The First Renaissance — 2: Changes in Society and Arts

The drivers mentioned in the last post as causing turmoil also influenced each other. The established — “God given” — order took particular offense with the new humanist thinking, which threatened the very foundation of church power. Two world views collided. Outspoken Renaissance men and women could literally put their lives at stake. Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), for instance, postulated the infinity of the universe in space and time. He was burnt at the stake. However, many of the famous artists of that period were supported by what we would now call “business angels” and were granted protection, support, and encouragement. More often than not these were (visual) artists — many were also writers, musicians, architects and more. The support for these artists came initially mainly from the ruling class, made up of aristocracy and even church hierarchy. Increasingly the support changed to the increasingly more powerful and growing city states. Their financial power was grounded in trade. Of particular importance for the development of the Renaissance were the cities of what is now Northern Italy. By 1320 Italy had 23 cities with more than 20,000 inhabitants. Venice had about 100,000 and Florence about 96,000 inhabitants indicating that more then 25% of the Italian population lived in towns [Lachmann 2002.]

The urbanization along with lack of sanitation, environmental pollution, and large scale forest clearance showed grim effects of environmental damage already in the early Renaissance — diseases were rampant and the effect on food production made itself felt. Epidemics of bubonic plague — “Black Death” — and crop failures killed most people in Northern Italian cities around 1340-1348. A new fabric of society had to be built — with “building” being a key term. Newly strengthened architecture took its bearings from classical features, which appealed to the city aristocrats and the merchant families. Freely available capital funded a building boom in the cities. The visual arts emerged from the lower status of crafts to become a reputed class of its own much beyond the previously lowly technical person (“ars mechanica”.) Previously the established artists were scholars or priests educated in the much-admired “artes liberalis”: arithmetic, geometry, logic, grammar, rhetoric, music, and astronomy. [Toman 2011]

At the same time a new European financial system emerged relying on the prowess of the mercantile class. This system is really the pre-cursor of what is in place today. The invention of double-entry accounting, success of the first “trade” banks of the Medici and the Fuggers, together with the creeping end of the “ban on interest”, which was formalized by Heinrich VIII in 1545, shifted the financial power from nobles and clergy to the bourgeoisie. Artists and architects found new customers. The wealth of portraits and architectural plans are indicators for the rapid importance of a new concept — that of a “public image.” The amount of portraits showing middle class couples like in Davide Ghirlandaio’s painting or successful business man is astonishing compared to previous periods. Members of the affluent classes invested in their public image to build up a public reputation as they were dependent on the goodwill of their fellow citizens.

Changes in Arts

[Ghirlandaio, Davide. 1490. Diptychon: Portrait of a Young Man, Profile Portrait of a Young Woman.]

The picture to the left shows the Portrait of a Young Man and Young Woman, ca. 1490 by Davide Ghirlandaio [Ghirlandaio 1490]. This is a typical portrait for the new mercantile class in Florence who contracted artists like Ghirlandaio to depict their public and desired image. The 3D perspective in the background and the man’s three-quarter profile are examples of the innovation in painting during the Renaissance. Whilst striving for realism, the portrait was to carry a message as part of the image. The vast landscape together with the port city emphasizes the young man’s ambition to conquer the world, whereas the women is shielded from the outside by columns and walls. The Renaissance brought the concept of publicity and public image was new to what was to become the middle class. Today such images might their use as avatars of this couple — maybe the way the image on the right depicts this.

Two characters from the online strategy game Valor by the designer Chris Ng Fhze Yang, Singapore [Yan 2011].

The conqueror on the left and the lady called Aurora on the right are typical atavistic examples for today’s game and internet avatars. Modeled in 3D and rendered with complex shading the “artis mechanica” of the game, film, and design industry are waiting for their emancipation with “fine arts” today. Everybody using the internet or games can select or build his or her own avatar — raising again the question of the personal desired appearance in the public. Realistic effects are generally sought, but similarity to the bearer may be unwanted.

The Renaissance was a time of rapidly changing fortunes. The love of beauty and art seemed to be getting stronger and stronger. A community of visual artists and of writers began to develop. Many artists set up schools, where the new techniques were taught systematically. These schools began to undermine the dominance of the scholastic system.

Whilst each artist had an own style, the underlying “new way of looking” and representing what could be seen or imagined, was a unifying concept. Realistically representing the beauty of nature required to understand how nature actually works. So the re-discovery of how to handle the third dimension in drawings together with a desire to understand nature to portray it correctly led to a convergence of arts and scientific discoveries. A key element is the mathematical perspective and its associated laws. Perspective vision and drawing technology facilitated advances in architecture, in medicine and anatomy, navigation and sciences, like zoology and botany.

Leonardo Da Vinci: Plan for “The Adoration of the Magi”

The perspective and the new, analytical, yet empathetic way of looking, enabled what we today would call modeling. The journals of Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) [Zöllner 2003] are evidence of the analytical observation and constructive modeling. For example, paintings were modeled, before they were executed as you can see in Leonardo’s Model Contruction for “The Adoration of the Magi”, a painting for which an impressive set of studies survived, although Leonardo never finished the painting.

Leonardo Da Vinci: Proportions of a Human Head

The “modeling rules” discovered and documented as patterns for reuse were dealing with measurement, proportions, and composition rules. Leonardo built an extensive library of sketches with measures of proportions — a reuseable set of model components like in this drawing for the proportion of a human head.

The next post deals with communications.

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