“By viewing nature, nature’s handmaid art
Makes mighty things from small beginnings grow.”
For most of us, the Renaissance is one of those expensive coffee table books, an orchestrated set of breathtaking pictures left over from what must have been an incredible screen spectacle. And oh, so terribly arty! There is hardly any way to encompass the creative tsunami, felt in many cultural capitals, that was the Renaissance. But where does the story begin?
Pick an ancient but lively medieval burg on the Arno River in Northern Italy. The event happens without advance hype or toy franchising at this crossroads where the spirit of classical antiquity becomes new once again. It is also real life, complete with religious fanatics, venal leaders, people trying to get a square meal or relief from disease, and dogs fouling the streets.
Against this broader background, Paul Robert Walker examines history in meticulous detail, in The Feud that Sparked the Renaissance: How Brunelleschi and Ghiberti Changed the Art World. He proposes a reasonable and engaging thesis — that in Florence in 1403, two men, Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti, fired the first shots of an artistic revolution that marked “the beginning of a modern consciousness.” In short, they set a world in motion by entering a competition to create a pair of church doors. With the passing of centuries, these two have ceased to be anything other than the mythic titans of Art 101. Like the revolutionary scientists, Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler, they have become the giants upon whose shoulders so many would stand. And yet, there was a time when they were just two guys who needed work. Two guys who were, after all, Renaissance men.
At this time, Florence was a crucible of contradictions. It was on fire with religious fervor. But the term Florentine was not synonymous with piety, but rather eponymous with homosexuality. Like the ancient city of Sodom, it lent its name in certain quarters to the style of its most notable erotic predilections. In 1432, the authorities countered with a bureau of sex police, charged with the hopeless task of manhandling the moral compass.
One hundred and twenty years later, during what is called the High Renaissance, the wardens of public virtue would introduce the fig leaf to copies of the works of Michelangelo that their counterparts in earlier eras had added to copies of Greek art. A curious parallel in history, it bedeviled Michelangelo’s David to the days of England’s Queen Victoria, whose copy had a removable leaf. Talk about things changing and staying the same. Nor has the classical spirit of naturalistic art, revived by the Renaissance, ceased to this day to prompt a call for some body part to be covered up. Bare-breasted governmental statuary recently moved U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to extend the kerchief of propriety.
Perhaps in its defense, we should note that the fig leaf state of mind may vouchsafe yet another resurgent classical notion, that men are created equal. Happily, the worldly ancients and the saintly Paul concur on this most progressive of revelations.
With the passage of time, the thought revolution started by the Renaissance becomes increasingly epitomized by the desire to, as Wordsworth would have put it: “Come forth into the light of things,/Let nature be your teacher.” We let this light shine first on lost greatness, then upon ourselves. Once again, man is the measure of all things, as well as the proper study of mankind. This means that in art, we study human anatomy, even if it means stealing bodies off the hangman’s gibbet. In science, we do the same, and if a question arises, we devise an experiment and let nature decide, instead of parroting the opinions of venerable masters. The pedantic boundary between art and science is abolished for a glorious hour by Leonardo DaVinci.
In time, this quest for knowledge from nature broadens to encompass the length and breadth of our cosmos. And it would be the more remarkable if it all started with two Florentine goldsmiths, the charming yet ambitious Lorenzo Ghiberti, and the intense and quarrelsome Filippo Brunelleschi. They were the dynamic duo that dominated the first half of what is called the Quattrocento, the great opening century of the Renaissance.
Walker sets the scene for the main event, as thousands of white-robed pilgrims, chanting God’s praises from town to town, help spread a plague that would send twelve thousand Florentine souls to judgment. Almost half the town has already departed during the Black Death of 1348. Death stalked the rebirth of classical brilliance like a famished hound.
There was yet another Florentine appetite that managed to surmount all hardships. There was an intense love of pomp amid all this pestilence, and what’s more, an uncanny knack for serving God and Mammon from the same utensil. Civic pride and regional rivalries dictated the need for a cathedral that would show the world just how important Florence really was.
Enter our protagonists, along with Donatello and Massacio, and the rest is interesting history that many readers will enjoy. As already clear from the preface, Ghiberti wins the coveted right to create the doors. He would be in the process of casting these and another set for the Church of St. John the Baptist for half a century. His final pair of elaborately illustrated gilded bronze doors becomes known as the “Gates of Paradise.”
It is, however, his early coup of 1403 upon which hangs the tale. For the illegitimate Ghiberti, it results in improved social standing, clout with building authorities, and an undeniable place on the honor roll of genius.
