Summary of Renaissance Humanism
The art historian Jacob Burckhardt's The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860) first advanced the term Renaissance Humanism to define the philosophical thought that radically transformed the 15th and 16th centuries. Driven by the rediscovery of the humanities - the classical texts of antiquity - Renaissance Humanism emphasized "an education befitting a cultivated man," and saw the human individual "as the measure of the universe." Church leaders, scholars, and the ruling elite practiced and promoted the understanding of classical ethics, logic, and aesthetic principles and values, combined with an enthusiasm for science, experiential observation, geometry, and mathematics. Originating in Florence, a thriving center of urban commerce, and promoted by the Medici, the ruling family of the Italian city-state, the philosophy was connected to a vision in a new society, where the individual's relationship to God and divine principles, the world and the universe, was no longer exclusively defined by the Church.
Renaissance Humanism informed the works of groundbreaking artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, and Donatello, as well as architects like Brunelleschi, Alberti, Bramante, and Palladio. These artists exemplified the ideal of the "Renaissance man" as they excelled at various disciplines and pioneered new techniques and inventions, defined the artistic canon and were heralded as "masters" in their own right.
Key Ideas & Accomplishments
- Renaissance Humanism created new subject matter and new approaches for all the arts. Subsequently, painting, sculpture, the literary arts, cultural studies, social tracts, and philosophical studies referenced subjects and tropes taken from classical literature and mythology, and ultimately, Classical Art.
- Renaissance Humanism elevated the concepts of aesthetic beauty and geometric proportions historically provided by classical thinkers such as Vitruvius and given a foundation of ideal form and thought laid down by philosophers such as Plato and Socrates.
- The artists associated with Renaissance Humanism pioneered revolutionary artistic methods from one point linear perspective to trompe l'oeil to chiaroscuro to create illusionary space and new genres, including frontal portraiture, self-portraiture, and landscape.
- As historians Hugh Honour and John Fleming noted, Renaissance Humanism advanced "the new idea of self-reliance and civic virtue" among the common people, combined with a belief in the uniqueness, dignity, and value of human life. As historian Charles G. Nauert wrote, "this humanistic philosophy overthrew the social and economic restraints of feudal, pre-capitalist Europe, broke the power of the clergy, and discarded ethical restraints on politics...laid the foundations for the modern absolute, secular state and even for the remarkable growth of natural science."
- During this time, patronage dominated the art market as wealthy citizens took pride in promoting artists who created masterworks in a variety of fields from painting to science to architecture and city planning. This reflected the overall attitude of the importance of supporting the arts in a thriving society.
- Many of the concepts of Renaissance Humanism, from its emphasis on the individual to its concept of the genius, or Renaissance man, to the importance of education, the viability of the classics, and its spirit of exploration became foundational to Western culture.
Overview of Renaissance Humanism
“After seeing this no one need wish to look at any other sculpture or the work of any other artist,” Giorgio Vasari said of Michelangelo’s David. Michelangelo’s masterpiece exemplified the Renaissance practice of highlighting the grandeur and importance of mankind.
The Most Important Art in Renaissance Humanism
This photograph depicts the iconic octagonal dome of Florence Cathedral dominating the skyline of the city. A marvel of innovative engineering and design, constructed of over four million bricks, the dome became a symbol of Renaissance Humanism, its soaring buoyancy evoking classical proportion and mathematical order. At the same time, the red brick linked the era's "rebirth" with the tradition of Florentine stonework and the red emblem of the Medici. Viewed as rivaling the Roman Pantheon (113-115), the dome exemplified a new era of humanist values, as historian Paulo Galluzi wrote; "It unites technology and aesthetics in an astonishingly elegant way. It symbolizes perfectly the union of science and of art."
When his design for the Florence Baptistery doors was rejected, Brunelleschi left Florence in disappointment and traveled to Rome. Wandering the city and countryside, accompanied by the young artist Donatello, he meticulously studied the design principles of Roman ruins and buildings and turned his energy toward architecture. His discoveries not only led to his design for the dome but the inventions that made constructing the structure possible, and his development of linear perspective - an idea that led the innovations of the time. The problem of creating a dome for Florence Cathedral was viewed as almost insoluble, until Brunelleschi radically created a new system of support by creating a dome within a dome. He also invented the horizontal crane and the mechanical hoist needed to lift and place the bricks in the herringbone pattern that made up an inverted arch.
