tv Deutsche Welle Journal LINKTV March 6, 2013 2:00pm-2:30pm PST
annenberg media ♪ gam made possible by the financial support of... and the following individuals and foundations... corporate funding for art of the western world is by movado, makers of the movado museum watch, the watch dial design in the permanent collections of museums throughout the world. captioning made possible by the annenberg/cpb project
this is siena, a wonderfully preserved medieval city in central italy. at its heyday around 1300, it was one of the most civilized and prosperous places in europe. siena and other italian city-states can stand as a new beginning in our story of western art. hitherto, the old medieval world view had, put simply, divided the classes of society into the aristocracy at the top, the church, and the laboring peasantry at the bottom. in places like this, we see for the first time a new class, conscious of its own identity-- the merchants. these cities were no longer controlled by feudal lords.
they were republics. here in siena, several thousand citizens were eligible for election to the governing bodies which met down there in the palazzo publica. and in the palazzo, there is a fresco painted in the 1340s which encapsulates their faith in the secular arts of government, in the moderating power of reason in human society. it's called the effects of good government. this marvous fresco, painted by ambrogio lorenzetti, was the first panoramic landscape on this scale in western art. the peasants bringing their produce from the countryside, the merchants going about their business, the elegant ladies of leisure,
all are fused into an idealized image of the well-governed city-state. eight years later, the black death devastated siena. it killed the artist lorenzetti and half the population of europe. it was the greatest catastrophe in the modern history of the west. but surprisingly, for some regions, the plague was a springboard for economic growth. [bells ringing] for the survivors, there were new opportunities. florence recovered particularly quickly. by 1400, this was the city-state that dominated central italy. but bankers and textile merchants
were expanding their trading empires all over europe. over the next 100 years, an extraordinary interaction took place in florence-- the innovations of artists and architects, the excitement of rediscovering classical achievements, and the patronage of a wealthy commercial class. these key elements brought about a series of artistic and intellectual breakthroughs that came to be known as the renaissance-- literally the rebirth of learning and culture. in the church of santa croce, a series of frescoes painted around 1320 were to have a revolutionary effect on florentine painting. here, the great merchant families
competed with one another to commission the leading artists to decorate their chapels. in the chapel of the bardi family, professor john white of university college, london, describes how these medieval images came to life. this is a franciscan church, and the franciscans were the passionate preachers of the late medieval world. they used their words to tug at the emotions of the faithful. and at the same time, the painters increasingly tried to bring the gospels and the stories of the saints to life before their very eyes. at first, as you can see in this late 13th century saint francis altarpiece, they did it with stiff, imposing figures and with bright, doll-like symbolic scenes and images. and here next door in a much-ruined fresco, i'm afraid, painted probably only 30 or 40 years later,
you can see the revolution represented by the art of giotto, the great contemporary of the poet dante. here is a new soft, warm reality, a new humanity and pathos, a new ability to take the faithful back and make them feel that they were actually there and filled with love for this loving saint whose love of christ and love of life and of the beauties of the world wrought a transformation in the spiritual life of europe. [colin eisler] giotto's frescoes gave a new sense of weight to the body, a new sense of urgency to narrative painting. they became an academy for later italian artists. raphael and michelangelo came here to learn from such dramatic images as this, in which saint francis receives the wounds of christ upon his hands and feet.
