Seeds of the RenaissanceIn art, music, architecture, medicine, science, even political science, the Italian Renaissance is probably the most closely studied (and taught) period in world history. I first heard the word "Renaissance" in the third grade along with the names of every maritime explorer who ever sailed out of Spain, Italy, or Portugal. In architecture, the names Brunelleschi, Alberti, and Bramante ring a bell. In Painting, it's Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael. In sculpture--Verrochio, Donatello, and Michelangelo again. However none of these names sprung whole-bodied from the Florentine landscape without having had seeds planted and nurtured by an earlier generation of artists whose names we don't often hear rolling off the lips of third-graders.
We all know that the Renaissance bloomed out of the so-called "dark ages" or what we more scholarly refer to as the "Medieval Period". Interestingly enough, there is a chain of artists pulling painting from the "darkness" of the fourteenth century to the glowing light of the fifteenth century and the "Early" Renaissance. At the beginning of this chain is Cimabue (pronounced Chima-BU-ie) who lived from around 1240 to 1302. And the best illustration of this "chain" can be seen in paintings of the Madonna Enthroned. Cimabue painted the first version around 1285. The second artist in the chain is Giotto, (pronounced Ji-OT-oh) his rival, and quite possibly one of his students, who lived from 1276 to 1337. His Madonna Enthroned was done around 1310. The differences between these two paintings and that of the final link in the chain, Masaccio's Holy Trinity, read like a third-grade textbook on Early Renaissance painting.
The Cimabue Madonna Enthroned is seated, or rather sort of "hovers" over a Roman style throne surrounded by supporting angels. In arches beneath the throne are four saints or apostles. There is little depth, the drapery is stylised, the figures are stiff, and the gold leaf background completely dominates and subdues the egg tempera colours. Yet this work was a remarkable departure from typical Medieval painting of the period. The Giotto version is more Gothic in terms of style. The throne is lighter with some indication of perspective. There is weight to the figures and a natural humanity to this work that the other lacks. Like Cimabue's painting, angels surround the throne but here they are worshipful, rather than supportive, their presence holy rather than decorative. The background is still gold leaf, but in spite of this, the colour is remarkably natural. And finally, a similar work by Masaccio a hundred years later entitled the Holy Trinity, marks a further evolution of style as well as religious emphasis. This painting is fresco, with a trompe l'oeil use of architectural perspective. The figure of God supports a cross upon which his Son is crucified while at the foot of the cross are realistically portrayed Mary and John. Just outside the arched entrance to an illusionary chapel with its coffered ceiling are portraits of kneeling donors. Though the content in this later work is different, it is clearly an outgrowth of the two earlier, groundbreaking seeds of the Florentine painting Renaissance.
Contributed by Lane, Jim
18 May 1998