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Renaissance Art & Architecture of Florence

Florence 1389 Cosimo de’ Medici is born, son of Giovanni de’ Medici, a local merchant, he came from humble beginnings. The Medici family dynasty sought power and influence and did not stop until they secured the papacy itself. Theirs was a world where power came with a price, intrigue, murder, assassination and war. During this period the city of Florence was a cauldron of creativity and the Medici family paid and protected some of the greatest artists and thinkers of their age – Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Botticelli, Leonardo, Galileo. There erupted an explosion of ideas that shuddered the medieval world and which resonated through the centuries to this very day, Renascimento – Rebirth - Renaissance.

It was during this period that “a new architect emerged who was no longer a craftsman but a creative and versatile artist in pursuit of aesthetic truth”. [1] For example architects such as Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) and Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564). These architects applied their knowledge of the “ideal proportions in the human body and applied them to buildings that emulated the dignity and the decorative and structural details of ancient Roman architecture.” [2] 

At the dawn of the 15th century there emerged a thirst for knowledge. Cosimo de’ Medici and his associates were after secrets from the ancient world. Florence in the 1400s was a city like no other in Europe. Florence was a major trading centre in the heart of Tuscany in which powerful families vied with each other to seek political control.

Florence was the place to be. It was during this time that the Medici family was trying to make a name for itself. The Medici Bank which was run by the Medici family and had began as a small scale operation soon grew to become one of the most powerful businesses in Florence. It was Giovanni de’ Medici who cleverly chose his clients carefully as he sought their loyalty above profits but in return he guaranteed them protection. During this time the Vatican was in disarray and Giovanni de’ Medici took advantage of the climate and was able to take his bank and with the help and support of the Vatican was able to turn it into God’s Bank thus making him a very powerful man. It was 1410 and Pope John 23rd supports the Medici Bank and thus gaining them strong allies in the Vatican.

During this period the Medici family, as was the whole of Tuscany, were humiliated by the unfinished Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence so they set about to rectify this. The building had been built but was without a dome. They had found the problem to be too difficult. They had exhausted all contemporary building knowledge of the time and needed fresh ideas. Artists were therefore requested to bring their knowledge to solve this problem – the completion of the cathedral - and in the process win power and glory for the Medici family. The search for a solution led them to study classical architecture and studies of the ancient Roman architect, Vitruvius.

They realised that they needed to find someone with an unconventional mind to understand the secrets behind classical architecture and they did. They found a self-taught genius obsessed by the mysteries of the ancient world. Though his ideas were difficult to understand they knew that he might hold the key to a resolution to their problem. His name was Filippo Brunellschi. Brunelleschi was a maverick architect with brash ideas and a bad temper but at the same time he was a genius even if his style was a little unorthodox. He was an “architect and an engineer and was one of the pioneers of early Renaissance architecture in Italy. His major work is the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) in Florence (1420–36), constructed with the aid of machines that Brunelleschi invented expressly for the project.” [3] 

The Medici family were willing to gamble on his judgement. Brunelleschi’s vision resurrected forgotten concepts of the past and in 1419 a new children’s orphanage in Florence, Ospedale degli Innocenti, was also built by him and became a showcase of his ideas. This was funded by the Medici family who by this time had become his patrons.

Brunelleschi’s Classicism was never nostalgic for the experiences of the past, nor was it simply the application of rules and formulas: it was the measure of the new man, born of a culture, ethnic and religion which had been renewed by literary and philosophical Florentine humanism. His Classicism was overwhelmed by transcendental impacts: it was the love of scientific research which inspired him to experiment with perspective linear vision, destined to remain basic to the figurative arts right up to the end of the following century. [4] 

Whilst he was contracted namely to complete the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiori, he was also commissioned to build the Pazzi Chapel, draw up the plans for the Sto Spirito Church [5] and the Palazzo Pitti.

Brunelleschi made use of the classical orders of architecture, which hadn’t been used in over a thousand years - Doric, Ionic and Corinthian. “In the dome of the Florence Cathedral (begun in 1420) he solved the structural problem posed by the existing wide drum with a double shelled dome, ribbed in the Gothic manner and pointed to minimise outward thrust. Heavy lantern served as counterweight.” [6] 

