembles what we now refer to as the middle class. And this merchant class had the means to commission an artist’s services. This dramatically expanded the sources of patronage (i. e. financial support) as well as the themes an artist could consider.
No longer was patronage a luxury only the aristocracy could afford. And no longer were commissions relegated primarily to religious considerations. Enlightened citizens with the means to afford it considered artistic patronage an important activity. And with expanded participation, new kinds of art were introduced into the Renaissance landscape. Aristocratic patrons often commissioned portraits. But much of the art commissioned at the time was at the patronage of the merchant class.
This art was primarily secular in nature – including mythological subject matter – and adorned the halls and rooms of town homes and country villas. Citizens such as Cosimo de’ Medici were civic minded and supported notable worthwhile causes. De’ Medici supported libraries, for example. He also had a fondness for the work of the artist Donatello and an interest in merging Plato’s ideals with Christian philosophy in an effort to demonstrate how life’s spiritual aspects can overcome physical limitations (leading to a revival of Neo-Platonism).
Cosimo’s grandson – Lorenzo the Magnificent – was an avid art collector and benefactor to a young Michelangelo. This underscored the benefit of associating intellectual pursuits with the resources to pursue them. It cast a wide social net along with establishing a thriving market place for creativity. One work of art that embodies the ideal of the Early Italian Renaissance is Donatello’s “Penitent Magdalene. ” The work was commissioned between the late 1430s and 1450s. It is a life-size polychromed wood sculpture.
The contrapposto positioning (one leg bearing weight with the other relaxed) is a reference to classic Greek style. The work presents Mary Magdalene as a sympathetic figure who has paid her dues in life. It is an emotionally moving piece. Once a prostitute, Mary evolved to become one of Jesus Christ’s most devout followers and trusted confidants. She was the first person to whom Jesus appeared after the Crucifixion. Afterwards, however, she lived her life in perpetual penance and self-imposed suffering to atone for the sins in life she committed.
The sculpture presents Mary as old and frail with few hints of her long lost and forgotten beauty. What does remain to remind us that this was once a strong and beautiful presence to behold is a refined bone structure, the contrapposto pose and long hair. But the trembling hands raised as if in prayer and tattered dress convey that this woman has suffered long enough. She is deserving of forgiveness and compassion. This is the work of an artist well versed not only in the spiritual origin of this woman’s story, but our own sense of humanity and what we may aspire to.