giotto's frescoes brought him immortality and undying fame to the chapel of the bardi. they, and families like them, were moneylenders to the popes and kings of europe. they were the pioneers of the new world of international finance, and the coinage of florence-- the gold florin-- became the common currency of christendom. even john the baptist-- the saint of the desert and the enemy of luxury-- is depicted surrounded by gold florins on the cover of a book containing the rules of the coin makers. but if the prosperity of florence was owed to the bankers, the rebirth of its intellectual energy came from a rediscovery of classical culture. without ever leaving santa croce, we can move into the world of the renaissance with this tomb of leonardo bruni,
longtime chancellor of florence, who died in 1444. this was the florence of humanists, the students of the classics, of the knowledge and the wisdom of the ancient world. they went right back to the great greek philosophers. he also wrote a history of florence, starting with roman times. and in this great work, he put historical writing onto a new footing, both in terms of its literary content and its scholarly underpinning. and there he lies, his history on his breast, surrounded by wealth of classical detail, his bier supported by the roman eagles and his hope of heaven in the roundel of the virgin and child above his head. this monument in itself is a wordless combination of the christian and the classical. this is the pantheon, the most perfectly preserved temple of ancient rome.
scholars like bruni and the artists of renaissance florence had a passionate love affair with antiquity. the humanists recovered and translated the texts, the artists studied the statues and the frescoes. but they were not simply copying the achievements of the ancient world-- they were transforming them. this renaissance design for an ideal city uses classical architecture to create a perfect environment based upon reason and order. and in perhaps the most famous image of man by a renaissance artist, leonardo da vinci is illustrating the roman author vitruvius. man, in his ideal proportions, is the measure of all things. out of their preoccupation with classical harmony and proportion, renaissance artists created these new images of man and woman.
[bells ringing] inside the palazzo vecchio, the 5,000 or so florentines who had the right to vote would meet, summoned by the bell in times of crisis. they were the members of the influential guilds and represented craftsmen and the most economically important activities... sculptors and stoneworkers... textiles... metalworkers... masons and builders... lawyers and solicitors. the engine driving the art of florence at the beginning of the 15th century was competition between the guilds and competition between the artists commissioned by them. the armorers guild paid for this powerful, alert image
of their patron saint, saint george, by donatello-- roman art transformed into a vision of christian courage. the bankers guild paid for ghiberti's expensive bronze statue of saint matthew, the patron saint of moneychangers. these reliefs are the two front-runners for the most famous of all florentine competitions, held in 1401 to decide the commission for the baptistery's new bronze doors. the subject is the prophet abraham, about to sacrifice his son isaac, and this entry by the young brunelleschi emphasizes the violence of the act. abraham holds isaac by the throat to plunge the knife in. the angel seizes abraham's wrist in a dramatic, last-minute intervention.
but lorenzo ghiberti won the competition with this relief, immediately acknowledged as an exhibition of unrivaled craftsmanship. the nude figure of isaac is based on classical models. this is a triumph of a goldsmith's craft, embodying lessons learned from antique statuary and combining that with a gothic grace learned from the art of northern europe. florence is still a thriving center for the goldsmith's art. this is the studio of signor giorgio chilleri at the ponte vecchio. he works here as a master with his apprentice craftsmen. a whole generation of florentine artists-- ghiberti, brunelleschi, donatello-- began work in studios not unlike this,
working on just such meticulous and minute creations before moving on in their careers to their monumental works of art. in an environment where the craftsman's skill so is highly prized, it was inevitable that their status should rise. inevitable, too, that the most brilliant of them-- men like brunelleschi and donatello-- should resent the restrictions which the craft guilds could place on them and the implication that their work was menial, a mechanical craft. and so, increasingly during this century, such artists came to see themselves as the equals of their patrons-- no longer humble, anonymous craftsmen, but self-confident, ambitious, intellectual practitioners of the liberal arts, famous beyond their own city. brunelleschi visited rome after his unsuccessful submission for the baptistery doors competition. there he saw a great city
in a state of decay. the sheer scale of the roman ruins and the building techniques he analyzed provided inspiration for the greatest problem of structural engineering in italy-- how to complete the cathedral being built in florence. in this great space, we are surrounded by a gothic architecture ripe for the renaissance-- the flat surfaces of the walls, the crisp planar detailing of the piers, with their sharp angles, not a rounded form in sight. it all looks so precise and so completely preplanned. yet if we had stood here half a century after they began to build this building, we would have seen something different. you would still have seen the medieval houses within the existing foundations. as the piers went up, they were still arguing about how high they should be.