This was the first time that true columns had been used since ancient Rome and with it came a vision of classical simplicity. It would spark an architectural revolution across Europe that saw innovation and ambition go hand in hand. Brunelleschi’s goal was to recreate a great classical city based on Rome. It was during this time that the Medici family was trying to improve their image by being patrons to the arts and architecture. Thus with the backing of the Medici Brunelleschi was able to set to work to solve the problem of the cathedral dome. He wanted to build the greatest dome in Christendom but he shrouded the whole project in secrecy because he feared that his ideas would be stolen. What Brunelleschi was proposing to do had never been attempted before and his method to achieve this was also laden with danger. He challenged himself into rewriting the rules of Western architecture. Brunelleschi saw valuable clues and learnt from the design of the dome of the Pantheon. He noticed that they had made use of a frame of timber and had poured concrete over the top of this frame to form the dome. This, however, would not be possible with the Santa Maria del Fiori dome as there would not be enough timber to complete the task plus they had lost the recipe for concrete since the Fall of Rome. Brunelleschi’s dome would have to be able to support itself throughout the entire construction process. He had to overcome enormous logistical problems whilst building the dome one of which was how to raise such heavy sandstone beams up into the air. For this he devised a reverse gear machine for raising weights using the strength of oxes to lift the baskets filled with what he required to the top.

The success of this project was important not only to Brunelleschi but also to the future of the Medici family. In 1433 Cosimo de’ Medici was imprisoned and a referendum was called to decide on his fate. He was accused of treason and faced execution but managed to survive this but as a result he was banished from Florence. Brunelleschi was also thrown into jail and work on the dome ceased. Florence came to a grinding halt as Cosimo de’ Medici and hence the Medici family had been the main source of funding for commercial ventures.

It is interesting to note though that Cosimo de’ Medici was returned into power, after a short stay in exile and in 1434 returned to Florence with the backing of the Vatican. With the return of the Medici family back in power Brunelleschi was also freed and came back to continue his work on his dome. In 1436 it was completed and was the greatest architectural feat of the Western world.

The dome’s springing point stands 177 feet above ground level, while its height from the drum base to the top is about 108 feet. The distance between two opposite edges of the exterior octagonal base is about 176 feet. The height of the lantern atop the dome is slightly more than 72 feet. The dome weighs an estimated 37,000 metric tons, and the number of bricks used in the structure may exceed four million. [7] 

The Medici Bank once again flourished and so too did Florence.

Cosimo de’ Medici became the most sort after patron of the arts and capitalised on his successes. During this period there was an explosion of art and architecture with artists such as Donatello, Fra Filipo Lippi who were followed by Botticelli, Leonardo and Michelangelo under the next Medici ruler, Lorenzo de’ Medici. Lorenzo de’ Medici took over leadership in 1469.

Artists competed for commissions and flourished. Botticelli broke new ground and defined the Renaissance through his paintings. There was no other artist during this time that was more radical than him. Under the protection of the Medici patronage he produced ‘the Primavera’ a painting of beauty which was inspired by poetry but which was just pure imagination. In it he has Venus who is often associated with eternal youth, prosperity and fertility. It represented the quintessential expression of the rebirth of Florence under the Medici family. His subject matter though was seen to stem from pagan ideas. This period saw the rebirth of grandiosity under the patronage of the Medici.

It was at this time that Lorenzo survived an almost fatal attack by his enemies and rivals who were in collaboration with the church but managed to only just retain power.

Leonardo da Vinci was first noticed as an artist that stood out above the rest by Lorenzo in 1480 and he moved to Florence to live with the Medici. Leonardo’s paintings reflected the natural world. Both Leonardo and Botticelli became rivals for the Medici patronage. It was during this time that Botticelli produced the ‘Birth of Venus’ and this painting was unlike any other painting of its time. It represented pagan mythology and physical passion and this in turn led to the accusations of decadent immorality being levied towards the Medici family because of the art that was being produced under their patronage. The main thrust of the accusations came from a monk called Savonarolla. He accused the Medicis of taking Florence down a path of decadence and destruction. Savonarolla was a moralising fanatic. He believed that all nudes were lascivious and would lead to sin and that everything including art should be dedicated to the very traditional notion of religion. He saw Lorenzo’s reign as decadent and unacceptable.

By 1488 Lorenzo had established the first art school in history and it was here that he came across a young artist – Michelangelo Buonarotti. He decides to also bring him into his family as he sees great potential in this artist. Michelangelo is very talented in both painting and sculpture and represents both religious subjects and mythological themes. In 1492, however, Lorenzo becomes ill and turns to the Church for salvation but is denied forgiveness by Savonarolla. He dies that same year and is distraught with the thought that he will not attain salvation. He believes that because he has not attained forgiveness that he will not gain a place in heaven but instead will be banished for all eternity to the fires of hell. He was, however, probably the most famous of all the patrons but his policies and overspending actually bankrupted the Medici bank.