His work exemplified the combination of artistic principles, informed by knowledge of classical design, with tireless scientific innovation. At the same time, often keeping his designs and ideas to himself for fear that his rival might appropriate them, he also operated with the belief in the unique knowledge of the inspired and cultivated artist, as he wrote "Let there be convened a council of experts and masters in mechanical art to deliberate what is needed to compose and construct these works." The dome and the design principles embodied in it became fundamental to subsequent architects.
This famous Early Renaissance painting depicts figures from classical mythology: the god Mercury plucking a golden fruit from a tree, the three graces dancing together, and Venus, the goddess of love, at the center with Primavera, the goddess of spring, to her left.
The meaning of the mysterious scene, located within a woodland garden, has been much debated by scholars, as it has been viewed as an allegory, a depiction of various scenes from the writing of the Roman poet Ovid, or as a purely aesthetic arrangement. At the same time, some critics have deeply analyzed the work, finding its elements, including the hundreds of specific flowers naturalistically depicted, as reflective of Neoplatonic thought. Neoplatonism emphasized ideal love and absolute beauty as reflections of the ideal forms posited by the Greek philosopher Plato.
A sense of the hidden and sublime order of the world that, while pagan, was not inconsistent with Christianity, is shown in the artist's central figure, that simultaneously evokes Venus and the Virgin Mary. Botticelli's use of mythological subjects and his near nude female figures were groundbreaking. As art critic Jonathan Jones puts it, "Botticelli's Primavera was one of the first large-scale European paintings to tell a story that was not Christian, replacing the agony of Easter with a pagan rite. The very idea of art as a pleasure, and not a sermon, began in this meadow."
Botticelli was particularly influenced by Dante, the early Renaissance poet, whose platonic love for Beatrice informed his Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy) (1308-21), depicting his journey through Hell and Purgatory to Paradise. The artist drew illustrations and wrote commentary on the famous poet's work. Associated with the artistic and intellectual circles around Lorenzo de' Medici, the artist was influenced by Marsilio Ficino. Later in his career, as Florence was roiled by the rise of Savonarola, a priest who railed against pagan art and influences, Botticelli refuted his earlier subjects and began to focus on a series of illustrations depicting Dante's vision of the suffering souls in Hell and Purgatory. Though his art fell into relative obscurity, it was subsequently rediscovered in the 19th century and his paintings have become among the most recognizable artworks, reproduced in countless advertisements, brochures, and digital platforms.
This drawing shows the ideally proportioned figure of a man in two superimposed positions, standing within a circle and square. Due to the superimposition of poses and geometric forms, the symmetrical and balanced figure evokes kinetic movement, while the drawing feels almost three-dimensional as if the viewer were looking into a volumetric geometric space.
Often called "The Canon of Proportions," and also known as "The proportions of the human body according to Vitruvius," the drawing and Leonardo's accompanying text reference the mathematical proportions of the Roman innovator. In the upper margin, Leonardo paraphrases from Book III of Vitruvius's De architectura, writing, "Vetruvio, architect, puts in his work on architecture that the measurements of man are in nature distributed in this manner." While in the lower text, Leonardo draws upon the architect's proportions but corrects them according to his own anatomical studies. Leonardo shared the architect's belief that the proportions of the human body were a kind of microcosm of the symmetry and order of the universe.
Other Renaissance artists drew the human figure according to Vitruvian proportions, but Leonardo innovatively drew upon his own study of human anatomy, as he realized that the center of the square had to be located at the groin rather than at the navel, as Vitruvius thought, and that the raised arms should be level with the top of the head. Combining scientific knowledge and mathematical study with the aesthetic principles of ideal proportion and beauty, the drawing exemplified Renaissance Humanism, seeing the individual as the center of the natural world, linking the earthly realm, symbolized by the square, to the divine circle, symbolizing oneness. Later artists have continued to draw upon the image for inspiration as seen in William Blake's Glad Day or The Dance of Albion (c.1794), and Nat Krate's Vitruvian Woman (1989).
Useful Resources on Renaissance Humanism
- Humanism and the Culture of Renaissance Europe (New Approaches to European History)By Charles G. Nauert
- The Culture of the High Renaissance: Ancients and Moderns in Sixteenth-Century RomeBy Ingrid D. Rowland
- Renaissance Humanism: An Anthology of SourcesBy Margaret L. King