Exercise: Do some research into humanism

The course notes encourage us to research the intellectual movement known as humanism and bear in mind the following questions:
• Did an interest in humanism mean a movement away from Christianity?
• How was an interest in the classical world reflected in Renaissance art?
• Was it possibly successfully to combine Christian and classical elements in painting, sculpture and architecture?

Humanism, also known as Renaissance humanism (because there are still Humanist societies and groups around today) spread during the 15th and 16th centuries. Sparking interest in man, science, nature, antiquity, the central idea is the discovery and use of ancient wisdom a which had an effect on the styles and types of art & architecture produced in that period and ever since.

“The term itself owes its origin to the Latin humanitas, used by Cicero and others in classical times to betoken the kind of cultural values that one would derive from what used to be called a liberal education: the studia humanitatis constituted the study of what we might now think of as ‘arts’ subjects – language, literature, history and moral philosophy in particular.” (Kraye, 1996)

This doesn’t mean move away from Christianity though, Humanist were not anti-clerical, or anti-Christian, they were just more focused on the here and now. Most of them had a scholastic upbringing the same as many clergymen. Visual arts in 15th Century remained primarily religious.

“The Humanists of the Renaissance differed from medieval theologians and others who has studied Aristotle, Cicero and the Neoplatonists. The humanists found in Classical antiquity absolute standards by which cultural and, indeed, all human activities could be judged.” (WHA, p417)

The status of artists and thinkers were affected by humanism too, an individual’s prowess and intellectual ability was of far more note to the Humanists than a circumstance of birth (this departed from medieval thought where ideals were based on Nobility and Chivalry). The ancient Roman republic ‘epitomised the new ideas of self-reliance and civic virtue’, a move away from the dark ages focus on clerical and aristocratic rule. Many of the great thinkers, and historians of the 15th & 16th Century were Humanist scholars… Leonardo Bruni (c 1370-1444), humanist and historian, reflecting on Florence said: “Other peoples were founded by fugitives or exiles or peasants or obscure strangers, but your founder is the Roman people, conqueror and lord of all the world” (Laudatio Florentinae urbis, c 1403-4). WHA p419. Bartolommeo Fazio was a mid-15th c humanist scholar employed in the court of King Alfonso V of Aragon at Naples. He wrote about Jan van Eyck (called Jan of Gaul) and Rogier van der Weyden in his book of famous men in 1456. He praised van Eyck’s technically and scientific accomplishment (incorrectly ascribing their origin to Pliny), the “leading painter of our time”. WHA p430. Carlo Marsuppini was a classical scholar who first translated Homer into Italian verse. Georgio Vasari, Italian painter, architect and historian (his treatise Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, 1550,  is considered the foundation of art-history) wrote of Venetian Mantegna that his idealisation of faith and style was deeply indebted to antiquity. Lorenzo Ghiberti’s commentaries define the idea of Renaissance and include a history of art plus account of art from mid-15th Century. Piero della Francesca published many works including a treatise on geometrical bodies and perspective and a book on abacus for merchants. In architecture, Gianozzo Manetti (1396-1459), declared, the truths of the Christian religion are as self-evident as the laws of mathematics. WHA p418 and Antonio Filarete (1400-49), architect and theorist, blessed Brunelleschi for reviving in Florence the ancient style of building in such a way that today in churches and private buildings no other style is used. Architect Leon Battista Alberti wrote treaty of painting, architecture and sculpture. Notable humanist Desiderius Erasmus is said to have ‘laid the egg that Luther hatched’ WHA p.458 Constantijn Huygens was one of the most virtuous of the seventeenth-century Humanist scholars, he collected antiquities, devised scientific instruments and cultivated a taste for natural curiosities. He also painted, wrote poetry in several languages and played the lute for the king of England. He translated John Donne into Dutch and copied out Francis Bacon’s theories about progress. His unfinished classic in Dutch, the Dagwerck, celebrated the discoveries of the new science, which he tried to connect with the domestic life of the Dutch Golden Age, so memorably depicted by Vermeer.

Interest in the classical world was reflected in Renaissance art with the reintroduction of mythological subjects, allegory and elements of classical architecture. The Ancient Romans influenced many artists of the Renaissance, for example medals and portrait busts appeared again in the 15th century, Pisanello made them an art form and Desiderio da Settignano is one of the first to have carved portrait busts since the Romans.

