Wednesday, December 19, 2012


As my work continues to feature the creations of Renaissance artists, a distinction and characteristic growing with each and every book, it feels only appropriate to honor the season with some of the greatest masterpieces capturing the moment.

The most powerful philosophical and spiritual movement of the Renaissance was that of the Humanist—a rise in the importance of the individual, a desire for beauty and joy in life, intellectual conquest of physical realities, a renewal of pagan pursuits of happiness, and, most of all, an awakening consciousness of the connection of the individual to the natural world in which they exist. All that said, the art of the time was most thoroughly saturated by religious themes. The affluence of the age, however, allowed for wealthy patrons to insert themselves into these religious artistic compositions.

It would be a dishonor to begin this homage to Renaissance nativity works, were it not to begin with Leonardo da Vinci, thrillingly a main character in the current work in progress series. Da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi (Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi) is not only a statement of the evolution of his technique; it is also a prime example of his inability to bring works to their full fruition. This work, oil on wood, da Vinci began in 1481 as a commission for the altarpiece of the Scopeto Monastery of San Donato. The methodology da Vinci used would mark a progression, not only in his own work, but of those of the era, most specifically in the manner in which figures are represented. There is clearly a sense of dynamic movement to the many people surrounding Mary and her son Jesus. Here we find also a method called chiaroscuro where the contrast of light and dark is manipulated to show a figure’s relative position to others and to the very ground upon which they stand or sit. Unfortunately, the painting was never completed; Leonardo abandoned the work two years later when he left for Milan and the regular income offered to him by the Duke of that province. As an aside, much is theorized on da Vinci’s inability to complete projects, many of them quite derogatory. In this author’s humble opinion it was a question of mastery; once he mastered the technique he set out to achieve for any individual work, he lost interest, having made the conquest, what then was left for him to achieve in the work. It was a symptom of his particular brand of genius. It was a blessing…and a curse.

As one of the fathers of the Renaissance, Giotto’s Adoration of the Magi also deserves mention. In this piece, created between 1304 and 1306, is a glimpse into the discovery of three-dimensional painting; a hallmark of the early Renaissance. This particular piece is a portion of a cycle of frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. The draping of the clothing, the emotion of the faces is so distinctly Giotto, so enrapturing for the onlooker. But one of the most intriguing figures of the composition is the Star of Bethlehem and its movement through the sky, where almost all such other depictions find it stationary. It is a conjecture that Giotto was inspired to render it as such after seeing the 1301 sighting of Haley’s Comet.

Also an artist gracing the pages of the current work in progress is Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, better and more simply known as Sandro Botticelli. Botticelli’s work went through many phases, due in great part to his influences…Lorenzo ‘Il Magnifico’ de’ Medici at the start, the fiery and fanatical Savonarola near the end. In this enormously complex work (London, National Gallery), quite rightly called the Mystic Nativity, it has much of the Savonarola influence—an infusion of symbolism—and little grounding in the event as it might have happened. In it, the artist combines depictions of Christ’s birth along with indications of Christ’s Second Coming as foretold in the Book of Revelation, an event to mark the end of the world as we know it. The joyful combined with the heart wrenching can only be a product of Savonarola’s guilt ridden preaching. And yet it is a work of such mastery and intrigue that it is captivating for whatever influences and warnings it may propound.

In quiet contrast to the tumultuous scene of Botticelli, we next come to the work of Masaccio (Berlin, Staaliche Museum). In this case we find its value not only in the work itself, but in its form. Painted in oil on a wooden salver, this is the personification of a birth tray. Birth trays were common objects in Renaissance, patrician households, given to women either before or during pregnancy and were believed to encourage the healthy delivery of a baby boy. The scenes depicted were often of other births but would frequently include heraldic symbolism of each particular family. To find a birth tray, a household item, created by a master of Masaccio’s stature, gives new meaning not only to what was considered ‘household items’ but to what is considered modern day birth gifts.