they had a competition about the capitals' form. they had plaster, wooden, stone models, and when all that was done and they were still arguing about the building's dimensions, they went on for 50 years, and not a man in italy or europe would have had the foggiest idea of how they could ever put a dome over that great crossing that you see behind me there. in 1417, a conference of architects was summoned from all over italy to discuss the problem of how to construct the dome, and eventually, brunelleschi was entrusted with the commission. standing here and looking down into the space, this 150-foot wide octagonal crossing, we can get some idea at least of what it was for brunelleschi to be faced by the greatest architectural and engineering challenge which had confronted any italian architect
since the distant days of antiquity. it was quite impossible to fill this space with a forest of timber. it would never have supported itself, let alone the weight of the cupola during its construction. so brunelleschi's primary problem and his first triumph was to devise a form of scaffolding which started not at the ground, but 40 feet above our heads at the top of the drum. his second was to build the cupola in such a way that it was self-supporting in the course of its construction. [colin eisler] this is an important part of brunelleschi's structural solution-- herringbone brickwork. instead of simply laying rows of bricks horizontally, some were laid vertically to provide a kind of internal skeleton, locking the horizontal rings of brickwork into place whilst the mortar was setting.
enormous scale involves enormous weight, and brunelleschi's masterstroke in building his cupola was to devise a double shell, built first of stone and then of brick to lighten it still further. we're standing in one of the passageways between these two shells, and that solved his whole problem of access for his building materials and for subsequent maintenance, whilst the great ribs which bind the shells together ensure its strength and structural stability. when we come out into the light, out of the dome's dark passages and tunnels, we're surrounded by the classic forms of brunelleschi's lantern. we can immediately understand exactly what his great contemporary and fellow architect alberti meant
when he spoke of this magnificent cupola rising above the skies, ample enough to encompass in its shadow all the people of tuscany. not only did brunelleschi's dome dominate the skyline of florence, he also systematized the science of perspective which was to dominate western pictorial space until the 20th century. in masaccio's fresco of the trinity-- probably constructed with brunelleschi's advice on architecture-- classical columns and a monumental barrel vault frame the figures of christ and god, the father. here is the interaction of painting, architecture, and the mathematical analysis of space that was unique to the florentine renaissance.
1n 1419, brunelleschi had begun the hospital of the innocente. it was the first orphanage in europe to be funded by public donations, and the architecture is a delicate blending of the roman and the romanesque. it was brunelleschi's architecture which the painter fra angelico depicted in his fresco of the annunciation, which awaits you at the top of the stairs of the monastery of san marco. fra angelico lived and worked here, decorating the monastery with scenes from the new testament-- scenes striking for their simplicity and serenity.
inside the cells, the world seems to retreat, leaving a single image suspended like a spiritual vision. the buildings and frescoes of san marco were paid for by one of the wealthiest florentine bankers, cosimo de medici, whose family symbol adorns the walls. saint cosmas was the patron saint of the medici family, and in fra angelico's fresco, he kneels at the foot of the cross. this painting was at the entrance to the personal cell of cosimo de medici, who would retreat from the pressures of business into this setting of intense spiritual devotion.
the moment in christ's story that these patrician bankers identified with was the adoration of the magi, the wise and wealthy paying homage to jesus. and this is the image that fra angelico painted inside cosimo's cell. 30 years later, botticelli painted the same scene for the same patrons, but now the powerful patrician families have taken over the religious stage. cosimo the elder is portrayed kneeling before the madonna, while his grandson, lorenzo the magnificent, swaggers on one side. every face in this painting is a portrait from the medici court circle, including botticelli himself. in another botticelli portrait, a medallion of cosimo the elder is held by a fashionable young man. botticelli's painting epitomizes the shift in patronage
during the second part of the 15th century, away from the world of public competition, into the private flortine palazzo. the patrician families of florence erected monuments to their own prestige in the palazzi of the 15th century. palazzo rucellai, by the architect alberti, was admired for its classical detail and the elegance of its proportions. more magnificent was the palace designed for cosimo de medici. this was not simply a home, but the center of a vast banking empire. massive doors and rustated masonry on the ground floor, increasingly smoother stonework above, created a style that was to be imitated by palaces and banks in europe and america for the next 500 years.