The crestfallen Brunelleschi, now only in his 20s, is destined to tackle the dome (cupola in Italian) of the 100 year old but unfinished Santa Maria Del Fiore, the great cathedral of Florence. He travels with the scrappy teenage Donatello to study Roman ruins. These pioneering archeologists record design, proportion, and structural devices.
For many in Italy, the Gothic architecture of the medieval era is an unwelcome import from their Germanic rivals. They prefer the nativist heritage, closely tied to a preceding century of humanist thought, and at this point of convergence, prefer to wrest new ideas from their own treasured antiquity. Some would say that the Italian Renaissance really begins in this previous century, but we won’t quibble here.
Walker’s leitmotif is as much the rivalry as the Renaissance. The newly powerful Ghiberti becomes a co-supervisor with Brunelleschi of the dome project in 1420, which causes Brunelleschi to nearly withdraw in an epic fit of pique. After all, the dome is based solely on his winning model. The shin-kicking continues. I have a feeling that in this city of feuds, it was hard to distinguish a feud from a free-for-all.
The author’s style is to let the story tell itself. The outcome is amusing and informative reading, both for those interested in the first flowering of the Renaissance, as well as for all who enjoy a closer look at how lives take twists and turns in the process that converts daily struggle into human history.
This is a small book about a large topic. The material is episodic and documentary, and would probably benefit from a timeline synopsis. It is, however, told with thoroughness, insight and without cultural hubris. It succeeds particularly well in allowing the reader to become a sidewalk superintendent as the great dome rises amid cacophony and tumult in the fading twilight of the Middle Ages.
And rise it does. While Florence is becoming ground zero for daring aspirations, Filippo Brunelleschi is becoming just the man for this hour. Obviously feisty, but also a genius, he is not afraid to promise dangerous impossibilities before he has figured out how to accomplish them. His high wire balancing act with heavy building blocks produces the harmonious, lyrical architecture that Goethe will refer to as “frozen music.” (Mercifully, Goethe will never see a mall.) Brunelleschi’s majestically domed cathedral still makes tourists ghasp, in spite of other wonders they have seen.
Enclosing its wide open spaces stretched his talents to the max. Brunelleschi taught his age perspective drawing, a signal achievement. He figured out how to finish the cathedral despite developing cracks, landed in jail, and ultimately won the art wars by becoming a quintessential Renaissance man. By the time of his death in 1446, Florence had become the epicenter of the movement.
Fear not. I couldn’t begin to give away the blow by blow of this 15 rounder, and these men created many other masterpieces at the same time. But as you can see, the incongruities here are delicious. We have already noted the pomp amid pestilence, healing faith in the service of deadly microbes, priapeans and penitents, religious splendor in the service of civic pride, and of course a battle royal of egos and ideas from a duel between beautiful minds.
There is also “paradise” on view in a city of mercenary, Tuscan moneychangers, from which some of this reviewer’s kinsmen hail, now permanently enshrined in one or another of the cantos of Dante’s Inferno.
Finally, there is destiny, a profound future emerging from the dust of past ages. It will leave all the intrigue and irony of Florentine politics and culture far behind. It soon leaves the two century miracle of the Italian artistic Renaissance behind as well. There is a sense of watching a squirrel bury an acorn that is to become the charter oak of our present reality. To quote the author: “Something happened in Florence 600 years ago, something so unique and miraculous that it changed our world forever.”
Let’s not forget the word renaissance means rebirth, revival, and that, for artists, a very practical need also propelled the quest. Perhaps Lorenzo Ghiberti himself offered the best explanation. He wrote, with more than a little pluck for his time, that with the triumph of Christianity, pagan statues and pictures were shattered, and more to the point: “?with the statues and pictures, the theoretical writings, the commentaries, the drawing and the rules for teaching such eminent and noble arts were destroyed.”
Do you hear someone saying, “Lorenzo, don’t hold back”? All this contentiousness leaves us with more questions than answers. Did early churchmen toss out the baby with the bathwater? Were the feuding goldsmiths indispensable or might the Renaissance have occurred anyway? Would we have canned soda, CDs, STDs, and pop culture without Michelangelo’s David? And of course, is there a deeper meaning to the fact that Florentine now means smothered in spinach? This is for the reader to decide. With any luck, you might start some dandy feuds of your own.
One conclusion seems inescapable. Art does not flower outside of life’s daily drama, and like science, it may be required to serve temporal ambitions and movements, as well as the ongoing growth of the human spirit.