While hopeful intentions were to represent the late or “High Renaissance” with a nativity by Michelangelo (yes, he too will be included in the new series, as a young man full of himself and promise as opposed to the life weary man depicted in The King’s Agent), it appears he did not paint one, at least in the formal sense. As he was to conduct himself throughout a great deal of his life, Michelangelo created a painting he called the Holy Family. In this early work, which some say is his first fully self-completed painting (completed 1504 at the age of 29, Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi), it leaves no doubt to his mastery as a painter. His use of line and his vision of humankind went far beyond the bounds of existing convention. The muscularity of his figures, the authenticity of their expressions breathes true and immortal life into his subjects. Of all such scenes studied in the name of research, this one, beyond all others, shows the humanity of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and, in doing so, lays bare far greater, the sacrifices they were to endure for the sake of humanity and love.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Few give credit to the architects of the Renaissance, but it is truly by their hands that the world took on a rebirth…a rebirth of its cities and towns, of the complete methodology of how building and engineering was approached—the perfect blending of the classical with the technological advances of the age.

Like the other men discussed in this series—his fellow founding fathers of the Renaissance—little is known about the childhood of Filippo Brunelleschi. Like the others, he was born in Florence. (What was in the water there and then, to make such geniuses, create such men; one can only wonder, at such innovative thunder.) Brunellesco di Lippo (a lawyer, though we may forgive him for that for conceiving such a genius) and Guiliana Spini gave birth to their second son in 1377. Eventually the middle child of three sons, his father wished for Filippo to follow him into the law, but Brunelleschi was drawn to artistic endeavors and there he would remain.

At fifteen, the young Filippo began his goldsmith apprenticeship in 1392 in the studio of Benincasa Lotti, as did Donatello. Together they found themselves in the slums of the Santa Croce quarter. His studies included mounting, embossing, and engraving as well as the science of motion, using wheels, gears, cogs, and weights. During those years, Brunelleschi met a man who would have a major influence on his education and thought processes. Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli was both merchant and medical doctor who’s predilections for science and mathematics found expression in the tutelage of the young artist—a sculptor from a young age—in the principles of geometry.

Though he earned the status of master in goldsmith in 1398, Brunelleschi lost a competition for the design of the new bronze doors for the city’s baptistery. Not only did he lose (pictured right, his defeated entry), he lost to a man he considered a lesser technician, Ghiberti. A legend contends Brunelleschi was so affronted, he stormed out of the city’s Palazzo della Signori—where the winner was announced—and abandoned Florence—and sculpture—altogether. With Donatello, Filippo spent the next ten years in Rome, learning of life and art and more.

According to the International Dictionary of Architects, Brunelleschi immersed himself in the study of antiquity, paying greatest attention to the triumphs of Roman engineering. The construction of the Pantheon, most particularly the dome, mesmerized him. His goal was not to learn to reproduce Roman architecture, but to enrich the architecture of his own time with the influence of classicism and to perfect his engineering skills.

Brunelleschi returned to Florence a changed man, a man who had been forever altered by his immersion in ancient architecture, a man who had rediscovered the principles of linear perspective using mirrors, a man who had found confidence in his own abilities. Coinciding with his return, Florence launched another competition: their magnificent cathedral required a new dome, a self-supporting dome, a structure no one had successful created to date. While Brunelleschi felt confident he could do it, the rulers of Florence were not so sure and required the former goldsmith to prove his architectural acumen, which he did with great aplomb.

Via a commission from one of the richest organizations in the city, the Silk Guild, Brunelleschi designed the Spedale deglia Innocenti, the Hospital of the Innocents. With his magic, the already beautiful city found itself decorated with a modern take on the ancients’ majesty. Nine columns of the Composite order are bound together by semi-circular arches. Glazed blue terra-cotta roundels with reliefs of babies—suggesting the building’s function—decorate each arches’ spandrel. While touted as a wonder of architecture, Brunelleschi coveted the grandest prize of all.

Filippo’s proposal, of using a double self-supporting shell and rib structure to support the monumental weight of the free standing dome, won him the cathedral competition. It was to become the greatest work of his life, one that would envelope the remainder of it, a life untethered, unglorified by wife or children and yet one revered for centuries. It was to become one of the greatest man-made creations of the world, visited by millions every year. By implementing techniques reminiscent of Archimedes, using counterweights and wheels for lifting, only a single ox was required to raise a load so heavy it would take at least six pair of the animals to accomplish the same task.

