My earliest memories of Italy are of Venice. In such a strange and magical world, I felt like Alice in Wonderland; as a child, I chased pigeons around St. Mark’s Square, while my father painted watercolors of the scene.
Later, as part of my art history studies, I traveled frequently from Salzburg, where I studied, to Umbria and Tuscany, learning about the art treasures in churches, monasteries, and museums.
When I finally moved to Florence to study classical sculpture, I lived among famous masterpieces in the very city that is full of stories about the cradle of the Renaissance.
Innovations such as linear perspective, the use of human anatomy, and the understanding of light and shadow made the Italian Renaissance a fascinating phenomenon, culminating in Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. However, it is not only the innovations that make us marvel at this influx of masterpieces, but something else that is far more extraordinary.
Historians who focus on the Enlightenment era like to interpret the Renaissance as the first shift toward a modern world. The Italian Renaissance, they argued, was a time when the darkness of the Middle Ages—an illiterate society hostile to pleasure—was finally broken by the rediscovery of Greek thought. By exploring material beauty through the human body, artists had stopped focusing on God and started believing in themselves.
This sounds plausible, but it has nothing to do with the Italy that I have come to know and love. Anyone who has spent time in Italy’s museums and churches to experience art firsthand knows that this is far from the truth. The vast majority of works before, during, and after the Renaissance were dedicated to faith in God.
The Renaissance Emerged From the Middle Ages
To better understand what sparked a golden age of art, we must first question the account of a lost civilization suddenly reborn in Italy.
Renaissance historian John Monfasani sheds light on the misconception of the Dark Ages that has been further shaped by Hollywood blockbusters such as “The Name of the Rose,” “Robin Hood,” and “The Da Vinci Code.” Most films characterize medieval Europe as a time of violence and backwardness.
Monfasani exposes these misconceptions. In his book review of “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt, Monfasani writes about the factual inaccuracies on which the New York Times bestseller’s thesis is built.
“To illustrate the extent of the errors in ‘The Swerve,’ I will go through Greenblatt’s portrait of the Middle Ages point by point. First, it may be true that it is possible for an entire culture to turn away from reading and writing. But that didn’t happen in medieval Europe. In fact, the Middle Ages are considered the most book-friendly era in Europe, a time when books—Christian, Greek, and Roman alike—were accorded almost totemic authority. Medieval readers and writers, not only the clergy but also lay culture, were greatly influenced by texts and documents, especially after the 10th century.”
Suppose we understand that monasteries in the Middle Ages were not just centers of prayer but for intellectual exchange, creativity, and learning. And we can further suppose that the daily life of people in the Middle Ages was as complex as in any other era, filled with love, hate, faith, doubt, curiosity, and ignorance. In that case, it gives us a more accurate picture.
Looking at medieval art, rich in beauty and showing constant innovation over hundreds of years, it becomes clear that Western civilization was born in medieval Europe.
Influences From the North
Traces of this growth can be found in art throughout the ages. Far north of Italy, we find remarkable depictions of human figures. For example, taking the date from the German art historian Ernst Gombrich, as early as 1220 in Germany’s Bamberg Cathedral, the “Bamberg Rider” shows a life-size equestrian statue with excellent proportions, detailed clothing, and horse musculature.
The technique of oil painting originated in the Nordic countries. Its invention is attributed to Jan van Eyck in Bruges, who developed it out of a desire for greater realism. Van Eyck and his Flemish contemporaries in the early 15th century achieved an unprecedented level of depiction for detailed portraits as well as materials such as metal, glass, and various qualities of fabric such as velvet, cotton, and silk. Their art originated in the miniature painting of the late Gothic period.
Rarely are these Flemish artists considered a major influence on the Italian Renaissance. Even the term “Flemish Primitives,” used by art historians since the 19th century, seems biased. One look at van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece, a masterpiece of outstanding quality and rich in symbolism, is anything but “primitive.”
So, where does the narrative of the triumph of the Italian Renaissance over the dark Middle Ages come from? To find the answer, we need to look at the source that coined the name “Renaissance.”
Giorgio Vasari, the Inventor of the Renaissance
The first art historian of the 16th century, Giorgio Vasari first mentioned the word Rinascimento (Renaissance) in his biographies of artists “Le Vite” (“The Lives“), short for “Le Vite de’ Piv Eccellenti Pittori Scultori et Architettori” (“The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects”). Although his nine volumes provide valuable information about the lives and workings of the greatest masters, his descriptions should always be taken with a grain of salt.
Vasari’s account of the birth of the Renaissance, in particular, has been widely questioned. In his prologue, he described everything created after the fall of Rome and before the Renaissance as monstrous, barbaric, and the buildings deformed, which polluted the world. He summarized how the barbarians overthrew Rome and how the newly formed Christian religion, after “a long and bloody struggle,” eradicated the ancient faith of the pagans. The rebirth of Greek thought in Italy would eventually have brought the arts to their new, celebrated heights.
Historians and archeologists today know that this is a caricature of events. German art historian Gerd Blum first pointed out Vasari’s praise for own era in his book “Giorgio Vasari, the Inventor of the Renaissance.”
The British art critic Waldemar Januszczak, in his documentary series “The Renaissance Unchained,” has been equally critical of Vasari’s account.
Moreover, we know that the Aristotelian and Christian synthesis has flourished since the eighth century and not only since the Renaissance.
Today, we understand that art in Italy reached its peak through a long tradition of crafts rooted in monastic workshops and influenced by many countries and traditions.
What These Renaissance Works Tell Us
Regardless of the influences that initiated the Italian Renaissance, something much greater was happening than the technical achievements that continue to captivate people around the world to this day.
I remember riding my bike through Piazza del Duomo every day during my time in Florence and seeing a tightly packed crowd of tourists mesmerized outside the Gates of Paradise at the Baptistery of San Giovanni (St. John) created between 1425 and 1452.
Lorenzo Ghiberti’s gate is the work of art that I return to most often since its magnificence first struck me. Michelangelo once described it as “beautiful enough to be the gateway to paradise.” Particularly impressive about this door is the panel depicting the creation of Adam and Eve—Adam in a state of semiconsciousness, rising to God’s life-giving touch.
It is works like these that, when viewed, make one stand still in time and realize for a moment the beauty of creation and ourselves as part of something much greater.
Vasari wrote in “Le Vite” Leonardo da Vinci’s famous last words: “I have offended God and mankind, for my work has not reached the quality it should have.”
Although it is not proven that Leonardo said these words as a dying man, because Vasari ascribed them to him, they became representative of the ambition of a generation of artists who were driven by something greater than themselves to honor God’s creation.