Medals became increasingly popular in humanist circles as vehicles for transmitting personal fame with delicately contrived devices, often ingeniously abstruse….Intended to inspire philosophical thought, just as religious images inspire devotion.” (WHA p435)

Mythological stories from the classical era came back into vogue but were often used as allegories for Christian concepts for example Hercules as a Christian knight, a symbol of ‘Renaissance Man’, the mortal who achieves immortality by his own efforts. “There  is a dichotomy rather than a conflict in Renaissance thought between Christianity and the humanism which encouraged the enhanced view of the dignity of man and the beauty of the physical world implicit in such works of art.” WHA p435/6.

Sandro Botticelli’s La Primavera, 1478.

La Primavera by BotticelliLeft to right: Mercury, the three graces, Venus & cupid, flora, goddess of flowers and the spring, the earth nymph Chloris and Zephyr, the west wind

Mercury (Hermes) is the messenger to the gods and has become regarded as the ‘patron of those who sought to penetrate the mysteries of the ancient world’.  Florentine Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino, said of him “He calls the mind back to heavenly things through the power of reason”. (WHA, p446).

Many artists were fascinated with mathematics and geometry such as Uccello and Piero della Francesca. Interested in the ‘golden section’, which would supposedly provide the key to the harmony of the heavens. New interest in light and optics, and colour harmonies. Brunelleschi is credited with the invention of linear perspective producing a scientific method of working out how to render relative distances. The key to his system is the idea of a central vanishing point on a series of orthogonal lines and that any objects along these lines would be subject to the laws of geometry. This concept “raised the art of painting to a science” and imposed a rational order on the visible world.

“Think about the humanists’ interest in the natural world and compare it to the way in which artists used knowledge gained through botany, anatomy and optics. From the sixteenth century, for example, some artists were interested in how the body worked and how they could represent it with an accuracy based on scientific knowledge rather than classical ideas of harmony and proportion. We tend to think of Leonardo as the pre-eminent figure in this quest for anatomical knowledge, though his drawings were not published in his lifetime. Andreas Vesalius, often regarded as the father of modern anatomy, is arguably a more significant figure. Vesalius published his De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body) in 1543. (Course Notes)”

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) was professor at the University of Padua, a centre for Humanist study, author of one of the most influential books on human anatomy (as noted above in the course notes) and later became Imperial physician at the court of Emperor Charles V.

Leonardo da Vinci was a scientist and daring experimental thinker, his thoughts on great minds “presuppose that ‘art’ is much more than ‘craft’ and lead directly to the notion of a great artist as ‘a genius’” (WHA, p466). He had thousands of unpublished pages of illustrated notes on artistic theory, human anatomy, natural history and many other topics. He wrote “Great minds often produce more by working less, for with their intellect they search for conceptions and form those perfect ideas which afterwards they merely express with their hands” (WHA, p466). He was the first thinker to be independent of classical and medieval thought.

Leonardo da Vinci notebook on ‘The Codex Arundel’, British Library
Leonardo da Vinci notebook on ‘The Codex Arundel’, British Library

A digitised version of his notebook on ‘The Codex Arundel’ can be found here for those who cannot get over to the British Museam. described as “A collection of papers written in Italian by Leonardo da Vinci (b. 1452, d. 1519), in his characteristic left-handed mirror-writing (reading from right to left), including diagrams, drawings and brief texts, covering a broad range of topics in science and art, as well as personal notes.” (British Library, 2016)



British Library. (2016) Leonardo da Vinci, Notebook (‘The Codex Arundel’) At: http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Arundel_MS_263
(Accessed on 12 Aug 16)

Honour, H & Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art. (7th Ed), London, Laurence King Publishing

Kraye, J. (1996) The Cambridge Companion to Renaissance Humanism. Cambridge University Press

Wikipedia. (2016) Andreas Vesalius At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andreas_Vesalius
(Accessed on 12 Aug 16)

Uffizi.org. (2016) La Primavera allegory of spring by Sandro Botticelli At: http://www.uffizi.org/artworks/la-primavera-allegory-of-spring-by-sandro-botticelli/
(Accessed on 12 Aug 16)


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