Construction on the Duomo of the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore…the dome of the church of Saint Mary of the Flowers…began in 1420. By the time of Brunelleschi’s death in 1446, it was, for the most, part complete. The finishing touch, the huge lantern that Filippo designed himself to hang from the center of the dome, was put in place after his death. It is in this church, amidst his grandest creation, that the remains of Filippo Brunelleschi—a man considered the main initiator of stylistic changes in Renaissance architecture—were laid to rest.

It is in this dome, the Duomo de Santa Maria di Fiora, that a one of the most horrendous of human acts of violence took place but a half century after its creation; it is in the midst of this horrific act that my trilogy—my current work in progress—will begin.

All artists of all mediums—literature, architecture, painting, and sculpture—have much to thank these men—these founding fathers of the Renaissance—for. It has been a great pleasure to dedicate these last few posts to their astounding contributions. As one who can trace my lineage back to Florence, most importantly, I thank them for their eternal inspiration.

Monday, December 3, 2012


Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi did not create the most famous sculpture in the world, the DAVID by Michelanglo, but if not for him it would never have been created at all.

Born in Florence ‘around’ 1386, Donatello, as he came to be known by family members in his childhood, was born to Nicolo di Betto Bardi, a member of the Florentine Woolcombers Guild. While, to the modern sensibility such a position might sound plebeian, in truth any Guild membership of the age brought with it a certain amount of esteem, if not financial success (much like a multi-award winning, critically acclaimed author of the present era). Some accounts contend that he was educated in the house of the Martelli family, though further research brings a strong cynicism to the contention, as they were closely aligned with the Medici family and Donatello’s father was a devotee to the Albizzi family, fierce rivals of the Medici.

What is incontrovertible is that Donatello’s first training began in a goldsmith’s shop—very much the custom of the age—but he quickly moved to and worked, for a short time, in the studio of Lorenzo Ghiberti, an artist of multiple mediums including bronze and gold. In the dawning years of the fifteenth century, Ghiberti reigned victorious over Brunelleschi in a competition for the creation of the baptistery gates, but lost his apprentice. Brunelleschi took off for Rome taking with him the teen-aged Donatello, two young men off to the most magnificent city to find adventure. They found much more.

What in modern terminology would be called a case of boys gone wild, or a Renaissance version of The Hangover, these two of such like temperament worked hard and played hard. Many denounced them as treasure seekers for they were often to be found in the ruins infesting Rome and the surrounding area. In their words, they were excavating and studying the soil and the stone to better learn their properties and how to manipulate them. This trip to Rome was a pivotal moment in both lives; Brunelleschi’s to be discussed in a later post, while for Donatello it was an opportunity to entrench himself in the study of the classic style, the forms and the ornamentation that had made them classic and forever lasting. What they absorbed and became would become the backbone that is the spirit of the Renaissance.

Donatello’s return to Florence would coincide with his first paid commission, in the year 1405 when he completed two small statues of nameless prophets for the cathedral. From there his works became uncountable and included all mediums and techniques including sandstone, marble, bronze, and gold in bas reliefs and statues. It is an irony of his life that one of his first great works was of the David in marble and one his last was of the David in bronze. The first showed the promise of the artist to come; the second is considered an enigmatic figure, a young boy clothed only in boots and a pointed hat. The drastic change in composition may be accounted for by the never-married man’s coming to open terms with his own sexuality.

His many compatriots and co-workers acceptable readily his choice of lifestyle, for not only was Donatello an eager collaborator, he was an exuberant and humorous man of a light-hearted manner. If he knew the impact he was making upon the world, not only in his own time, but for all time, he rarely allowed the burden of it to darken his days or thrash his nights. It is hard to say with any great authority whether it is his work or his legacy that has made the greatest impact on art, but he was, in no uncertain terms, one of the founding gathers of the Renaissance. And, as Georgi Vasari said, ‘The world remained so full of Donatello’s works that it may be said with confidence that no artist has ever produced more (by the year of The Lives of Artists publication) than he did.’

Little is recorded about the personal life of Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, but it can be inferred, from the depths of his work and the agreement that the powerful expressivity of his art made him the greatest sculptor of the early Renaissance, that he was an intuitive sort who could see the depths of life and learned how to express them with his craft. Donatello died in Florence of unknown causes in 1466, at the age of eighty-years-old. He is buried in the Basilica of San Lorenzo beside Cosimo de’ Medici the Elder, one of his first and most ardent patrons.