Re­nais­sance in­escapable through­out Italy

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - TRAVEL -

Among the many things I love about Italy is how the Re­nais­sance can be spliced into your trav­els. Imag­ine: In Florence you can sleep in a con­verted 16th-cen­tury monastery that’s just a block from Michelan­gelo’s David, around the cor­ner from Brunellesc­hi’s fa­mous cathe­dral dome, and down the street from the tombs of the great Medici art pa­trons — and that’s just for starters.

Be­fore the Re­nais­sance, Euro­peans spent about

1,000 years in a cul­tural slum­ber. Most art was made to serve the church, and man played only a bit part — typ­i­cally as a sin­ner. But around 1400, ev­ery­thing be­gan chang­ing.

The new “Re­nais­sance Man” shaped his own destiny and was no longer a mere play­thing of the su­per­nat­u­ral. Be­lief in the im­por­tance of the in­di­vid­ual sky­rock­eted, and life be­came much more than a preparatio­n for the here­after. This new “hu­man­ism” wasn’t a re­pu­di­a­tion of God; it was an un­der­stand­ing that the best way to glo­rify God was not to bow down in church all day long but to rec­og­nize the tal­ents God gave you and use them.

And that’s what the Re­nais­sance Floren­tines were do­ing. Think of the ex­tra­or­di­nary “class of 1500” liv­ing dur­ing that ex­cit­ing time: Michelan­gelo was in­spired by Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo was hang­ing around with po­lit­i­cal bad boy Nic­colo Machi­avelli. Machi­avelli had the ear of power bro­ker Lorenzo Medici the Mag­nif­i­cent. Lorenzo’s son, Pope Leo X, gave big paint­ing com­mis­sions to Raphael, who ex­changed master­pieces with artist Al­brecht Durer in Ger­many. Durer was per­son­ally con­verted to Protes­tantism by Martin Luther — who was ex­com­mu­ni­cated by Leo X — who had gone to school with Michelan­gelo.

Never be­fore had artists been asked to do so much or given so much money and free­dom. In the Mid­dle Ages, un­her­alded crafts­men cranked out by-the-num­bers re­li­gious art. Dur­ing the Re­nais­sance, artists no longer worked anony­mously. The most suc­cess­ful ones — like Leonardo, Michelan­gelo and Raphael — achieved celebrity sta­tus, dic­tat­ing their terms and cre­at­ing as the spirit moved them.

Artists of the Re­nais­sance de­served the re­spect they got. To cre­ate re­al­is­tic paint­ings and stat­ues, they merged art and sci­ence. They stud­ied anatomy like doc­tors, na­ture like bi­ol­o­gists and the laws of per­spec­tive like math­e­ma­ti­cians.

En­hanced by ex­per­i­ments with per­spec­tive, paint­ings be­came more true to life — and packed a big­ger psy­cho­log­i­cal punch. When you look at Leonardo’s Last Sup­per, you don’t think, “Isn’t it amaz­ing how the lines of per­spec­tive pull me right to the fig­ure of Christ?” But sub­con­sciously those lines pow­er­fully di­rect your eye — and heart — to the cen­ter of the fresco, right to Je­sus.

Leonardo — a sculp­tor, en­gi­neer, in­ven­tor and sci­en­tist — typ­i­fied the well­rounded Re­nais­sance Man (and he wasn’t a bad pain­ter ei­ther). In­dif­fer­ent to what his pa­trons thought, Leonardo of­ten left projects un­done. Of the few sur­viv­ing paint­ings by his hand, two are un­fin­ished — aban­doned when some­thing more in­ter­est­ing came along.

But Leonardo was far from a flake. From the note­books he left be­hind, we see him as a keen ob­server and a fear­less thinker: He dis­sected corpses, di­a­grammed the flight of birds and for­mu­lated hy­pothe­ses about the move­ment of wa­ter.

Michelan­gelo was no less in­ven­tive than Leonardo, and he was equally fa­mous. He split his time be­tween Florence (his home­town) and Rome, where the money was. Over his long life, he ended up work­ing for nine popes.

Michelan­gelo in­sisted he was a sculp­tor, not a pain­ter. And though he pre­ferred work­ing in Florence, when Pope Julius II said, “Come to Rome and do a paint­ing,” he couldn’t refuse. He spent years at the Vat­i­can, fres­co­ing the Sis­tine Chapel.

That chapel ceil­ing is the story of cre­ation — and the essence of Re­nais­sance hu­man­ism. When Michelan­gelo shows God giv­ing Adam the spark of life, man is truly made in God’s im­age, as glo­ri­ous as his cre­ator.

Raphael, the third of the big three, com­bined the quiet el­e­gance of Leonardo with the raw power of Michelan­gelo. A bit of an up­start, Raphael rubbed el­bows with his el­der men­tors in Florence for a time, but soon moved on to Rome.

There, the pope hired him to paint the walls of his li­brary in the Vat­i­can. In his huge fresco, called the School of Athens, Raphael cel­e­brated the great preChris­tian thinkers — a shock­ing break from Church tra­di­tion. And to make the em­brace of these once taboo fig­ures even stronger, Raphael de­picted the great thinkers of an­cient Greece as por­traits of the lead­ing Re­nais­sance artists and ge­niuses of his gen­er­a­tion. Not only did the Re­nais­sance ap­pre­ci­ate the greats of the an­cient world, they con­sid­ered them­selves in the same league. Re­nais­sance hu­man­ism ruled.

Al­though the Ital­ian Re­nais­sance sput­tered out by 1600, by then peo­ple from around the world were al­ready com­ing to see its master­pieces. Es­pe­cially in Italy to­day, vis­i­tors con­tinue to set their sights on the great works of the cul­tural ex­plo­sion that was the Re­nais­sance.

Rick Steves (www.rick writes Eu­ro­pean travel guide­books and hosts travel shows on pub­lic tele­vi­sion and pub­lic ra­dio. Email him at [email protected]­ and fol­low his blog on Face­book.


Raphael’s School of Athens cel­e­brates in­tel­lec­tual achieve­ments and con­nec­tion to the great minds of clas­si­cal Greece.


It’s easy to time-travel back to the Re­nais­sance pe­riod in the neigh­bor­hood around Florence’s great cathe­dral.

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