Savanorola takes this opportunity to gain control. Even Botticelli sees that he must embrace Christianity and his paintings drop their pagan themes. Savonarola by this time has complete control and organises a public burning of books, figurines, wigs, cosmetics and jewellery which were all things that he believed were the accessories of Lorenzo’s Renaissance. Even Botticelli burns some of his own paintings in this ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ for he too is in search of salvation.

Over these periods of changing political power between the Medici and the churches we saw drastic change in the work of Botticelli however these were not as great as the extravagant changes which took place in the work of Michelangelo. His works began to show utter despise for the family which had once adopted him and accepted him as part of their family. Examples of this are shown in Michelangelo’s David, which depicts Florence as David and the Medici rule over Florence as Goliath and how it had now been conquered. This statue became the symbol of the independence of Florence and stood proudly at the front of the Florentine council house. “ He wished his David, the symbol of republican liberty, to be set up in the front of the façade, on an axis with the tower, alongside the great gate of the Palazzo Signoria, in order to bring out the significance of the Palazzo itself, the seat of the Republican government.” [8] 

During the following years Michelangelo painted the ceiling of the Sistine chapel. It was a time of peace where Florence was not ruled by any one family and it was during this time that his paintings were bright and depicted many religious figures and scenes such as the flood, the origin of the stars and the creation of Adam. Michelangelo’s figures were based on fragments of classical sculptures and were inspired by the perfection and beauty of the ancient world. Out of reluctance and frustration Michelangelo had created brilliance. It was through this project that Michelangelo became a master at the art of fresco painting, which is painting onto fresh plaster. It was this dynasty that nurtured the best artists of its era.

The Medici family once again regained power under the leadership of Giovanni de’ Medici who became known as Pope Leo X. They regained Florence through force and when they did Pope Leo X asked Michelangelo to build a beautiful tombs for their past fathers. It was very hard for Michelangelo to refuse this request old since he loved the patrons of the family and they were friends of his but more importantly he found it difficult to refuse the Pope himself.

As time passed Giulio de’ Medici who followed Giovanni also became known as Pope Clement VII, and it was he that on his death bed ordered Michelangelo to paint one last thing for him. He requested that the paint the wall behind the altar of the Sistine chapel. Michelangelo grudgingly accepted and painted The Last Judgement. This was Michelangelo’s way of saying now that you are on your death bed there is one last judgement for you and that is the judgement of God himself.

In this painting all the nude figures are twisted and look like they are in pain. During this time Florence was in turmoil and this was the way that Michelangelo decided to depict this turmoil through his paintings. “Last Judgement, which is all nudes, can be considered from a certain point of view as a final embodiment of this type of representation of the compendium of the nude”. [9] 

In the seventeenth century, during the reign of Cosimo II, the Medici family became patron of the astrologer Galileo Galilei and though this was his only patronage it was of major importance.

By this time Cosimo ruled middle Italy from coast to coast. In 1588 Galileo was appointed Royal Professor of Mathematics and Philosophy at the University of Pisa by Cosimo’s son, Ferdinand and was also awarded a court position in 1610. It was Cosimo II that had given shelter to Galileo Galilei, when he needed it most as he was fleeing from persecution by the Inquisition in Padua. He allowed him to continue his scientific research undisturbed.

In 1609, Galileo investigated the invention of the spyglass, a magnifying device which was used to make distant objects appear closer. Galileo was able to improve on this design and turned it into a telescope. He became the first person to see the Moon through this telescope. Through his ability to see the Moon closer he was able to discover that it was not smooth but mountainous. He also discovered that there were four moons circling Jupiter and many other important observations about the Universe followed.

It was these observations that strengthened his belief in Copernicus' theory that the Earth revolved around the sun and that the earth was round. The Catholic Church, however, did not like Galileo’s theory and he was called to Rome to answer charges that were brought against him by the Inquisition. In 1616, Galileo was accused of going against the Church’s teachings and was branded a possible heretic. The Church insisted that he not publicly make his thoughts known. In 1632 he published a book in which he stated that Copernicus was correct. He was once again summoned before the Inquisition and this time was found guilty of heresy. Galileo was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1633. He served his imprisonment under house arrest and died nine years later in 1642.

For over 200 years one family driven by ambition and the lust for power had left an extraordinary legacy in their wake for they had been the patrons of genius. These men changed the Western world. They dared both artists and non-artists to create the greatest works of the Italian Renaissance. What started in Florence in 1389 with the birth of Cosimo de’ Medici had gained momentum and could not be stopped. Florence was a centre of artistic rebirth. A new energy had been unleashed, a spirit of reason and enlightenment that would give rise to the modern world. Many other would be patrons would try to follow in the Medici’s footsteps but no one would ever match what they had managed to accomplish.

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