The Italian Renaissance was the birth of Western art as it is known today. When asked to think of “great” paintings, minds often conjure Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” Michelangelo’s program on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or Sandro Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.” These works were revolutionary, especially compared to the Byzantine iconography which they succeeded. It brought a new emphasis on naturalism and modeling, an attempt to show nature as it is (or, perhaps, as better than it is). The Renaissance also saw the invention of the one-point — or linear — perspective, one of the many techniques that made their mark on art history. The era saw a momentary return to the artistic origins of the ancients, a re-birth of the aptitude for creation found in antiquity. 

But the “Mona Lisa” is more than a pretty picture — Renaissance works are important to art and society today. Art has implications and it can be a tool to help individuals interface with the world.

“The thing about art is that it can give us opportunities and incentives to look at things differently,” History of Art Professor Thomas Willette wrote in an email interview with The Daily. 

In the Renaissance, art was often sacred: as a devotional object to aid worship, but more importantly as a guidebook. Art was a visual depiction of how to be a good Catholic; most, if not all, art coming from the Italian Renaissance was by and for Catholics. Art was deeply intertwined with religion, and thus secular themes in art were not well received. Nudity in the Sistine Chapel, for instance, was seen as so distasteful that the church had some of Michelangelo’s fresco work painted over after his death. The Italian aristocracy was dependent on and often a part of the church. Even independent patronage was often done by members of the clergy. 

Recent history has shown that religion remains a powerful cultural force, guiding politics and international relations. Tensions in Israel and Palestine, as well as in the Gulf and on the Arabian Peninsula can all be attributed in part to religion. Contemporary art may be able to play a mediating role, or art historians may look back upon today and see religious/sectarian loyalty in the art of our time. “Contemporary art is capable of mitigating the kinds of political and cultural tensions that are, rightly or wrongly, justified by claims about religious tradition and identity. It can do so by showing us thought experiments in which the spiritual side of religion is pried loose from the political and cultural hot-button issues that have become opportunistically attached to religion,” Willette wrote.

The Renaissance also saw a new importance placed on the artist. Today, the person behind the art matters a great deal. Artists like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons are currently active and worth fortunes on their names alone. Artists as celebrity figures are evident in the recent past (Warhol, for example), but present-day artist-celebrities are few and far between. The large personalities who take a business-like approach to art (Koons worked on Wall Street for a time) crowd the scene and may doom the less networking-savvy artists to the shadows. The Italian Renaissance saw an increased emphasis on the artist himself. In some cases, the artist was able to rise through social ranks and interact with the aristocracy. Jeff Koons may be a particularly worthwhile case to examine. “Artists in the early modern period … earned their livings either as clients of wealthy patrons or through the market,” Willette wrote. “Very few rose to the kind of social status enjoyed by a Raphael or a Michelangelo, who were able to work almost like modern-day contractors. That kind of independence requires a lot of fame and a lot of connections in high places.  The vast majority of artists were members of trade guilds and took orders for bespoken work, often never meeting the people who paid them. The idea that artists were highly respected during the Renaissance is mostly a myth created by wishful-thinking artists and art-lovers in the 19th century, particularly during what we call the Romantic period. The mass-celebrity and wealth that big-name artists can command now did not exist before the international art market became highly developed, so that is largely a phenomenon of the 19th and especially the 20th century.”

One key Enlightenment thinker was Johann Joachim Winckelmann. He looked to the Greeks as creating art of “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur.” His focus was on art that improved upon nature, rather than merely copying it. Naturalism was not his ideal, but rather idealization of the natural forms. This interest in the superstructural beauty of nature, composed of the ideal parts of other forms, calls to mind the story of Zeuxis, painting Helen of Troy via the fragmented images of several different models. This idealization certainly has implications in terms of self-image, and these implications should not be ignored. The other question, however, is in this constant self-referentiality. Winckelmann looked to the Greeks, and myths like the one mentioned above. In the same manner, Bronzino referred to the Belvedere Torso when painting “Portrait of Cosimo I de’ Medici as Orpheus” from 1537 to 1539. Marcel Duchamp took an actual print of the Mona Lisa and edited it for his “L.H.O.O.Q.” in 1919. This inspiration from the past is common and noteworthy.

Winckelmann looked to the Greeks for artistic perfection in the same way artists during the Italian Renaissance looked to antiquity for inspiration and subject matter. Today’s art refers to antiquity in many ways; new revelations about once-painted marble statues may change the significance of antiquities themselves. “What we are learning about the original coloring of ancient Greek and Roman statues is not entirely new, but various technical refinements, now assisted by digital media, have made it possible to create and disseminate striking hypothetical reconstructions of the appearances of such works, (I stress hypothetical), and many people today seem to like the idea. Remember a few years back when it became fashionable to think that dinosaurs were probably brightly colored, like today’s birds, and not all dusky dark green and brown?” Willete wrote. “Fortunately, we have a bit more evidence where the coloring of ancient marble statues is concerned. The popular traveling exhibition “Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World” is probably an annoyance to white supremacist groups like Identity Evropa, who have been recruiting a lot of statuary to their cause in recent years, but I can’t agree with those who think that taking the white stone men away from white supremacists is the main reason to get excited about the investigation of polychromy in antiquity. Besides, no amount of color and vivid patterning can change the fact that most people living in ancient Greece or ancient Rome were slaves.”

The proliferation of art in the Renaissance would not have occurred without institutional and individual patronage. The Catholic church, clergymen and wealthy families like the Medici clan spent immense amounts of money on art, sculpture and architecture. Art was a status symbol, as it remains in some regard today. The work of artists who have been inducted to the canon of Western art is worth millions. Supporting artists — in contemporary times and in the recent — is a difficult task. The starving artist trope is not a lie. In Enlightenment-era France, as well as in Renaissance Italy, the state was a huge provider of arts patronage. While the United States has the National Endowment for the Arts, patronage is not given the same importance. This has its pros and cons. While the state has no say in what contemporary art is, it does leave important projects with cultural and societal significance unfunded. “The U.S. government can become a significant patron of art, perhaps even on a par with the court of Louis XIV, but many changes in our ruling culture and institutions will have to start coming about, and I don’t see any evidence of that at the moment.  The Works Progress Administration was a highly successful New Deal agency, and it did a lot of good without any help from the art market, but that was the 1930s and early 40s, when many people evidently believed that 1) the imaginative experience of art can help to make one a better person, and 2) the state is capable of assisting our better angels. Neither of these ideas seems to have much credibility today,” Willette wrote on the issue. 

The Italian Renaissance continues to offer valuable lessons to this day. The revolutionary nature of art is not constant, and the evolution of contemporary art is fluid and enigmatic. To gain better insight into contemporary art, and the interaction of art with society today, it is beneficial to understand the roots of Western art and note the differences between 15th century Italy, 18th century France and 21st century America. Art is always in a renaissance. Stagnancy recoils at the sight of the artist. There will always be something new in art, and it is worthwhile to understand the past to better understand self-referentiality, new impacts of old themes and the role of the artist in contemporary society. 

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