Saturday, December 4, 2010

Art of Renaissance Florence, 1400-1600

By Loren Partridge, University of Californian Press.

Art of Renaissance Florence shows how the Italian High Renaissance was classical, moneyed, courtly, and above all Christian, even if the author does not fully appreciate the last quality. He does nevertheless discuss the theology behind many of the paintings, such as “Shaw Madonna” by Donatello:

"[B]y seating her triumphantly in heaven on a throne of clouds within a circular arrangement of haloed angelic heads and representing her in shallow, almost ethereal relief, Donatello also evoked her spiritual perfection and her role of mediator between earth and heaven."

While the discussion for much of the book follows this theological reading, sometimes Partridge's secularist biases lead him to incorrect assumptions, such as calling Carmelite spirituality "Carmelite ideology," reflecting our period's own concern with political power before all else.

Authors such as Partridge fail to understand the elegant spirituality of late medieval and Renaissance Europe even though they appreciate the elegant culture that the spirituality created.

Partridge does have a great understanding of the political and social forces behind the Renaissance, and how this affected the artists of the day. He shows how art played an important role in the politics of Florence during a time when Italy was seriously divided and at almost constant low-level civil war.

City-states such as Florence would commemorate a victory over another state with art, to be prominently displayed in a public office where all could see. Defeat was also portrayed, as in Michelangelo's “Battle of Cascina,” where the Florentines were caught literally with their pants down by the Pisans, as the soldiers were bathing when Pisa's military came by.

Michelangelo couldn't resist, as Partridge notes: "The scene provided an ideal opportunity for Michelangelo to demonstrate his superb command of classicizing nude male anatomy in the most widely varied postures imaginable."

When power changed hands, as with the rise of the Medici family, these new players would have great palaces constructed. These buildings would showcase the city's art, both in sculpture and paintings, as well as in the architecture itself. Above all, they demonstrated who the mighty were.

Partridge explains this political function of art in Renaissance Florence quite well. This is a key to understanding the great artistic energy of the time. Italy was a vibrant though chaotic place, and this led to a unique dynamism in the arts.

Art of Renaissance Florence also explains the "conflation" between classical pagan and late medieval Christian motifs. Both Donatello and Michelangelo, in their respective Davids, combined ancient ideas of Hercules with the biblical David, whom Christians saw as a precursor to Christ.

With Michelangelo's David, Partridge portrays the politics at work: It relocation "from the cathedral to the Prior's Palace altered the work's meaning... From prophet, Christ-type, and savior most appropriate for its original ecclesiastical context, the emphasis shifted in its new secular setting to slayer of tyrants, embodiment of civic strength and justice, and defender of the Florentine republic."

Despite the author's sometimes short-sighted theology, the beautiful pictures and otherwise learned discussion reflect the dynamism of the Renaissance, which harmonized classical culture with late medieval Christian society.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this post. A gentle correction: the Florentines won the battle of Cascina against the Pisans. Michelangelo's fresco was meant to inspire the Florentine people to rise up and form an army against an impending threat. This was consonant with Savonarola's demand of the same thing. Prior to this the Florentines, as with many other Italian city-states, hired mercenary armies to do their fighting for them.
    Michelangelo's painting, then, was meant as a "Wake UP! To Arms!" rallying cry, not a message of defeat, although he was also implying that his fellow citizens had been sitting around ignorant of the dangers ahead.