de medici created an elegant society where artists and scholars studied astrology and mythology, reviving antiquity for their private pleasure. cosimo commissioned the humanist ficino to translate the works of plato, and out of this intellectual climate came the paintings of botticelli, combining sensuality of pagan mythology with themes and images from christian art. in his painting of the primavera, zephyrus, the wind god, enters the scene and seizes the wood nymph chloris, whose mouth issues flowers as she is transformed into flora, the goddess of spring. in the center stands a figure who sembles both the christian madonna and venus, the goddess of love, and who directs the dance of the three graces. naked venus, seen here in botticelli's the birth of venus,
symbolized divine love. this was a nude based on classical forms, which also suggests a baptism and a rebirth. [colin eisler] in renaissance florence, the nude again became the focus of artistic effort. donatello's david, probably commissioned by de medici, with its obvious reflection of the roman past, is a masterpiece of technical virtuosity and erotic suggestion. but it was more than that. it was also a brilliantly inventive symbol of the christian faithful, armored only in the word of god.
finally, in brunelleschi's church of san lorenzo, we find the two bronze pulpits that donatello left unfinished at his death in 1466. here, for the first time in western art, we find a true late style that leads on to the work of titian and of rembrandt. leaving behind the technical perfection of his early work, donatello now engages with his material in a rougher, more direct manner-- biting into the bronze with his chisel to convey a more emotionally charged message. here in the harrowing of hell, christ's urgent figure reaches through the crowding souls to seize the arm of abraham and pull him to salvation.
when christ's heavy figure surges from the tomb, it is not a joyous resurrection, but a battle-- one against the odds. below, the soldiers sleep as the old order passes. christ's face seems burdened with the sins of all mankind as he climbs up from darkness to light. the fleeing devil of the harrowing has become a scorpion on a roman shield. then, finally, the drama of salvation is resolved as the ascending christ looks down in love and takes his leave of his apostles.
looking over the rooftops and domes of the city, we can try to take an overview of that extraordinary period of artistic outpouring. it was a city whose population never reached 100,000, continually riven by faction and strife, and yet which produced some of the greatest figures in the history of western culture, from giotto and dante, to michelangelo and leonardo. it was a florentine, amerigo vespucci, with florentine maps and instruments, who named the continent discovered by columbus. the founder of modern science, galileo, worked in florence. it is the freshness of their thought, their modernity, which impresses us today. but there is another side to the story. civilized human life depends not only on modernity, but on a healthy assimilation of the past, both critical and imaginative. the middle ages had proved incapable of doing that,
but here, in the florentine renaissance, we can see the reintegration of the classical world view into modern life-- not merely their learning, but their pagan humanism and their pantheism, with its incomparably rich mythological themes, which, as we now understand, contain such profound psychological insights. what we see here in florence is what they made of that tradition, just as this is what we are making of them, but its continued reinterpretation is a necessity for the west if it is to understand its own cultural tradition. the art of renaissance florence came out of the city-states of central italy. by contrast, our story of art in northern europe
begins in the late medieval courts of france. it was a time of violent contrasts. in the luxury of the court, the duke enjoys his banquet while the peasants shelter from the snow. in their hovel, they bare themselves by the fire. these illuminations were painted around 1414 by three brothers from the netherlands-- the limbourgs--at the court of the duke of berry. the detailed realism of these faces and landscapes was a feature of northern art in this period. the limbourg brothers began their career working for the brother of the duke of berry--